A person can review the awful circumstances through which God’s children pass and then question why He allows any of His children to suffer pain, anguish, physical hardship, and deprivation.
From the earliest moments of civilization, faithful people have responded by asking, “How can God who is good allow suffering?” The ensuing answers have been beautiful, insightful, even powerful.
For instance, righteous Job lost his entire family, all of his flocks and fields, and his home. The biblical description includes how his body was afflicted with boils, his wife urged him to curse God and die, and his closest friends accused him of unrighteousness. In the midst of all of these difficulties he exclaimed, “I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (see Job 19:25-26).
Job’s undying testimony of the reality and power of God sustained him throughout his painful ordeals.
When the Prophet Joseph Smith asked in Liberty Jail, “O God, where art thou?” the powerful yet simple reply came, “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; and then if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes” (see Doctrine and Covenants 121:7-8).
And then a gentle rebuke followed:
“Thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands. Thou art not yet as Job; thy friends do not contend against thee, neither charge thee with transgression, as they did Job” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:9-10).
What is the purpose of suffering?
So then, what is the purpose of suffering and afflictions? We have the assurance to inherit eternal life if we endure our suffering and afflictions well.
But is that the purpose of this life, simply to endure suffering?
As Lehi teaches in the Book of Mormon, “Adam fell that men might be; and men are, that they might have joy” (2 Nephi 2:25, emphasis added). So suffering is not the end of our creation.
Alma shared additional truths when he testified, “For behold, this life is the time for men to prepare to meet God” (Alma 34:32).
The Lord, who created this earth for us to dwell upon, decreed, “And we will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25).
Here on Earth, people are in a probationary or testing state, a time to learn to live as the Lord commanded: “therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). Similarly, the Lord commands, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
In order to become as God is, people must use their moral agency to choose righteousness despite the temptations, difficulties, and suffering that surround us. “For it must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so … righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad” (2 Nephi 2:11).
The Lord explained further through revelation that, “It must needs be that the devil should tempt the children of men, or they could not be agents unto themselves; for if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet” (Doctrine and Covenants 29:39). Again the Lord teaches, “they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good” (Moses 6:55).
Suffering is a key component to temporal and eternal opportunities for happiness, whether that suffering be inflicted through personal carelessness and disobedience, or because of the weaknesses and mistakes of others, or because the Lord sees fit to allow us to be tried and chastened.
Let us turn to the Savior as an exemplar for faithful, enduring, pleading, believing, and suffering. Let us let God turn the night to day, the pain to joy, the hurt to healing, and the doubt to understanding. Truly, when we suffer, the most blessed phrase in all of scripture is “and it came to pass.”
God never leaves us alone in suffering.
When the mobs drove the Missouri Saints from their homes in November 1833, the Lord taught Joseph Smith a key principle of truth regarding suffering:
“Verily I say unto you, concerning your brethren who have been afflicted, and persecuted, and cast out from the land of their inheritance—I, the Lord, have suffered the affliction to come upon them, wherewith they have been afflicted, in consequence of their transgressions; yet I will own them, and they shall be mine in that day when I shall come to make up my jewels. Therefore, they must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son. For all those who will not endure chastening, but deny me, cannot be sanctified” (D&C 101:1-5).
This beautiful perspective on the purpose of suffering was augmented by further revelation to Joseph Smith five years later as he sat destitute in Liberty Jail.
“If thou are called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea; if thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb; and if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:5-7, emphasis added).
Both passages teach us that we are never alone. God is always with us—even in the midst of our greatest suffering. He has a perfect knowledge and comprehension of our suffering, for He Himself declared, “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8).
That complete godly condescension on our behalf is found recorded in D&C 19, which provides a description of sacred suffering given by God himself:
“For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent; but if they would not repent they must suffer even as I; which suffering caused myself, even God, the greatest of all, to tremble because of pain, and to bleed at every pore, and to suffer both body and spirit—and would that I might not drink the bitter cup, and shrink—nevertheless, glory be to the Father, and I partook and finished my preparations unto the children of men” (D&C 19:16-19).
Fear not; He is with you.
We all must suffer in order to grow, progress, and have experience. Yet if we repent, none of us will ever have to endure what the Lord suffered for us. The great message of the restored gospel is that Christ lives, He is our Eternal Savior, and He fully comprehends our sufferings and stands with us through them, in our very midst.
We are never alone. When we feel to cry out in the anguish of our soul, “O God, where art thou?” we hear the gentle and affirming reply, “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isaiah 41:10).
[This is modified from my article “O God Where Art Thou?: D&C 121-122” originally published in Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture atmormoninterpreter.com/o-god-where-art-thou-dc-121-122/