Flash floods wreak havoc in a neighbourhood and a family’s home is made uninhabitable, with many precious items that hold priceless memories lost forever, and with months or even years of wrangling with insurers and living in inadequate temporary accommodation awaiting them. A young father, following years of depression and struggles with school, home and family, is diagnosed with a mental health disorder, shattering his hopes for a life being able to be the father he wishes to be. A child develops leukemia, and she and her parents face many years of expensive hospital visits and painful treatments until finally she passes from mortality, far too young. I could go on, and of course you could create your own list of tragedies that strike either in your own life, or in the lives of your family or friends.
Tragic? Yes, without any shadow of a doubt. Uncommon? No, not remotely. Pain and suffering are things we each experience during our mortal lives. And the questions that will touch each of us during such times will be variations on, “Why me?”, “How can I endure it?”, “Please, Heavenly Father, wilt thou take this pain away?”, and sometimes, “What am I supposed to learn from this?”
Ultimately, a question that touches most of us at some point will be, “What is the purpose of suffering?”
This question is at the heart of the age-old “Problem of Evil”, which summarised could be described as: How can suffering exist in the world if there exists a loving and omnipotent God? The implication is that there can’t be such a God if suffering exists, and as suffering exists….
But I believe this “problem” makes a range of assumptions that are based on fallacies. These include:
- No good can come from suffering. It is evil by nature.
- Our only purpose in life is to live free of pain and suffering
- Any God who loved us would, in every situation and without question, speak the word and do away with all pains
This is my second post on this, and in the first, found here, I discussed the first fallacy, explaining why I believe that suffering must – at least on some occasions – lead to good rather than evil.
In this post, I will describe why I believe the second fallacy is precisely that, and what some of life’s purposes may be. In my next post, I will discuss fallacy 3, and some of the more challenging questions – for example why innocent children sometimes suffer appallingly.
Fallacy Number 2: Our only purpose in life is to live free of pain and suffering
For an atheist, I guess this is as good a purpose as any other in life. If there is no God, then fundamentally there is also no purpose in life: we are born, we live, and we die. Under those circumstances, life’s purpose being to avoid pain and suffering would be a sensible course of action.
Alternatively, an agnostic who considers the possibility of there being a God, but isn’t overly concerned about it, may choose to, “Eat, drink and be merry; [and if there be a God] he will justify in committing a little sin; yea, lie a little, take the advantage of one because of his words, dig a pit for thy neighbour; there is no harm in this; and do all these things, for tomorrow we die; and if it so be that [there be a God, and] we are guilty, God will beat us with a few stripes, and at last we shall be saved in the kingdom of God.” (2 Nephi 28:8 – words in brackets are some tweaks of mine, but I think they’re valid in this context)
But I don’t fall into either of those camps. I am a believer. I believe that God lives, that He loves us beyond our ability to comprehend, that His Son paid a terrible price to rescue us from pain and suffering, and that there is a reason – a purpose for our mortal lives and trials. And while I believe that God’s purpose for each of us is, ultimately, to be filled with joy, I do not believe that the road to get there can be without some pain and suffering.
Indeed, no-one who has spent any time studying the scriptures could believe that life is intended to be easy. Even as the Old Testament begins, the Lord tells Adam, “…cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow thou shalt eat of it all the days of thy life. Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee….” (Genesis 4:17-18)
Eve received a similar promise of sorrow, but the key message here is not that suffering is good or bad in and of itself. The key message is that the suffering has a purpose: it is “for thy sake”. It is not random suffering: they arise “to thee” – a very personalised set of thorns and thistles, intended to be for Adam’s (and our) benefit.
Similarly, Joseph Smith, the man those of us in the LDS Church believe was a prophet of modern days, was told by the Lord, “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 thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring…, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb; And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, 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 shall be for thy good.” (D&C 122:5-7)
This is no trite pat on the head by an omnipotent being – there is purpose in our sorrows.
To understand that purpose, we need to understand that there is more to us than our mortal lives; there is a future beyond mortality. And to understand our future, we also need to understand our past.
Although we have no present memory of it, we lived as spirit children of our Heavenly Father prior to entering mortality. The prophet Jeremiah was told, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee…” (Jeremiah 1:4) He similarly spoke to Abraham, showing him, “… the intelligences that were organised before the world was…. And he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.” (Abraham 3:22-23)
We all stood with our Heavenly Father as spirits before our mortal lives, and it is His ultimate hope that we return to Him again, but as something more than we were when we left Him. Our mortality is an essential part of our gaining that “something more”.
