No question more frequently comes to us than this: Why does God permit suffering to darken my life, or the life of one of my loved ones?
Following is a composite of the many replies made. We know that God is working out all things for our best good. But do the Scriptures offer any specific light on the varied reasons why God permits suffering, and just how He employs these afflictions for our best good? Without attempting any exhaustive or dogmatic statements on this difficult problem, let me set forth some of the reasons why God afflicts us.
Because of Sin
Perhaps God has brought these troubles upon you because of your sins. Repeatedly do the Scriptures reveal that God brought punishment upon His children in the form of great afflictions, to turn them away from some sinful course into which they had fallen. He did this with individuals, and also with the whole people of Israel collectively. So often has God employed this means that we cannot safely disregard this possibility when troubles come upon us. The time of affliction is a time for searching the soul; it is a time for us to pray, as did David, "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps. 139:23, 24).
Because of Temptation
Perhaps God has brought affliction upon you to save you from temptation. Your life may be upright before God, and you may be walking in His fear; but there may be some temptation lurking close by that has a peculiar attraction for you. Perhaps God has raised up the barrier of affliction to protect you from this particular temptation to which your nature is susceptible. There comes immediately to mind in this connection the confession of Paul:
"Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. And He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong" (2 Cor. 12:7-10).
It may be the temptation to pride, as was the case with Paul, or some other temptation, it matters not which, that God desires to save us from, and thus brings upon us some affliction.
The Small Boy and the Truck—I recall an incident that came under my own personal observation. I was seated in a car parked near the entrance to a home and just off the edge of a much-traveled highway. Looking out through the rear window, I saw riding on his tricycle the small boy of the home. He was coming through the gate and descending the gentle slope that would quickly bring him onto the paved highway. At that same moment a large truck swung around the curve at high speed. It was evident that only a moment would be required for the boy to cover the distance from the gate out onto the highway and into the path of this death-dealing machine. There was no time to act. It seemed that a tragedy was almost instantly to be enacted before my eyes. But when the little fellow, in the exhilaration of his ride, was within a foot of the highway, the front wheel caught in loose sand and threw him to earth. I don't believe he even heard the roar of the truck as it passed close by him; his mind seemed altogether occupied with the tragedy of falling into the sand, with the resultant scratches that had come to him. Doubtless to his childish mind a very great tragedy had occurred, and everything was against him. He did not know that his fall had saved him from death.
Many times have I thought of this incident, and of how it possibly illustrates the place that afflictions may fill in our lives. We may be traveling along, unconscious of the danger that confronts us, moving thoughtlessly out onto the busy highway of life. But God sees what we cannot see, some thundering temptation that is ready to meet us and crush us if we are allowed to go on in the direction we are going, and so He takes the solid ground from under us for a little while. Our step suddenly becomes uncertain, and we are brought down into trouble or affliction.
Suffer Rather Than Sin—But in the midst of suffering there is a great truth that we may well contemplate, and that is, there is something worse than suffering there is sin; and it is better that we suffer than that we sin. It is better that we endure the bruises that come from God's upsetting our plans betimes, than the destruction that would come from continuing in a path that would lead us into sin.
Or perhaps the temptation may not be of so dark a hue, but rather the more subtle temptation to become content with this present world. It is then that God often brings the affliction of poverty. I recall the words of one religious writer who thus commented on some of his own experiences during his years of preaching:
"I once preached in a section where life had formerly been a hard taskmaster. Clearings had to be made in the primeval forests, swamps had to be drained, and the good people could barely make a living. Then the malarial fever epidemic came. Hundreds of these brave, hardy people lost their lives. The churches were crowded. They remained crowded for many years afterward.
"Today that section is a beautiful stretch of country, with concrete highways and flourishing towns, but there is a decline in spirituality, an increase in ritual and formalism. The rising generation seems apathetic.
"The phenomenon is quite ordinary. What I have just described happened in scores of sections of the country. In the first struggles of pioneering, in the storm and stress period, people felt the need of supernatural support, and the church was the logical place to go. Today we are surrounded with luxuries of every kind. We feel more or less independent of God and man.
"God might have brought the Israelites from Egypt into Canaan by a direct route that would have taken but a few days. Instead He led them through a waste and howling wilderness, where dangers beset them on all sides. At the end of their wanderings Moses explained that God had brought them through such a tortuous route that they might learn 'that man doth not live by bread only, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of the Lord doth man live.'"
To Develop Rare Qualities
Perhaps God has permitted affliction to come upon you to develop some rare quality of soul. We can never hope to understand in this present life the mysterious way in which character is developed, how the experiences of life build within us qualities that mark us as distinct from all other persons. Nor can we hope to understand how it is that oftentimes deep afflictions have served to develop in men and women the rarest of Christian qualities. But the experience of every one of us will testify to the fact. God may see within us some latent quality that needs only the right opportunity in order to be brought to a full and rich development; and God may see what we generally cannot see, that perhaps only through a period of affliction will opportunity be provided for the growth of that trait of character.
