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THE SEVEN CAUSES OF SUFFERING
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Based on Luke 13:1-17
Someone has said that half truths are whole lies. One of the greatest causes for conflicts and misunderstanding among Christians through the ages has been over enthusiasm for a half truth. People will take an idea that has a portion of the truth and wrap it up in a box and say it is The Truth. For example, there are those who say suffering is an illusion, and not a part of reality. This is the view of the Christian Science people. The fact is, in many cases they are correct. It is a proven fact that the mind can cause all kinds of suffering by worry or fear which has no basis in reality. Some people are habitual worriers, and if they cannot find anything in the past or present to worry about, they can always find something in the future. The result is ulcers, indigestion, and a number of other nervous disorders. We must admit there is some truth in the idea, for much suffering is an illusion. But to make this the whole truth is to make it a lie, for there is so much suffering that is no illusion. Who would call the sufferings of Christ on the cross, an illusion. And who would call the sufferings of war and cancer illusions?
Another popular idea among Christians is that God's will is behind most or all of the suffering of the world. He is the one who ordains all accidents and deaths. When a persons time has come God causes some accident or sickness to take them out of the world. It is a theory that grows out of the mystery of why some die and others do not. A woman's parachute does not open and yet she survives the fall. Others are in terrible crashes and live, while others in minor crashes are killed. One man goes through the battle field with bullets flying everywhere, and yet he lives. Another does not leave the safety of the camp, but is killed by one sniper bullet. To account for these mysteries man has come up with a simple theory that when your number is up you will die no matter what you are doing, and if it is not up, you will live no matter how dangerous a situation you are in.
This theory is based on a false assuption, and a logical conclusion that is impossible to accept. The false assuption is that death is the servant of God performing His will. Scripture represents death as God's enemy, and the final enemy to be destroyed, and not the servant of God. God declares that He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He is not willing that any should perish. There are judgments where God does take the lives of men, but most death is not His judgment.
If we think God appoints all death, then we make all the tragedies of life the will of God. Why blame Hitler for killing millions of Jews if God ordained they had to die then. If Hitler had not killed them in large groups, they would have to have died in millions of separate accidents, and so he just made the judgment of God more effecient. This is the ghastly conclusion this theory comes to, and it is totally unacceptable in Christian thinking, for it makes God the author of all evil. This theory eliminates the work of Satan in the world by making God the author of all his evil deeds.
We need to look at suffering from the point of view of the great Christian thinkers of the centuries, and not lock ourselves into any one simple theory that ends up making God the culprit. That God is the cause of some suffering is true, but when we see the whole picture we discover that to be just a small part of the issue. We want to look at the full picture which deals with what Christians have come to see as the seven basic causes for all human suffering. The combination of these seven will account for most, if not all, the suffering we can imagine. The whole picture will prevent us from putting the blame on God, and help us see our own role in the issue of suffering. Here then are the seven.
1. THE WILL OF GOD.
This is simple, but hardly a satisfying or biblical answer. People who believe God is the cause of all suffering end up angry at God for things He hates even more than they do. Jesus spent a major portion of His ministry fighting suffering. He had compassion on people who suffered, and He healed them, because He saw much suffering as the work of Satan, and He came to destroy the works of the devil. We read in Luke 13:16 where Jesus said, "Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?"
When people have the attitude that suffering is the will of God, they lose the motivation to fight it and overcome it like Jesus did. In India, for example, they would throw garbage down on the lower caste because they believed all suffering was the will of God, and you would not suffer unless God willed it. Christianity changed this, and many other foolish practices that brought suffering that could be avoided. They simply recognized that God was not the author of human foolishness. Unfortunately, even Christians have been guilty of believing that suffering is God's will.
