Why Do the Righteous Suffer?
How do you react to suffering? Do you blame God?
WHEN earthquakes and hurricanes kill and maim without respect for whether their victims are righteous or wicked, do you blame God? When you read that an innocent man spent years in prison for the offense of another, do you wonder why such injustices occur? What do you think when an upright, God-fearing Christian writhes with the pain of incurable cancer, while his loose-living, unprincipled neighbor prospers and enjoys excellent health? Does it cause you to wonder why the righteous suffer?
Some feel that a righteous person should be rewarded with freedom from suffering, that suffering is an evidence of one’s having committed unrighteous acts. That was the argument used by the three supposed friends of Job when they came to comfort him. Job was suffering indescribably from disease and pain. He had lost all his material possessions, including his ten lovely children. His brothers and intimate acquaintances, who had held him in high esteem, detested his very presence. Even his wife turned away from him and recommended that he curse God and die.—Job, chaps. 1, 2; Job 19:13-19.
After Job’s three visitors had silently observed his excruciating pain and extreme humiliation for seven days and nights, finally one of them spoke, not comfortingly or sympathetically, but with stinging, cutting words that accused Job of unrighteous acts for which he was now suffering punishment. “Remember, please,” said Eliphaz: “Who that is innocent has ever perished? And where have the upright ever been effaced? According to what I have seen, those devising what is hurtful and those sowing trouble will themselves reap it. Through the breath of God they perish, and through the spirit of his anger they come to an end.” Yes, contended Eliphaz, God is punishing you for your sins, Job. That is why you are suffering.—Job 4:7-9.
Have you not heard people, even clergymen, use the same argument: that calamities are acts of God to punish people for their sins? However, the charge against Job was false. God was not punishing him because of some unrighteous acts he had committed. Job was righteous. That is why Jehovah said to Eliphaz the Temanite: “My anger has grown hot against you and your two companions, for you men have not spoken concerning me what is truthful as has my servant Job.”—Job 42:7.
GOD NOT TO BLAME
Today human suffering is observed on every hand. Millions of people starve and live in extreme poverty. Unlike Job, who “did not sin or ascribe unseemliness to God,” many become embittered and blame God. This was especially true during World War II when bombs rained from the sky, spreading death and suffering to both good people and bad. Yet when men break God’s laws by hating and warring against one another, can they properly blame Him when suffering results? If a parent warns his children that they should not fight among themselves and they disregard the good counsel and assault one another with sticks and stones, is the parent responsible if bruises and injuries are suffered? He is no more responsible than God is for human suffering when people disregard his laws.
Even when righteous servants of God suffer as a result of wars and other disasters such as hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, still God is not to blame. It is true that in specific instances in times past God caused disasters to execute the wicked, but on those occasions, as in the case of the cataclysmic flood in Noah’s day, a warning was given so that there was no question in anyone’s mind that God brought the destruction as he forewarned. But there is no Scriptural authority for believing that disasters in general are calamities God brings upon people to punish them for their sins. To the contrary, earthquakes, for instance, are found to be caused primarily by the settling of the earth, and not by a direct intervention of God. Instead of such calamities being acts of God, chance and unforeseen occurrence are involved.
When the first human pair willfully disobeyed God they were expelled from the garden of Eden. They thus lost for themselves and their descendants the special protection and blessing of their Creator. Therefore, except for special instances involving the accomplishment of God’s own purpose, what happened to mankind from day to day was governed by chance and not by God’s direction. So it is “because time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all” that good people and bad suffer similarly from natural disasters, accidents, fires, and so forth.—Eccl. 9:11.
BOTH RIGHTEOUS AND WICKED SUFFER
Sickness and disease are a chief cause of suffering. Even the young suffer painful diseases, and this is true whether one is righteous or wicked. Faithful young Timothy had trouble with his stomach and suffered “frequent cases of sickness.” (1 Tim. 5:23) Since Paul makes particular mention of this in his letter, it appears that Timothy’s sickness resulted in his experiencing a great deal of suffering. It seems that Paul likewise suffered some physical affliction, which he referred to as a “thorn in the flesh.”—2 Cor. 12:7-9.
Why did these righteous men suffer, as did other faithful Bible characters? For the same reason that righteous servants of God today do—because of inherited imperfections due to sin. Humans have received imperfect bodies from their parents, and their right conduct before God does not now change or cure such inherited weaknesses or susceptibilities to disease. Because of this a righteous person may suffer, and even perish, but a wicked one may continue a long time in his badness. On the other hand, the wicked too are born with inherited physical weaknesses that may lead to their experiencing suffering. The matter of chance and unforeseen occurrence is involved.—Job 14:4; Rom. 5:12.
Those who have walked in the ways of righteousness may also suffer because of exercising poor judgment or failure to apply Scriptural counsel at all times. This is true of a Christian, who, contrary to Scriptural advice, marries an unbeliever and suffers marital troubles as a result. Or perhaps he uses poor judgment, not eating properly, and getting insufficient rest, so that he runs himself down and suffers because of it. David failed on one occasion to apply Scriptural counsel and committed adultery with Bath-sheba. This foolish act brought him much suffering, even though he repented and did not repeat his sin. Peter, too, in a spiritually weakened condition, denied Christ three times. The Scriptures say he wept bitterly.—2 Sam. 11:2-4; Matt. 26:75.
