THE PROBLEM OF HUMAN SUFFERING by John N. Clayton
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth. And 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" (John 9:1-3).
One of the great problems and one of the great mysteries of life is the problem
of human suffering and the problem of death. I suppose there is more pain and
suffering today than there ever has been on the face of the earth-if for no
other reason than the fact that there are more people than ever before. Not only
is there more physical pain, but there is also more emotional and mental pain
than there has ever been. Almost every time that I am involved in a lectureship
on a college campus or a similar place I have people–young people usually–who
will come to me and say, "Well all right, you’ve shown us that there is some
evidence for God’s existence, but if there is a God and if he is a loving and
merciful God, how do you explain the problems of suffering and death and all the tragedies
that happen to people?" Why is it that these things occur? I believe any question
that man can ask has a reasonable answer-at least an answer that is as consistent
with God’s existence as it is in opposition to God’s existence. And so, in the problem
of human suffering and the problem of death and tragedies-things that happen
to all of us–there are answers. It is not going to be possible in this booklet
to give an answer to every conceivable situation that one might conjecture could
occur or has occurred. But there are some things that can be said and some points
that can be made that are useful and helpful in better understanding the problem
of human suffering and in demonstrating that these things are not inconsistent with a loving
and merciful God, such as the God we read of in the Bible.
There are some things that are obvious enough and that are simple enough to
understand, that there is no need to go into great detail. So, I just want to
mention them very briefly.
For instance, there are those who say there is no such thing as pain. There
is a school of thought that says that pain does not really exist, that it is
all in your mind, that if you experience pain, it is because you are weak or
because you are psychologically not properly oriented or because you are not spiritual
enough or whatever it might be–that pain is an illusion. But I doubt very sincerely
if too many of us take this point of view seriously. Medically we know that
the brain makes responses to a pin prick in the finger. There are very few of
us that when we stick ourselves with a pin or cut ourselves do not thoroughly
and completely believe that pain is real, and so I do not intend to go into
this in great detail.
Although there are many things that could be said, I do not think it is necessary
for us to get involved in long and protracted discussions about the things that
we experience as far as pain and suffering go as a result of our own deliberate
sin. In short, if you jump off a bridge you should not get too upset with God when
you hit the bottom. We have examples of this in the Bible: Saul, David, Cain,
Adam and Eve–individuals who suffered because of their transgressions of what
God has said to do and what not to do. Certainly, in today’s world we see this.
The people who drink alcoholic beverages can expect to have problems getting
their brains to function properly in old age. They are people who can expect
to have problems with liver cirrhosis and things of this kind. They can expect
to have difficulties that are a result of having taken this material, this poisonous
intoxicant material, into their bodies. People who smoke can expect to have
problems with their lungs (emphysema, lung cancer, things of this type). The person
who commits adultery can expect the consequences of that–the psychological
damage, and disappointment. The person who drives too fast, uses drugs, or lies–is
involved in things that naturally precipitate problems for us and they fall in the
category of jumping off the bridge. I believe that if we abuse ourselves, we
cannot be angry with our Creator for not stepping in and helping us avoid the
consequences of these things. It would be unreasonable to expect God to stop
us from hitting the bottom when we jump off a bridge. And so if we persist in taking
chemicals into our body, in doing things that are contradictory to what God
has told us to do, we can expect to suffer. I do not believe that it is inconsistent
with the nature of God for a man to expect to suffer when he tampers with nature
or when he fails to heed the situations that occur when our natural situation
When man was put upon the earth he was told to be fruitful, to replenish the
earth, to subdue it. His first responsibility upon the earth (his only responsibility
when he was first here) was to "care for the garden," to take care of the earth,
to make sure that the earth was properly nurtured and properly supervised. The
essence of that command still exists. Man still has the responsibility to take
care of this beautiful creation that God has given us. Much of the suffering
and tragedy man experiences is because he has not discharged this responsibility.