There is one quality of soul that all of us must develop if we are to be ready for heaven, and that is strong and unswerving faith in God. But how would most of us ever develop this necessary virtue if we were not put to the test at times, if our path were not mountainous on occasion, or if we were never called upon to enter the valley of dark shadows? If everything were always clear before us; if there was nothing to perplex or try us; if our finances and families were always safe and secure, pray tell what real opportunity would there be for developing an implicit faith that God is guiding us and that He will fulfill for us all His promises?
For example, how could a man with a secure bank account ever prove in his own experience God's promise to provide him with daily food? He may believe this promise theoretically, but the blessedness of knowing from actual experience the reality of this promise is reserved to the man whose resources have been swept away and who has none but God upon whom to call. We read that God has "chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith." There may be a closer connection between these two facts than is directly set forth in the statement. It may be that the very lack of material resources of the poor places them in the position where they are led to put God to the test, with the result that faith is made strong. How can we ever hope to know in a personal way the truth of the many promises of God, that He will never leave nor forsake us in the hour of darkness and sorrow, unless, having been brought to such an hour and having called upon God for the fulfillment of His promise, we have received the assurance in our souls that God is with us? It was out of the hard experiences of life, when danger and death constantly threatened him and he had none but God to rely upon, that David could write: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me" (Ps. 23:4).
To Provide a Testimony to the World
Perhaps God brought affliction upon you to provide a testimony to unbelievers. It is not remarkable that we should love God in prosperity. What the world needs is proof that we love Him in adversity.
Here, of course, comes to mind immediately the case of Job. The experience of this man of the land of Uz has come down through the centuries, and provided direct light on this most perplexing of questions, Why do troubles come upon the righteous? It was not because Job had fallen into some sin; it was not because God had to save him from some temptation to which he was peculiarly susceptible. The record declares that he was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil. God desired to provide through him a testimony to angels and to men, that love and obedience to God are displayed by His children, not because of the favors they receive from Heaven, but because they sincerely desire to live in harmony with God's will. What a mighty testimony it must have been to those who heard Job declare of the Lord, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him"! That represents the pinnacle of faith. Only adversity could ever have presented an opportunity for Job to display such faith.
Early Christian history tells us of pagans who were converted as they witnessed the manner in which martyrs serenely went to their death, with songs of praise and faith in God on their lips. The manner in which they related themselves to the darkest of afflictions persecution and death was the strongest kind of testimony that could be borne before a hardened heathen world.
Declared Paul: "I would ye should understand, brethren, that the things which happened unto me have fallen out rather unto the furtherance of the gospel; so that my bonds in Christ are manifest in all the palace, and in all other places" (Phil. 1:12,13).
Christ's disciples, in common with the Jewish notions of the time, believed that afflictions were always an evidence of God's disfavor; and so when there came before them the man blind from his youth, they asked Christ: "Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?" Christ returned the emphatic answer: "Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." (John 9:2, 3.) Evidently in the wisdom of God this man had been permitted to suffer with this affliction from birth, in order that a mighty testimony might be offered to all Israel of the divine miracle-working power of Christ.
Because God Loves You
Perhaps, if no other explanation seems quite to satisfy, we may settle upon this: That God has brought affliction upon you because He loves you. "Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth" (Heb. 12:6). We are exhorted not to rebel or repine under such afflictions, but to "endure chastening."
It is in the light of these thoughts that we are enabled better to understand why God oftentimes fails to answer our prayers in the way that we request. Until the chastening has accomplished what God designs it to accomplish, should we desire that the affliction be taken from us? A realization that the Lord permits troubles to come upon us for the perfecting of our characters and for the saving of us from dangers, should give us a spirit of resignation under the chastening of the Lord.
In the midst of adversity and affliction we must make certain that we give no room in our heart for a certain subtle temptation, the temptation to envy the wicked, who seem to be flourishing like green bay trees, and who, despite their godlessness, seem to be free from many troubles that beset us. The reason why they grow so luxuriously is because the soil of this earth and its sin-laden atmosphere provide the very environment suited to them. Children of God flourish better in an entirely different atmosphere, that of the new earth, where they shall grow up like calves of the stall.
Christ spoke of certain ones who were not true children of God, who were living for present fame and glory and the esteem of men, and declared, "They have their reward" (Matt. 6:2). And what a trivial reward it is! The child of God lives and works on a program that is also to bring a reward, not now, but in the hereafter. Our Father, who sees in secret, who knows the intent of our hearts, who has brought upon us afflictions to perfect our characters, will of a surety in the great day reward us openly, and give us the eternal inheritance promised to the children of God.
In the midst of the darkest affliction it is for us to remember that these trials will not last forever, that there is to be an end to them; and to remember, too, that "our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Cor. 4:17). Paul was willing to endure all the afflictions that came to him, because, he declared, "I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18). When we thus "reckon," we have taken the greatest step toward not only enduring patiently, but actually glorying in tribulations.
Francis D. Nichol was the editor o/The Review and Herald when he wrote this article.