In the 19th century, the greatest physican of the day was Sir James Simpson. He was made senior president of the Royal Medical Society at age 24. He was driven by Christian compassion to relieve suffering in operations. He had doctors come to his home on Monday evenings, and they would burn chemicals, and breathe in the fumes. One day the burned a crystal of chlorophorm. One by one they sank under the table. When they awoke they realized they had found what they were looking for. They had found a way to put people to sleep during surgery. But he was attacked by God fearing people who accused him of interfering with God's will. They said, if God wanted men to sleep during surgery He would have given them a switch.
Simpson went to prayer. He asked God to give him a clear revelation from His Word that what he was doing was right. He started to read the Bible, and very soon came upon the verse that says, "And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam." With this verse he refuted his critics, for in the first operation in history, God put Adam to sleep. God did not want Adam to feel pain when He removed the rib. He made man with the capacity to suffer, but He did not will that he suffer unnecessarily. Pain is inherent in the human body. It is part of being a creature with a nervous system. Adam was without sin, but he still would have felt great pain had God not put him to sleep. The possibility of pain is built into us by God, but the nervous system is also the source of all our pleasure. Pain has a positive side, which we will not explore now, but simply say, that the lack of pain destroys the warning system God built into us. Leprosy is a curse because it destroys the whole pain system.
The point I am making is that relief from suffering was God's first concern, and this was the concern of Christ in His earthly ministry. Where the spirit of Christ is there will be compassion to fight the evil of suffering. History reveals that where the Gospel goes there soon will be hospitals, doctors, nurses, and all forms of research to discover ways to prevent and to cure suffering. Most suffering is not the will of God. When it is His will, it is for two things: Discipline and judgment. These are only His will in a secondary sense. His first will is that there be no discipline because there is obedience, and it is not needed. His first will is also that there be no judgment, because there is no rebellion that needs to be judged. So suffering is never the primary will of God.
2. PUNISHMENT FOR SIN.
This is in close connection with the first one, but it is distinct. Here again, there is a truth. Suffering does result from sin, and it is the will of God that sin result in suffering, but not in the sense that God gives cancer to people who sin. All sin will result in some suffering, but not all suffering is the result of sin. The suffering from sin may not physical at all. Wicked people may live to ninety and not suffer a tooth ache, but their soul suffers hardness and blindness, and they are without God and without hope, and they are storing up wrath for the day of judgment. God does not make this life the time of His major judgment. This life is a time of probation, and a very evil person may not experience as much suffering as a righteous man.
When Christians sin, God may cause some form of suffering as a way of discipline. As a father I cause pain in my children's bodies in order to teach them, but I never cut off an arm, or gave them poison that would destroy vital organs. God's discipline is also to help get people back on the right path. It is never designed to do permanent damage. Here in our text in verses 2-4, Jesus used contemporary events to teach that tragedy and suffering are not God's punishment for particular sins. If He were speaking today, He might say, do you suppose that young girl who died in a plane crash trying to travel around the world was mor wicked than others? Jesus referred to people who died tragically as not being worse sinners than those who did not so die. The Pharisees had the false idea that people who died in violence must have been wicked. The friends of Job had the same philosophy which said, "you suffer because you sin. We are not suffering, because we are righteous."
There is a danger of Christians doing the same thing. Our wicked neighbor may be cutting his grass on Sunday and get his foot cut off. We say that is the judgment of God, but when we cut off our foot on Monday, we call it an accident. The facts of life and the teaching of Scripture do not support the theory that suffering is always connected with sin. In fact, Jesus says a great deal of suffering is the result of not sinning. He said, "If you were like the world they would not hate you, but because you are not of the world you will be hated and persecuted."
