~Answer by Michelle**
As we reflect on the events of 9-11, and consider all the current difficulties facing people the world over, we wanted to address this question today — one we have heard often.
This question (or a variation of it, such as “If there is a God, why does He let bad things happen?”) is one that I think most of us struggle with at some level, at some point in our lives. It’s normal to want to have a life relatively free of pain; we are actually wired to want to avoid pain (think “fight-or-flight”). Much in our world (sometimes for good and sometimes for ill) is designed to help alleviate pain, or to at least distract us from it.
It’s hard sometimes not to envy others’ lives that seem to be easier, more “blessed.” Or on the flip side, to be so consumed by the inequalities of life so as to lose hope and feel buried in despair. Or to feel so helpless because we can only do so much to help alleviate the suffering in the world.
Sometimes, to those who believe (or who want to believe) in God, the struggle with pain and the desire for relief from suffering can equate to a trial of faith.
“If God is really there, why doesn’t He intervene?”
“Why haven’t my (their) prayers been answered?”
“How long do I (they) have to wait on the Lord?”
“Does God really care about me (them)?”
“Why does God let innocent people suffer and die?”
The list of questions that sometimes come could go on and on.
There has been much written on this subject, by people of many faiths and persuasions. For each person, finding peace in the midst of trial will probably be a little different.
Following are two clusters of truth that help me not only accept my own challenges, but also process the broader questions about the issue of human suffering. This is not meant to be an exhaustive summary of Mormon doctrine or of my personal perspective. I share only a few things that help me address this question. I welcome your thoughts as well (comments are moderated, so don’t worry if they don’t show up immediately).
1. Mortality was not meant to be easy. The opposition and pain is part of a loving plan — a plan designed to allow us to learn by experience now and to eventually enjoy great eternal blessings.
I recall a time when my oldest was quite young, maybe about four or five. He had watched me, his mother, struggle with chronic health issues (which I have had for several years). He asked a pointed and poignant question: “Mom, why do people sometimes get sick?”
Obviously, it was a loaded question. And obviously, I felt an urgent desire to give him a clear answer that might help his young mind to understand truth.
God did not fail me in that moment. I had a very distinct idea come to mind.
I grabbed a couple of hand weights, and started pumping them. I may have even had him try.
You know where I went with that, of course.
We still will often talk in our family about how we can look at our trials as spiritual weights. Think about the metaphor; we have to literally break down muscle tissue in order to have our muscles strengthened. Our spirits will be tested in similar ways through the pain and struggles of mortality. But like a caring, wise trainer, God will often give us opportunities to stretch, to push through pain, to keep going — beyond where we think our limits might be sometimes — because He knows what benefits lie in spiritual resistance.
There are many scriptures that capture my thoughts on this. One is Romans 8:18: “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”
Faith to me includes holding onto the fact that even though the pain is real — and I believe God knows and empathizes with that — God knows and understands so much more than we do about the purpose of opposition now, and what awaits us after this life. Because of the atonement of Jesus Christ, there is redemption from death through the resurrection (which will come to us all), and the possibility for glory beyond our comprehension.
Another critical part of this plan of mortality includes what we call agency in Mormon doctrine — the opportunity God gives us to make choices based on knowledge that we have, to learn by experience, to have the opportunity to grow and gain wisdom through trial and error. That fact alone makes mortality very, very messy. We are all imperfect beings. We all make mistakes, and we make them often. Sometimes mistakes are serious, even sinful, and can cause great disruption, pain, and suffering for others — even for those who are innocent. As hard as it is to comprehend, even all this messiness has a place in God’s plan.
Here is my second cluster of thoughts, which build on what I have discussed above.
2. Pain can help us find out more about ourselves, gain compassion for others, and discover more about God and His plan — and about the atonement of Jesus Christ.
Regardless of whether one believes in God, adversity does give one an opportunity to dig deep for the wherewithal to rise to the challenge. Again, books have been written about the triumph of the human soul in the face of severe trial. We can discover that we are stronger than we think we are when we are put to tests of character, patience, endurance, forgiveness, courage and many other virtues. We can learn things that perhaps may not be easily learned any other way but through the “school of hard knocks.”
I discussed this question with a friend of mine today. Jenny shared this thought:
I think God already has a pretty good idea of who we are. But we don’t. Through our experiences in life we come to know ourselves better. When you read an incredible story about someone helping Jews during WWII or running into the World Trade Center to save someone on 9-11 do you ever wonder ‘Would I do that if I were there?’ Well, to me that is some of what life is about. To see what we will do when faced with hard situations.
One of our prophets, Spencer W. Kimball said something that I have leaned on more than once when considering this question:
If all the sick for whom we pray were healed, if all the righteous were protected and the wicked destroyed, the whole program of the Father would be annulled and the basic principle of the gospel, … agency, would be ended. No man would have to live by faith.
If pain and sorrow and total punishment immediately followed the doing of evil, no soul would repeat a misdeed. If joy and peace and rewards were instantaneously given the doer of good, there could be no evil—all would do good and not because of the rightness of doing good. There would be no test of strength, no development of character, no growth of powers, no…agency. … There would also be an absence of joy, success, resurrection, eternal life….
