Suffering is awful. Even the mildest of suffering is far from what we want on our journey ahead. We fear suffering. Vilify it. Castigate it even. We endlessly invent products to prevent it. We procrastinate to avoid it. We employ an endless array of escape mechanisms to evade it. We call it unfair. We call it misery. We call it evil. But is suffering actually a bad thing? Is suffering synonymous with evil? Or is it something different altogether? And is it actually from God?
The answers to these questions may lie in a series of more specific and analogous questions worthy of consideration:
- Is a mother evil for combing the tangles out her daughter’s hair every morning in spite of the scalp-searing torture she inflicts on her young girl?
- Is a weightlifting spotter evil for not immediately lifting the bar when his partner is struggling to push it back up?
- Is a father evil for making his son mow the lawn while the boy’s friends freely ride bikes down to the city pool?
- Is a boot camp drill sergeant evil for psychologically breaking down his recruits?
- Is a surgeon evil for carving up a person’s body?
All cause suffering. All are deliberate acts. All are choices by one directed at another. So does this mean they are evil? Does it mean they are even bad? Or could they in fact be…good?
Moms are as loving as people come. And yet, many a daughter has daily faced the dreaded torture that for some would make waterboarding sound like a splash in a pool: brushing out the hair tangles. If you’ve ever watched a young girl’s face wince, cringe, and pucker and listened to the grunts, cries, and sometimes screams as her mother systematically and determinedly thrashes through her hair to straighten out the snarling messes that a day of play or a night of tossing and turning in bed will create. It’s a scene of sheer brutality exacted by the very personification of parental love. And despite this daily difficulty, daughters go on to adore and love their mothers. Love…from suffering. So has the mother committed evil or good?
The weightlifting spotter knows he will inflict suffering both physically and mentally upon his partner if he doesn’t aid on the lift when his partner is struggling. He may even choose to push down, adding weight and difficulty to his partner’s lift. And yet when it’s all over, having survived the challenge (even possibly having failed), the weightlifter will stand and high-five his spotter for the help. Why in the world would that happen when the partner knew his spotter was actually making it harder on him? Gratitude…for suffering. So has the spotter committed evil or good?
Grass is a weed. We cut it down, throw it into black plastic bags, and we toss it to the curb to be taken to the dump. It’s one of the least important things imaginable. Yet a father will yell at his offspring, deprive him of privileges, and even physically force him behind the mower all for the sake of this insignificant plant. Often the son will protest. He will sometimes pout, hide, and even sob because he despises the seemingly never ending weekly task. All for a botanical scourge that has zero impact on world peace, financial security, the eternities, or anything else of any significance and yet the father will bend the son to his will to tend to it. And virtually every boy who has ever grown to a man not only appreciates his father for having put him through it time and again, but when he gets a lawn and boy of his own, starts the cycle all over again with his own son. Character…from suffering. So has the father committed evil or good?
The boot camp recruit knows what he’s in for. We’ve all seen the movies. We’ve all seen in graphic detail the experience that awaits a new soldier. We all know the wide-brimmed, precisely tailored taskmaster who lays in wait. For weeks on end the drill sergeant will impose an unrelenting onslaught of belittling verbal abuse, agonizing physical demand, and nearly impossible discipline upon the young recruits. As a result, these new men often cry themselves to sleep during boot camp. They write letters home begging and pleading for a rescue. They plot escape plans or hatch violent fantasies against their sergeant. And yet when soldiers emerge from this living hell they praise their would-be abuser, they solemnly and sincerely swear allegiance to the cause, and they leave exponentially stronger, more confident, and more capable than when they arrived. Loyalty…from suffering. So has the drill sergeant committed evil or good?
Surgeons are healers, but also destroyers. Since the advent of modern medicine, untold billions have benefitted from the healing touch of the sharp edge of the surgeon’s scalpel. An act so horrific that it typically requires pain-and-trauma-proof anesthesia. In fact, the result is often so terrible it mandates a follow up regimen of nerve-dumbing opiates to provide relief from the torturous aftermath. In sheer quantity of suffering, surgeons are individually at the top of the list for torturers (second only to lima bean farmers). And yet they are celebrated. Not because they revel in slicing deep into the flesh of their patients, but because in doing so they heal them. Through the direct act of inflicting pain and suffering, they leave their patients stronger, healthier, and in far less suffering than before. Healing…from intense pain. So has the surgeon committed evil of good?
And then there’s God.
- Is God evil for directly or even indirectly saddling His earthly children with pain, adversity, cancer, famine and flood, or even withdrawing His reassuring presence when it is needed most?
“He endows us from on high with burdens that miraculously elevate us.”
Like the mother, spotter, father, drill instructor, and surgeon, God also inflicts suffering upon us — directly and intentionally. He has from the beginning and He continues to do so today…not because He’s evil but because He is good…AND (here’s what will really bake your noodle) because it is what a God does for His children.
Is an earthly father or mother, a surgeon, a drill sergeant, or a mere weightlifter capable of rendering love through suffering, but somehow God is not? Of course not.
