Pain and Suffering

By James L. Morrisson


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"Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?" (Job 2:10)

"Why me?' is a question that God usually does not answer. Apparently he thinks we do not need the answer. Often he asks us to trust him even when we are confused and don't understand what is happening. One thing I think is clear. The glib, easy answers that some "Job's comforters" give do not help and can cause harm.

Perhaps it may be helpful to indicate that there are reasons why painful things happen. We may not know why a particular thing happened at a particular time to a particular person, but it may help to understand that there are reasons for these things. Suffering is not meaningless; it's just that we aren't always told what the particular meaning is.


1. Some things just happen.

In this imperfect world, things that cause pain do happen. Most "natural disasters" are in this category. Hurricanes, tornados, floods, earthquakes, volcanic explosions, avalanches, rock and mud slides, drought, famine and other such things occur, and they can cause much pain and suffering to large numbers of people. Perhaps we can see these as related in a general way to the curse that is on the earth as a result of the Fall. Creation scientists believe that many of our storms and weather problems did not exist until after the Flood. The same might be true of geological problems like earthquakes and volcanic explosions. We simply don't know what the earth was like before the Fall, except that when God created it, he saw that it was good. All that we can say with assurance is that the earth as it now exists is imperfect.

There are also accidents, sometimes on a large scale. Airplanes, trains and busses crash, ships sink, buildings and bridges fall. Dams burst. Chemical plants explode. Large fires occur. Sometimes these can be traced to human error. A design was faulty. A pilot, motorman or operator used bad judgment. There was a failure of maintenance. We try to find out what these causes might be so as to help guard against them for the future. But ultimately we may just have to accept the fact that in an imperfect world these things are going to happen, and people will get hurt by them.

In most cases it is very hard to see why this kind of thing happened to a particular person. Occasionally we can perhaps see that God, in his mercy, protected a person. Someone who was scheduled to take a particular flight did not board the plane. Someone who had planned to go to a particular place had his plans changed or seemingly fouled up. Things of that kind. But in most cases it's very hard to see why this kind of thing happened to a particular person.

Does this mean that God is capricious or whimsical? I don't think so. It simply means that we live in an imperfect world in which "bad" things do happen.

2. Forces of evil

Some things are clearly the result of evil in the world. The Nazi Holocaust; millions who were killed, tortured and imprisoned by Stalin and other communist regimes; pain caused by other ruthless dictators, such as Idi Amin and some of the Latin American regimes; genocide which has killed many in Africa and Bosnia; terrorist acts (such as those which occurred in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001); human slavery. Much suffering has been caused by human greed and exploitation of others.

At a more individual level, there are people in the world who harm others. There are those who commit murder, assault and rape; there are wife and child abusers; there are people who are domineering, manipulative, controlling or sadistic; there are people who are always demanding and complaining; there are people who are acquisitive, self-centered or simply callous to the needs of others. They cause much suffering to others. In some cases this may be the result of abuse which they suffered, but its ultimate origin is always, I think, the fact that there are forces of evil in the world.

Satan exists. He is still, in considerable measure, the "god of this world". His purpose is to cause injury and pain, to "steal and kill and destroy". He uses evil men and women to accomplish that purpose. We may not fully understand why God allows him to exist, and to have so much influence, but that is the fact.

Much suffering is caused by wars. Civilian populations may be devastated. Some wars can be seen as the direct result of evil. I believe World War II was necessary to prevent some evil men (Hitler, Mussolini, the Japanese Empire) from taking over the world and reducing it to subjection. Other wars can be seen as the result of greed, selfishness and lust for power on both sides, or of bitterness, hatred and unforgiveness, or just of human inability to resolve differences. But I think we can say that the satanic forces of evil enter into many wars.

Again in this area it is usually very difficult to see why a particular person was one of those injured. Terrible things happen, and this or that person just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

3. Self-inflicted pain

Quite a bit of pain can be seen as self-inflicted.

Some commit suicide. Many injure themselves in various ways. We take substances, such as drugs, alcohol and tobacco, which harm our bodies, or cause us to do other destructive things. We do foolhardy and dangerous things. We eat foods which are harmful to our health. We associate with people whose influence is bad. Quite a bit of illness is self-inflicted in the sense that we have either done things that harm our bodies or neglected to do things that will help and protect them.

