Written with Barbara Keil
One of the most daunting tasks for any mortal who hopes to sustain a vibrant faith in God is to account for suffering. We have all experienced it. Senseless tragedy. Incurable illness. Painful challenges. Unrelenting grief. Dashed dreams. The impact of evil. It’s all very real and a mortal cannot travel very far in the journey through life without bumping into it.
The Christian world has traditionally struggled with the issue of suffering. Commenting on modern-day Christian theologians’ struggle with the issue of pain, Philip Yancey observed, “[These] authors assume that the amount of evil and suffering in the world cannot be matched with the traditional view of a good and loving God… Many of them adjust their notion of God, either by redefining his love or by questioning his power to control evil.”
Indeed, most Christian faiths grapple with a conundrum. If there is a loving God, then why would He not intervene when we are in pain? Does He not have the power or ability? If so, then how can He be God? If He is capable of intervening, then does His failure to do so mean that He is indifferent to our pain or unresponsive to our pleas for relief? If so, how can we trust His love for us? How can we reconcile tragedy, evil, pain, and suffering with a God who is both powerful and loving? Many churches respond to this question with confusion or label it a mystery that has no solution. Many individuals have surrendered their faith over this issue.
The Restoration provided a solution to this conundrum that is different from any other church’s. The doctrines of the restored gospel offer insight into God’s purpose in allowing a world in which pain, suffering, and evil exists. And understanding that purpose supports our faith in Him as both a powerful God and our loving Father.
A Different Perspective
The revealed doctrine of the restoration provides a unique understanding of the plan of salvation. We know that we existed before we came to this life on earth. We believe that every human chose to come to earth. And we all chose to have this earthly experience knowing that there would be challenges and times of suffering. We made that decision because we yearned for the growth and development we would achieve. We knew that the growth, development, and faith we acquired would go with us when we returned to our Father in Heaven and that it would prepare us for the next phase of our progression. We trusted God.
As earthly parents, we love our children and want to protect them. There is a part of us that wishes we could shield them from all the challenges present in this world, especially the painful ones. Any time they suffer, we suffer too. But we also know that trying to shield them from any pain would stunt their growth. We understand that if they are to progress and become successful, confident, and adaptive adults, they must learn to face and conquer challenges. They must experience the consequences of choices—their own and others’. They must develop caring relationships—even though some of those relationships will cause pain. They must have difficult days so that they have an even deeper appreciation for the joyful days. They must have times of trial that send them running to their Father in Heaven to develop a deep-seated relationship with Him.
Similarly, God does not sit by idly or indifferently when we suffer. At times He intervenes to rescue us from pain. But there are other times when He allows His plans for earth life to play out, including the effects of agency and opposition in all things, because He has a larger purpose in mind. Just like the parent who waves good-bye at the door, sending a child out to all of the events that await him or her in order to learn and grow, so our Heavenly Father allows us to have the experiences here on earth that will provide us with growth and development—if we understand His purposes and utilize His guidance.
Because we live in a fallen world that includes painful experiences, sometimes suffering is just part of the overall journey we chose to participate in by coming here. Sometimes our brushes with suffering become a growth experience in themselves. Many important lessons are learned and new perspectives are gained. We discover deeper wells of faith as we are forced to lean on our Father in Heaven in ways we might not if our lives were always filled with ease and contentment.
Sometimes our suffering is a result of our own choices or those of others and we learn the wisdom of abiding by God’s principles. During these times of suffering, He responds to our cries for help. With wisdom, perspective, and love that surpasses our own, He may not immediately eliminate the source of suffering. But He will be there to comfort, reassure, teach, guide, and uplift as we walk through our suffering—if we will turn to Him. And He assures us that, over time, He will turn all things to our good. We know that if we remain faithful, we will be made whole. We will be richer for having endured.
We have been taught about God’s ability to turn tragedy into benefit.
Years ago, a devastating fire gutted the interior of the beloved, historic tabernacle in Provo, Utah. Its loss was deemed a great tragedy by both the community and Church members. Many wondered, “Why did the Lord let this happen? Surely He could have prevented the fire or stopped its destruction.”
Ten months later, during the October 2011 general conference, there was an audible gasp when President Thomas S. Monson announced that the nearly destroyed tabernacle was to become a holy temple—a house of the Lord! Suddenly we could see what the Lord had always known! He didn’t cause the fire, but He allowed the fire to strip away the interior. He saw the tabernacle as a magnificent temple—a permanent home for making sacred, eternal covenants.
…The Lord allows us to be tried and tested, sometimes to our maximum capacity. We have seen the lives of loved ones—and maybe our own—figuratively burned to the ground and have wondered why a loving and caring Heavenly Father would allow such things to happen. But He does not leave us in the ashes; He stands with open arms, eagerly inviting us to come to Him. He is building our lives into magnificent temples where His Spirit can dwell eternally.
In Doctrine and Covenants 58:3–4, the Lord tells us: “Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation. For after much tribulation come the blessings…” (Linda S. Reeves, 2013 General Relief Society Meeting)
But What About Evil?
Those who question God often point to the suffering caused by evil. We all have witnessed awful events whose root was the evil intentions of others. Some wonder if God created this world, did He also create evil? Why would He allow it? How do we reconcile the existence of evil with a God of love?