Peter learned a good lesson and later gave this appropriate warning to Christians: “Let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a busybody in other people’s matters.” Even though one has formerly pursued a righteous course, such misconduct warrants correction that can be grievous. One who suffers for such things does not suffer as a righteous man. So take care that you do not suffer for your lack of good judgment or failure to heed Scriptural counsel.—1 Pet. 4:15.
The wicked often suffer because of ignoring God’s counsel by pursuing a life of overindulgence and licentious living. It is said that Herod the Great suffered loathsome diseases acquired because of his evil living habits, and that his palace resounded with his agonizing cries. Today thousands of persons live a life of misery as a result of venereal diseases contracted because of their loose living. But even though God’s law is a protection to the righteous, still it appears that they have more than their share of suffering. Are there reasons for this?
SUFFERING BECAUSE OF BEING RIGHTEOUS
It is observed that persons who have experienced much suffering are often amenable to righteousness. Their experience has softened them so that they readily conform to God’s law and follow a right course. However, a primary reason why the righteous suffer is that they are righteous. The case of Joseph’s unjust imprisonment serves as an example.
When Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt he was purchased by the Egyptian court official Potiphar. Soon he came to be in charge of Potiphar’s entire household. Joseph was a very handsome man and Potiphar’s wife yearned to have relations with him; she continually urged him to lie with her. Finally Joseph, a righteous man, answered: “How could I commit this great badness and actually sin against God?” This so angered Potiphar’s wife that she falsely accused Joseph and had him thrown in prison, where he suffered unjust confinement for more than two years.—Gen. 39:9.
Do you not admire a man like this, one that will stand up for what is right? Would you not be proud of a son that would so appreciate your counsel that he would suffer ridicule and persecution in order to live by it? Imagine, then, how happy God is when his children maintain a course of right conduct in this wicked world with all its temptations. But you may ask, Why does God allow his servants to suffer? The answer lies in an issue that was raised by the rebel angel Satan the Devil. The issue involves man’s integrity, and this is shown in the case of righteous Job.
At a meeting of the angelic sons of God in heaven Jehovah asked Satan: “Have you set your heart upon my servant Job, that there is no one like him in the earth, a man blameless and upright, fearing God and turning aside from bad?” The fact that God called Job’s faithfulness to Satan’s attention indicates there was a contention as to whether human creatures would keep integrity to God. Satan’s reply proves that there was such an issue, for right away he makes excuses for Job’s faithfulness. He asserts that Job serves God because of the material blessings received and not because he loves him. He suggests: “‘For a change, thrust out your hand, please, and touch everything he has and see whether he will not curse you to your very face.’ Accordingly Jehovah said to Satan: ‘Look! Everything that he has is in your hand. Only against him himself do not thrust out your hand!’”—Job 1:7-12.
Job maintained a righteous course despite everything the Devil could do; he proved that he served God because he loved him and wanted to be pleasing in his sight. Job believed in the integrity of his course, and so proclaimed to his accusers: “Until I expire I shall not take away my integrity from myself!”—Job 27:5.
Men of integrity have always been willing to suffer for what they believed in. Some have even sacrificed their lives because of love for a person or a country. The Bible records example after example of other persons that have had strong love for Almighty God. Above everything else, they wanted to live a righteous life in order to be an honor to God and thus prove the Devil’s claim that he could turn all human creatures away from God to be a lie. Although pursuing a course of righteousness has resulted in their suffering a great deal, they have maintained a proper attitude.
PROPER ATTITUDE TOWARD SUFFERING
It is true that in itself suffering does not bring happiness; but if one knows that a loved one is benefited or made happy, then he can rejoice even in the suffering. That is why the apostles, after receiving a flogging for preaching the good news of the Kingdom, “went their way from before the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy to be dishonored in behalf of his name.” They were obeying God’s command to preach and they knew that this was pleasing to him. Therefore they were happy, for, as the scripture says, “if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are happy.”—Acts 5:40, 41; 1 Pet. 3:14.
This helps one to appreciate what Jesus meant when he said in the sermon on the mount: “Happy are you when people reproach you and persecute you and lyingly say every sort of wicked thing against you for my sake. Rejoice and leap for joy, since your reward is great in the heavens.” (Matt. 5:10-12) When a Christian keeps integrity to God and suffers because of it he rejoices in the knowledge that he is proving the Devil a liar and is thus making Jehovah’s heart rejoice. Although the suffering does not make him happy, the fact that it contributes to the vindication of God’s name does. Then, too, one can rejoice because of the reward that is promised to the faithful.—Prov. 27:11.
Everyone today is bound to experience suffering because of living amid this wicked system of things and being subject to inherited imperfections due to sin. The righteous can also expect to suffer because of keeping integrity to God. But they can take heart and rejoice, for there is a new world of God’s making that is now so very close at hand. There suffering will be no more, for God promises that “he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be any more.” So never let present suffering embitter you. Look to the future. Yes, place your hope and confidence in God’s promised new world, where there will be no suffering.—Rev. 21:4; 2 Pet. 3:13.