Why Do Good People Suffer?
THE year was 1914, and the world had gone to war. Suddenly, typhus broke out in a prisoner-of-war camp in Serbia. But that was just the beginning. The dreaded disease spread to civilians and caused the death of 150,000 in only six months. Amid wartime conditions and the revolution that followed in Russia, three million died of typhus. You may well conclude that many good people and their bereaved family members were among the victims.
This is just one example of human tragedy. You yourself may have experienced the suffering that results when loved ones fall victim to diseases, accidents, and calamities of one sort or another. Likely, you are distressed when an upright individual is wracked with the pain of an incurable disease. You are probably saddened greatly when a good person—perhaps a hardworking family man—is killed in an accident. The grief of the bereaved may make your heart ache for them.
Many feel that a person who does good should be rewarded with freedom from suffering. Some even consider suffering to be proof that the victim is a wrongdoer. This was the argument of three men who lived some 3,600 years ago. They were contemporaries of a good man named Job. Let us return to their day as we begin seeking an answer to the question, Why do good people suffer?
When Job’s three supposed friends visited him, he was suffering indescribably from pain and disease. He had been bereaved of his ten children and had lost all his material possessions. People who had held Job in high esteem detested him. Even his wife turned away from him and urged that he curse God and die.—Job 1:1–2:13; 19:13-19.
For seven days and nights, Job’s visitors silently observed his suffering. Then one of them accused him of unrighteous conduct for which he was supposedly being punished. “Remember, please,” said the man 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.”—Job 4:7-9.
So Eliphaz contended that God was punishing Job for his sins. Today, too, some argue that calamities are acts of God designed to punish people for wrongdoing. But Jehovah was not punishing Job for committing unrighteous acts. We know this because God later told Eliphaz: “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 at Fault
Today, millions—surely including many good people—are poverty-stricken and on the verge of starvation. Some individuals become embittered and blame God for their suffering. But he is not to blame for famine. In fact, he is the One who provides food for mankind.—Psalm 65:9.
Selfishness, greed, and other human factors may prevent the delivery of food to the hungry. Warfare is among the causes of famine. For example, The World Book Encyclopedia says: “War may result in a famine if many farmers leave their fields and join the armed forces. In some cases, an army has deliberately created a famine to starve an enemy into surrendering. The army destroys stored food and growing crops and sets up a blockade to cut off the enemy’s food supply. Blockades prevented shipments of food from reaching the region of Biafra during the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70). A famine resulted, and more than a million Biafrans probably starved.”
Especially did some wrongly blame God during World War II, when many good people suffered and died. Yet, humans break God’s laws by hating and warring against one another. When Jesus Christ was asked which commandment was “first of all,” he answered: “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel, Jehovah our God is one Jehovah, and you must love Jehovah your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind and with your whole strength.’ The second is this, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”—Mark 12:28-31.
When humans break God’s laws by engaging in mass slaughter, can anyone properly blame him if suffering is the result? If a parent tells his children not to fight among themselves and they disregard his good counsel, is he responsible if they suffer injuries? The parent is no more responsible than God is for human suffering when people disregard divine laws.
Though suffering may result when Jehovah’s laws are ignored, the Bible does not indicate that disasters in general are acts of God designed to punish the wicked. When the first human pair sinned, they forfeited his special blessing and protection. Except for cases of divine intervention to accomplish Jehovah’s purposes, what has happened to mankind from day to day has been governed by this Scriptural principle: “The swift do not have the race, nor the mighty ones the battle, nor do the wise also have the food, nor do the understanding ones also have the riches, nor do even those having knowledge have the favor; because time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all.”—Ecclesiastes 9:11.
Both Good and Bad Suffer
Actually, both good and bad humans suffer because of inherited sin and imperfection. (Romans 5:12) For example, righteous and wicked people alike experience painful diseases. The faithful Christian Timothy suffered from “frequent cases of sickness.” (1 Timothy 5:23) When the apostle Paul mentioned his own “thorn in the flesh,” he may have been alluding to some physical affliction. (2 Corinthians 12:7-9) Even for his loyal servants, God does not now remove inherited weaknesses or susceptibilities to disease.
Godly people may also suffer because of using poor judgment or failing to apply Scriptural counsel at times. To illustrate: One who disobeys God and marries an unbeliever may suffer marital troubles he could have avoided. (Deuteronomy 7:3, 4; 1 Corinthians 7:39) If a Christian does not eat properly and does not get sufficient rest, he may suffer because of ruining his health.
Emotional suffering may result if we succumb to weakness and engage in wrong conduct. King David’s adultery with Bath-sheba brought him great suffering. (Psalm 51) While trying to conceal wrongdoing, he suffered intense distress. “When I kept silent,” said he, “my bones wore out through my groaning all day long. . . . My life’s moisture has been changed as in the dry heat of summer.” (Psalm 32:3, 4) Anguish over his guilt reduced David’s vigor as a tree might lose life-giving moisture during a drought or in summer’s dry heat. He apparently suffered both mentally and physically. But Psalm 32 shows that such suffering can be relieved by a person’s repentantly confessing sin and receiving God’s pardon.—Proverbs 28:13.