Sterling McMurrin, a philosopher who was once a Latter-day Saint, acknowledged that Joseph Smith offered a unique and creative (or inspired!) solution to the problem of evil. Rather than believe that God created all things out of nothing, as is taught by most Christian faiths, the Restoration revealed that He merely organized existing matter. He did not create evil and is therefore not responsible for it. He does allow evil to challenge us and teach us. God sets bounds and limits to evil, allowing it only the latitude that will promote growth (1 Cor. 10:13). He will always use His power to help us resist and overcome evil.
There are those who wonder if evil has become so powerful that it will overcome good. We do not need to worry. As Jeffrey R. Holland so eloquently stated, “The future of this world has long been declared; the final outcome between good and evil is already known. There is absolutely no question as to who wins because the victory has already been posted on the scoreboard. The only really strange thing in all of this is that we are still down here on the field trying to decide which team’s jersey we want to wear!”
While evil is a realistic part of our earthly experience, we know in whom to place our trust.
Reacting to Suffering
So, with our understanding of God’s plan, what should our response to suffering be?
The suffering of others calls us to compassion and service. The scriptures are full of stories of the Savior encountering those who suffered from a wide range of maladies. His reaction was not to question or doubt His Father. He did not walk away with a spirit of judgment and blame towards those who suffered. He did not display a lack of caring or expect someone else to help while He turned a blind eye. He responded with compassion, healing, service, and uplifting.
Perhaps a part of God’s purpose in providing us with this earthly experience is to allow us to act in similitude of the Savior as we witness the suffering of others. We can offer empathy and compassion. We can offer practical assistance when we are able. And we can point those who suffer to the Ultimate Healer who can bind up their wounds.
Our own suffering can lead us to greater faith and a deeper relationship with God and His Son. When we experience suffering, we are tempted to despair. But God calls us to His light. When suffering or disappointment threatens to smother our optimism, we can choose to imagine the light that, for a brief time, we cannot see. We can stumble toward the Light knowing He is unfailing.
Elder Holland taught us:
“When you are [suffering and] hurt… there is one thing that is the most dangerous thing of all. The really, truly, rocky moment is when you think that God doesn’t really love you and you are tempted to bail out of the boat.
The first rule of seamanship is to stay in the boat. You never better your position by jumping overboard into the sea. Stay in the good ship of Zion. I don’t care how you do it, just stay. Our only hope for salvation is inside that boat because the Master is at the helm. He is the only one who can say with arm to the square, “Peace be still”…
The beach is littered with people who thought they could swim a better route, but there is only One Way… Stay with the Master and trust that the sea will calm and the ship will come home with you in it.” (Jeffrey R. Holland, Midland Michigan Stake Conference, May 22, 2005)
Bringing Suffering Closer to Home
On the personal level, as I have dealt with the dismaying aftereffects of cancer, I try to remember that God presides over dark days as well as sunny ones. He is my perfect advisor. If I trust Him, I will welcome every experience, try to learn from it, and thank Him for His absolute commitment to my growth. I will also call on Him for comfort and for any measure of healing that will not upend my developmental process.
One day I had to endure yet another medical test to determine if I must have yet another invasive surgery. As I sat through the usual lengthy wait before the medical professionals got to me to begin the test, I will admit that I was not feeling serene. In fact, I felt totally weary and frustrated. But I decided to use the waiting time to have a conversation with Father. In the weeks leading up to the test, I had asked whether He might repair my body and allow me to forgo another surgery. I had felt optimistic towards that possibility.
As I sat in the waiting area, renewing my conversation with Him, I told Him again that I would be glad to be healed. But this time I had a different feeling—I did not feel encouraged that I would receive good news from this test. I was surprised. Eventually a nurse came to take me to the procedure room. She sat me in a corner to wait for the doctor. As I sat there waiting, an attitude (and specific words) came to mind: “I’m ready to receive with thankfulness all that Thou dost send”—a variation on D&C 78:19: “he who receiveth all things with thankfulness shall be made glorious.”
The radiologist took about 20 minutes to do the test. Then he delivered the news that I need another surgery that would entail an extended recovery period. I admit that as I left the room and walked alone down the long hallway back toward the waiting room where my wife waited for me, a gasp of pain and disappointment escaped my soul. I allowed myself a short time of grieving. But I knew that my job was to receive this news with thankfulness. I could be grateful that this experience would help me learn to have more patience. It would also help me develop greater compassion towards others going through trials. I am profoundly thankful for the love and kindness of my family, fellow saints, and friends throughout that experience and the many experiences that have followed. I am blessed by modern day medical knowledge and technology that offer me options for responding to my health challenges. I know that God presides in our lives and I am grateful.
A modern prophet puts suffering in perspective.
Our Heavenly Father, who gives us so much to delight in, also knows that we learn and grow and become stronger as we face and survive the trials through which we must pass. We know that there are times when we will experience heartbreaking sorrow, when we will grieve, and when we may be tested to our limits. However, such difficulties allow us to change for the better, to rebuild our lives in the way our Heavenly Father teaches us, and to become something different from what we were—better than we were, more understanding than we were, more empathetic than we were, with stronger testimonies than we had before. (Thomas S. Monson, General Conference, October 6, 2013)
The Lord says in the Doctrine and Covenants, “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (Doctrine and Covenants 122:7). The doctrines of the restored gospel provide us with a unique perspective towards suffering that enhances our faith in a perfect and loving Father who presides over our lives.