“Sadly enough… it is a characteristic of our age that if people want any gods at all, they want them to be gods who do not demand much, comfortable gods, smooth gods who not only don’t rock the boat but don’t even row it, gods who pat us on the head, make us giggle, then tell us to run along and pick marigolds.” (Elder Jeffrey R Holland, The Cost – and Blessings – of Discipleship)
This is the third (and final) post in a series on the Problem of Evil, specifically looking at three fallacies that are inherent within the problem (at least as it is usually described). These fallacies are:
- No good can come from suffering. It is evil by nature.
- Our only purpose in life is to live free of pain and suffering
- Any God who loved us would, in every situation and without question, speak the word and do away with all pains
In my first post (found here) I discussed the first fallacy, and why I believe suffering can be good rather than evil. In my second post on the topic (found here), I discussed several purposes of our mortal lives, and how suffering is an inevitable and necessary part of those purposes.
In this post I will discuss the third fallacy, and move on to some of the far more challenging elements of suffering in our world – these are issues for which I can’t claim to have answers that feel fully satisfactory even to myself.
Fallacy Number 3: Any God who loved us would, in every situation and without question, speak the word and do away with all pains
If you’re anything like me, you will find this fallacy really quite appealing. How many of us, especially while we’re in the midst of a particularly difficult trial, wouldn’t like our loving Father in Heaven to take the pain and suffering away from us? The God described by Elder Holland at the start of this post is one we probably all secretly wish for in our dark times; and although Elder Holland was speaking of this in a context of the requirements of discipleship, the same principle applies for our challenges and our suffering.
But sadly, life is just not like a children’s party, where our ultimate purpose is to play, stopping only to eat sweet food; and to believe it is would make a mockery of God sending us to this place called earth in the first place. If suffering can = good, and if there is purpose to our mortality that necessitates difficulties and challenges to overcome, then in fact a loving God would not remove such suffering. He knows we need it, and because He loves us, He will therefore not intervene to take it away.
In many ways, however, this is a superficial answer to the question. Not all of our suffering (in fact quite possibly a majority of it) doesn’t come from God – it comes from other people. God could give me challenges that don’t come from other people: He could stop the evils that create so much un-necessary suffering. But He often doesn’t. Does that mean He therefore doesn’t love us? That the scriptures that speak of His love are meaningless? That we should question His existence or His purposes?
I commented on another blog post that was discussing this topic (here), and which seemed me to be suggesting that the answers to those questions is “yes”. The author stated in a comment,
“If my Moms said she loves me and looks after me and yet bad things that were in her power to stop kept happening I think it would be fair to start giving her the WT[H] side-eye no?”
In response to that, I commented:
“Hmmm. Well, maybe…. What’s my interpretation of “bad things”, and what is, in reality, “in her power to stop”? My kids think I’m evil when I limit the amount of time they spend on their gaming machines – I like to think that I have a “higher view” of what is good for them.
A less trite example: A parent may be caught in a cycle of abuse one generation after another. Or perhaps as a teenager someone gets caught up in drug dependency and the drugs then rule their life with urges that can’t be resisted. How much power do these individuals really have to stop the abuse or neglect? Some people manage it, while maybe others really do love their children (as far as they are able to) but simply aren’t able to overcome these other powerful compulsions. I get that some people do, but many also don’t – and I’m not going to make judgments on what they do or don’t have within their power. Although I still may weep for the trauma that the innocent suffer because of it. (And yes there are some parents who will say they love their children only to manipulate them for whatever narcissistic or other purposes they may have – but at what point does action driven from a personality disorder become a choice? Again, I wouldn’t want to judge that)
On the one hand these examples only answer the question of your Mum who says she loves you but appears to act contrary to that, rather than to the original question of God caring for even the sparrow – what you’re talking about is clearly on a different scale to the amount of time kids play on a games console; and we’re talking about God who is not beset with inter-generational trauma, or genetically predisposed personality disorders.
But I think it demonstrates the principle that “bad things happen, therefore the parent (or God) who could do something about it therefore doesn’t love or care for me” is false. The If – Therefore premise is a fallacy (even if an understandable one), because even with the things we know most about – our fellow human beings – [we know there are instances]… when it’s just not that clear-cut.”
However, while I think the underlying assumptions made within the Problem of Evil can be easily shown to be fallacies, that still doesn’t answer the original question – “why so much suffering?”. And while my last post described some of suffering’s purposes, they don’t cut it for all situations. Sure we need some tough challenges in life to grow, to learn to rely on Christ, to become the people our Father in Heaven wants us to become. But what about the tiny baby born into an abusive household and who dies at the hands of a parent within weeks or even days of her birth? What about the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 that killed over 230,000 people, many of them small children, who never had any chance to grow and develop in the way I described as necessary in my last post? What was the purpose in that?