We injure ourselves emotionally. Scripture warns us not to allow a "bitter root" to grow up "to cause trouble and defile many" (Hebrews 12:15), but we hold on to bitterness. Scripture warns us that if we do not forgive others we will not be forgiven (Matthew 6:15, 18:21-35), but we hold on to unforgiveness. Scripture tells us that we shall reap what we sow (Galatians 6:7), but we sow anger, bitterness, selfishness, and abuse and wonder why we get them back in return. Scripture warns us "do not give the devil a foothold" (Ephesians 4:27) and we give him all sorts of footholds and handholds from which to harm us and others. We ignore or wilfully violate the rules God has established and then we wonder why we are reaping the consequences of our own actions.

Much of this self-inflicted injury is due to lack of wisdom and lack of self-control, but in its roots I think it all goes back to the fact that we are sinful and imperfect people.

4. Suffering caused by God

At times God causes suffering for his purposes. The statement may offend some people's concept of God, but it is well documented in Scripture.

God destroyed all life on the earth by a flood (except for those on the ark) because man's wickedness had become so great that "the Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth" (Genesis 6:6). He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and other "cities of the plain" because their sin was so "grievous" (Genesis 18:20, 19:24-25). In order to rescue his people from slavery, he sent numerous plagues on Egypt which caused great destruction. He caused the earth to open up and swallow Dathan, Abiram and Korah and their families and households because they rebelled against Moses (Numbers chapter 16). Because Israel worshiped pagan gods and engaged in sexual immorality "the Lord's anger burned against them" and he brought a plague which killed 24,000 Israelites (Numbers 25:4, 9). Because the 10 northern tribes had turned to foreign gods he raised up Assyria to conquer the northern kingdom and scatter its people (see Isaiah 8:6-10; 2 Kings 17:7-23). To protect Jerusalem from the Assyrians he sent his angel to kill 185,000 Assyrian soldiers (Isaiah 37:36). But then God raised up Babylon to destroy the southern kingdom and take its people captive. Many more examples could be given.

In the last days, Jesus will be "revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction" (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). Revelation speaks of the great day of the wrath of God and Jesus (Revelation 6:17, 19:15).

I think we need to be very careful here. God does judge nations and individuals. He does bring suffering and destruction to people as a punishment. He is a righteous and holy God and his wrath is terrible. But I think we should be careful not to assume that something is the punishment or judgment of God unless he has clearly said that it is. For example, some see the plague of AIDS as God's judgment on sexual promiscuity or homosexuality. I see it rather as allowing people to reap the natural consequences of their promiscuity. Some have seen the terrorist attacks on the United States of September 11, 2001 as a judgment of God. I think our nation is deserving of God's judgment in many respects, but I see these attacks rather as (a) a wake-up call and (b) a case of God removing his hand of protection.

5. Testing and strengthening.

I have indicated that suffering can often serve a useful purpose in testing and strengthening us, and in developing godly character. A remarkable example of this is found in Joni Earecksen Tada, whose situation is discussed in Yancey's book. As a teenager Joni was athletic and healthy. One day she had a diving accident, and broke her neck. She has lived the rest of her life as a quadriplegic. It has been a struggle; she deals often with pain and also with helplessness and dependence on others. But she has a full life. She is married, has written a number of books, has a radio program, is in demand as a speaker, has made a video, paints with a brush held in her mouth, sings, and shows the joy of the Lord. She has said that her accident was the best thing that happened to her. Without it, she might have been a shallow, self-centered woman. With it she has become a godly woman who has an active ministry and who is a powerful example to others. God used her accident to build her character into that of a marvelous woman of God.

Another remarkable example is that of Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned and mistreated by the Communists in Rumania. He has said that when he was in solitary confinement, with nothing he could call his own except the clothes on his back, liable at any moment to be treated with torture and physical indignity, those were the times when he was closest to God. When everything else had been stripped away, God became more real to him.

Samuel Lamb, a Chinese pastor, was imprisoned and mistreated by the Communists for 21 years. He emerged from this imprisonment with no bitterness, and full of love and joy. He has written: "We must make up our minds daily to be willing to suffer for Christ. Then, and only then, will we experience blessing, peace and victory" ( "Bound to be Free", p. 62).

When our life is comfortable and easy we tend to become self-satisfied and self-reliant. We tend to think: I am doing well, I have accomplished various things, I am a success. I, I, I. Sometimes God needs to squeeze us a bit, to have us go through a certain amount of tribulation, even a great amount of tribulation, to bring us to the point where we depend on him rather than ourselves, and realize that without his power working in us we are not going to make it.

6. Illness and injury

I have put illness and injury in a special category because it is such a prevalent cause of suffering and because it is often not easy to see what cause may lie behind it.