Man’s persistence in polluting the water, for example, has caused disease and
other problems which in some cases have been tragic. Man’s unwise use of the
land has caused floods and tornadoes that have brought great tragedy and great
suffering upon man. When we violate the natural environment that God has given
us, we cannot expect God to not allow the consequences of this violation to
occur. We know that emphysema and some of the other diseases that we have come
in contact with have been, at least in some cases, caused by our violation of the
air that God has given us originally in a state that did not cause these things.
We have evidence that even leukemia may be related to man’s indiscriminate use
of nuclear energy.
Another aspect of the problem of suffering is seen when we fail to heed the
warnings of nature and thus reap the consequences. I think there are many classic
illustrations of this. In California, for example, there is an area near Los
Angeles where the earth is under great stress, and where there are a tremendous
number of cracks, or faults as they are called. Geologists have warned the builders
in that area that this is a place where they need to be extremely careful not
to build tall buildings and that they should not construct structures that are
sensitive to earthquakes and to cracks and shifting of the earth. Yet at this
time there is a building under construction to replace a hospital that was knocked
down by an earthquake not too long ago. This building is supposed to be sixteen
stories tall and has no earthquake provisions of any real consequence in it.
It is being partially financed by the Federal Government, and is straddling
the very fault that knocked down the hospital that it is replacing. Now I’d like
you to think for a minute, who will get the blame when an earthquake rolls through
that area, knocking down the brand new hospital and perhaps killing ten million
people, including everybody in the hospital? Who is going to get the blame?
Well, I will guarantee you that there will be those people who will say, "If there
was a God that wouldn’t have happen
ed". And yet the warning is there. If you
build your house in the mouth of a volcano, it does not seem to me that you
have too much to complain about when it erupts. A surprising amount of the problems
we have fall into these categories that we have briefly examined.
But on the other hand I opened this discussion by reading to you a passage from
the 9th chapter of John, which describes a situation that does not fall into
this category. Jesus was passing by, the Bible tells us in John 9:1-3, and he
saw a man who was blind from his birth, born without sight. Now his disciples
asked him the typical question. They said, "Master, who did sin, this man, or
his parents, that he was born blind?" It was their conviction that the problems
that the man had were a result of man’s sin, which in some cases is correct. But
notice what Jesus said in the third verse: "Neither hath this man sinned, nor
his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him." Jesus
said it was not because this man sinned or not even because his parents sinned that
he was born blind. It was not sin that did it. It was not that this man abused
his body; it was not that this man abused his environment; it was not that this
man failed to heed the warnings of his environment. Jesus said it was that the
works of God should be made manifest in him. Before we conclude I want to explain
to you what I think that means.
First let us take a look at a few points that are related to this type of problem,
at least in an indirect way. Let us see if we can make some sense of some of
the things that you and I experience: some of the things that come our way in
life that we sometimes find somewhat difficult to explain or somewhat difficult
to rationalize or to work out in our own minds. There are some, for example,
who suggest to us that pain is something that should not occur if there is a
God. And yet, physical pain and other types of pain are absolutely necessary
if we are to survive in a physical way. There was a story in Reader’s Digest
about a little boy in India who was born without the nerve endings of the extremities
of his body connected to his brain. In simple terms, this child could not experience
physical pain. Now you know, we might think that would be marvelous to never
have a stubbed toe, had a headache, a backache, or all the other aches and pains
that bother all of us. But this is a very tragic, unpleasant story. This little
boy was about 10 or 11 months old, just beginning to walk around hanging onto
things, when his mother was kneading bread over on the counter and smelled the
odor of burning human flesh. She turned and saw her little boy with his hands
on the hot furnace in the center of the room, and the doctors were just barely
able to save his hands by skin grafting. You see, that child could not know
that the furnace was hot, and the natural reflex built into each of us was not
operative in this child. Consequently he was not protected by experiencing normal
pain. Any normal child would probably have never touched the thing, and if they
had they would have jerked away immediately. They would have experienced pain.