And this perspective is essential when considering mortality’s suffering. As President Boyd K Packer once said, “In mortality, we are like one who enters a theater just as the curtain goes up on the second act. We have missed Act 1. … ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ is never written into the second act. That line belongs in the third act when the mysteries are solved and everything is put right….” (Quoted in footnote 3, The Songs They Could Not Sing, by Elder Quentin L Cook)
So with that thought in mind, what then is the purpose of our mortal lives, and how does suffering fit in with that?
To his son Corianton, the prophet Alma described mortality as a, “…probationary state [and]… a preparatory state.” (Alma 42:10); and to Abraham the Lord explained that after making the earth on which the Father’s children could dwell, they would, “…prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them…” Those who successfully navigate this proving would end up having, “…glory added upon their heads forever and ever.” (Abraham 3:24-26)
In bringing these together I call them the “3 P’s of Mortality”: Probation, Preparation, and Proving. There is overlap between them, but I’ll discuss each in turn.
Today we often see negative connotations with the word probation. It is often used in conjunction with the criminal justice system, and thereby connotes someone who has broken the law. The probation period is a time to determine whether the individual has been rehabilitated, and probation officers help to oversee the probation period, determining whether the individual has complied by the terms of his or her probation.
But it hasn’t always meant that. Its root is the Latin probatio, which is a test or examination. Similarly, many employers today have a “probation” period for new employees, to test whether the new member of staff will work out within the organisation. A permanent position is only established once probation has been successfully passed.
Both of these meanings work in the context of mortality’s purposes, but in fact I like the first meaning best. Just prior to Alma declaring to his son that one of life’s purposes was as a probationary state, he referenced the fall of Adam and Eve, and stated that because of the fall, we had, “…become carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature…” (Alma 42:9-10).
Indeed, often it is we who create the suffering for others precisely because of this fallen nature. And when we act on our fallen natures, as happened for all of us throughout history, bar One, “…as soon as [we] are dead [our] souls [will be] miserable…. [T]here [is] no means to reclaim [us] form this fallen state, which [we have] brought upon [ourselves] because of [our] own disobedience.” (Alma 42:11-12)
Fortunately, our loving Heavenly Father knew this would be the case even before the earth was created – however many thousands, millions or billions of years ago that was – and sent His Son to reclaim us: “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Christ is our “get out of jail card” because He has paid the penalty. But when we accept the terms of His redemption by covenanting with Him, we then are on probation. The Holy Ghost becomes our “probation officer” confirming or otherwise whether we have kept the terms of our covenants.
So, the first purpose of our mortal lives is to acknowledge that we are, in fact, the cause of suffering in others, and to come to Christ, covenanting with Him and then living by the terms of those covenants, thus being able to overcome the fallen, natural man (or woman) in ourselves.
Within my employment I have to recruit into important management positions, and sometimes over the years, these appointments have been promotions for individuals who have done well in their previous roles. Unfortunately, although often such promotions have been successful, they haven’t always gone well. Sometimes I have misjudged and the individual wasn’t sufficiently prepared for the increased responsibility, and that usually has resulted in hardship for all concerned.
As the Lord told Abraham, if we successfully navigate our mortal lives, we will have glory added upon us forever and ever. Are we prepared for whatever extra responsibility that blessing will bring? Unlike me, our Father in Heaven won’t make any mistakes, and consequently He will require us to be prepared before such glory is given to us. Consequently, this is an important purpose of our mortal lives.
There is a scripture which I love in relation to this principle. It is one that I think we LDS often misread, so I’ll first quote it as I think we usually read it, and then re-quote it as it is actually written.
This is how we usually read it:
“Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.” (D&C 130:18-19)
Reading it this way brings to mind the impression that we need to learn all that we can in this life, and while I don’t disagree with that as such, as it is I think it can be very disheartening for people who struggle to learn, often because of nothing more than a fluke of genetics. That doesn’t sound like a terribly just God to me who would reward one person because they were born more intellectually capable than another; but do not fear, because this isn’t actually what the scripture says.
