Why does God let us experience pain and suffering?
Clearly all is not right in our world. The daily news brings us more death and disaster, pain and suffering than we would ever desire. How could a loving God allow so much evil in our world?
First, we must understand that while we humans usually focus on our own immediate pleasure or pain, God focuses on our eternal happiness. Yes, God would like us to be happy here on earth. But compared to eternity, our few years here are relatively short and insignificant.
God’s goal is to form us into angels who can be part of the joyous community of heaven. And God will allow us to experience pain and suffering here on earth if that is necessary to bring about our eternal happiness.
After all, most evil exists in the first place because we humans have been given the freedom and the rationality to make our own choices, whether good or evil. God will not violate our freedom and rationality. But God is continually working in our hearts and through our hands to overcome the evil in the human spirit and in this world of ours.
Is God aware of what’s going on down here?
One look at the world around us—or at the headlines in the news—shows that everything is not right with the world. We read of wars and famines, shootings and burglaries, stark contrasts of fabulous wealth right next to grinding poverty.
If God is so loving and wise, how could there be so much injustice and evil, pain and suffering in this world? How could a loving God see what’s going on and not do something about it? Is God paying attention? Does God even care? Could there be a God at all, considering the horrible cruelties suffered by innocent men, women, and children alike?
These and similar questions have disturbed thoughtful, caring people for ages. We may never fully understand how God operates in our world, and why specific wrongs are allowed to happen. Yet there are some general principles that can be helpful in understanding the ways of God compared to human ways.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” says the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9)
What are God’s thoughts?
Our ways as humans usually relate to getting by in this world, and our thoughts usually have to do with our situation here and now. If things are going well for us right now, we are happy, and life is grand. If things are going badly for us right now, we are troubled, and life is terrible. During the good times, if we’re religious, we may think to offer up a prayer of thanks to God. During the bad times we’re more likely to shake a fist at God and complain about the unfairness of life.
Another way of saying this is that our human view of life is usually bound to what we are experiencing right here and now.
God looks at things from an entirely different perspective. Modern physics tells us that time and space are properties of matter. Therefore God, who exists above and beyond the material universe, is not limited to any particular time and place as we are. Being infinite and eternal, God is present in all time and all space at once. God does live in the present. But God’s present includes what we think of as past, present, and future.
In other words, God’s thoughts are not focused only on what we are experiencing right here and now. God’s thoughts consider our past, our present, and our ultimate future all at once. And since the past has already happened and cannot be changed, in everything God does or allows to happen, the primary consideration is its effect on our eternal state. Once we understand this, we can begin to understand how God acts in our world.
To God, our present pain or joy, though important, is far less important than whether we will have eternal pain or joy. After all, what is the present moment compared to eternity? We humans may be short-sighted and foolish enough to ignore the long-term results of our actions in favor of immediate gratification. But God is not so foolish, and will always act in ways that are most likely to bring us long-term happiness.
What is God aiming at?
In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus mentions “the kingdom of heaven” over thirty times. The very first message that both John the Baptist and Jesus himself preached was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17). Clearly the kingdom of heaven is the goal of Jesus’ teaching and preaching. Following his lead, Emanuel Swedenborg said that “the Lord’s divine providence has as its goal a heaven from the human race” (Divine Providence §27).
What does this mean?
It means that in everything God does in governing human affairs, God’s goal is to bring as many people as possible into heaven.
Because heaven is a community in which we live in the joy of loving God and loving our fellow human beings. That is the greatest happiness we can experience. And the God of love wants all created beings to be happy—and for humans in particular to be happy not just temporarily, but forever.
Once again, God’s aim is not so much our present happiness (though God does prefer that we enjoy happiness in the present), but our eternal happiness. Heaven is God’s eternal kingdom for those who will accept heaven into themselves. And the goal of God’s love and wisdom in governing human affairs is to bring us into that kingdom of eternal joy—a joy that comes especially from willing and joyful service to God and to our fellow human beings.
A God of love . . . and a God of laws
To understand how God accomplishes this goal of building a heaven from the human race, we first have to understand that God is a God of wisdom, of truth, of laws, of principles.
If we look at the physical universe around us we see that it operates according to very definite laws: the law of gravity, the law of inertia, the law of conservation of mass . . . all the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and the rest of the sciences. These laws originated in God and reflect God’s nature, because God is not only a God of love, but a God of law.
This means that God does not act in arbitrary and haphazard ways in governing the universe and the human beings in it, but operates by clear and definite laws. Understanding the laws that God works through to govern our affairs will help us as we struggle to understand why our world is the way it is, and what God is doing about it.
Let’s look at a few of these laws, drawn from Swedenborg’s book Divine Providence.
Why does evil exist in the first place?
If God is all-powerful, surely it would have been easy to make everyone and everything good, and not even allow for the possibility of evil and pain in our world.
Then why in the world does evil exist? Why did God figuratively make the tree of knowledge of good and evil to grow in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:9)? Why even introduce the possibility of evil into creation?