They would have screamed and would have gotten help immediately without a serious
burn. But this child did not have that protection. A few months later the child
came in one day and collapsed in the doorway of the hut, and when the mother
picked him up she noticed his foot was badly cut and he had an obvious loss
of blood. Once again his life was saved by transfusions. But you see, his body
could not say to his brain, "You’ve been hurt! Get help! You need attention
quickly." We need physical pain. The tragic end of the story came when the child
?was barely eight years old. He came in one day and lay down on the mat in the
corner of the hut as is the custom in that country. The mother went over to
check on him a few minutes later and found he was dead. An autopsy revealed
he had died of a ruptured appendix. You see, his body could not say to his brain, "You’re
sick, You need help, You’re in trouble." Consequently, survival was not possible.
The writer says in Psalm 139:14, "I will praise thee for I am fearfully and
wonderfully made: marvelous are thy works; and that my soul knoweth right well."
Indeed this physical body that I live in, ugly as it may be on the outside,
is a marvelous machine–and if properly cared for might run as long as a hundred years
without a valve job or a new transmission or even a change in oil (Some of us
may sometimes feel like we need a new transmission, but the fact of the matter
is that we are fearfully and wonderfully made). Physical pain is a part of being
fearfully and wonderfully made; physical pain is that which protects us and
enables us to survive in the environment in which we live.
I would like to suggest to you further that this same type of thing is true
in the emotional sense. What kind of man would it be who could not experience
guilt and sympathy and compassion and who could not relate to the needs of fellow
human beings? We have had some famous people who were like this. They wear names
like Hitler, Mussolini and Eichman–men who could watch innocent women and children
by the tens of thousands walk to their death in the gas chamber and apparently
not be moved. These men apparently were not able to feel sympathy or compassion or
guilt in any way.
If you are a young man dating a young woman who cannot be moved by the saddest
of human experiences (if she can watch the saddest movie and a tear does not
come to her eye; if she can hear of the greatest plight of human beings and
if she can observe the suffering and pain of others and not be moved) you had
better think very seriously about what kind of a wife this girl is going to
be. Is she going to be able to relate to your needs? Is she going to relate
to your feelings? Is she going to have compassion for what you need in life? And when
you fail, is she going to be sympathetic and understanding? Is she going to
be a "helpmeet", or is she going to be "millstone" dragging you down, one who
has no capacity to relate to you and to help you when you need help?
Perhaps even a greater need is the reverse direction. If you are a young lady
dating a young man and if this young man somehow has the distorted, perverted
idea that masculine strength depends on not being sensitive and not being able
to relate to the needs of other human beings, you had better think very seriously
about what kind of husband this man is going to be. If he can watch the saddest
movie and not be moved and if he can watch the greatest tragedy of human life
and not be disturbed, you can be sure he is going to be a husband who is totally
unable to relate to you in the difficult business of being a woman and the more
difficult business of being a mother. Do you really believe he is going to feel
for your needs and be sympathetic to your problems? Is he really going to be helpful
to you when you need help?
I am convinced that one of the greatest tragedies of our society today is the
fact that somehow we have equated the ability to be sympathetic, the ability
to be compassionate, the ability to relate to the needs of our fellow human
beings as weakness–when, in fact, it is a sign of strength.
Sometime ago, the little girl who lived next door to us went to the shopping
center to get some cokes for some friends of hers. She was brutally attacked
by a man in the parking lot of that shopping enter. Before the evening was finished
she had been stabbed 24 times, and she died. Why did no one meet her needs? How
could a young lady possibly be stabbed mercilessly for thirty minutes in a New
York street with 1100 young men in the near vicinity and have nobody move to
help her? Why is it that we have somehow equated the ability of a man to be sympathetic,
to be compassionate, to be helpful, to be understanding, to relate to the needs
of his fellow human beings as a sign of weakness? I would suggest to you that
any third grade weakling can turn his back on the needs of those who are suffering
and who need help. Anybody can refuse to help and refuse to relate to the needs
of others. A man of strength is a man who can stand above a cold impersonal
city and with tears in his eyes say, "Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the
prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have
gathered thy children together even as a hen gathereth her chicks under her
wings, and ye would not!" There is a man of strength; there is a man who was
not afraid to get involved; there is a man who paid with his life for his ability
to relate to the needs of other people; and there was the Son of God–Jesus
Christ! We need to get over this idea that somehow the man who can do this–the
man who can be sympathetic and compassionate, who can move into people’s lives
and try to help them–is a weak man. In fact, just the opposite is true.