For me, these are the most difficult of the questions about suffering. I don’t pretend to have satisfactory answers and wouldn’t want to pretend to do so: just as I believe it is mockery of God to think that He would send us into mortality for no reason other than to have a life filled with nothing but fun; so too I think that to give trite or superficial answers to these questions and thinking that should be sufficient, mocks those who have suffered the most.
But despite these answers being less than fully satisfactory, we can gain some insights at least, which I believe includes the following:
1. A great purpose of life is to learn to properly use our agency to choose the good.
It’s said that the best lies are the ones that are only slight variations on the truth. In the Garden of Eden, Satan used this tactic, telling Eve that in partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, “…ye shall be as the gods, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Often in the scriptures the word “know” and its derivatives relate to experiential knowledge rather than cognitive knowledge – or in other words knowing something quite intimately through having lived it, rather than simply having read about it or being taught it.
In this sense, the “gods” (keeping the plural word as used in the Bible) do not “know” evil. They “know” good, but not evil, because they don’t “do” evil. Lehi phrased it rather more correctly when he said, “And because [men and women] are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil…” (2 Nephi 2:26, emphasis added). We are here on earth, not to learn to know good and evil, but rather to learn good from evil.
In my last post I described how part of our purpose on earth is to become “something more” than we were before our mortality, and learning to use our freedom to choose right over wrong is an essential part of that process. But, of course, if we have that freedom to choose, then we can by definition choose evil. We can choose to harm others; we can choose to place our own selfish desires and appetites above the needs or wellbeing of others. And God allows us to do so, even when it harms others. One day we will then stand accountable for our actions – not for what we might have done if we had been given freedom to choose in mortality, but for what we actually did because we were given freedom to choose.
The prophets Alma and Amulek experienced this when they were teaching a people largely antagonistic to their message – so antagonistic in fact that they determined they would burn alive any and all who believed their words, “And they brought their wives and children together, and whosoever believed or had been taught to believe in the word of God they caused that they should be cast into the fire…” (Alma 14:8) Note it wasn’t just the believers who were being put to death, but also those who were “taught to believe” – the children too young to know for themselves. But I guess because they had been taught by their parents, they were considered too dangerous to be allowed to live. And so Alma and Amulek were brought forth in their chains to witness a genocide.
Amulek knew that the Lord had given them power and wanted to use that to deliver these innocent women and children from the flames, but Alma stated, “The Spirit constraineth me that I must not stretch forth mine hand; for behold the Lord receiveth them up unto himself, in glory; and he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the judgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the blood of the innocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.” (Alma 14:11)
A great evil was permitted because those who were committing it had to be able to use their agency, and to receive their eternal judgment based on what they had done with that agency.
Through this, however, we mustn’t ever believe that God doesn’t care; that He watches impassively from a heavenly throne. In what I consider to be the most touching passage of scripture anywhere, the prophet Enoch sees the heavens weeping, and in reply to his astonished query, the Lord says, “Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands, and I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency; And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood;… Satan shall be their father, and misery shall be their doom; and the whole heavens shall weep over them, even all the workmanship of mine hands; wherefore should not the heavens weep, seeing these shall suffer?” (Moses 7:32-33,37)
God permits the evils we do because our agency is such an integral part of our mortal existence; but He still loves us, and He weeps when He sees the suffering that inevitably follows such choices.
2. We are also to learn to have compassion towards others – a compassion that motivates us to act.
This love and compassion that we need to develop is called in the scriptures, charity. It is a Christlike love, and of all of the Christlike attributes that we need to develop it is the crowing one.
I have written elsewhere about the importance of developing this characteristic (found here), and in that I said,
“One LDS author has written that in order to have charity for others, we need to have empathy, and goes on to say, “Empathy must be learned. It is impossible for us to have empathy if we have not hurt as they hurt and have not rejoiced as they rejoice. Consequently, in this life some of the most worthwhile experiences we have are the ones that teach us how to feel the hurts that other people feel, so we can comfort them in a language that teaches them that we know and care. In order to make our own hard experiences worthwhile, rather than crippling, we must be strong enough to turn that difficulty into power.” (Baker and Ricks, Who Shall Ascend Into the Hill of the Lord, p 446) The physical, emotional and spiritual hardships and trials we experience in life are therefore not solely to refine our own souls. Perhaps an even greater blessing may come from them in that they enable us to express charity towards others. As we have each had life experiences and challenges that are unique to us, we are thus each uniquely able to bless others with needed love and understanding.”
This in part goes to explain another reason for the purpose of our own suffering, as it helps us gain valuable insight and empathy, which themselves help us to reach out in love to others.
Within the LDS Church we believe that as part of the covenants we make at baptism we make a promise to mourn with those that mourn, and comfort those who stand in need of comfort – in essence, we covenant to develop charity, a compassion that motivates action in us towards others. Christ’s atoning sacrifice is the ultimate act of charity, of course, which none of us can hope to emulate in any meaningful way. But in our own much smaller ways, we are to attempt to do so, to pattern our lives after His, becoming (however inadequately) an example of one who would call themselves His disciple.
