The scriptures are filled with the message that God is just and that he loves his children.  Yet, one needs not look very far to see that the world is full of pain and suffering.  Naturally the wicked suffer, but even the righteous, the innocent, and the pure, are allowed to suffer pain and heartache.  If God is just and merciful, if he loves his children, how can he allow (or cause) so much suffering in the world?  The scriptures testify that he has all power: he is “the Lord Omnipotent who reigneth, who was, and is from all eternity to all eternity.”(1)  Why then doesn’t God choose to use his unlimited power to eliminate pain and suffering from the world?  This is an interesting dilemma.  Some may argue that it proves that God is neither kind nor just—that he is either arbitrary or apathetic.  Close examination of the scriptures, however, reveals another explanation: suffering has a valuable place in God’s plan for us.  Suffering is used by a loving God to chasten us because of sin, to test our devotion, to humble us, and to provide growth experiences.

To Chasten Us Because of Sin

      When tragedy strikes, our first thought is ‘why me?  What have I done to deserve this?’  This reaction is natural because sometimes our suffering is a result of mistakes and sin.  The Lord has decreed, “inasmuch as any man . . . shall be found a transgressor, or, in other words, shall break the covenant with which ye are bound, he shall be cursed in this life, and shall be trodden down by whom I will.”(2)  The Lord is saying here that suffering is sometimes the result of our sinful actions. This message is repeated over and over in the Old Testament and in the Book of Mormon.  “The children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord,” the text declares for example, “and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.”(3)  We learn that even followers of God will suffer “a sore and grievous chastisement, because they did not hearken altogether unto the precepts and commandments which I gave unto them.”(4)  Speaking of the early saints in our day who were afflicted and persecuted the Lord says, "I, the Lord, have suffered the affliction to come upon them, wherewith they have been afflicted, in consequence of their transgressions."(5)  This type of pain is simply the consequence of sin; and, although pain is never desirable, this explanation for suffering is easier for most of us to accept because it seems fair—everyone is treated equally. 

      Yet, as we look around, this rule cannot represent the entire picture.  Many righteous people suffer unbearable affliction while the wicked seem to prosper.  This inverted condition also existed in biblical times.  The people complained:

"It is vain to serve God: and what profit is it that we have kept his ordinance, and that we have walked mornfully 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."(6)
      The story of Job in the Old Testament is an excellent example of a righteous man who suffers undeserved pain and loss.  His “friends” spend chapter after chapter trying to convince Job that his afflictions must result from some sin he has committed.  Elihu, for example, argues that “if [men] obey and serve him, they shall spend their days in prosperity, and their years in pleasures.  But if they obey not, they shall perish by the sword.”(7)  On the surface, this assertion appears valid because it is almost identical to the oft-repeated Book of Mormon statement: “Inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land; but inasmuch as we will not keep my commandments, ye shall be cut off from my presence.”(8)  However, in this case, the Lord tells Job’s friends, “ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right.”(9)  Since the friend’s point is clearly valid in some circumstances, we must conclude that the Lord is pointing out that their argument is incomplete and narrow—that there are other reasons for suffering besides the consequences of sin.

      Jesus Christ himself cautioned us not to assume that suffering is always a result of sin.  Seeing a man who was born blind, "his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?  Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him."(10)  Clearly much of the pain and suffering in the world requires an alternative explanation.

To Test Our Devotion

      The Lord declares that Job was “perfect and upright, . . . one that feared God and eschewed (shunned) evil.”  Yet, the Lord saw fit to allow him to suffer terrible misfortune.  Why would He do this?  One solution lies in the introductory dialogue between God and Satan.

      This interesting conversation at the beginning of the book of Job provides a useful explanation for Job’s suffering.  The conversation assumes that there is a test going on in the world, to see whether or not man will fear (follow, revere, obey) God.  Here, Satan is not presented as the evil, malignant devil that he is in other scriptural accounts.  The Hebrew text calls him simply “the adversary.”  Another, more expressive, title might be ‘the auditor.’  “The word [adversary] expresses that he is the adversary of the saints in the same way that an inspector or examiner may be considered as adverse to those he inspects or examines.”(11)  What is the auditor examining?  He validates the legitimacy of the test of life.  Is Job’s integrity towards God really being tested, or is Job righteous simply because of his abundant blessings?  When God points out how well Job is passing the test, Satan argues for a more rigorous trial: “doth Job fear God for nought?  . . . thou has blessed the work of his hands and his substance is increased in the land.  But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.”  This dialogue reveals that an important reason for the suffering and pain we experience in this life is to test our devotion to God.  “The Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith,” Mormon explains.(12)  And there is nothing like suffering and torment to identify those whose who truly trust in Lord.  “I will try you and prove you herewith,” the Lord declares, “I will prove you in all things, whether you will abide in my covenant.”(13)  Job’s unwavering faith proves that Satan’s skepticism is unfounded.  He retains his integrity throughout the ordeal—he comes out triumphant.  

      It is comforting to note that Job is not always happy about his afflictions.  Many people assume that in order to “pass the test” they must endure trials with a smile on their face and never let a word of complaint escape their lips.  But, Job curses the day of his birth,(14) begs God to slay him,(15) criticizes his companions,(16) and complains to God about his sufferings.(17)  Yet, God accepts Job because he is faithful—he keeps God’s commandments and never turns his back on Him.

