Why suffering? 

Barnabas Aid July August 2021

Suffering is the norm for all humanity. “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7). But why does God allow pain and destruction? He is good and all-powerful, so why does He not intervene and stop it? Especially, why does He allow His faithful followers to endure so much suffering?

The answer is found in Genesis 3. When Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil their sinful act of rebellion changed everything, everywhere in the universe – although, praise God, not for ever, as one day Christ will return and put all right again. But, for now, we are living with the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual impact on humankind, and the rest of creation, of the Fall. Even the realm of nature has turned against us and Satan delights in attacking us.  

The Garden of Eden was a place of bliss and of blessing. There God had blessed the first two humans (Genesis 5:2). Indeed the whole world was full of blessing (Genesis 1:22, 28). But after the Fall, the ground was cursed.  

Suffering was not God’s intention for the ordered and harmonious world He made, with God at its centre. But now Satan prowls around “like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He is full of fury because he knows his time of power on earth is short (Revelation 12:12).

The serpent (identified later as the devil and Satan, Revelation 12:9) began by asking Eve whether God had banned her from eating “from any tree”. Eve knew the answer and boldly corrected the visitor, adding also God’s warning that if they ate from that tree they would die. Then the serpent produced his big lie, directly contradicting God: “You will not surely die.” The serpent added a plausible-sounding reason, containing the promise “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:1-5).

Eve’s thought processes as she yielded to temptation (Genesis 3:6) involved the same three factors that John identifies in his description of worldliness opposed to the Father (1 John 2:16): desire of the body (for food), desire of the eyes (for beauty) and pride (desire for power-giving knowledge and wisdom that would make her like God).

This prideful desire to be like God was the same reason that Satan himself fell (Isaiah 14:12-15; Ezekiel 28:1-17).  
Eve sinned because Satan tempted her and she succumbed. All our own daily struggles against sin can be traced back to Satan’s activities in the world. But why did Satan himself sin and fall from heaven? No one tempted, tricked or cajoled him. His sin came entirely from within himself. That is the ultimate mystery of evil. Perhaps we should be thankful that we are unable to comprehend the most profound depths of pure evil. Just as God dwells in “unapproachable light” (1 Timothy 6:16) there is also an unapproachable darkness, in which evil is shrouded, leaving it a mystery that we cannot penetrate.  

Deceit and desire

Eve sinned because of a combination of deceit and desire. The serpent deceived Eve. But did Eve also deceive herself as she listened to him? “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9 AV).  
As for desires, did she and Adam previously have good and right desires, which became perverted by that fateful conversation with the serpent? God intended them to enjoy the garden, its creatures and each other. Would not this enjoyment entail good, God-given desires, including a desire to be in the Lord’s presence?

One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord  (Psalm 27:4 AV)

Eve committed the first human sin and immediately compounded it by getting Adam to sin too, who was apparently with her when she talked with the serpent. Both Old and New Testaments have strong rebukes for those who cause others to sin (1 Kings 14:16; Matthew 5:19; 18:6).

The effects of Adam and Eve’s sin

The first effect of the “knowledge of good and evil” was Adam and Eve’s realisation that they were naked (Genesis 3:7). The shame they felt (Genesis 2:25) was an unfamiliar emotion. Rather than moving into an “exalted sphere of Divine life”, their first knowledge of evil was the new guilt in their own hearts.

In the evening came God’s punishment: the serpent was cursed (Genesis 3:14), the ground was cursed (Genesis 3:17-18) and life was to become hard for Adam and Eve.

For Eve it would relate partly to childbearing (Genesis 3:16). God said He would greatly increase her istavon, usually translated “pain”. God told Adam that henceforth growing food would require istavon (“painful toil” NIV). This is an unusual Hebrew word for “pain”. Although istavon the noun means “pain”, the same Hebrew root as a verb means to be filled with sorrow, grief or sadness. So the pain of Adam and Eve’s punishment was not ordinary pain but a pain linked to sorrow and grief i.e. a spiritual and mental state of mind manifesting itself in physical pain. The cure for this pain is therefore spiritual.

The other part of God’s message for Eve was that her desire (teshuqah in Hebrew) would be for her husband and he would rule over her. But teshuqah is better translated as “turning to”, meaning that a wife will have single-minded devotion to her husband, and he will rule over her.


Another result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience was death (Genesis 2:17). They had previously lived in perfect happiness and perfect health and, says Calvin,

would have passed into heaven without death, and without injury. Death, therefore, is now a terror to us; first, because there is a kind of annihilation, as it respects the body; then, because the soul feels the curse of God.

So, the death they were to suffer was both physical and spiritual. This death begins, says Calvin, with the wretchedness of human existence after the Fall, so that the miseries of life are “a kind of entrance into death”. This long process of dying, both physically and spiritually, began as soon as the fruit was eaten.