Bad people often suffer for pursuing a licentious course, not as divine punishment. Herod the Great was disease-ridden because of evil habits. In his final days, Herod “suffered horrible torments,” said the Jewish historian Josephus. “He had a terrible craving to scratch himself, his bowels were ulcerated, and his privates gangrenous and wormy. He tried in vain to relieve his gasping and convulsions in the warm springs at Callirrhoe. . . . Herod was now suffering such terrible agony that he tried to stab himself, but was prevented by his cousin.”—Josephus: The Essential Writings, translated and edited by Paul L. Maier.
Adhering to God’s law provides some protection against such things as sexually transmitted disease. Yet, why do good people seeking his favor seem to have more than their share of suffering?
Why Godly People Suffer
A primary reason why godly people suffer is that they are righteous. This is illustrated in the case of the patriarch Jacob’s son Joseph. Though Potiphar’s wife continually urged Joseph to have sexual relations with her, he asked: “How could I commit this great badness and actually sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9) This led to unjust imprisonment, and Joseph suffered because he was upright.
But why does God allow his faithful servants to suffer? The answer lies in an issue raised by the rebellious angel Satan the Devil. This issue involves integrity to God. How do we know? Because this was shown in the case of the righteous man Job, mentioned earlier.
At a meeting of God’s angelic sons 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 Devil’s reply proves that there was a contention about whether humans would maintain integrity to Jehovah under test. Satan asserted that Job served God because of the material blessings enjoyed and not out of love. Satan then said: “For a change, thrust out your hand, please, and touch everything [Job] has and see whether he will not curse you to your very face.” Jehovah replied: “Look! Everything that he has is in your hand. Only against him himself do not thrust out your hand!”—Job 1:6-12.
Despite everything Satan could do, Job maintained a righteous course and proved that he served Jehovah out of love. Indeed, Job told his accusers: “It is unthinkable on my part that I should declare you men righteous! Until I expire I shall not take away my integrity from myself!” (Job 27:5) Yes, such integrity keepers have always been willing to suffer for righteousness’ sake. (1 Peter 4:14-16) The Bible tells of many who have had unfailing love for God and have lived righteous lives to honor him and prove false Satan’s claim that he could turn all humans away from Jehovah. Every individual who suffers because of maintaining integrity to God can be happy that he is proving the Devil a liar and is making Jehovah’s heart rejoice.—Proverbs 27:11.
God is not unconcerned about the suffering of his faithful servants. The psalmist David said: “Jehovah is giving support to all who are falling, and is raising up all who are bowed down.” (Psalm 145:14) Those dedicated to Jehovah may lack sufficient personal strength to bear life’s sufferings and the persecution they experience as his people. But God strengthens and sustains them and grants them the wisdom needed to endure all their trials. (Psalm 121:1-3; James 1:5, 6) If persecutors should kill some of Jehovah’s loyal servants, they have the God-given hope of a resurrection. (John 5:28, 29; Acts 24:15) Even to that extent, God can reverse the effects of any suffering experienced by those who love him. He brought Job’s suffering to an end and abundantly blessed that upright man. And we can be confident that Jehovah will not forsake his people in our day.—Job 42:12-16; Psalm 94:14.
Soon—No More Suffering!
So, then, everyone experiences suffering because of inherited imperfection and life amid this wicked system of things. Godly individuals can also expect to suffer because of maintaining integrity to Jehovah. (2 Timothy 3:12) But they can rejoice, for God will soon bring an end to tears, death, mourning, outcry, and pain. In this regard, the apostle John wrote:
“I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea is no more. I saw also the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God and prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. With that I heard a loud voice from the throne say: ‘Look! The tent of God is with mankind, and he will reside with them, and they will be his peoples. And God himself will be with them. And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore. The former things have passed away.’ And the One seated on the throne said: ‘Look! I am making all things new.’ Also, he says: ‘Write, because these words are faithful and true.’”—Revelation 21:1-5.
Similarly, the apostle Peter declared: “There are new heavens and a new earth that we are awaiting according to his [Jehovah God’s] promise, and in these righteousness is to dwell.” (2 Peter 3:13) What grand prospects lay just ahead! Life on a paradise earth can be your joyous privilege. (Luke 23:43) Therefore, do not let present-day suffering embitter you. Instead, look to the future with optimism. Place your hope and confidence in God’s new world so near at hand. Pursue a course acceptable to Jehovah God, and you can live forever in a world free of all suffering.
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Though Job suffered, he pursued a course acceptable to God
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You can live in a world free of all suffering
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Collier’s Photographic History of the European War