What the scripture actually says is (with the missing bits, now added, in bold):
“Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.” (D&C 130:18-19)
The previously missing words, now added, change the entire meaning of the scripture. Where before the emphasis was on gaining knowledge, now the emphasis is on diligence and obedience. It is the very hard principle of diligence that we require – even when learning is difficult, even when life tries to stop us, even when we are suffering because of it – that gives us the “advantage in the world to come”.
That diligence – especially against opposition – is what gives us our preparation. In all parts of life it is resistance that builds strength. In fits and starts (no not diligence – yet…) I exercise, and as part of that exercise I do strength training. The strength training consists of lifting weights until I can feel the “burning” in my muscles. The burning is actually the tearing of muscles, but that is essential because when they grow back they will do so stronger. That is how your body becomes able to lift heavier weights – by putting your existing muscles under such strain that they initially break. Life is the same, and we can only sufficiently be prepared for the glory that awaits us if we are placed in situations where we are under enormous strain. That is how we gain strength.
I’ve written previously about how it is important for us to do “hard things” (see here). And I’ve also written about depression (see here), and how one of the grand-daughters of George Albert Smith (a President of the LDS Church) stated that she believed his severe anxieties and depression helped him to have a greater compassion for others.
What has been most powerful for me recently on this topic is when I wrote about Mental Health issues (see here), and one commenter responded saying in part, “I feel as I’ve been extended a tender mercy from the Lord as the atonement works in my life, blessing me with the struggle of mental illness but the ability to overcome – or at the very least, endure well – the trials of it. I need this challenge to help mold me into the person the Lord would have me become.”
I added the bold at the end, because that is the bit of the comment that just made me say “Wow! What an amazing person.” But it also underlines why our suffering is so important. You and I will suffer different things. Sometimes at the hands of other imperfect people who are, like us, afflicted by the fallen, natural man or woman; and sometimes the Lord intervenes directly to give us trials of one sort or another: but it can all help us grow and become stronger – to prepare us for the glory that awaits. See also this blog post I came across yesterday for another fantastic example of someone who has been strengthened through some really tough times.
The third purpose of mortality I am including in this section is that of proving. Proving can have various meanings, and again I think they can all apply in this sense.
In a scientific sense, you would have a hypothesis and then design an experiment to “prove” it. If you are a baker, when you make bread you “prove” it by placing it in a warm place, often in the sun, to allow it to rise. It is the heat of our trials that allow us to rise.
It is interesting to me that in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ twice spoke of suffering. Firstly, He spoke of blessing those who mourn. He secondly spoke of blessing those who are persecuted for His sake. (see Matthew 5:4, 11)
This suggests to me at least two stages of suffering. The first would be suffering that comes inevitably to all who grace this earth. None are immune.
But when the Lord spoke to Abraham of proving us when we came to earth, He said it in the context of whether, “…they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them…” (Abraham 3:26) When we demonstrate our faith and diligence through our trials, once we become His disciples, we can be sure that the Lord will seek to prove us further.
Elder Jeffrey R Holland recently stated, “In keeping with the Savior’s own experience, there has been a long history of rejection and a painfully high price paid by prophets and apostles, missionaries and members in every generation—all those who have tried to honor God’s call to lift the human family to ‘a more excellent way.’” (Jeffrey R Holland, The Cost – and Blessing – of Discipleship)
And Joseph Smith once said “When a man has offered in sacrifice all that he has for the truth’s sake, not even withholding his life, and believing before God that he has been called to make this sacrifice because he seeks to do his will, he does know, most assuredly, that God does and will accept his sacrifice and offering, and that he has not, nor will not seek his face in vain. Under these circumstances, then, he can obtain the faith necessary for him to lay hold on eternal life.” (Lectures on Faith 6:7)
So these are my “3 P’s of Mortality” – the purposes of why we are here:
There are some other purposes which I’ll touch on in my next post when I address fallacy 3, but it should be clear by now why I believe that the assumption in the “Problem of Evil” that life should be devoid of pain and suffering is woefully incorrect.
That is not to say that we should seek suffering – we shouldn’t. We should, rather, seek discipleship; we should seek knowledge; we should seek diligence; we should seek all Christlike attributes. And we should also seek the joy that comes from living a life aligned with Christ’s teachings. But with this seeking, as with mortality itself, will come our very personalised thorns and thistles. And to think otherwise is really to miss the point.
Click here to go to the third (and final) part in this series.