The amount of suffering Christians have endured because they have refused to sin is emornous. But Jesus said, "Blessed are those who suffer for righteousness sake." Suffering is often due as much because of salvation, as because of sin. The point is, you dare not link suffering to sin, for it is a theory that will not hold water, except in clear cases, such as the bank robber who gets shot while robbing the bank. Most suffering, however, does not have a clear connection with any particular sin. So if God is opposed to needless suffering, and most suffering is not directly connected with known sin, where do we look for the answer to so much suffering? The next most common answer is-
3. THE DEVIL.
It is obvious that the universe contains an evil force that opposes all that is good, and poisons all that is pure. The Persians came to this conclusion on the basis of natural revelation. They saw a negative for every positive, and for every good there was an evil. The battle of light and darkness convinced them that the cause of all evil was the Evil One. We call him Satan or the devil. We see this battle everywhere. For the criminal element there is the police force; for fires there is the fire department; for disease there is the medical profession; for germs there are the white corpuscles, and for a lost world there is a Redeemer. Written into every structure of reality is this battle of good and evil. Paul speaks of principalities and powers with whom we struggle. In this larger cosmic struggle we find the greatest clue to the mystery of suffering, but it also is not the whole answer.
Satan is the cause of much suffering, but he is not responsible for a good deal of it. If I eat soup that is very hot, and I burn my tongue, this is not God's will, nor is it punishment for sin, and neither can I blame the devil. Jesus in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1-9, 1823) said that Satan is only responsible for some of the seed that does not grow and produce fruit. To blame the devil for everything that causes suffering does not fit Scripture or reality. I can drive 90 miles an hour trying to get to church on time. It is not God's will that I crash, and the devil can't make me do it, for if he could, he would have done it long ago. This was a choice I made, and so there are other causes for suffering, and you cannot say the devil made me do it. We want to look now at the four other causes which added to these three account for all the suffering we can imagine.
4. NATURAL LAW.
Cold freezes, fire burns, and matter falls with impartial mathematical precision. If you hold a match to your finger it will burn and cause much suffering. God does not want you to hold match to your finger; Satan cannot make you do it, and so if you do it, they are not to blame, but you are for trying to defy a natural law.
Gravity is a law necessary for the existence of our universe. God is the Creator of that law, yet it is gravity that brings planes to the ground so fast and hard that it kills. It is gravity that causes a child to fall down the stairs and be injured. Possible even for life. Without this law you would eliminate this suffering, but at the cost of eliminating life all together. All would be chaos without this law.
The uniformity of nature is one of our greatest blessings. It gives a world we can count on. All of science is based on it. What kind of a world would it be if one day when you stepped out of the house you began to float up into the clouds? What if when chemicals are mixed one day and you get sugar, and the next day the same chemicals make dynamite? Life would be a nightmare. We count on the laws of nature not to change. When you try to break a natural law, it breaks you. We see then that the very thing that is good and necessary for our life and pleasure is also the source of much of our suffering. We have to accept the liabilities along with the assets. This kind of world makes pain not only possible but inevitable. Thank God for minds that are able to understand these laws, and prevent much suffering. But our cooperation is not always perfect, and so every time we allow a child to ride a bike we are taking a chance on causing suffering due to a fall caused by gravity. Almost everything we do carries the risk of being hurt by not obeying some natural law. Again, God does not want us to break these laws; Satan cannot make us, and so this leads us to the fifth reason for suffering.
5. FREE WILL.
You can blame God, as many do, for making us persons instead of puppets; men instead of machines. God made man a causal agent and not merely a pawn. We can make free will choices, and the result is, we can choose ways of acting that make suffering inevitable. I can choose to ignore a detour sign and get stuck, and have to get out and push the car. I may fall and break a rib in doing so, and then cry out to God, "Why did you let this happen to me?" In other words, why didn't you make me with wheels and a track so I could only go where I should go? We blame God because we use poorly this great gift of free will.
God says, do not steal, and so we know what His will is, but people can still choose to steal, and they do. Everyonce in a while I hear someone bring up the idea of God's permissive will. This is a greatly misunderstood concept. People come to think that if God permits something, that means He must will it. Not so! God permits everything that He forbids. All of the Ten Commandments, and every other thing God forbids, are laws that are broken every day many times over. God does not will what He forbids, He hates what He permits. To say, because God permits something that it is His will is a great perversion. He permits murder every day, but He hates it and forbids it upon great judgment. God permits evil because He respects man's free will. He permits them to use it to make very bad choices, but it is folly to blame God for these bad choices which He forbids.
