Adversity: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

August 19, 2010
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Avatar-BiVOT SS Lesson #32

After the Satan figure is given permission to afflict Job as a test of his faithfulness, three of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, come to visit him, sitting with him in silence for seven days. On the seventh day, Job speaks, beginning a conversation in which each of the four men shares thoughts on Job’s afflictions and adversity in general in profound poetic statements.  This is a lengthy dialogue between characters who alter their moods, question their motives, change their minds, and undercut each other with sarcasm and innuendo. Although Job comes closest to doing so, no single character articulates one true or authoritative opinion. Each speaker has his own flaws as well as his own lofty moments of observation or astute theological insight.  I believe the Book of Job is a jumping-off point for the reader to deeply explore questions of theodicy and the difficulty of understanding why an all-powerful God allows good people to suffer.

Eliphaz believes that Job’s agony must be due to some sin Job has committed, and he urges Job to seek God’s favor. Bildad and Zophar agree that Job must have committed evil to offend God’s justice and argue that he should strive to exhibit more blameless behavior. Bildad surmises that Job’s children brought their deaths upon themselves. Even worse, Zophar implies that whatever wrong Job has done probably deserves greater punishment than what he has received.  A character who is introduced later in the book, Elihu, also assumes that Job must be wicked to be suffering as he is, and he thinks that Job’s excessive talking is an act of rebellion against God. The interaction between Job and his friends shows the folly of trying to understand God’s ways.  The reader is privy to the information that Job has been righteous and the adversity comes from a bargain that has been made between God and Satan.  The fault of Job and his friends lies in trying to explain the nature of God with only the limited information available to human knowledge, as God himself notes when he roars from the whirlwind, “Who is this that darkness counsel / by words without / knowledge?” (38:2).

In spite of the criticism of his friends, Job believes that there is a “witness” or a “Redeemer” in heaven who will vouch for his innocence (16:19, 19:25). After a while, the upbraiding proves too much for Job, and he grows sarcastic, impatient, and afraid. He laments the injustice that God lets wicked people prosper while he and countless other innocent people suffer.  He feels that wisdom is hidden from human minds, but he resolves to persist in pursuing wisdom by fearing God and avoiding evil.

  • Why DOES a loving and an all-powerful God allow human suffering?

Here is an explanation I heard in Houston, Texas, and I think it has a lot of merit. It’s distinctly LDS, it’s very simple, and it combines several of the common theodicies.

    The Good Adversity

    The first type of adversity one might experience can be said to be “good.” It is the kind of adversity that exists to strengthen the human soul. It may be a result of living in a fallen world. Just as a corollary to living we knock up against all kinds of adversity, such as natural disasters. I would add that not all people will choose to use this type of suffering as a chance to grow, but that is its purpose, and theoretically it is possible to overcome, and to learn from it.

    The Bad Adversity

    Another type of adversity that exists in the world comes as a result of bad choices that we make. This goes along with the scripture “Wickedness never was happinesss.” In general, right living leads to peace, prosperity, and happiness, while wickedness, evil, and sin will tend to cause misery and pain. Note that this principle is not the only factor leading to suffering. That is why it may appear that a righteous person is experiencing much more adversity than his/her wicked neighbor.

    The Ugly Adversity

    Ugly adversity occurs when another person’s free agency conflicts with someone else’s life. God allows us to make our own life choices and rarely interferes. Thus innocent humans may suffer as a result of someone’s poor choices. Latter-day Saints believe passionately that free agency is a vital ingredient for attaining sanctification. Thus ugly adversity must exist, causing unneeded suffering. Why did God organize the world this way? Because without choosing freely we could never develop the qualities necessary for godhood.

Now it’s your turn! How do you explain the problem of evil and adversity in the world?  Could an omnipotent God have created free beings that were already morally perfect, thus eliminating the need for adversity?  Does the Book of Job illuminate or obscure our understanding of this principle?  How do you understand and come to terms with adversity in your life?