Let’s think about it. If God’s purpose is to create a heaven from the human race, the first thing needed is a human race.
What makes us human? It is not the fact that we stand upright on two legs and have opposable thumbs and a big brain. In fact, it is nothing physical that makes us human. Rather, it is the human qualities of our mind and spirit. Beyond the basic fact that we have human loves and human intelligence, what makes us human is our ability to make free choices based on our own ideas, beliefs, and desires. Without this, we could not be human, and we could not have a real relationship with God.
Put in terms of a law of divine providence, God has created us so that we may act in freedom according to our own reason. And God will not take away our freedom and reason, because to take it away would be to take away our humanity.
Yet if we are to be truly free, we must be free not only to accept God’s will, but to reject it. And since everything good comes from God, the freedom to reject God means the freedom to twist good into evil.
The existence of evil is a result of the very humanity that makes it possible for us to freely choose to become angels of heaven.
Okay, so evil exists. Now what?
Let’s be honest. Many of our thoughts and feelings, and some of our actions, are not good. If we were to act on everything we felt like doing to other people, there would be a lot more maimed and dead people than there already are. The fact of the matter is that we humans are motivated by many evil and destructive desires along with our good and caring ones. Most of the evil in the world is a result of human greed, selfishness, and striving for wealth and power.
If we are going to be angels of heaven, we can’t take those evil desires with us. They must be rooted out of our personality. No, we’ll never be perfect. But we could be a whole lot better than we are.
God’s goal is to make each one of us a better version of ourselves so that we are no longer driven by self-centered and materialistic desires, but by a desire to love God by loving our neighbors here on earth (see Matthew 25:31–46). And because our freedom and rationality is essential to our existence as human beings, another one of God’s laws in governing the human race is that we must freely make our own decision to turn away from evil and toward good. God will not force us to do it.
Then what do I have to do?
Once we have made that decision, the next law is that we must do the work of making those changes in ourselves, without being compelled by outside forces such punishment and reward, or fear of death and hell. It must not only be our free choice to become better people, but we must put out the effort to make it happen by struggling against our old ways, and beginning a new and better way of life. Of course, God and the angels will help us, giving us the strength we need when we sincerely pray for it.
If we are unwilling to put out the effort ourselves, we are choosing to be the same old person that we were before. In the end it is not what we say, but what we do that matters. The choice of what we will do with our life is in our own hands. God will not make that choice for us, because that would take away our humanity and make us into slaves. God loves and respects us enough to let us make our own choices, and be the person that we decide to be.
Well then, what does God do?
This makes it sound like God doesn’t do anything at all, and that it’s all up to us.
That’s precisely how God wants it to seem to us. If we believed that it doesn’t matter what we do because God will just step in and clean up the mess for us anyway, we wouldn’t have much motivation to clean up our act, would we?
As a matter of fact, it is really God’s power that accomplishes everything. If God’s spirit were not present and working within us every moment, not only would we be unable to make these changes in our lives, we would instantly cease to exist! God not only created us in the beginning, but God is continually creating us each moment, giving us the power to make choices, and giving us the life we need to live by the choices we have made.
Another way of saying this is that God works through human beings to accomplish all of God’s goals for us. God is continually working to make our lives better, not only eternally, but here on earth. And God is doing that, not by some magical and miraculous outside forces, but by continually placing the desire and the ability in human hearts throughout the world to change their own lives for the better, and to do the work of making life better for their fellow human beings.
Whose job is it to deal with evil?
In other words, all those times we’ve been angry at God or in disbelief of God because we see so much evil around us, we’ve been looking in the wrong place. Yes, God wants to overcome the evil in the world. And God is continually putting it in our hearts to do exactly that.
The question is not whether God is doing anything about all the evil in the world. The question is whether we ourselves are doing anything about it. Are we following the Lord’s commandment in John 13:34 to love one another as God loves us? If people all around the world would make this simple change and commitment, then not only would most of the evil in the world become a thing of the past, but God would have succeeded in creating the kingdom of heaven both in the hereafter and right here on earth.
What about all the evil in the world? God is ready. The choice is ours.
For more information
If you would like to know more about God’s government of the world, please read the book Divine Providence, by Emanuel Swedenborg. Here are a few of the many laws of divine providence that are explained more fully in that book:
- It is a law of divine providence that we should act in freedom and in accord with reason.
- It is a law of divine providence that we should not be compelled by outside forces to think and intend and so to believe and love in matters of our religion, but that we should guide ourselves and sometimes compel ourselves.
- It is a law of divine providence that we should not sense or feel anything of the working of divine providence, but that we should still know about it and acknowledge it.
- Divine providence focuses on eternal matters, and focuses on temporal matters only as they coincide with eternal ones.
- Evils are permitted for a purpose: salvation.
- Divine providence is for good people and evil people alike.
- Everyone can be reformed, and there is no such thing as predestination.
This article is © 2013 by Lee Woofenden