I am also convinced that one of our great problems in this area of pain and
suffering and death is brought on by ignorance. And I suppose that this is true
of death more than anything else. Ignorance has caused us to throw away one
of the great blessings that we have in being a Christian. My little girl taught
me a great lesson in this area when she was five years old. We had a little
puppy that had grown up with our children. One day the little puppy was attacked
viciously in our garage by three very large dogs and was badly injured. When I
came home from work I found my children gathered around a blood-soaked blanket
with the dog inside it. I took the dog to the veterinarian knowing full well
that there was very little hope for her survival, and in fact, there was none. As
I went back home, I kept wondering what I was going to say to my children. How
was I going to explain to them that this little puppy that they had grown up
with and that they loved, was no longer alive? I came into the living room and
?sat down, and with tears coming from my own eyes I said to my children, "I
have some bad news for you, children. Susie is no longer alive. She’s dead."
Cathy, the little five year old looked up at me and said, "Well, Daddy, I’m
so glad." And she smiled. I said, "Cathy, honey, you don’t understand. You’re
never going to see Susie again. Susie is dead." Cathy looked at me and said,
"Well, Daddy, I didn’t want to see Susie go on suffering like that." You talk
about feeling an inch high! I realized that my five year old had a better hold
on some aspects of death than I did.
In fact, is it not a marvelous thing that when those we love are no longer able
to exist realistically in a physical way that they do not have to go on suffering.
God has provided a means by which the spirit can be separated from the body
and the physical pain that we endure now fades into insignificance. It is interesting
to me that the apostles rarely used the term death to describe the end of life.
They talked about being "asleep in Jesus," about being "absent from the body,"
about being "at home with God," and so forth. I have known people who when they
lost a husband or a wife, a mother or a father, a child, a brother or a sister,
have somehow seemed to quit living themselves. They atrophy and are no longer
able to be happy, useful, and productive. This is a great tragedy. I pointed
out in one of my other lectures that as a Christian we ought to be able to look
at life much more positively because of death. As an atheist, as a disbeliever,
as one alienated from God, a person has to look at life with all of its problems,
with all of its suffering, with all of the pain, with all of the terrible things
that one has to endure as the absolute best that he is ever going to experience.
And yet, if we are wearing Christ, if we are a part of Jesus, we can look at life
with all of its joy, with all of its beauty, with all of the wonderful things
that we all enjoy as the absolute worst that we are ever going to have to endure.
Can’t we see that the difference is as different as left and right, as black
and white, as night and day? If there was no other reason for us to believe in God
but this one, it would be a compelling reason. Ignorance is one of the great
curses of man. Ignorance of death is one of the great curses of the Christian.
I am sure all of you have heard lessons from one time or another of the value
of pain and suffering in people’s lives. I think that it would be important
for us here to make just a comment along these lines, even though it is a point
you have undoubtedly heard. I think perhaps the best illustration that I have
heard is a very old story but one that illustrates the point very well. There
were five brothers out west somewhere who at one time had attended the services
of the Church, but had become indifferent because of lack of involvement. They were not
in attendance, not faithful, and were completely inactive. The story goes that
at one time the oldest brother, John, was out behind the barn and he got bit
on the arm by a rattlesnake. Of course the other brothers were greatly concerned.
They called the elders and the preacher and anybody else they could get to pray
for John. They made all kinds of promises of the things they were going to do.
It was not too long until John began to recover. As he recovered, he reflected upon his
condition and his rejection of God and his lack of involvement and the fact
that he had not been faithful to the Lord. So he turned away from the kind of
life he had been living, and he came to God. He got involved in the work program
?of the Church, and became a very active, very dedicated Christian. The story
goes that one Sunday the preacher, in the process of a prayer, said, "Lord send
us four more rattlesnakes that we may reach John’s four brothers."
I am sure that no preacher would want to bring that kind of pain and suffering
into a man’s life, but the fact of the matter is that sometimes it takes pain,
sometimes it takes suffering, sometimes it takes a tragedy to make us realize
that we need God. Pain humbles us. Somebody has said, "Humility is a funny thing.