Before the Fall, sorrow, pain and death did not exist. A time is coming when they will vanish away again, for in the new heaven and the new earth “there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

Then there will be two trees of life (Revelation 22:2a) and no tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for there is no possibility of sin in heaven (Revelation 21:27). Their leaves will be like healing herbs, to restore broken people and broken relationships (Revelation 22:2b). And “No longer will there be any curse” (Revelation 22: 3). The ground of heaven will be like the ground of Eden, without thistles or thorns. The results of the Fall will have been completely reversed.

But until then, we are living with the effects of the Fall. Life is a struggle, fraught with disease, anguish, error, doubt and conflict. Humankind is indelibly stained with sin (“original sin” as theologians call it), and the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), both death of the body and death of the soul.

Five fundamental sources of suffering

The ordered peace of the Garden of Eden disappeared after the Fall, replaced by disharmony, disorder and chaos, which affect all our relationships.  

1. Our relationship with God

Our sins and iniquities separate us from God (Isaiah 59:2). The severing of the sublime relationship that bound God to His rational creatures was the first consequence of the first sin. Adam and Eve hid themselves from God, for they dared not meet Him after they had sinned (Genesis 3:8). But very soon they no longer had the option of meeting Him, because He banished them permanently (Genesis 3:23-24). They – and we – became alienated from our Maker and this alienation from God lies at the root of all our suffering.

We no longer know who we are, where we belong, why we exist or the purpose of life. We are aware of an emptiness in our lives and we try to fill the void with physical, material or emotional paraphernalia. But we are suffering from a spiritual sickness and all such efforts just create greater sickness in the human psyche. We are lonely, isolated and afraid.

It is only through our Lord Jesus Christ that we can be at peace with God again, justified through faith in the One who died for us on the cross, and able even to rejoice in our sufferings (Romans 5:1-3). As an old hymn says, “Jesus, I will trust Thee, trust Thee with my soul, guilty, lost and helpless, Thou canst make me whole.”  

2. Our relationship with ourselves

Alienation from God and the loss of our identity in Him created an internal trauma, a restlessness in our hearts, an inner chaos. Anchorless, we are adrift. Lacking confidence in God, we place our confidence in ourselves – leading to anxiety and disaster. We have desires that cannot be met. We are no longer whole and at peace. Rather, we are at war with ourselves, as the realm of the Spirit and the realm of the flesh wrestle with each other (Romans 7:18-20). We seek all the time for that internal wholeness (shalom) which Adam and Eve enjoyed before the Fall, the “perfect peace” of those who trust in the Lord (Isaiah 26:3).  

3. Our relationships with others

Human relationships with one another were also damaged by the Fall. In the very next generation, the first murder occurred when jealous, angry Cain killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:1-8). Human violence and destructiveness have been with us ever since. Trust is gone and wrong desires have come, causing “fights and quarrels” (James 4:1-2).
But in the grace and purposes of God, not only can individuals be restored to a right relationship with God by the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1), not only can good relationships with one another be restored through Christ (Ephesians 2:14) but also He will bring “unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10). The day will come when nations no longer fight one another (Isaiah 2:4) but bring their splendours into the City that is lit by the glory of God (Revelation 21:24,26).  

4. Our relationship with the rest of creation

Even our relationship with the realm of nature is affected by the Fall. Since God cursed the ground, nature has been like an enemy. We are also in danger from a natural world which is itself in turmoil, and groaning in its frustration and bondage (Romans 8:19-21). Earthquakes and storms, drought and floods, parasites and pathogens, stinging insects and crop-eating pests, poisonous plants, wild animals hungry for human flesh – all of these will be with us until the time of God’s holy mountain.  

The world that God created “very good” (Genesis 1:31) is no longer flawless. We must still take care of it, as God instructed Adam (Genesis 2:15), but it is imperfect, as we are, and we must not make an idol of it.

5. Our relationship with Satan

We have an enemy (Genesis 3:15) who hates us and seeks to destroy us. Everywhere the devil goes depravity, destruction and death follow in his wake. Matthew Henry says of this verse:

A perpetual quarrel is here commenced between the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of the Devil … war is proclaimed between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. That war in heaven between Michael and the Dragon began now.

As William Philip has pointed out, with reference to Genesis 3:15, the first definition of a believer in the Bible is a fighter against evil. Struggling shows that our faith is real: we have not given up the battle. For the ancient serpent will keep struggling against the Church until he is thrown into the fiery lake (Revelation 20:2,10). It is a fantasy to expect perfect health, or indeed sinlessness, as a result of deciding to follow Christ. This world is a war zone for the Gospel and will be so until the End.

These five areas of relationship are the catastrophic consequences of the Fall and the reason that the beautiful and good world God created is now a world of suffering.

Dr Patrick Sookhdeo
International Director, Barnabas Fund

More stories