Understanding Human Suffering Pt 1 (Eternal Progression, Nature of God, Book of Job)

“Sunday Sermon”

(Long Article-13 min: You may want to skim, and then download for future reference.)

The Book of Job

Hast thou considered my servant Job.” (Job 1:8) The entire Book of Job is in devoted to one issue: human suffering. The book gives insights into the causes of adversity, and emphasizes the importance of turning to God. The book also exposes our limited knowledge and our great need for wisdom and understanding.

The Prime Argument of Atheists

The question of human suffering has been debated by theologians, philosophers, and atheists for thousands of years. “How can an all-powerful all-knowing all-benevolent God allow suffering?” “If God is all-powerful, He could eliminate suffering, and if He is all good, He would do so.”

This is the prime argument of atheists. The inability to answer this question satisfactorily has destroyed the faith of countless people past and present.

People of faith often try to respond to the conundrum of human suffering by calling it a “divine mystery.” “Who are we to question God?” This answer is neither comforting nor persuasive.

Tragically, many LDS youth and young adults are currently turning to atheism. However, the plan of happiness and eternal progression provides profound answers to the question of human suffering.

I. Pre-Mortality and the Plan of Happiness and Eternal Progression

Just as our life does not end at death, it did not begin at birth. Before we were born, we lived as spirit children with our Father in Heaven. (Heb. 12:9; Job 38:4–7; Jer. 1:5; (Moses 3:4–7)

Our Heavenly Father wants His children to become like Him and share His joy and blessings. (Romans 8:16-17) Thus, He created a plan of happiness and eternal progression. (Abr.3:24–28; D&C 29:31–38; Moses 4:1–4) “For behold, this is my work and my glory to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39)

Trials are an essential part of that plan.

II. Purposes of Life

Knowing the purposes of life help us to live our lives more abundantly. Human suffering is inherently necessary to achieve those purposes.  

A. Gain a Physical Body

To fulfill the plan of happiness and eternal progression we must be born on earth and receive a physical body. This is the first purpose of mortal life.

Our spirits must be embodied – “added upon.”  We needed to go from our heavenly home in a spiritual realm to a physical universe. We were so anxious to receive a physical body that we accepted the risks of being born with deformities, disabilities, diseases, and in difficult circumstances.

Embodying our spirits gives us opportunities to grow and develop in a physical dimension in ways that were not possible in our pre-earth spiritual life.

With a physical body we can experience the struggles and joy of having both a body and spirit. Our goal is for our spirits to master our bodies and our physical environment. (1 Cor. 15:44.)  “Mind over matter.” Sometimes, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matt. 26:41)

Our physical bodies are also the source of much pain and suffering. But without our bodies we cannot achieve ultimate happiness and eternal progress.

B. Learn the Difference Between Good and Evil

Another purpose of life is to learn from our “own experience the difference between good and evil.” (Moroni 7:12-19; Gen. 3:22) To learn this we must be able to choose. To be able to choose, we must have free will and moral agency.  In order to choose there must be choices. There “needs be opposition in all things.” (2 Ne. 2) This opposition leads to both joy and sorrow.

C. Gain Knowledge

Another purpose of life is to gain knowledge.  “The glory of God is intelligence.”  (D&C 92:36) “Whatever principle of intelligence we gain in this life, will rise with us in the resurrection.” (D&C 130:18-19) Sometimes, we learn through suffering. Christ “learned … by the things which he suffered.”

D. Prove ourselves

Another purpose of life is to prove ourselves worthy and ready to return to our Heavenly Father and be exalted. “Thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee” (Moses 3:17; Hel. 14:30)).

III. Necessity of Free Will and Moral Agency

God has told us through His prophets, ancient and modern, that we are free to choose between good and evil. We may choose liberty and eternal life by following Jesus. We can also choose captivity and spiritual death by following Satan. (See 2 Nephi 2:27.) The choice is ours.

The freedom to choose between good and evil and to act for ourselves is called agency, free will, free agency, and moral agency. Free will was one of the major issues debated in the premortal Council in Heaven. Satan, “rebelled against [God] and sought to destroy the agency [free will] of man” (Moses 4:3).

When people exercise their free will recklessly people suffer. The only way for God to prevent that suffering is to violate the “prime directive” of free will.

IV. Struggles and suffering are an indispensable part of growth, learning, and progress  

Struggles are necessary to increase our growth and strength. That is the inherent nature of things. “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” If God were to eliminate our suffering, He would eliminate priceless opportunities to grow stronger and wiser.

For example, my law students struggle and suffer while preparing for my final exam. This is important for their learning and growth. I can alleviate their suffering by giving them the answers. But then I have interfered with their learning and growth. Likewise, for God to alleviate our suffering, would hurt our learning and growth.