Throughout His mortal life Christ went about healing. Everywhere He went the multitudes followed seeking healing from their various sufferings from Him. And He never turned away anyone (see Matthew 9:35, and 15:30, for example). To the Nephites in the Book of Mormon, after His resurrection, He called for all those who were afflicted in “any manner” to come to Him to be healed (see 3 Nephi 17). If we are to seek His image in our lives, then we must attempt to pattern our lives after His. Suffering in the lives of others, whether distant or near, therefore provides us with opportunities to develop this essential quality of compassion, just as suffering in our own lives provides the same opportunity for others.
I don’t think any of us will be able to get to the Judgement Bar, and kneeling before our Maker claim that we couldn’t develop charity because there just weren’t enough opportunities for us to do so.
3. We are to learn to walk by faith
Spencer W Kimball, a President of the LDS Church in the 1970s and 80s, once said, “If all the sick for whom we pray were healed, if all the righteous were protected and the wicked destroyed, the whole program of the Father would be annulled and the basic principle of the gospel, free agency, would be ended. No man would have to live by faith.
If joy and peace and rewards were instantaneously given the doer of good, there could be no evil—all would do good but not because of the rightness of doing good. There would be no test of strength, no development of character, no growth of powers, no free agency, only satanic controls.” (Teachings: Spencer W Kimball, Chapter 2 Tragedy or Destiny)
Our faith is most tested in the face of trials and opposition. If all prayers for suffering’s relief were answered, and all the wicked were prevented from harming others, there would be none to oppose for all would believe – but they would believe because of the instant rewards or punishments, not because of faith. In the absence of opposition, and with prayers for relief answered, I would have nothing by which to test, or grow, my own faith. None would have faith; none would grow and develop as they should. A fundamental purpose of life would be frustrated.
Quoting again from President Kimball:
“I am grateful that even through the priesthood I cannot heal all the sick. I might heal people who should die. I might relieve people of suffering who should suffer. I fear I would frustrate the purposes of God.
Had I limitless power, and yet limited vision and understanding, I might have saved Abinadi from the flames of fire when he was burned at the stake, and in doing so I might have irreparably damaged him. He died a martyr and went to a martyr’s reward—exaltation.
I would likely have protected Paul against his woes if my power were boundless. I would surely have healed his “thorn in the flesh.” And in doing so I might have foiled the Lord’s program. Thrice he offered prayers, asking the Lord to remove the “thorn” from him, but the Lord did not so answer his prayers. Paul many times could have lost himself if he had been eloquent, well, handsome, and free from the things that made him humble.…
With such uncontrolled power, I surely would have felt to protect Christ from the agony in Gethsemane, the insults, the thorny crown, the indignities in the court, the physical injuries. I would have administered to his wounds and healed them, giving him cooling water instead of vinegar. I might have saved him from suffering and death, and lost to the world his atoning sacrifice.” (Ibid, emphasis added)
A key question for each of us in our lives, is how fully we can, like our Saviour, in perfect faith say, “Thy will, not mine, be done”.
As I now draw to a conclusion this series of posts on the Problem of Evil, I am acutely aware that what I have written does not answer all questions. Suffering children, in particular, appear to be the exceptions to many of the purposes of suffering that I have discussed. In the LDS Church we believe that another great purpose of mortality is to gain a physical body that will rise with us in the resurrection, spirit and body forever joined. We also take comfort in the words of Joseph Smith, who stated, “The Lord takes away many, even in infancy, that they may escape the envy of man, and the sorrows and evils of this present world; they were too pure, too lovely, to live on earth; therefore, if rightly considered, instead of mourning we have reason to rejoice as they are delivered from evil, and we shall soon have them again.” (quoted in August 2014 Ensign, We Know Where He Is)
But even with this, when I look out at the suffering across the world, our hearts will often cry “But it’s just not fair!”
And it’s not fair; and I don’t have all of the answers; and the answers I’ve given aren’t completely satisfactory even to me in all instances of suffering I am aware of.
I do, however, believe that there is no suffering known to mankind that Christ did not feel the full weight of during His atoning sacrifice nearly two thousand years ago. He has borne all of our griefs and all of our sorrows (see Isaiah 53:4), and this that He may know how to succour us according to our infirmities (see Alma 7:12).
I believe that our Father in Heaven does, indeed, love each of us with an intensity that we cannot imagine, and that He weeps when we weep; that His plan for each of us is for us to have a joy so great that we cannot currently comprehend. I believe that the day will come, when, “…God shall wipe away all tears from [our] eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
I believe that the answer to the Problem of Evil, is not to trust in philosophies created by men and that are built on assumptions that are fallacies, but to trust in God, and in His Son: our Saviour, our Redeemer, the Healer of our souls.