Consider the Flood. The great flood was no accident and was definitely no mere weather event. God himself flooded the earth and in doing so violently drowned hundreds of thousands even millions of His children. He inflicted drowning upon millions. If you’ve ever even been close to drowning, you know the intense fear and panic it can provoke. And if there is any doubt whether this was God doing this or just predicting what He knew the earth would naturally do coincidentally at that point in time, Genesis 6:17 removes all doubt: “…behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh…” Not only does He state “I”, but just to clarify and remove all doubt that it was Him who did this He doubled down with “even I”. Then to go a step further, after the flood God made a covenant with Noah and his descendants that the earth would never again be flooded. He was acting as the partner in covenant. Was this a promise that He himself would never flood it, or was he cleverly taking credit for it, knowing that the natural forces of the world would never again combine at such a catastrophic level? Either He flooded the earth which makes His part in the covenant true and sacred, or the earth was flooded as a result of natural forces that would just naturally never occur again which makes His covenant a plagiaristic con, which deception most certainly would by any and all definitions be an act of evil that would go against His nature as God. In other words, God Himself literally and directly flooded the earth. Not out of evil, but because He loves His children. Obviously the flood was a consequence of the evil choices made by the people of Noah’s time, but it was God who brought the flood, because in His infinite wisdom He knew this is what was best for His children.
In fact He has time and again sent famine, drought, and pestilence to both challenge and punish His children. This is not out of the petty motives we as flawed beings would do it out of; it is out of His supreme love for us and His unending perspective of what lies ahead for us.
In Ezekiel (14:13,22,23) God talks about reaching his hand forth and causing famine. In fact He actually refers to His righteous intervention as an “evil” that He is bringing upon His children, knowing how they view it. But then He says something unexpected: “ye shall be comforted concerning the evil that I have brought” and then goes on to say, “ye shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done.” God proclaims that He in fact does reach forth His hand to cause suffering, but that with that suffering comes both comfort and understanding. Even more importantly to the question of whether a loving god can inflict suffering, He states that He does and not only that but it is for a purpose. It’s as if God is at least as wise as the father with the lawn mower.
Maybe you’re thinking that’s just Old Testament stuff. “All that pre-Atonement stuff was more symbolic than literal. “The God of the New Testament would never be so merciless, so heartless.” And yet…
Despite His loving nature or His title as Healer, Wonderful Councilor, or Messiah, Jesus was no wearer of kid gloves. When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers, that was no act of overt benevolence. When Jesus chastised His apostles for their unbelief He wasn’t giving them an encouraging compliment. When He publicly confounded the Pharisees knowingly sending them away humiliated, He wasn’t offering kind words. Even Jesus Himself did these things, not in spite of being a healer, but intrinsically as a healer. One might even say that all these were consequences of agency; these men all suffered consequences of their choices. Does this then bind or remove the Savior’s agency? Hardly. But then what of the innocent fig tree? In the Gospels, we learn of Jesus cursing a fig tree for not producing fruit at a time when he was hungry. Is there some law that fig trees must produce fruit or be destroyed? Or was this an act of suffering inflicted on a living creation, albeit a plant, by our loving Savior?
And this wasn’t just during His earthly ministry. Through His disciple, Paul, He taught that to be chastened is to be loved, and in fact is essential to being a son. (Hebrews 12). Who would chasten His children other than a parent? If God chastens us, it doesn’t bring pleasure, at least not at first. So when He treats us like His children by chastening us, He gives us suffering, even if for a little while. Because He loves us.
Maybe you’re thinking that this was either Jesus or Jehovah (Jesus acting as God), but not God the Father. Certainly the exalted Father wouldn’t cause us suffering; He couldn’t! Well actually, He can, He would, and He has. Think of the moment of greatest suffering ever encountered. At what point did suffering reach a feverish pinnacle? Suffering so searingly intense that it would cause someone to bleed from every pore? Yeah, that moment. But this moment wasn’t caused by God — it was a choice the Savior made. True. However, at the moment it reached its apparent crescendo, it became inconceivably more painful when the Father withdrew His presence from His reeling Son. He inflicted suffering on His son because He loved Him.
Maybe you’re now thinking that’s just old fashioned, puritanical stuff. “Those were harder times and God had to speak to those people that way because they were a hard people who didn’t have the sophisticated nuance we have today.” And yet…
Modern day prophets teach us even today that God inflicts suffering upon us because He loves us. Brother Brigham, no stranger to tough love, taught valuable insight into the experience of Abraham’s godly invitation to kill his only son. As President Young taught:
I speak of these things to show how men are to be tried. I heard Joseph Smith say–and I presume Brother Snow heard him also–in preaching to the Twelve in Nauvoo, that the Lord would get hold of their heart strings and wrench them, and that they would have to be tried as Abraham was tried. And Joseph said that if God had known any other way whereby he could have touched Abraham’s feelings more acutely and more keenly he would have done so. [Journal of Discourses, 24:264; emphasis added]
Not only does God give us challenges, at times He gives them to us as “acutely” and “keenly” as possible. Because He loves us. Like a basketball coach making his player shoot hundreds of free throws at a time, running ladders back and forth to the point of nausea, and attend early morning practices, God knows how to push us to become the greatest of what He intended us to be.