The opposition and unpredictable (messy!) nature of how life unfolds is an essential part of God’s plan for us, for our eternal growth. It’s resistance training at its finest!
Adversity also can help us have compassion for others, and can enable us to serve and help and lift another. Empathy is a powerful tool in healing hearts and lives and relationships. Love can do much to alleviate the suffering of others, and can motivate us to want to help others in need. (Sometimes God won’t intervene because He gives us the chance to step in and serve!) Forgiveness in the face of suffering inflicted by another’s poor choices also expand our capacity for love and compassion.
I am especially compelled by the notion that, if we will let them, our trials can help us find God and His strength and grace, which surpasses anything that we can find or do on our own. A scripture comes to mind from 2 Corinthians. Interestingly, Paul had prayed to have a “thorn” removed from his life. Rather than having it removed, he got this answer from the Lord:
And he said unto me, My agrace is sufficient for thee…
And then Paul shares the insight that changed how he sees his affliction:
…for my bstrength is made perfect in cweakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may drest upon me.
Therefore I take pleasure in ainfirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in bpersecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am cweak, then am I dstrong.
While it’s definitely not easy to find pleasure in pain (and I think it takes experience to let that gift of perspective distill), I have caught glimpses of that power of Christ, brought into my life through the influence of the Holy Ghost. I have seen and felt that power in the lives of others as well. Even when people don’t realize it, I believe their ability to find light in the darkness comes through Jesus Christ as a blessing from God.
That power in my life can bridge the gap between me and heaven. It helps me understand more about the Savior’s Atonement, and about the deep and abiding love of my Heavenly Father and His Son. As I trust in that power, my faith is enhanced. Hope increases. I feel strength beyond my own. I am able to see trials more as stepping stones, not stumbling blocks.
When Jenny and I first started talking, she summed up her thoughts simply. She essentially said, “‘Bad’ is relative; it’s in the eye of the beholder.” She talked about recently hearing stories about those who suffered severe trials — life-threatening cancer, being involved on the front lines in World War II. There was a theme in these stories, which was, “I’m a better person because of what I suffered.”
I will say again that I don’t think that God is unaware of how hard “bad” things can be. And I believe He doesn’t fault us when we honestly struggle. I think honesty about our struggles can help us face them, find the good, and find God. Too much focus on the pain, however, can bring despair and hopelessness, which at their core are not of God. We don’t have to punish ourselves when we may feel those emotions, but I believe it helps to recognize that fundamentally, God is a God of hope. The message of the Atonement of the Savior, Jesus Christ, is a message of hope. The plan that includes the pain of mortality is a plan of hope. Because we are His children, God can help us find hope in the midst of suffering, and perspective in the midst of trial.
When we try to see some good in our bad times, or at least trust good is there somewhere (or will unfold sometime — now or eternally), glimmers of light can shine through even the darkest times. Any effort to try to choose that kind of light is a step forward. Sometimes that progress comes a little at a time, and sometimes in the moment, it can feel like one step forward and two steps back. But I can’t imagine that any effort at choosing to “find the silver lining” is wasted. The more we choose hope, the more I think we are empowered to choose it again, and the more we recognize and enjoy the perspective and peace amid trial that can come into our lives as we do.
Truly, as Jenny noted, anytime I read or watch a story about someone who has overcome great adversity, that theme of finding some good in the bad is always, always there. This isn’t just about a superficial optimism in my mind, but in digging deep to choose a measure of hope even when it seems nearly impossible to do, and even when things don’t work out as we want.
So, why do good things happen to bad people? I know I don’t come close to understanding it all, but I do know there is a God. He is real. He loves us. Pain is not evidence that He doesn’t care, but is part of an eternal plan for our growth, progress, learning, and development. I hold onto those realities as I face daily pain of chronic illness and other trials, and as I sometimes am weighed down by the pain others experience. In the end, I trust in the truth that Jesus Christ is our “high priest of good things to come” (Heb. 8:6; Heb. 9:11). Because of Him, I — you, we — can have hope.
For more perspective on this topic, see the video below (in English and in Spanish). This video, entitled “Finding Hope,” shares the story of a survivor of 9-11 and how, through his faith in Jesus Christ, he has found blessings in his life in spite of — and even because of — his involvement in that tragedy. (“Una Nueva Esperanza” — Un hombre describe el trayecto recorrido desde la tragedia del 11 de septiembre de 2001 hasta una nueva esperanza por medio de la fe en Jesucristo.)
**Please note: The answers in “Ask a Mormon Woman” and (other content on this site) reflect the thoughts and perspectives of the administrators at Mormon Women. Although we strive to have our content consistent with the Church’s doctrine and teachings, we do not speak officially for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. For official information about or from the Church, please visit mormon.org or www.lds.org.
For more Ask a Mormon Woman questions/answers, please click here.
Do you have a question you would like to submit? Simply include a comment below, or send an email at gmail with the username ‘mormonwoman’