I believe all illness and injury is a result of the Fall. When Scripture says that death and pain came because of the Fall, I believe that illness also came. A perfect, resurrection body does not get ill or injured (see 1 Corinthians 15:42-49). And I do not believe those in the New Jerusalem will get ill.

Illness and injury, then, are to be seen as consequences of our present imperfect state. But this does not answer the question why a particular illness afflicts a particular person.

Sometimes, as I have already noted, illness can be self-inflicted. Some illness can have a direct relationship to bitterness and unforgiveness that we hold, or to stress and anxiety (lack of God's peace). Illness can also be brought on us by others. There have been occupational diseases, such as black lung disease, and health problems from substances such as asbestos. In World War I many had their health permanently destroyed by poison gas; the use of atomic bombs has caused radiation illness; both chemical and bacteriological agents are available for military use and may be available to terrorists. Some illnesses, also, may be seen as attacks on us by our spiritual enemy. Jesus saw that certain illnesses were caused by evil spirits. He healed a crippled woman "whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years" (Luke 13:16). He healed a boy of seizures by rebuking and casting out a demon (Matthew 17:18). In all these aspects we can see the force of evil at work.

Occasionally illness comes from God. King Uzziah sinned by taking over the function of a priest, and became a leper for the last 15 years of his life; Scripture says "the Lord had afflicted him" (2 Chronicles 26:20). When Miriam rebelled against Moses "the anger of the Lord burned against" her and she became a leper. At Moses' request she was healed, but she had to remain outside the camp for 7 days (Numbers chapter 12). God brought a number of plagues on Israel, which killed thousands. God warned the people of Israel that if they did not follow his commands he would send "fearful plagues", "harsh and prolonged disasters, and severe and lingering illnesses", "all the diseases of Egypt", "every kind of sickness and disaster" (Deuteronomy 28:59-61).

With most illnesses, however, it is difficult to see that any of the possible causes are applicable. They seem more often to fall into the category of something that "just happens". Some can suffer for years with cancer, painful arthritis, Alzheimer's, or the like. Some are born with Down's syndrome, multiple sclerosis, spina bifida, and the like. It is hard to find a reason for any of these. There are, however, those who overcome the pain or disability and live rich and full lives in spite of it.


This is the question we often ask. I note one interesting thing. When "bad" things happen we often ask, "Why me, Lord?" "What have I done to deserve this?" When "good" things happen, when we receive a blessing, we seldom ask "what have I done to deserve this?" Would we want to receive blessings only when we "deserve" them or have "earned" them? Then why should we expect to receive "bad" things only when we "deserve" them.

Scripture speaks much about God's grace, the unmerited favor he bestows on us. Most of Paul's letters begin, "Grace and peace be to you." Would we want to receive only what we deserve and never receive God's grace, his unmerited favor? Do we want to deny ourselves the "incomparable riches of [God's] grace" (Ephesians 2:7) by insisting that we receive only what we deserve? Scripture says, "See to it that no one misses the grace of God" (Hebrews 12:15). Would we want to miss the grace of God by insisting on a principle that we receive only what we deserve?

If we received only what we deserved, none of us could be saved! We are saved by grace, by God's unmerited favor (Ephesians 2:8). Whatever may happen to us in this life is slight compared to the suffering of spending eternity in Hell separated from God. If we complain, are we not a little bit in the position of someone who receives an unmerited gift of $1,000 and complains because it is in $20 bills rather than $100 bills? So long as we have the unmerited gift of eternal salvation, should we complain to God because our life on this earth is relatively more or less difficult? This idea of asking God only to let us have what we deserve can cut two ways, and I suggest we should not want to have him establish such a principle.

People also say, "This is not fair." "Why is this happening to me and not to this other person." Would we want to have God make things "fair" by making the other person suffer as much as we suffer? "Fairness" really has nothing to do with it.

We see this illustrated in several ways in Scripture.

Jesus predicted to Peter how Peter would die. Then when Peter saw John he asked "Lord, what about him?' and Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me" (John 21:21-22). It really is none of our concern how God treats somebody else. We need to focus on our relationship with him.

Jesus told a parable about workers in a vineyard. Some came to work in the beginning of the day, and agreed to receive one denarius as a wage. Others started work at the third, the sixth, the ninth and the eleventh hour. He paid each of them the same wage. Those who had worked the longest complained that this was not fair and the master (God) replied, "I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?" (Matthew 20:13-15).

Paul sums it up. "Who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it 'Why did you make me like this?' Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?" (Romans 9:20-21). God is sovereign. Everything under heaven belongs to him and no one has a claim against him (Job 41:11).