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19 Responses to Adversity: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. August 19, 2010 at 5:39 am

    Here are some thoughts I had a long time ago: http://adrr.com/living/ss_1.htm

  2. August 19, 2010 at 5:45 am
  3. Mike S
    August 19, 2010 at 7:41 am

    It seems like a foregone conclusion. If something good happens, there is a philosophy to explain why that is from God. If something bad happens, there is also an explanation why that is also from God. If it’s because of someone else’s decision, that is also allowed by God. The result of this philosophy is that everything comes from God (which is likely much more true than we generally think). The result of this, however, doesn’t really give us any practical tools to deal with the inevitable suffering in this world. In good times or bad, the counsel is the same: pray, read the scriptures, go to Church, pay your tithing, etc. But these often don’t help. The thing that has helped me deal with suffering the most is Buddhism. Instead of trying to figure out the cause of affliction, focus on alleviating it. Dealing with this problem forms the “core” of Buddhism.

    Life is suffering. Suffering has a cause. There can be an end to suffering. There is a path to reach this end.

    This makes much more sense to me than trying to figure out “why” good things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people… When someone is shot with an arrow, does it make the most sense to figure out who shot the arrow, what type of material the wood is made out of, why the person got shot, where the shooter was standing, etc.? Or does it make more sense to simply remove the arrow and treat the wound?

  4. August 19, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Bart Ehrman’s book, “God’s Problem” is a good review of the problem of evil and suffering. IMHO God doesn’t have anything to do with either the good, bad or ugly. Life just is.

  5. August 19, 2010 at 9:53 am

    Mike S.—Generally speaking, it makes the most sense to figure out the who/what/why first, and remove/treat later because without the former knowledge, you won’t have what you need to act in the best way possible.

    After all, it would be pointless if you got shot in the middle of helping the other victim because you didn’t bother to evaluate what immediate information you can get.

    The same thing is true in spiritual application. You need to figure out what you are doing wrong before treating the symptoms. There is certainly a point at which obsessing over the whys ceases to gain you any new information. At that point, you switch from information-gathering to action. The trick is knowing when that point is reached.

    I think the story of Job is powerful for me because there was nothing Job could DO to fix the problem. That is partly why the entire poem was illustrated in scripture. After a whole chunk of history that focused strictly on what was to be done, here is a story that illustrates that even after you’ve done everything right, sometimes things just happen and you have to build a relationship of trust with the Lord to get through.

    And also, interestingly, the Lord does not leave him to wonder and despair without giving him an answer eventually. Job was not wrong to ask why he suffered what he did, he was wrong because he spent his time focusing on himself rather than God. He was trying to justify himself, turn himself into a martyr. To his friends, rather than saying “I don’t know what I did wrong, if anything I will not do it again, but I know that God is great and there must be a reason for it, even if I don’t understand it,” he said, essentially, “I did nothing wrong! All of these things are happening to me for no reason.”

    He presumed to judge himself, rather than leaving judgment up to God.

    I’m grateful for this lesson right now. Thanks, BiV.

  6. Will
    August 19, 2010 at 10:15 am

    I would add that there is also a type of adversity that is “Neutral.” It is just a part of mortality. Some illnesses, job losses, etc. may come not because God has inflicted it on us to teach us a lesson, not because we did anything wrong to deserve it, and not because of another person’s poor choices, but merely because it is part of life and life (or $%!^) happens.

  7. Thomas
    August 19, 2010 at 11:56 am

    I would say that the LDS doctrine of exaltation is one of the better ways to rationalize the theodicy problem. If the traditional conception of man’s origin and eternal destiny is correct — i.e., that people were created ex nihilo and are destined to be angels (remaining fundamentally different beings from God), then there’s really no reason for a decent God not to have just created people morally and physically perfect in the first place, and skipped the whole “vale of tears” bit altogether.

    But if man was Something co-eternally with God, and if man is to become like God — and if God is, by definition, a being that has overcome a physical universe characterized by random chance, with all its unfairnesses and landmines — then by definition, the only way to become like God, in every sense, is to pass through that kind of a universe.

    Thus, I don’t think that God intentionally sends us crap to refine us. The world will throw plenty of refiner’s fire at us on its own, thank you very much, either through hardships that threaten to break us, or prosperity that threatens to corrupt us (upon which we proceed to break ourselves). But all adversity is “good,” in the sense that all experience is good; hardship and advantage are both inherent parts of life, which is overall a good thing.