For instance, my grandkids would like to help their baby chicks struggling to hatch out of their eggs by breaking the shells for them. But then, the chicks would not be strong enough to survive.

Not only do we grow stronger through suffering, but was also learn important lessons

As children we learn via our suffering not to touch the hot stove again.  As children we learn via pain not to stick an object in an electric outlet again. 

Suffering can be a tutor. As Benjamin Franklin proclaimed, “Experience [struggles, suffering] keep a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.”

In his Nobel acceptance speech, William Faulkner observed that suffering “brings out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.” “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.”

The greatest achievements in art, music, and literature are born and nurtured through suffering.

Famous actor and director Orson Welles commented, “In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, bloodshed — they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance.  In Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce?  The cuckoo clock!”

Triumph comes from tragedy. For instance, the most sublime revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received in the terrible crucible of Liberty Jail. (See: D&C 121, 122, 123)

The “tempering” of metal provides an apt analogy. Tempering metal is the process of shaping metal by repeatedly heating and pounding it. Then it is repeatedly quenched in cool liquids. This process, of repeated heating, pounding, and quenching strengthens and toughens the metal while decreasing brittleness.   

A. Through suffering we learn the difference between good and evil

Another purpose of life is to learn “by our own experience the difference between good and evil.” “There must be opposition in all things”. (2 Ne. 2) There can be no good without evil.  There can be no joy without sorrow. There can be no light without darkness, no up without down, no front without a back. Opposition is inherent.

 B. Through suffering our spirit gains mastery over our physical body and environment

A major purpose of life is for the spirit to gain mastery over the physical.  “Mind over matter.”  The spirit over the body. Often, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

C. Through suffering we progress and become like God

Through suffering we acquire the characteristics of Deity. We learn patience, long-suffering, compassion, empathy, obedience, wisdom and love. “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for they good.” (D&C 122:7)

Even Jesus learned obedience by the things which he suffered. (Heb. 5:8-9) The trial of our faith teaches patience, patience leads to perfection, and perfection results in exaltation. (Jms. 1:3-4)

D&C 58:2-4
          “For verily I say unto you, blessed is he that keepeth my commandments, whether in life or in death; and he that is faithful in tribulation, the reward of the same is greater in the kingdom of heaven.
          “Ye cannot behold with your natural eyes, for the present time, the design of your God concerning those things which shall come hereafter, and the glory which shall follow after much tribulation.
          “For after much tribulation come the blessings.  Wherefore the day cometh that ye shall be crowned with much glory…”

C.S. Lewis
“Imagine yourself as a living house.  God comes in to rebuild that house.  At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing.  He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. 
“But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense.  What on earth is He up to? 
“The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. 
“You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage; but He is building a palace.  He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
(Mere Christianity, “Beyond Personality,” p. 174)

C.S. Lewis
“The command Be ye perfect is not idealistic gas.  Nor is it a command to do the impossible.  He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. 
“He said in the Bible there we were “gods” and He is going to make good His words.  If we let Him – for we can prevent Him, if we choose – He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love s we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly  His own boundless power and delight and goodness. 
“The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for.  Nothing less.  He meant what He said.”
(Mere Christianity, “Beyond Personality,” pgs. 174-175.)

Joseph Smith

          “I am like a huge, rough stone rolling down from a high mountain; and the only polishing I get is when some corner gets rubbed off by coming in contact with something else, striking with accelerated force against religious bigotry … backed by mobs … all hell knocking off a corner here and a corner there….”  (DHC 5:401)

Only through struggling and suffering can we learn to overcome the “natural man.” (Mos. 3:19) Only through striving and suffering can we be “born again.” (Al. 5) Only through endeavoring and suffering can a “mighty change” take place in our hearts so that we lose all desire to do evil. (Mos. 5) Only through suffering can we become truly converted.

This is how Abram became Abraham, Jacob became Israel, Simon became Peter, and Saul became Paul.

Only through suffering can we “partake of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:3-4), and “become heirs of God” and “joint heirs with Christ.” (Rom. 8:14-18) How could we expect to become co-heirs of Jesus and inherit what He has, if we have not struggled and suffered and been tried and tested?

V. Our suffering is “but a small moment” in eternity

Compared to our eternal life, present suffering is “but a small moment.” (D&C 122:7)

Our entire mortality is a blink of an eye in the eternal perspective. The pain may be momentary, but the gain will be everlasting. “No pain, no gain.”

For instance, parents inflict momentary pain on their children by having them vaccinated. Short term pain, for long term gains. If the parents spared their beloved children from this pain, they would be harming their children in the long run.