To Humble Us

      Another plausible explanation for suffering offered in the book of Job is to make us humble.  Job learns a lesson that can only be found in the furnace of affliction: that there are many degrees of humility.  Extended suffering forces a person to explore depths of humility that he may never have realized were possible.  Job finally reaches the point where, even though he is without sin, he cries, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

      Humility often brings men to repentance and is, therefore, pleasing to the Lord.  In the Book of Mormon, Alma praises the humiliated Zoramites saying:

"I say unto you, it is well that ye are cast out of your synagogues, that ye may be humble . . . for it is because that ye are cast out, that ye are despised of your brethren because of your exceeding poverty, that ye are brought to a lowliness of heart; for ye are necessarily brought to be humble.  And now, because ye are compelled to be humble blessed are ye."(18)

Just as humility draws us closer to God, pride pushes us away from Him.  Thus the Lord is sometimes obliged to initiate painful experiences to accomplish the greater good humbling us and, thereby, drawing us closer to him.  Those who claim to follow the Lord but fail to humble themselves may be invited to humble themselves through adversity: “and my people must needs be chastened until they learn obedience, if it must needs be, by the things which they suffer.”(19)

To Provide Growth Experiences

      When Adam and Eve were in the garden, there was no pain, no suffering, no heartache, and no sorrow.  There was also no growth—they were stagnant.  Lehi explains:
Behold, if Adam had not transgressed, he would not have fallen but he would have remained in the garden of Eden . . . wherefore they would have remained in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery; doing no good, for they knew no sin.(20)
      So, a major purpose for this mortal existence is to experience misery that we may know joy.  No one wants to hear that their suffering is ‘for their own good.’  But, this is precisely the message of the scriptures: “all things wherewith you have been afflicted shall work together for your good,” the Lord exclaims.(21) 
 
      Returning to the story of Job, one might think that the increased wealth he receives at the end of the story is his reward for enduring suffering.  On the contrary, the greatest gift Job receives is the personal growth and insight he gains because of his suffering.  Job is a changed man—molded and refined in the ‘furnace of affliction’ to levels of integrity never before imagined.  He appropriately rejoins: “when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold.”(22)
 
      Perhaps the greatest modern example of personal growth in the face of affliction is the prophet, Joseph Smith.  Wrongfully incarcerated for four months in Liberty Jail, he suffered hunger, bitter cold, and humiliation; yet, greater perhaps than his own physical suffering, was his anguish for the afflictions of the saints as they were violently driven from Missouri.  Like Job, Joseph’s anguish causes him to complain to God.  “O God, where art thou,” he cries, “how long . . . shall [we] suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions?”(23)  His prayer reflects the cry of each of us when we are in anguish: ‘God, are you there? are you listening? do you care about me?’  The Father’s response to Joseph’s plea also applies all who suffer.  “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.”(24) The Lord continues, “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.”(25)  Clearly, God allows us to experience disappointment, pain, and suffering because He knows we will grow in ways that would otherwise not be possible.  The scriptures teach that men and women are not “called to pass through tribulation”(26) because God is indifferent or distant.  On the contrary, our trials prove God’s love for us; He loves us enough to allow unpleasant experiences to make us better people.  “Thus saith the Lord unto you whom I love, and whom I love I also chasten.”(27)

      The scriptures teach that God is aware of our suffering; that He allows it because there is a higher purpose to pain and suffering—to chasten us because of sin, to test our devotion, to humble us, and to provide growth experiences.  Although this knowledge does not necessarily lighten our burdens in affliction, it does help us to trust in God rather than to doubt him.  We can have confidence that whatever trial we are called upon to endure, there is a reason, we have not been abandoned, we can turn to God and say, with Job, “though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.”(28)

Notes:

  1. Mosiah 3:5
  2. Doctrine & Covenants 104:5
  3. Judges 13:1
  4. Doctrine & Covenants 103:4
  5. D&C 101:2. President Spencer W. Kimball further elaborated this subject in these words. "There are many causes for human suffering—including war, disease, and poverty—and the suffering that proceeds from each of these is very real, but I would not be true to my trust if I did not say that the most persistent cause of human suffering, that suffering which causes the deepest pain, is sin—the violation of the commandments given to us by God." (Talk at Weber State College, Ogden, Utah, Nov. 4, 1977, quoted in Teachings of the Latter-day Prophets, p.4) 
  6. Malachi 3:14-15. (See also chapters 21 and 24 of Job.)
  7. Job 36:11-12
  8. 2 Nephi 1:20
  9. Job 42:7
  10. John 9:1-3
  11. Richard G. Moulton, “Literary Introduction to the Book of Job” in The Modern Reader’s Bible, (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1942), 1484.
  12. Mosiah 23:21
  13. D&C 98:12,14
  14. Job 3:3
  15. Job 5:8-9
  16. Job 16:1-5
  17. Job 30:19-21 and Job 10:1
  18. Alma 32:12-13
  19. D&C 105:6. A modern prophet, John Taylor, who was no stranger to personal heartache and suffering, once remarked, "I used to think, if I were the Lord, I would not suffer people to be tried as they are; but I have changed my mind on that subject.  Now I think I would, if I were the Lord, because it purges out the meanness and corruption that stick around the Saints, like flies around molasses." (Speech Aug 9, 1857, Journal of Discourses 5:115, quoted in Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, 1981.)
  20. 2 Nephi 2:22-23
  21. D&C 98:3
  22. Job 23:10, emphasis added
  23. D&C 121:1-6
  24. D&C 121:7-8
  25. D&C 122:7. Elder Ezra Taft Benson commented on this idea in these words: "It is not on the pinnacle of success and ease where men and women grow most.  It is often down in the valley of heartache and disappointment and reverses where men and women grow into strong characters." (Area Conference Report, Stockholm, Sweden, 1974, p. 70)   
  26. D&C 122:5
  27. D&C 95:1
  28. Job 13:15