Just when you think you have it, you’ve lost it." Certainly that is true in
2 Corinthians 12:7 Paul said, "…lest I should be exalted above measure….
there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me,
lest I be exalted above measure." The apostle Paul apparently had a problem.
The pain and suffering (the thorn in the flesh, whatever it was) helped Paul.
It helped him overcome any sense of egotism that might have been part of his life.
Sometimes it takes a tragedy to make us realize we are not self-sufficient.
Sometimes it takes a disease to make us realize that no matter how much money
we have, no matter how vocal we are, no matter how many friends we have, no ma
tter what our situation in life
might be, that sometimes there is no one who
can help us but God. "…Whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s"
The last point that I wish to make in our discussion is probably the most important
point–a point that I think each of us needs to think about very, very seriously
and understand very completely–especially as far as the Christian’s situation
connected with pain and suffering is concerned. The point deals most precisely
with the passage of Scripture from John 9:1-3 that we read earlier in our discussion.
Every now and then, I will discuss this subject with someone who will say, "Well,
if God were real and if everything was as you say it is, then certainly Christians
following God’s system would not have to experience pain and suffering." I think
if we consider that point of view for a few minutes we see that obviously this
is not a realistic position for a number of reasons.
First of all, if becoming a Christian would automatically unravel all the various
problems that confront a person in life, then we would have people flocking
to religion to get away from their problems. The way it is, there are some people
using religion as an escape mechanism when that is not what God intended. God
wants us to serve him because we love him, not out of fear. It would be unreal
and unrealistic for us to really believe that somehow being a Christian ought
to exempt us from the problems that other people have to endure.
But I think even far more fundamental and far more important than this is the
fact that if Christians did not suffer, they would be totally and completely
incapable of doing what they were put here to do. God intends for his followers
to communicate with the world, to bring Jesus Christ into the lives of people.
You cannot communicate with a man unless you are enduring or have endured some
of the same things that he has endured. As a matter of fact, I believe that
the bad experiences that you and I have to put up with and that we all undergo
from time to time are actually talents. They are actually things that enable
us to communicate with our fellow man and meet his needs. I hope you will pardon
this very personal reference but I do not really know any other way to present
what I am trying to say here than to show you in my own life what God has done
and how things have worked to his glory.
Some years ago my wife and I decided that as a part of service to the Lord we
would adopt some children. We wanted to raise these children in a Christian
home. We wanted to love them as any parent loves their children, and help them
find the happiness and joy that we have found in Christ in our marriage together.
We made the proper arrangements, and in a very short period of time, we were
allowed to bring home a little boy as our own son. We were very, very happy.
We named him Timothy, because I had great dreams for this young man. It was my sincere
hope and prayer that this child might develop to be a great gospel preacher
like the Timothy I read about in the Bible–that he might be able to do what
I knew his daddy would never be able to do because of his background, his lack
of training, and his ability. We had this child for about six months when we
began to recognize that something was not developing normally in the child.
One day we took the child to a doctor. When the doctor examined the baby he
said, "Mr. and Mrs. Clayton, I hate to tell you this, but your child is blind.
He can’t see. He’s got congenital cataracts and not only that, it also appears
that there will probably be other difficulties. This child is apparently a rubella
child. His mother apparently had German measles (rubella) during the pregnancy and
he may have a heart defect. He will probably be retarded. There are a variety
of things that could be wrong. As a medical doctor, I must advise you to put
this child away in an institution, get another baby, and forget about him." We had had this
child for about six months. He was as much our child as any child is anybody’s
child. You can imagine the kind of impact that this had on a man who had been
a Christian a very short time. That night we went out for a drive. While my wife
went in to get something at a shopping center, I can remember sitting in the
car holding this little baby in my arms, looking into that little face I had
grown to love, and saying to God over and over, "Why Lord, why? Why would you
do this to me? After I’ve come out of atheism: After I’ve sacrificed everything
I know to sacrifice. After I’ve done everything I know to do, why would you
do this to me?"