“What Is the Purpose of Suffering?” New Era, Apr. 1975, 36
Why does a mother have to die and leave young children, or why does a person have to lose a leg, his ability to move, or his eyesight? Why does a person have to suffer from cancer? And from these questions grows another question, the real question: Why does God let it happen?
The history of the Church is replete with examples of persecution, deprivation, martyrdom, starvation, and imprisonment, as well as the quiet agonies of the soul. It is not surprising that the purpose of suffering has been discussed in every generation from Joseph Smith to our prophets today.
Revelation and the words of our Church leaders refer not to one reason for suffering but many. This may distress the young mother whose husband is killed in Vietnam. She wants to know the reason, not a listing of a dozen or more alternatives. People want a personal answer. Why must I suffer from cancer? Why was my son born with limited mental capacities? Why me? How can I know? The answer in full lies only in the mind of God.
For some the greatest pain may be not knowing why they suffer. Suffering is often easier to bear when we understand its purpose. Is it a judgment from God for something I’ve done? If not, then why did God permit it to happen? There are some whose faith in God is tried or even shattered because they cannot reconcile the tragedies of war, natural disaster, or the suffering of loved ones with the goodness of God.
I do not pretend to speak for the Church, nor do I intend in any way to minimize the extent of suffering in the world or the anguish an individual may feel. And although I have sought insight from the scriptures and writings of our General Authorities, the conclusions I have reached are my own.
More important than what happens to us (or the reason why it occurs) is how we react to it.
It appears there are several reasons why suffering occurs:
1. God causes it.
2. An individual brings it on himself.
3. Someone intentionally causes another person to suffer.
4. Human error may unintentionally cause suffering.
5. An act of nature precipitates the damage, injury, or death.
6. A mechanical malfunction causes an accident.
1. Suffering caused by God.
There is evidence that God sometimes intervenes in the events of this world. The scriptures suggest that suffering may sometimes be a form of loving chastisement from the Lord. “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. …” (Rev. 3:19.) “Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth. …” (Heb. 12:6.) “My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord; neither be weary of his correction: For whom the Lord loveth he correcteth; even as a father the son in whom he delighteth.” (Prov. 3:11–12.)
Sufferings from the Lord are sometimes a “smiting of the wicked,” but not all suffering is caused by unrighteousness.1
2. Suffering caused by our own actions.
Human error, and the violation of civil, natural, or eternal laws may frequently cause us pain. Unfortunately, it sometimes is difficult for us to understand this. Through rationalization, projection, or selective inattention, we so often excuse ourselves, blaming our self-induced problem on someone else.
3. Sufferings caused by others.
Saints who lived during the Missouri or Illinois periods knew what it meant to suffer at the hands of others. Driven from their homes into the bitter cold of winter, tarred and feathered, shot in cold blood—they knew well the sufferings of persecution. Less dramatic but very real suffering can be caused by an unkind word, a slight or discourtesy. A person can be hurt by an unfair or dishonest business transaction.
4. Unintentionally produced suffering.
Sometimes a person may bring suffering on himself or others unintentionally. Insensitivity to the feeling of others or misunderstanding of another’s motives often is to blame. While such suffering may have been unintentionally produced, the discomfiture will not be unlike a pain purposely inflicted.
5. Suffering caused by an act of nature.
Floods, earthquakes, violent storms, or other cataclysmic occurrences in nature frequently destroy property, cause injuries, or take lives. While God has at times calmed the storms, the forces of nature are, for the most part, allowed to function unhindered. Suffering of this kind may be permitted by God since he has the power to temper the elements, but he seldom causes the suffering as a purposeful act.2
6. Suffering caused by a mechanical failure or malfunction that causes an accident.
The car’s brakes fail; the electrical wire shorts and overheats; the altimeter jams—a crash occurs, a fire flares, a plane is down, and suffering or death results. Why? Did God cause it? Was it a punishment for past sins? I think not. Danger is simply inherent in this life. Still, although God seldom causes suffering, he does allow it. Why?