But maybe Brigham is just a bit too Brigham for our very modern sensibilities. Even more recently, Neal A. Maxwell, one of the most notable apostles of the twentieth century, taught this very truth in his capacity as a Special Witness of Jesus Christ. Towards the end of his life and while struggling with leukemia, Elder Maxwell had a sacred experience he relays as follows:
“To select but one example from personal experience: several years ago in the midst of leukemia, I was doing some pensive pondering and these instructive and reassuring words came into my mind: ‘I have given vou leukemia that you might teach my people with authenticity.’ I surely testify that this process is real, whether it concerns our duties and callings or our personal discipleship. Each of us needs precious perspective about the great realities of eternity.” (REVELATION, Neal A Maxwell, Ensign 11 Jan 2003)
This is one of the greatest inspired prophetic oracles of our modern times. A master wordsmith. A prodigious parser of words. A divinely disciplined intellect. An exactingly articulate orator. And he relays (as the words were given to him) the clear phrase “I have GIVEN YOU leukemia” in his apostolic testimony. Would he have testified of this if it were heretical? Would the Ensign reposted it several times? Would a new apostle reference it yet again in General Conference? Of course not. It is truth spoken by a prophet (and notice he points out that this account is but one example of this truth). And what is this “precious perspective” he refers to? It’s the perspective that God gives us challenges as a blessing. And notice that he doesn’t refer to these “realities” we experience in a negative light, but by using the word “great”. The great reality is that God endows us with adversity. Because He loves us.
Even if you were to believe that God is not hands-on and that He was just a start-the-machine-and-then-stand-back-while-it-does-its-thing kind of God, you still accept that He is the prime cause of all, which necessarily includes the suffering. If you believe as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints do that He allowed His fallen son, Lucifer, to tempt His children and try them even in horrific ways you still necessarily concede that He had choice to prevent it…but didn’t. Whether directly and personally as He often does, indirectly through natural events of this world which He created with inconceivable precision and foresight, or as a result of our sacred agency to make choices that He endowed upon us and our fellow brothers and sisters, our God, our very eternal father, gives us suffering. And in doing so shows us what a loving parent is.
With that said, there is evil in this world. As God, He cannot be the cause, source, or agent of evil, so how can God render suffering to His children while not participating in evil? In flipping the above examples we can get a glimpse of the distinction. If a mother were to pull her daughter’s hair as an act of personal retribution, it would be evil. If a man were to force another person to do his yard work without compensation that would be slavery, which would be evil. And if a powerful being were to inflict suffering upon others in an effort to destroy them, it would be evil. Adversity and evil share the common nucleus of suffering, but stand at polar extremes in their intent and purpose. When God blesses us with adversity He does so lovingly for our benefit. When we encounter suffering through evil it is born from the selfish, destructive intent of either Satan or our fellowmen. Suffering rendered from Satan is evil because it is designed to harm us. Adversity from God is not evil, because it is designed to bless us.
The precious perspective of understanding that suffering is a gift given by a loving god is critical in understanding our mortal lives and our importance to our Eternal Father. He blesses us with challenges because our immortality and eternal life are His work and His glory, and exposing us to adversity is the only way for Him to achieve that (remember, the other way was Satan’s path). He endows us from on high with burdens that miraculously elevate us.
What we do with this truth is up to us. Do we choose to embrace this great reality? Appreciate it? Do we learn to benefit fully from it? Do we praise God and thank Him for it? Or do we fight it? Run from it? Do we try to redefine God to make our suffering make more sense? Do we find ourselves seeing the world (as we all often do) through our infantile spiritual eyes inciting us like the spiritual toddlers we are to throw tantrums when tasked with difficulty? Do we cry out, “This is unfair!”, “You don’t love me!” when our all-knowing, all-loving father acutely and keenly “pulls at our heart strings”? Or do we thank Him for this unwelcome yet irreplaceable gift of adversity.
There’s a marvelous irony to our mortal existence that though we take relief, rest, and recuperation from times of peace and pleasure, it is only through times of adversity, pain, and suffering that we actually grow, progress, and become closer in character and countenance to our Savior and Heavenly Father…if we choose to let it.
Suffering from God is a gift from God. It is not an evil and is not merely a crude pathway to blessings that He magically alchemizes for our benefit. It is a blessing itself that leads to even greater blessings through His grace. Hard as it may seem at times to accept, comprehend, or embrace it is in fact every bit the blessing that our agency is. It is every bit as integral to the Savior’s plan as the lack of it was to Lucifer’s. And it is every bit the great reality of our Father’s nature as His mercy is.
God makes us suffer because God loves us. May we love Him enough in return to have the faith to endure it well, show gratitude for it, and honor Him in it.