  8. Mike S
    August 19, 2010 at 12:57 pm

    #6: Thomas: “…and if man is to become like God…”

    As President Hinckley said in 1997, “I don’t know that we teach that anymore.”

  9. Martin
    August 19, 2010 at 1:01 pm

    I heard a different version of categorizing adverstity: that which we bring upon ourselves by our choices, that which other people bring upon us because of their choices, and that which simply happens as part of mortality. Taken together, these three provide the opposition necessary in all things for our mortal experience. Similar, but not quite the same perspective as the OP.

  10. Thomas
    August 19, 2010 at 1:51 pm

    #7 — Mike, I do get the impression the Church was backing off the “As man now is, God once was” part of Lorenzo Snow’s “couplet” at one point (the pendulum now seems to have swung back a bit from neo-orthodoxy), but reading President Hinckley’s remarks in context, I didn’t at all get the impression that he was indicating a back-away from the doctrine of exaltation. That goes, IMO, only when the Church goes.

  11. August 19, 2010 at 6:43 pm

    “but reading President Hinckley’s remarks in context, I didn’t at all get the impression that he was indicating a back-away from the doctrine of exaltation.”

    The day after that statement he was at BYU and reassured the student body that he really did have an understanding of the doctrine.

  12. brjones
    August 19, 2010 at 8:23 pm

    “In general, right living leads to peace, prosperity, and happiness, while wickedness, evil, and sin will tend to cause misery and pain.”

    I realize this is somewhat of a tired issue, but I don’t believe there’s any evidence of this principle, even generally speaking. It is at best subjectively true.

  13. August 19, 2010 at 9:05 pm

    Thomas — you’ve hit a key point.

    Mike S — you’ve twisted what he said, all in all. We definitely follow the Bible in believing that we can become heirs and joint heirs with Christ.

    brjones — as Paul said, if we look for the results in this life only, we would of all men be the most miserable. The principle is true only in an eternal context.

  14. brjones
    August 19, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    Stephen M, I would actually take issue with Paul’s statement as well, but in general I’m ok with that position. The problem is that most people, I think, use a much more temporal standard by which to judge the truth of the axiom at issue. And although I’m sure BIV would agree with your comment, as the OP seems to be discussing primarily how we deal with trials in the here and now, I think the applicability of her statement can appropriately be applied to this life. From that perspective, not only do I think it’s just a false statement, but I think it’s a potentially dangerous one.

  15. GBSmith
    August 19, 2010 at 10:16 pm

    When people take the “law irrevocably decreed…” literally it can be a setup for a fall because it can lead to feeling entitled. That is a sure path to disappointment and at its worst, dangerous. We may be able to control how we feel and respond to life but I don’t believe we can in any way make God do what we want him to do for our ease or comfort.

  16. Aaron R.
    August 20, 2010 at 4:50 am

    I like the Book of Job specifically because it seems to resist an adequate theodicy. Instead it wants to put our trust in God regardless of what happens to us. I think this is in part because God himself still struggles with the question of theodicy.

  17. August 20, 2010 at 11:21 am

    I think one lesson that is clear from the Book of Job is that anyone who suffers deeply can expect that suffering to increase because, inevitably, someone is going to come along and try to explain to that person the cause of their suffering. I think that an unavoidable part of suffering is having to deal with perhaps well-intentioned individuals who think they have an answer. And Job’s friends are offering answers from scripture too. One of them even cites Proverbs to Job. Yet, the Book of Job doesn’t seem to think very highly of such attempts. Job certainly does not. I see one message of the Book of Job is to be very careful when seeking to dispense reasons for suffering. In the end, God is angry because none of Job’s friends spoke right about God, and even tells the friends they had better ask Job to intercede on their behalf.

  18. hawkgrrrl
    August 20, 2010 at 1:08 pm

    BiV – I love how you’ve laid this out into these 3 categories. Something I will be thinking about for a long time to come. Great thinking!

  19. August 20, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    I think one lesson that is clear from the Book of Job is that anyone who suffers deeply can expect that suffering to increase because, inevitably, someone is going to come along and try to explain to that person the cause of their suffering.

    That is surely the truth.