This is part 5 in a blog post series on the problem of evil and suffering. In the past 3 posts, we've been dealing with the probabilistic version of the problem of evil. In Part 2, We've seen that there are good philosophical and biblical reasons to believe that God has given mankind free will, and therefore, the reason there's so much suffering in the world is because people abuse the free will God has given them. Even though God knew ahead of time that we would abuse our free will, He gave it to us anyway because only in a world of free will is love and moral accountability possible. It is very likely, also, that a possible world in which creatures are (A) free and (B) never go wrong was infeasible for God to actualize. Then in Part 3, we saw that given the dizzying complexities of life, the complex ways that events and choices interact with one another and have an impact on human history, that we are in no position to say with any confidence whether or not it's improbable for God to permit some instance of suffering. Every event that occurs sends a ripple effect through history. Every event affects the future. God may permit some evil in the present to bring about a greater good in the future. God is omniscient. We are not. So the only one who can judge whether some instance of suffering is unjustified is God! Additionally, Romans 8:28 actually teaches that God uses suffering to bring about a greater good. In part 4, we saw that one of the reasons God permits suffering is to draw as many people as He can into His Kingdom. The countless testimonies of many Christians attest to the fact that God has used suffering to bring about the conversions of His children. Given the Christian doctrine that the knowledge of God, not happiness, is the primary goal of life, this makes suffering probably in light of the Christian God.
With all that I've said so far, I think we're justified in saying that the presence of suffering makes sense on the Christian worldview. But there's more to it.
Suffering Builds Character
Suffering leads to character development. The Bible says:
"Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." - Romans 5:3-5
"Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." - James 1:2-4
"In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed." - 1 Peter 1:5-7
From these passages, we see that The Bible teaches that God can use suffering to build character. God can mold us into better people through what we suffer. The atheist may scoff "God would really allow a lot of suffering just to develop character?" Well yeah. "Well, what kind of character traits could we not obtain in a suffering-free world?" I can think of a few: Courage, Compassion, Forgiveness, Self-Sacrifice, and Charity. I think we can all agree that these are moral virtues, and I think we can all agree that it is better for a person to possess these moral properties than to lack them. Now, here's my question: is it possible for people to obtain these virtues in the lack of suffering?
Can you have courage in the lack of danger? No, in order to develop courage, you need chances to be courageous. In order to be compassionate, you need someone suffering so that you can be compassionate. In order to develop the virtue of forgiveness, you need to have some evils being done to you so that you'll have transgressions to forgive (think back to Kevin's testimony in the previous blog post). Want a world where people are charitable? Welcome to a world with poverty.
For certain moral virtues to exist or develop in human beings, there must be some evil and suffering. In fact, each moral virtue has a specific kind of suffering that correlates with it, as I've already pointed out.
Courage <-------> Danger
Compassion <----> Suffering
Forgiveness <-----> Evil
Self-Sacrifice <----> Hardship
Charity <------> Poverty
You would never know what courage is unless you had to face danger. You would never know what forgiveness is unless someone had wronged you and gave you a sin to forgive. You would never know what it means to give to the needy if there were no needy people. You can't just snap your fingers and suddenly develop these traits.
Faith is another virtue that suffering can inhance if we allow it. I've been going through a lot of stuff in the past two years, and I think the reason God has allowed it to occur was so that I could learn to trust him more. James 1:2-4 and 1 Peter 1:5-7 say that some Christians endure trials to increase their level of faith. It's easy to trust in God when things are going good, but it's much tougher when your world is crashing down around you. God can use the affliction to actually build confidence in Him. You don't build upper body strength by lifting 100-page books. You build upper body strength by lifting things difficult for you to hold. You don't build faith in God by living a cushy life, you build faith by enduring hardship. How could you know that God is a provider if you never find yourself in need? How can you know that God is a healer if you're never sick or injured? How can you know that God is a comforter if you're never in need of being comforted?
I know I quote C.S Lewis a lot, but he has a lot of really good things to say. And with regards to this topic, Lewis said: “To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled by certain stains in our present character, and because He already loves us He must labor to make us lovable.”1
Because God loves us, He will make us lovable. To make us lovable, he must make us more virtuous, and that, in several cases, will involve allowing us to undergo some suffering.
In light of the biblical doctrine that God uses suffering to mold us morally, suffering is not at all improbable on the Christian worldview. Indeed, we should expect that at least some suffering would be present if God wants the moral virtues of courage, compassion, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and charity to develop in us.
In the next two blog posts, I will go even further in showing that suffering doesn't render God's existence improbable, and after that, I will wrap up this series by dealing with the emotional problem of evil.
1: C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (Touchstone: New York, 1996), pp. 41-43.