If we are clearly to understand why God allows suffering, we must squarely face another important question. How can we have true freedom of choice and still gain freedom from suffering? We desperately want both. But are both possible at the same time?
If there is any single ideal that is practically worshiped in the West, it is freedom. Freedom is the bedrock of our social system. Many would be willing to defend freedom and self-determination with their lives.
God Himself has given people freedom of choice. In fact, such is part of God's great design. He does not force us down a particular path, but He allows us to choose the way we will go. On the subject of choice, God told ancient Israel, "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 . . ." (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky passionately expressed what may be the West's prevailing view of the importance of free will. In 1864, in his Notes From the Underground, he wrote of our need for self-determination: "Man needs only his free will, no matter what it costs and where it leads."
But what are the advantages and disadvantages of man's free will? We need to keep in mind that freedom of choice allows for both good and evil outcomes. The cost can be enormous. Our choices can lead to disastrous consequences.
In the early 1900s, as now, people freely made choices. National leaders made fateful decisions. Pride, stubbornness, fear, strategic timetables and entangling political and military alliances all played a part in starting World War I. Once conditions were in place, the nations at war found themselves trapped in a canyon of continual, almost unending slaughter of young soldiers. We see similar patterns throughout history.
But, in all the chaos, the real question is not whether God is alive and listening to the participants, but whether they are listening to Him.
Paul succinctly describes people's condition: "Their feet are swift to shed blood; destruction and misery are in their ways; and the way of peace they have not known" (Romans 3:15-17). Unfortunately, not all destruction, misery, heartache and suffering come on those who make the bad decisions. Many of the consequences of our choices fall indiscriminately on the innocent. Blameless people can and often do get hurt. All too frequently those who had nothing to do with bad choices suffer most from them.
Moses confirms this principle: "The LORD is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation" (Numbers 14:18). Some sins' consequences last for generations.
Mankind's wrong choices are the cause of most of the suffering we see in the world.