Scripture tells us not to compare ourselves with others (Galatians 6:4). One reason this principle is applicable here is that we cannot know fully what the other person may be going through. Often others, who seem outwardly to be doing well, may be struggling with difficulties we know nothing of. Or they may have come through periods of severe pain in the past. And how are we to measure pain? How do we compare the pain of arthritis or cancer with the pain of a marriage that is breaking up, or a rebellious child? It is better to stay with Jesus' "What is that to you?"

Paul asks, "Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, 'I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion'" (Romans 9:14-15, quoting Exodus 33:19). Does this mean God is whimsical or arbitrary? No. God is sovereign. He does what he, in his wisdom, decides to do. He does not owe us any explanations or justifications for what he does or does not do.


I have tried to indicate some of the reasons why suffering may come in someone's life. In most cases it is very hard to know why a particular kind of suffering has occurred in a particular life. In most cases I believe it serves little purpose to ask the question.

There are certain answers which we tend to give ourselves, or others may give us, of which we need to be quite wary.

One is that suffering is always a punishment for some sin we have committed. This was one that Job's comforters kept emphasizing, and God said of them, "You have not spoken of me what is right" (Job 42:8). There may be times when suffering or illness is the result of sin, and it may be well to examine yourself and see whether there is something you need to get straight. But not all suffering is the result of sin. Job did not suffer because of sin, but because God allowed satan to test him (Job 1:8-12, 2:3-6). When Jesus healed a man born blind, he said that his blindness was not the result of sin (John 9:3). Jesus is the only perdson who was totally without sin but he suffered terribly on the cross. Paul suffered much; would anyone dare to say that it was because of some hidden sin on his part? Paul had two associates who were ill, one of them to the point of death (Philippians 2:27; 2 Timothy 4:20). There is no suggestion in Paul's letters that they were guilty of sin or lacking in faith. Christians have been persecuted and martyred from the First Century until today; would anyone suggest that they suffered because of sin?

Another glib answer is that, if your prayer to be relieved of suffering or illness is not answered, it must be because of lack of faith. It is true that we need to pray believing (James 1:6). But lack of faith is not the only reason why prayers are not answered. Job's illness continued for some time. God did not accuse him of lack of faith, but rather commended him. The prophets who suffered in terrible ways were commended for their faith (Hebrews 11:32-40). God allowed Jesus to suffer on the Cross; would anyone suggest that that was because of lack of faith? When God refused to heal Paul's "thorn in the flesh" he said nothing about a lack of faith; he said "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9). God has many reasons for not answering our prayers in the way and at the time we want him to. We should not assume that every prayer that seems to be unanswered indicates a lack of faith.

There may be some who assume that every "bad" thing that happens to us is a demonic attack. Some "bad" things do happen for this reason, but it is giving much too much credit to the devil to assume that he is behind every one. When people came to Jesus for healing, sometimes he cast out an evil spirit and sometimes he simply healed the condition.

This brings me to the question why some people are healed by prayer and others are not. This is something that has been observed by every healing ministry. Jesus sometimes healed everyone who came to him, but on other occasions he was more selective. There were many sick people at the pool, but we read of only one whom Jesus healed (John 5:1-15). There were probably a number of crippled beggars at the Temple gate, but we read of only one whom Peter and John healed (Acts 3:1-10). The best explanation anyone can come up with is that God is sovereign and he does what he decides to do.



"I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation... I can do everything through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:12-13).

I come now to the "what" questions, which I believe are the more useful questions to ask. On these I do not have much to say. I have not personally experienced severe long-term suffering. I have not had much experience ministering to or working with those who have experienced such suffering. My primary purpose in this paper has been, not so much to give answers to the "what" questions, as to get us to focus primarily on those questions.

There are no easy answers. There are no formulas. There are no "one size fits all" solutions. I believe everyone has to work this out for themselves in whatever situation they may be. Dealing with suffering, especially severe, protracted suffering, is extremely difficult. But, with God's help, it can be done.

Yancey has a number of examples of people who have come to terms quite successfully with severe, protracted pain and suffering. Scripture gives us some others. We can learn from them and take heart from them. I believe it really is true that God is able to make good come out of every situation, including painful ones.

I can only suggest a few Scriptural principles that may be helpful.

1. Acceptance.

Pain and suffering occur. They are part of this world. No one is immune or exempt from them. There is no guarantee that they will not occur. When they come in our life we need to be able to accept them. As Peter wrote, "Do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you" (1 Peter 4:12). This is not easy, but I believe it is essential.

