Do the Wicked Prosper While the Righteous Suffer?


Ever since Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, much of mankind has had difficulty understanding the trials, challenges, and injustices so common in a telestial world. The scriptures don’t shy away from asking the hard questions, either. In the marvelous book of Job, the author struggles with the problem of why a righteous individual has to suffer injustices. And in the book of Habakkuk, the prophet expresses his concern at what seems to be the indifference of a just God to the horrible wickedness rampant in Judah, which was causing those who were righteous to suffer. Habakkuk became even more confused when the Lord informed him that the Chaldeans, who were more wicked than the people of Judah, would administer punishment to the Lord’s chosen people. He cried out to the Lord and asked why He would permit the wicked to punish His people. (See Hab. 1:1–17.)

Almost two hundred years later, the author of the book of Malachi also records the people’s feelings about the Lord. “Ye have said, It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mournfully before the Lord of hosts?

“And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are set up; yea, they that tempt God are even delivered.” (Mal. 3:14–15.)

Almost all of us who believe in God may have, at some time in life, felt that the Lord has forsaken us and left us alone. Even the Savior, as he hung on the cross, cried out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46.)

In this dispensation, the prophet Joseph Smith, in Liberty Jail, after witnessing the maleficent, murderous, immoral, and inhumane treatment of the Saints, exclaimed, “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?

“How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?

“Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?” (D&C 121:1–3.)

Today we see and read of drug barons and dealers living in mansions and owning expensive automobiles and yachts. Our theaters and television screens are flooded with images of entertainers who flaunt immoral behavior and make millions of dollars writing, singing, and dancing to obscene and titillating music.

Much of our society is self-indulgent. People recklessly pursue the pleasures of this world, and hypocrisy and chicanery are defended in political and public circles. Too many people are left doubting the moral values of honesty, integrity, loyalty, and virtue.

The parents of a young man who was involved in drug abuse and in criminal behavior questioned whether or not it did any good to set an example by living the gospel. Some of their less-active friends had sons in the mission field, while they, who had always been active and faithful, struggled with embarrassment, hurt, and torment.

Why do such incongruities happen?

It is interesting to listen to what the Lord has said about this issue. Jehovah instructed Habakkuk that the success of the Chaldeans would only be temporary, while the blessings of Judah would come in the future. The Lord counseled His prophet to be patient, for “the just shall live by his faith.” (Hab. 2:1–4.)

Habakkuk, like most of us, was limited in his knowledge and understanding of the designs of God. Unlike God, he was not omniscient. He did not have the past, present, and the future before him. He needed to be reminded that we have a loving and caring Heavenly Father and that we can place our faith in Him, trusting that right will eventually prevail.

Apparently, this is what Paul wanted the Hebrew Saints to understand when he recounted many of the highlights of faith from the history of God’s chosen people, beginning with Abel. (See Heb. 11:1–40.)

We need to remember that Noah built the ark before it began to rain. Sarah conceived and delivered Isaac after she was past the age of childbearing. It was through faith that Moses was willing to give up the easy life he enjoyed in Pharaoh’s court and suffer the trials and afflictions of being with God’s chosen people. With the Egyptian armies in full pursuit, it was faith that separated the waters of the Red Sea and permitted the children of Israel to pass through on dry land, while a short time later those same waters returned and destroyed the Egyptian army.

There can be little doubt that Alma, that great Book of Mormon prophet, suffered intense pain and embarrassment as his own son, along with the sons of the nation’s leader, rebelled against the Church, made a mockery of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and actively proselyted in attempting to convince others to leave the faith that their fathers so deeply loved.

Hope has come to many parents of a modern-day rebellious son or daughter as they have read from the Book of Mormon about the conversion of Alma the Younger. In response to the prayers of this devoted father, along with the prayers of the members of the Church, an angel appeared to the younger Alma and his colleagues as they were going about to destroy the church of God. The angel said, “Behold, the Lord hath heard the prayers of his people, and also the prayers of his servant, Alma, who is thy father; for he has prayed with much faith concerning thee that thou mightest be brought to the knowledge of the truth; therefore, for this purpose have I come to convince thee of the power and authority of God, that the prayers of his servants might be answered according to their faith.” (Mosiah 27:14.)