One of the most important principles of eternity is free agency. The Book of Mormon explains that to properly exercise our agency, we need to have an opposition in all things. (See 2 Ne. 2:11.) The Lord is omnipotent and could control our lives, “save us pain; prevent all accident; drive all planes and cars; feed us; protect us; save us from labor, effort, sickness, even from death. But is that what you want?”3
“Should we be protected from hardship, pain, suffering, sacrifice, or labor (or an accident)? Should the Lord protect the righteous? Should he immediately punish the wicked?”4
“If we look at mortality as a complete existence, then pain, sorrow and a short life could be a calamity. But if we look upon the whole of life in its eternal perspective stretching far into the premortal past and into the eternal post-death future, then all happenings may have more meaning and may fall into proper place.”5
God allows us to enter this world with all its risks, aware that facing and overcoming such perils is essential to our eternal progression. You recall that Joseph Smith while in Liberty Jail pleaded with the Lord concerning his own sufferings and those of his fellow Saints. The Lord answered, “If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea; … if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; … 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 shaft be for thy good.” (D&C 122: 5, 7. Italics added.)
What seems to be a tragedy (and a cause for suffering) may from an eternal perspective be a blessing and a cause for rejoicing. Sufferings have the potential of blessing man. They may strengthen us for future tasks. They can make us sensitive to the pains of others and more willing to sacrifice for others. (Christ suggests that one must lose his life to find it.) They may help us appreciate Christ’s atonement; they may help to purge our imperfections and to purify us.
Suffering may be a “school” of experience, and present impediments may ultimately be seen as a part of our life’s foundation.
Elder Orson F. Whitney wrote: “No pain that we suffer, no trial that we experience is wasted. It ministers to our education, to the development of such qualities as patience, faith, fortitude, and humility. All that we suffer … builds up our characters, purifies our hearts, expands our souls, and makes us more tender and charitable, more worthy to be called the children of God … and it is through sorrow and suffering, toil and tribulation, that we gain the education which will make us more like our Father and Mother in heaven …”6
Obedience may be learned from suffering. “Though he were a Son [speaking of Christ], yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.” (Heb. 5:8.)
Superior blessings from God are dependent upon our being severely tried and tested.7 Suffering may lead us to put our trust in the Lord and to keep his commandments.8 Of course, Alma suggests we can learn obedience without first being humbled by experiences, but many of us need help.
Bitter sufferings are necessary for us to experience sweet enjoyment.
Without trials, we tend to forget the Lord, as the Book of Mormon makes clear. However, God’s spirit is manifest abundantly to those who are faithful under trials.
“No pain that is experienced by man or women upon the earth will be without its compensating effect … if it be met with patience.”9
Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” and other tribulations were a pleasure to him. “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. 12:10.)
Our present adversities may have immediate value as well as preparing us for the future. “The blessing to be found in pain is a right-here, right-now blessing, taking place in the very midst of suffering.”11
Suffering is part of the divine plan and is essential to our exaltation.12 This life is “a preparatory state given to finite beings, a space wherein they may improve themselves for a higher state of being.”13 Those unwilling to withstand adversity will not be exalted.14 “Hatred and persecutions have been the lot of every man that ever lived on the earth holding the oracles of the Kingdom of Heaven to deliver to the children of men.”15 We must pass through the refining experience of sorrow as did Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob if we are to enjoy with them the blessings of the celestial kingdom.16
As the New Testament emphasizes, we are in a sorry state if it is only in this life that we have hope in Christ. (See 1 Cor. 15:19.) Having that hope, that faith in Christ, we have anticipation of a Lazareth-like deliverance from the pains of our present estate. We are told that man is that he might have joy. (See 2 Ne. 2:25.) And yet even Eve knew that we must suffer to really experience joy. (See Moses 5:11.)
What is the purpose of suffering? It has its place in the divine plan. When we are moved to cry out to the Lord, “Let this cup pass me by,” let us remember, “Thy will be done, not mine.” When we lose a loved one, let us be concerned with the deepening of life rather than its lengthening.