Why do people suffer?

To begin with, we must acknowledge that not all the “why’s” of life can be fully understood by us humans. As the Creator tells us in the Bible: “Just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9b).

However, here is a starting point for understanding the difficult question of why people suffer.

Have you ever loved somebody but he or she did not love you? If so, what did you do about it? Did you try to force or manipulate the person to love you? If so, did it work? “No” is surely your answer.

This is because it is not possible to force or manipulate a person into loving someone else. Genuine love simply doesn’t work this way. Obedience can be compelled, but true love is possible only if the person is also free not to love.

The Bible tells us that God made human beings with the ability to love Him, and therefore also not to love Him. However, when the first man and woman, Adam and Eve, chose not to love God but to go their own way, the consequences were terrible. Because of their disobedience, the world became troubled by broken relationships—separation from God, nature, and one another. Adam and Eve also started deceiving themselves, blaming each other for their own sins.

But this was only the beginning. You can read about the other consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin in Genesis chapter 3. The world God created is still wonderful, but now producing food from the ground and from animals is much more difficult; the earth is devastated by natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods, storms and droughts; and decay, disease, and physical death trouble us all. Above all, the human race has been poisoned by selfishness, which generates idolatry, greed, fear, hatred, cruelty, lying, rape, murder, war, and many other evils. This is the great struggle that we share with the rest of creation as Paul, an early follower of Jesus, wrote about in Romans 8:18-23.

So, the first reason people suffer is that we live in a world infected with sin. Ever since sin entered the human race, disease and natural disasters have become part of life on earth. A second reason is that people suffer from their own sins. For example, a man becomes crippled when he is shot while robbing a bank. A third cause of suffering is the sin and evil that people do to others. A widow is cheated of her money by a greedy man. Millions of people were killed as a result of Hitler’s racism and lust for world domination. People also suffer from mistakes—failures that are not sinful. For example, a woman, tired from taking care of twin babies, forgets to turn off the stove; as a result, a fire breaks out and burns down their apartment building.

Finally, people also suffer because of good choices they make. A man donates his kidney for a sick brother. A woman gives up her wealth and social status to become a member of a religious organization that serves the poor. The French writer Emile Zola, elderly and comfortable, risked his health and his reputation to defend the prisoner Dreyfus who was falsely accused of treason. As Jesus observed, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). (see does my life have a purpose? and does God answer prayer?)