What a thrill it was to the father of the wayward young man mentioned previously—the one involved in drugs and crime—when the father received a long distance telephone call requesting that he come and ordain his son an elder! The prayers and faith of two loving parents had been answered through someone else who, like an angel, had cared for and ministered to their prodigal son. Like Alma the Younger, the young man turned his life around completely and is now enthusiastically helping to build the kingdom of God. Faith in God can produce miracles.

But what if a life does not turn around? We must take care not to judge the future by the appearance of the present. Sometimes the efforts of the righteous that appear to have no effect now will bear fruit years or decades hence. Sometimes the fruit will not be what the righteous had hoped to harvest, but they will find it sweet to the taste nevertheless.

When the saints in Malachi’s day charged that it was vain to serve God, they were being deceived. The Lord told them to keep a record, not to make immediate judgment, and to wait until the Lord gathered his jewels. Then they would “discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not.” (See Mal. 3:13–18.) Many things which seem unjust and unfair to us now, with our limited vision and understanding, will become clear if we will be patient, suspend judgment for a while, and have faith in our Heavenly Father. We need to realize that when our vision is blurred, patience and time are essential elements in restoring our perceptions.

Alma gave us another keen insight about why the righteous sometimes suffer, as he responded to the words of Amulek, his missionary companion. Amulek, an enthusiastic and zealous missionary who just a few weeks earlier had apparently been something of a “prospective elder,” found it extremely painful and frustrating when some of the wicked leaders of Ammonihah destroyed the scriptures and fiendishly burned the newly baptized converts. He begged Alma, “Let us stretch forth our hands, and exercise the power of God which is in us, and save them from the flames.” (Alma 14:10.)

Alma gave Amulek this powerful and insightful answer: “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.)

Thus we can see that the Lord permits everyone, even those who are wicked, to exercise their agency—even if they make choices that cause the righteous to suffer greatly. We need to understand, however, that even in these situations, in the eternal perspective, justice will be served. A righteous judgment will come upon both the wicked and the righteous; the good people whom the wicked have hurt will be blessed for their righteousness, and the wicked people will be condemned.

Many of our greatest blessings come only after we have proved ourselves faithful by suffering through experiences that try and test our faith.

This is apparent in the classic example of Abraham being sent to Mount Moriah to offer Isaac, his only son of Sarah, as a sacrifice to God. Only after Abraham had experienced the pain and anguish of preparing to sacrifice his son, only after his heart was proved, did the Lord inform him that there was a ram in the bush. The parallel between Abraham and our Heavenly Father, who sacrificed his Only Begotten Son for all of us, is obvious.

Joseph, the faithful son of Jacob, suffered rejection by his brothers, hateful retaliation from Potiphar’s wicked wife, and ingratitude from the pharaoh’s butler. Undoubtedly, all of these painful experiences prepared Joseph to become the governor or ruler of Egypt later, save his adopted country from starvation, and preserve the House of Israel. (See Gen. 37–50.) Joseph himself testified to his brothers that the evil it seemed they had done to him had been turned into good by the hand of their Father in Heaven, for “God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance.” (Gen. 45:7.)

Speaking to the mighty prophet of this dispensation who pleaded for the suffering Saints, the Savior said, “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;

“And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.

“Thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands.” (D&C 121:7–9.)

The Lord later reminded Joseph Smith of numerous trials he had passed through, and then said, “And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:7.) Paul told the Hebrews that even the Savior learned obedience by the things he suffered. (See Heb. 5:8–9.)

A beautiful young paraplegic, her spinal cord having been severed in a terrible automobile accident, has spent most of eight years in hospitals undergoing numerous operations and now suffers daily from spasms and excruciating pain. She is an A student but is regularly left out when her peers join in physical and social activities. Marriage and normal family life appear to be passing her by. Although she does not completely understand, she has accepted it and has successfully adjusted to the many limitations and difficulties that have been forced upon her.

One day in a class discussion at BYU—Hawaii, a professor asked how she would change things if she could. Much to the surprise of her teacher and her peers, she thought a few moments and then volunteered, “I would really like to be healed so I could live a normal life. However, if, in order to be healed, I would have to give up all the things I have learned and experienced as a person with a handicap, I do not think I would ask to be healed.”