Scripture tells us to go further, and to "consider it pure joy" when trials come. I confess that I am not yet at this point! But if we can see pain and suffering as an experience from which we can learn and grow, then perhaps we can see them as things that God is using for our good, and be able to rejoice in them.

2. Do What You Can.

Paul wrote, "Put on the full armor of God, so that when the evil day comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand" (Ephesians 6:13). He was talking about facing the enemy, but I think the principle applies to every kind of adversity. God wants us to do everything we can.

In the case of pain and suffering this means to get all the help you can. Medical science knows quite a lot about pain management. What they have to offer does not always work, seldom works fully, and sometimes has side effects we prefer to avoid, but we might as well use it when we can. If the pain is emotional or psychological, there are various counseling resources; some of them can be helpful if they are based on Christian principles. Most churches offer ministry of one kind or another; some have small groups which can be very supportive. There are other support groups. Prayer is always valuable. My point is, avail yourself of anything that will be genuinely helpful in relieving your pain. There is no virtue in unnecessary suffering.

3. Focus on God, and not your circumstances.

Paul, who went through a remarkable amount of suffering, wrote, "Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances." (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Later, from a Roman prison, he wrote, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again, rejoice!" (Philippians 4:4).

"Give thanks in all circumstances". We don't necessarily give thanks for the circumstances, but we give thanks in the circumstances. Our thanks do not depend on the circumstances. Our thanks depend on who God is, and on the salvation he has so freely given us. As Paul wrote, "Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal" (1 Corinthians 4:17-18). In this sense Paul is like Jesus "who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame" (Hebrews 12:2).

To Paul, five floggings, three beatings with rods, stoning, and many other hardships were "light and momentary"! This seems amazing. But when we compare all that Paul suffered during some 60 years on earth to the joy of spending eternity in heaven it becomes quite minor.

Because our thanksgiving does not depend on the circumstances, we are not at the mercy of the circumstances. I think this is what Paul was talking about when he said that he had "learned the secret of being content in any and every situation" (Philippians 4:12). The secret is that you don't look at the situation, you look at God. It is by this, also, that we can achieve "the peace of God, which transcends all understanding" (Philippians 4:7).

Our faith and hope also need to transcend our circumstances. Romans 4:18 says, "against all hope, Abraham in hope believed." Hope is "confident expectation." All the circumstances gave Abraham reason to believe that he and Sarah could not have a child. But against that expectation based on the circumstances, Abraham set his "confident expectation" based on God's promise to him. He was "fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised" (Romans 4:21). He went past all the natural circumstances to believe God's promise, "because he considered him faithful who had made the promise" (Hebrews 11:11). Whatever the circumstances, we need to believe that God is bigger than the circumstances and he will enable us to bear them and will bring us through them. Whatever the circumstances, we need to believe that God will strengthen us with all power according to his glorious might, so that we may have great endurance and patience (Colossians 1:11).

4. Let God bring good out of the situation.

There is a further reason to focus on God rather than your circumstances. God works for good in all things, even in the most unlikely circumstances (Romans 8:28). In order to enable him to do so we need to get close to him. Use praise, prayer, Scripture reading, meditation on Scripture, whatever works for you, to get close to God so that you can know his will for you and hear what he has to say to you. Turn your situation over to him in prayer, ask him to deal with you and to show you anything he wants to show you about it. "Come near to God and he will come near to you" (James 4:8).

Be honest with God. He can handle anger, frustration, and even discouragement and despair. Job complained and got angry at God. And God spoke to him at length, revealed himself to him, and said that had "spoken of me what is right" (Job 42:8). David often complained and poured out his heart to God, and God called him "a man after my heart." God does not mind hearing the distress and even anger of one who is genuinely seeking after him.

5. Remain faithful to God.

"Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble" (Job 2:10). When suffering comes, that is always the question. Do we love God for what he gives us, or for who he is? Can we love him and serve him even in suffering, even when he seems to have deserted us, even when he seems not to answer our prayers?

In his great end-time prophecy Jesus told the disciples that they would be "persecuted and put to death", that many would turn away from the faith and the love of many would grow cold, but that "he who stands firm to the end will be saved" (Matthew 24:13). In each of the letters to the churches in the Book of Revelation there is a promise of blessings to the one "who overcomes." God has promised that we can be "more than conquerors" (Romans 8:37). "Everyone born of God overcomes the world" (1 John 5:4). I believe that God has made it possible to overcome pain and suffering, no matter how severe and protracted.

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Copyrightę 2002 by James L. Morrisson