Viewpoint: Why There Is Suffering in the World

Contributed By the Church News

  • 26 September 2014

Tremendous growth can be gained by suffering. Every illness and misfortune in life holds in parallel a life-affirming lesson, if we allow suffering to make us and not break us.

“Our Heavenly Father, who gives us so much to delight in, also knows that we learn and grow and become refined through hard challenges, heartbreaking sorrows, and difficult choices.” —President Thomas S. Monson

A 1981 U.S. Gallop Poll asked Americans this question: “If you could ask God any question, what would it be?” One of the most popular answers from the poll was analyzed by both intellectuals and spiritual leaders and made into a television program called “Don’t Ask Me, Ask God.” The show aired in January of 1984 across the U.S., drawing 16 million viewers and ranking number one in its time slot. What was the question that so many people wanted to know? “Why is there suffering in the world?”

Because of the nature of the Fall, our bodies are in a constant state of deterioration and subject to disease, sickness, disability, and death. The purpose of suffering has been discussed from Job to Joseph Smith and other righteous people. Personal revelation and the inspired words of General Authorities of the Church give a variety of insights.

The human soul desires to make sense of loss or tragedy. It seems that if purpose can be given to suffering, it can become more bearable. For some people, the greater pain lies in not knowing why they suffer or why God would let them suffer. Faith in a loving and merciful Heavenly Father can bear a sharp contrast to the immediacy of pain, loss, and distress.

President Thomas S. Monson said: “Our mortal life … was never meant to be easy or consistently pleasant. Our Heavenly Father, who gives us so much to delight in, also knows that we learn and grow and become refined through hard challenges, heartbreaking sorrows, and difficult choices” (“Joy in the Journey,” BYU Women’s Conference, May 2, 2008).

One reason for pain and suffering is to communicate that something is not right in our lives. Many can attest to a physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual pain that draws our attention until we decide to do something about it. A doctor’s visit, counseling session, or appointment with a bishop might be exactly what we need.

In March of 1982 the New England Journal of Medicine published a special article by Dr. Eric J. Cassel titled “The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine.” In the article Dr. Cassel said, “Suffering is experienced by persons, not merely by bodies, and has its source in challenges that threaten the intactness of the person as a complex social and psychological entity. Suffering can include physical pain but is by no means limited to it.”

A second reason for suffering is that God might be trying to get our attention. Forbes magazine quoted Walt Disney saying, “All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me. … You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you” (“Twenty Lessons from Walt Disney”).

Many people have been led to life’s greatest blessings through suffering. Their perspectives and direction have changed. Their desires for the things of the world have diminished. They are more open to hear the whisperings of the Spirit. “He delivereth the poor in his affliction, and openeth their ears in oppression” (Job 36:15).

Tremendous growth can be gained by suffering. Every illness and misfortune in life holds in parallel a life-affirming lesson, if we allow suffering to make us and not break us. The pathway to growth is steep and, at times, quite frightening. It demands that things once thought priceless be abandoned along the trail in exchange for making additional progress to the summit of experience.

Gaining meaning from suffering often requires a change of perspective away from the world’s view to a view of faith. For example, Malcolm Gladwell, a journalist, author, and speaker, said that when Goliath came against the Israelites, the soldiers might have thought, “He’s so big we can never kill him,” but David might have thought, “He’s so big I can’t miss.”

Empathizing with others meets its highest elevation when the comforter knows exactly what the sufferer is going through. In this way we also become like Christ. “And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12).

A less-quoted writing by Joseph Smith from Liberty Jail reads, “But those who have not been enclosed in the walls of prison without cause or provocation, can have but little idea how sweet the voice of a friend is; one token of friendship from any source whatever awakens and calls into action every sympathetic feeling” (in History of the Church, 3:293).

Another purpose in suffering is the absolute need for us to become like the Savior Jesus Christ. To know, understand, and appreciate the Atonement, we must know of His suffering. Nephi describes the Savior’s ability to turn His suffering into triumph. “And the world, because of their iniquity, shall judge him to be a thing of naught; wherefore they scourge him, and he suffereth it; and they smite him, and he suffereth it. Yea, they spit upon him, and he suffereth it, because of his loving kindness and his long-suffering towards the children of men” (1 Nephi 19:9).

President Harold B. Lee observed that our mortal journey must include suffering: “There is a refining process that comes through suffering … to Him who gave His life that man might be. We feel a kinship that we have never felt before. He suffered more than we can ever imagine. But to the extent that we have suffered, somehow it seems to have the effect of drawing us closer to the Divine, helps to purify our souls, and helps to purge out the things that are not pleasing in the sight of the Lord” (Teachings of Harold B. Lee, ed. Clyde J. Williams [1996], 188).