After becoming a paraplegic, she had to leave the comforts of a strong LDS home and undergo rehabilitation in an environment where standards, values, and morals were very different from her own. She had to rely on the relationship she had developed with Heavenly Father during her short lifetime. She had to learn to be both self-reliant and dependent. Although there were some things she had to do on her own, there were also times when she needed to depend on others; wheelchairs do not roll up stairs, and shoveling snow is extremely difficult to do in a wheelchair.

She learned that there is good in everyone and that judging from outer appearances is cruel and unfair. She came to appreciate her body, not taking it for granted. She soon realized how blessed she was as she lived and associated with those who were much more severely handicapped. She experienced love from children, teenagers, adults, and the aged; from doctors, nurses, therapists, priesthood leaders, and friends. Everywhere, she has met people who are willing to sacrifice for her. She has faced reality and knows that in this life everything does not have a fairy-tale, happy-ever-after ending. In reality, there would be no trials—and hence little growth—if justice were always administered immediately. She looks forward to the resurrection with high expectations. To her, it is not just a nice theological concept or wonderful story; it is her future!

For many others as well, their hopes will be realized only in the distant future—sometimes a full lifetime distant. But that future depends on choices they are making now.

It was revealed to Abraham that one of the main purposes of this life is to see if we will do everything the Lord has commanded. (See Abr. 3:24–26.) It is essential, therefore, that we learn in this life to choose between good and evil. The Lord has established eternal laws whereby all blessings are granted, and we need to learn these laws and obey them. (D&C 130:20–21; D&C 82:10.) Much of the suffering that comes to us in this life is a result of making foolish or sinful choices that are not in harmony with these divine laws.

Our vision is distorted when we do not know and understand the gospel. This lack of understanding brings needless sorrow and misery, for while understanding the gospel does not remove trials and tribulations, it can give us marvelous peace and security as we face our challenges in this life.

Lehi taught his sons that Lucifer, a leader in our premortal life, had fallen and become miserable. Lucifer has from that day to the present time sought to make all mankind miserable like himself. (See 2 Ne. 2:11–29.) He has become a master at deception. He wants us to make foolish and sinful choices and has candy-coated his enticements. In order to get mankind to follow his miserable path, he promises immediate and temporal thrills and distorts our perceptions so we will not look at the future.

Most of us want immediate answers to life’s struggles, and our tendency to be impatient creates spiritual myopia, which gives Lucifer a powerful tool to distort our perception by giving immediate, but false, feedback. We can observe examples of Lucifer’s success in the alcoholic who tries to drown his miseries with liquor or in the drug addict who resorts to drugs in order to escape reality.

As with most of our errors in life, spiritual myopia reflects a lack of faith in our Heavenly Father, his divine Son, and the Lord’s anointed servants here on earth. It can be seen in the lives of those who drop out of activity because their feelings have been hurt, their prayers have not been answered as they would have liked, their minds have been troubled because they did not find the perfection they expected in Church leaders, or their hearts have been poisoned by anger toward God because of some serious setback in life.

The best treatment for this malady, as well as for all other suffering in this life, is to come unto Christ. As the Savior pleaded with his disciples, “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.

“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28–30.)

Still later, he told his disciples that he would not leave them comfortless, but would give them another comforter, even the Holy Ghost. Then he said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” (John 14:27.)

Even while it would appear to others that we should be full of hurt and anger, we can enjoy this peace. So it is wrong to believe that it is the lot of the righteous always to suffer in this life while the wicked prosper. The wicked do prosper sometimes, but only for a short while; and whatever suffering the righteous may endure is only temporary. In the end, it will be the other way around. The wicked will suffer damnation for their behavior, while the righteous who endure earthly trials well will be blessed with peace here and crowned with exaltation hereafter.

The Lord has counseled us to recognize that our perceptions are limited and, therefore, we need to have patience and faith in our Heavenly Father as we struggle through our trials and sorrows in this life. As we climb the mountain of mortality, there are times when our vision will be clouded and unclear. It is only when we reach the summit that we can see and know things as they really are. Until then, we must be patient and live by faith.

The present is a time of probation for all living—righteous and wicked. But eternal joy is the heritage of the righteous.

A. LaVar Thornock is chairman of Religious Instruction at Brigham Young University—Hawaii and first counselor in the BYU—Hawaii Second Stake presidency.