One of my bishops had a thin rope near the ceiling in his office going from one corner to the opposite corner. In the middle was a small knot.  The bishop used this an analogy of our brief mortality compared to our eternal destiny.

VI. We are not alone in our suffering

We can take some comfort knowing that our struggles and suffering are common, if not universal. (1 Cor. 10:13)

We can also take comfort knowing that Jesus will strengthen us in our afflictions. Jesus suffered all things. (D&C 122:8) “Jesus will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death …, and he will take upon him their infirmities … that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.” (Al. 7:12)

 “Sometimes He calms the storm, and sometimes He lets the storm rage and He calms his children.” (John Groberg)

Thomas Monson:
          “It is imperative that we recognize that whatever has happened to us has happened to others.  They have coped and so must we.  We are not alone.  Heavenly Father’s help is near….” (CR, The Ensign, November 1992, p. 68-69)

VII. Since death is a new beginning and not the end, it is not the ultimate tragedy

For atheists, death is the ultimate tragedy. I means complete annihilation. For people of faith, death is a door all of us must pass through get to a higher existence along the path of eternal progression. Death is the end of our mortal existence, but the beginning of a new spiritual one.  With each phase of the plan of happiness and eternal progression we are “added upon.”

VIII. Free will is paramount

An integral part of our eternal progression and the plan of happiness is free will/moral agency our inherent ability to make choices.  This is God’s “prime directive.” “Thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee” (Moses 3:17) But, with every choice come consequences.  With every action comes accountability. (2 Nephi 2: 11-17; Hel. 14:30).

According to the atheistic materialists, there is no free will. We are automatons. We are merely puppets involuntarily responding to stimulus.   

Without free will people are not responsible for their actions. They cannot be blamed for the bad things they do. Nor can they take credit for their accomplishments.

There may be genetic predispositions. These are stimuli. But our response is not inevitable. “Predisposition is not predestination.”

Between stimulus and response is choice. That choice comes from free will.  We can allow the stimulus default response to occur, or we can intervene and cause another outcome.  

For instance, in the Nazi death camps, were there was no hope, the default response was despair and debilitating depression. But some chose to reject this predisposition/ default response and they selflessly helped, served, encouraged, and uplifted others.

Dr. Victor Frankl, a preeminent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor observed:
          “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
          “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms [free will]—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
          “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom

Two men looked out through the self-same bars/ One saw the mud, the other the stars.

For example, the default response to imprisonment is to become hardened and insensitive. But for men like Joseph Smith and Nelson Mandela, imprisonment was a refining and ennobling experience.

Most suffering in the world is caused by human choices. The immeasurable suffering cause by atheistic materialists like Hitler’s genocide, Mao’s famine, Stalin’s oppression are examples.

Choosing sloth leads to poverty. Choosing gluttony leads to infirmity.  Choosing lust leads to ruin. Choosing selfish pride leads to loneliness. Choosing to disregard the Lord’s law of health in the Word of Wisdom leads to addiction.  

Wilford Woodruff
          “The troubles of the children of men are very numerous, but a great many of them are borrowed.  I believe two-thirds of the troubles of men are borrowed. [If we exercise our free will wisely by following God’s plan] we may escape a great many imaginary, trying, and perplexing scenes. (Journal of Discourses, 6:140-141, December 27, 1857)

James E. Faust
          “Unfortunately, some of our greatest tribulations are the result of our own foolishness and weakness and occur because of our own carelessness or transgression. Central to solving these problems is the great need to get back on the right track … (“Refined in Our Trials,” Ensign, Feb. 2006, 2-7)

God could not stop the suffering caused by our choices without depriving us of our free will. Struggling and suffering is the inherent price of free will and moral agency.

IX. God is “limited” by His own divine nature

In the universe of Star Trek, there is a “Prime Directive.”  It is Starfleet’s “General Order Number One.”  It is the most important guiding principle of the United Federation of Planets. The Prime Directive requires that there be no interference with the internal natural development of alien civilizations.

Likewise, our Heavenly Father’s “Prime Directive,” His “General Order Number One,” is that He will respect the free will and moral agency of his children. He will adhere to this divine paramount principle even though it results in in suffering. 

God is bound by his own nature. God could not remove all human suffering and still achieve His divine purposes. 

Taking away our free will would destroy His plan of eternal progression. God’s elimination of our free will would annul His plan of happiness.  Free will and moral agency are an inherent and necessary part of our eternal progress. And these often lead to suffering.

God will not/cannot act contrary to his own purposes and divine nature. “If so, God would cease to be God.” (See: Al. 42:11-25)

(See: Professor Hyrum Lewis, “There is a God: How to Respond to Atheism in the Last Days;” Jeffrey R. Holland, “Lessons from Liberty Jail,” BYU Devotional, Sep. 7, 2008.)


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