The Sun has no interest in blinding anyone, or in giving them sunburn or strokes, but these things happen all the time because people make unwise choices. I once spent a whole afternoon in the hot sun spearing carp in a lake with some other teenage friends. I was having great fun, and did not realize I was getting too much exposer to the sun. I ended up sick in bed with severe burns because of it. It was not God's will, nor could Satan make me do it, and it was not due to any sin. I was just making a foolish choice. Much of the suffering of life is due to such choices. Someone told me of a pastor who was blind because as a kid he bet his brother he could look at the sun longer than his brother could. He won his bet, but lost his sight. This leads us to look at the next reason for suffering.
6. HUMAN IGNORANCE.
This is a combination of two others. It is the use of your free will in relation to the laws that govern the universe. Jesus told of the foolish man who built his house on the sand where it floods every year. His house fell flat when the rains came down. The wise man, on the other hand, built his house on the rock, and he avoided the foolish loss of the other. Jesus was saying, a lot of suffering in this world is caused by human ignorance. The foolish man was not necessarily wicked at all. He was just not very well informed about an intelligent place to build a house. His ignorance cost him plenty. No doubt Satan was glad for this ignorance, but you cannot blame the devil for it. God does not want us ignorant, and so it is never His will that we do stupid things, but we are free to do them, and pay the penalty when we do not know what we are doing.
The world is full of deformed babies caused by people taking drugs, and it is tragic suffering caused by human ignorance. The plagues that killed masses of people were caused by garbage and sewage carelessly thrown in the streets. History is full of suffering people have brought on themselves by their ignorance. Some have argued that this was the will of God, but others suspected it was due to the ignorance of men, and they decided to abolish the filth. The church took the lead in helping people become educated, and avoid suffering caused by ignorance. Everytime you tell a child to wash his hands, or cover his mouth when coughing, you are cooperating with God in the fight to eliminate suffering caused by human ignorance. Before it was understood that germs cause disease, doctors were spreading disease from one patient to another by not washing their hands. Ignorance killed many, but when knowledge replaced that ignorance many were spared.
7. THE TOGETHERNESS AND INTERDEPENDENCE OF MAN.
All sports accidents are due to the fact that we play sports with other people, and we can run into them and get hurt. But the risk is taken because there is so much pleasure to be gained. We know that suffering is always a possibility, but we risk it for the blessings. We have to use the same highway with drunk and reckless drivers, and this leads to the possibility of innocent suffering. All of the communicable diseases are also due to our association with other people. We are social beings, and this means the suffering of some can lead to the suffering of others. But the blessings make it worth it, for all of our food, clothes, books, medicine, and a host of other good things come from our togetherness and interdependence. Weatherhead said, "If some people were not farmers all of the time, all of us would have to be farmers some of the time." We need other people.
One man can get angry at his boss, and do a sloppy job of tuning up a plane. This can lead to the plane crashing and killing dozens of people, all of whom have dozens of relatives who will suffer. Hundreds of schedules will need changing, and appointments canceled, and anxieties created. There will be funeral arrangements, and long range fighting over wills. A fireman called to the crash sight gets injured, and ends up in the hospital. His daughter counted on him being home for her birthday party. Her heart is broken, and in anger she hits her little brother. He goes off crying, and kicks the cat. And so you see a chain reaction of suffering from that one man that cannot be calculated, and it may run its course to the end of time.
The only way to avoid this kind of suffering is to live a totally isolated life. You would have to keep your children at home, and not let them play with anyone, or do anything with risk. You may avoid suffering of one kind by so doing, but then you will have to endure the suffering of loneliness, which can even be worse.
