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Many people believe that if God is truly the God of love and mercy, He would be bound by His own character and principles to prevent suffering in the world.
British author and historian Paul Johnson writes of one of mankind's greatest theological dilemmas in his book The Quest for God, stating,"I suspect that the problem of evil drives more thoughtful people away from religion than any other difficulty" (1996, p. 61).
Julian Huxley, one of the 20th century's leading proponents of evolution, commented that the existence of evil "is a challenge to God's moral character" (Religion Without Revelation, 1957, p. 109). Huxley therefore concluded that divine revelation and a divine Revealer do not exist.
However, many who do believe in the existence of God, assume He intervenes to punish us whenever we step out of line, when in reality He generally allows us to suffer the consequences of our own selfish, shortsighted behavior (Jeremiah 2:19 and 10:23). God doesn't have to directly intervene every time we sin, because the spiritual laws He set in motion are self-enforcing, often bringing consequences when we break them.
Scripture shows God can remove wicked men from power (Daniel 2:21). He humbled and removed Babylon's King Nebuchadnezzar, the mightiest ruler of his era, neutralizing his influence for seven years (Daniel 5:18-21). So why doesn't God do this more often? Why doesn't He act to remove evil and pain from the face of the earth?
Understanding why God allows evil and its resultant suffering requires a fundamental understanding of one of God's greatest gifts—as well as how man has continually abused that gift. This gift is free will or, as it is generally referred to, freedom of choice. Of all the earth's physical creatures, man alone can exercise free will. The actions of more-complicated life-forms, such as mammals, are largely governed by instinct, though they do make rudimentary decisions when reacting to stimuli and adapting to situations.
God granted freedom of choice to Adam and Eve at creation and Eve, when tempted by the serpent, exercised her free will unwisely and was deceived (2 Corinthians 11:3). Although the Apostle Paul tells us Adam was not deceived (1 Timothy 2:13-14), he did allow his wife to persuade him to join her in disobeying God (Genesis 3:17).The book of Revelation explains the tree of life symbolized obedience to God ultimately leading to eternal life (Revelation 2:7 and 22:1-2). The tree of the knowledge of good and evil represented rejection of God's direction by determining good and evil for oneself, which would eventually lead to death.
Adam and Eve reaped the consequences of their sin. God told them they would die—and eventually they did—but the immediate consequence was that God expelled them from the garden and cut them off from the tree of life. They were left to their own flawed judgment and had to make their own way in a difficult world, because of their rebellion against God's clear instructions (Genesis 3:16-24). Since that time "all have sinned" (Romans 3:23 and 5:12) and reaped the penalties Adam and Eve incurred.
As God explained to ancient Israel, the freedom to make choices is essential to developing righteous character (Deuteronomy 30:15-19). Without freedom to choose, we would be little more than robots, with our behavior dictated by an outside force such as God Himself. God offered tangible relief from suffering to the Israelites. He began working with them while they were still in bondage in Egypt, and promised not only to free them from slavery, but to give them the opportunity to become a model nation others would want to emulate (Deuteronomy 4:5-8).
He instructed them in the 10 cardinal points of His eternal, spiritual law—the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-26) and gave them additional laws and statutes. They had the freedom to choose between the two ways of living: "I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the LORD your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days" (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Regrettably, Israel disobeyed and after the Israelites' centuries-long experiment with freedom of choice—during which they consistently chose to ignore God and do things their own way—they were returned to a state of national enslavement.
Actions yield consequences, and many of the consequences God said would result from disobedience (Deuteronomy 28:15-68) are virtually identical to the pain and suffering that wrack modern nations. Proverbs 22:8 tells us that "He who sows iniquity will reap sorrow." In one way or another sin is usually the underlying cause, and suffering is the effect.
These words apply to nations as well as individuals. History is a chronicle of the succession of empires conquering and being conquered. Mankind is doomed to repeat the cycle as long as disobeying God remains our chosen way. The Apostle James wrote of the origin of armed conflict: "Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war" (James 4:1-2).
God wants us to choose to obey Him from the heart, and cherish His values, which are based on two overriding principles —loving Him with all our hearts and loving others as much as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:35-40). Choosing to obey God and learning to love others when we have the freedom to do otherwise is vital for the future God has planned for us.