Why Do I Live in a World Filled With Pain?

By Tim Harlow

I fulfilled a long-standing promise to my wife and took her to Hawaii for our 20th anniversary. We had never been to Hawaii together, and I have to tell you it is everything we expected. It is the Garden of Eden, as best I could imagine. It was like some kind of dream—perfect weather, tropical fruit, and hula people.

But we had to come back to Chicago in February. There was something about the 100-degree shift in temperature (it was 15 below zero wind chill when we landed) that caused me to ask myself, How did this happen?

Why do I have to live here? Why is there pain in the world? How could a loving God allow cold weather, evil, terrorism, cancer, country music?

Everyone’s Question

Lee Strobel, author of a great book called The Case for Faith, commissioned George Barna, a public opinion pollster, to do a nationwide scientific survey. If you could ask God one question and knew he’d give you an answer, what would you ask? Survey says: “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?”

The answer is Adam and Eve chose it.

And the Lord God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die’” (Genesis 2:16, 17).

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, you must not eat of it, cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-19).

Let’s be clear that God created the world good. It was better than Hawaii. Adam and Eve chose badly. They chose the curse. This world is no longer the way it was designed.

Disease, disasters, tragedy—all are biblically traced to sin’s introduction into the world.

There are results to our behavior individually and as a universe—everything evil is traced to the introduction of sin into the world. Is your marriage having problems? Your kids not doing well? Finances and job in a mess? What is wrong? It’s not God’s fault. It’s sin.

I’m anticipating your next question: “Then why did God put the tree there in the first place?”

That is the really strange part. The reason there is pain and suffering in the world is because God loved us.

Let me explain. When I was a kid I was in love with Marcia Brady, and my sister had a life-sized stand-up poster of Shawn Cassidy. But we did not have a relationship with them and they didn’t know we existed. There is no relationship until you are both in it together by choice. It does take “two to tango.”

The nature of love involves the freedom to choose to love back.

God made people to love him, but the only way there could be a true relationship was if we had the choice to love him back. So how could he allow us the opportunity to love him back? There had to be a freedom to choose to love him back.

Enter—the tree.

By not eating of the fruit of that tree, Adam and Eve would have told God, “We want to have a relationship with you. We choose to love you back, and do things your way.”

“If you don’t eat the fruit, you are choosing to love and obey me. If you do eat the fruit—then the Harlows will have to live in a place with minus-15 wind chills. If you eat the fruit, terrorists will crash into buildings, wars will be fought, babies will die, and disease will wipe out nations. But you make the choice.”

Maybe it wasn’t that plain to them, but that is the reality.

Our greatest blessing in life—the freedom to choose—is also our greatest curse because we often choose the wrong thing.

No Strings

Growing up, I was fortunate to have grandparents who lived on a farm. There were june bugs in Arkansas where my grandparents lived. Not the little, brown northern ones. I’m talking about the big green ones the size of a quarter that would knock you down if you got in their flight path. As a little city kid, I had a lot to learn from my cousins on the farm. One great trick was tying strings to the legs of these 747 bugs and flying them around. If you tied a string to a leg, it was like having a remote-control plane that still had the wire connected.

The Garden of Eden without any choice to obey or disobey God was like june bugs with strings. No freedom, no choice. What God did by placing the trees in the garden, was to cut the strings. He allowed Adam and Eve (and all the rest of us) to fly free. Free to come back and land on his shoulder, or free to fly away into the perils of disobedience and the lair of the predator.

He knew we cannot love without the freedom to choose. And we cannot be free to choose good unless there is something bad to choose.

Could God have programmed or designed Adam and Eve with a response to his love for them? Absolutely. They could have been wired with software that allowed only compliance to his will. He could have left us no choice and therefore, no love.

We’re familiar with creations like that. They’re called machines. Robots and computers are generally predictable, safe, and nonthreatening.

In a world where love is the supreme ethic, freedom must be built in. A love that is programmed or compelled is not love; it is merely a conditioned response or self-serving. Having the freedom to love when you may choose not to love is to give love legitimate meaning. To ask that we be denied freedom and only choose good is to ask not for love, but for something other than humanity (Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods, 11).

Then why didn’t God create a world without human freedom? Because that would have been a world without humans. Would it have been a place without hate? Yes. A place without suffering? Yes. But it also would have been a world without love, which is the highest value in the universe (Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith, 37).

There is an old adage, “If you love something, let it go. If it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was.”

The Amish get it. They have a tradition called rumspringa, which means “running around.” When children turn 16 they are allowed to live like normal teenagers. Not to live in sin, but to live with malls, TV, electricity, and all the stuff a normal teenager does.

The Amish teens may live that way for a certain period of time, and then they have to choose between getting baptized and joining the Amish culture, or living apart from it and their families.

Of course, the parents hope they have raised their children in such a way that they will see what the world has to offer and come home.

The documentary I watched found that more are coming back to their roots than ever before.

But they have the choice.

That’s exactly why we don’t baptize babies, and why we don’t have a mandatory time when the kids go through confirmation. It has to be up to them—their time. They have to choose.

And so do you.

Children of God

God made us for the same reason we choose to have a family.

Think about it. It’s a tough proposition to start a family. Some choose not to do it. You know each child is going to cost you money. You know he is going to keep you up nights and break your heart at times. Yet somehow deep down in your soul you know it is the highest calling. Somehow you know it will all be worth it and the joys will likely outweigh the sorrows. You believe when each one finally walks out of your immediate lives you will realize at that moment that you wouldn’t have traded all the money and sleep and sanity in the world for the experience you’ve had in loving and being loved by this child.

That’s why God made the tree. In love, he wanted us to love him back.

Don’t you love to look at your children when they are sleeping? They look like angels. Why? They don’t have any choice but to be good when they are asleep!

But many of you have had kids with serious health problems and you’ve sat by the bedside anxiously waiting for them to wake up. When our daughter was in Pediatric Intensive Care—with chest tubes, wires, and IVs—completely sedated—I would have moved Heaven and earth to have her wake up and be bad!

What kind of sick parents locks his child up in a closet and doesn’t allow him the freedom to choose to love them back? What kind of a strange God would want a world full of robots who love him just because they have no other choice?

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!” (1 John 3:1).

With the privilege of being children, came the freedom of choice. And our first parents chose badly, as do we.

That is what makes this relationship so amazing, and why I should quit complaining about the weather in Chicago. God gave me the freedom to choose, knowing I would mess it up. So he fixed my freedom to choose badly, by sending his Son to die on the cross to pay for my bad choices—and my father Adam’s. So when I get to Heaven, we can have that “two-to-tango” relationship forever and ever.

In that place I will have perfect weather and a perfect relationship with my Creator.

That is my choice. I hope it’s yours.



Tim Harlow is senior pastor with Parkview Christian Church, Orland Park, Illinois.

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