What is the value of seeing the seven causes of all suffering? The value is, we do not then have a limited view that leads to folly. It is folly to blame God, as many do, for suffering that is not His will, and which He hates and wants His people to fight. It is folly to blame Satan for that which is a matter of human choice, and let men be excused for their folly. It is folly to blame sin for everything, for this is a slam to those innocent suffers who may be suffering because they did not sin. The point is, a limited view of suffering will make you a part of the problem rather than a part of the answer. People suffer a lot because of stupid views of suffering, which lead them to hurt other people with their false concepts. This is what the friends of Job did, and they added greatly to his suffering.
There is popular view among some Christians that we are to praise God for everything. I've read several books that sound very persuasive, but the problem is, they go beyond Scripture and ignore the teaching of the Bible that does not fit. This is the problem of all good ideas that pretend to be the only idea acceptable. A partial truth made into a total truth is blown out of proportion and becomes a falsehood.
The Bible does teach that we are to rejoice evermore, and in everything give thanks. The positive spirit is there, but this is often twisted to mean that everything is God's will, and everything is good. This is folly. Jesus did not practice any such thing Himself. On the cross He cried out,"My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me." Should we condemn Jesus for not praising God and giving thanks? No! We should use our heads and common sense, and recognize the reality of evil. To legalistically tell people that they must praise God for everything leads to a state of confusion where they can no longer make a distinction between good and evil.
Evil is real, and God hates it, and we are never to praise God for evil as if He did not hate it. In evil situations we are still to praise God, but we are not to praise Him for evil. Paul never praised God for the sin and folly of the Christians to whom he wrote his Epistles. He rebuked them, and he urged them to change their behavior, and he never once said to them to praise God for their bad behavior. He did not write to the Corinthians and say, "I praise God for your immature fighting which is causing divisions in the church." People who get so wrapped up in this idea of praising God for everything become worse than silly. They become immoral. I read of one pastor who counseled a man whose wife was being unfaithful, and he told him he had to learn to praise God that she was sleeping with another man. Others are told to praise God for one tragedy after another. Some good results can come because of a positive spirit, but in the end it leads to confusion by blurring the distinction between good and evil.
The person who praises God for everything has to believe that God is the author of everything, and so there is really no such thing as evil. It may not seem like it, but if you are praising God for it, it must be good. So this whole practice leads to the elimination of evil, and so, to superficial theology. This can be avoided by a common sense theology of listening to the plain teachings of the Bible that make it clear, much in this life is not the will of God. The world is full of things that God wants us to prevent, and not praise Him for. This whole idea leads people to the conception that all suffering is the will of God. This has done more harm than any other idea I am aware of.
When you look at the seven causes of suffering you discover that none of them are good. There is no good suffering in itself. It can lead to good if responded to properly, but that same good would be better reached without suffering. All the good that comes out of the suffering that God wills in discipline and judgment is better arrived at without suffering. A child who rebels and gets a good spanking may be a better child for it, but it would be an even better child if it never rebelled and avoided the spanking. Every other form of suffering is also bad in itself, for none of it will be in heaven where God's will is complete, and no suffering of any kind is any longer permitted. If it had any inherent value it would continue, but it is totally eliminated. All suffering is ultimately evil, and can have to part in the final kingdom of the redeemed.
Over the years I have met so many people who are angry at God because they blame Him for the things they have suffered. My first day in the ministry I made two calls where people had suffered tragedy, and in both cases they blamed God. That motivated me to do the research that lead me to discover these seven causes of suffering. We are part of the answer when we see that much suffering is preventable with education and cooperation with God. If we are suffering, our interest should not be in the issue of who to blame, but in the issue of finding ways to prevent and eliminate such suffering. Jesus came into the world to fight and overcome the forces of evil, and this is the calling of all who love and trust Him as their Savior. We are to overcome evil with good, and be ever seeking ways to add to the world's pleasure rather than its pain. May God help us to be suffering fighters.
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