For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
That’s a fundamental law of the world we live in. As a fish makes its way through the ocean, it pushes against the water with its fins—and the water pushes right back, allowing the fish to swim. The only reason a basketball player can dribble is because after he pushes the ball toward the ground, the ground pushes the ball back up to him. And if we make the mistake of running into a wall, the pain we feel comes from the fact that the wall pushes back.
It’s cause and effect in action. If x happens, you can count on y happening in response. If you put a plate of food in front of a hungry teenager (cause), you can count on the food disappearing (effect). If you spend two months drinking five cups of coffee every day and then suddenly stop (cause), you can count on experiencing one incredible headache (effect). And if your friends find out you know how to work on cars (cause), you can count on a lot of people asking you for favors (effect).
None of that is particularly surprising. It’s how the world works. We know, instinctively, that things typically don’t just “happen.” They’re caused. Now, there might be multiple causes, or the cause might be a subtle one, but it’s still a matter of cause and effect. Y happens because of x.
When tragedy strikes—when we’re left reeling from the news of another kidnapping, another shooting, another terrorist attack, another casualty of war, the obvious, easy question to ask is, “Why is God allowing this to happen?”
The less obvious, more difficult question is, “What caused this?”
Suffering doesn’t exist on its own. Suffering is caused. And if we want to understand why God allows it to happen, we need to start by understanding the cause behind the effect.
Thousands of years ago, nestled away in an idyllic garden, a husband and wife lived a perfect, peaceful life. They had food, they had safety, and they had a close relationship with God. Theirs was a world without suffering.
Until they ruined it.
It’s a story you’ve probably heard already—the story of Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, as told in the first three chapters of the Bible. But it’s more than just a story. It’s a powerful piece of history, preserved for us through the ages to help us find the answers to many of the questions we’ve been asking on this Journey.
Created to inhabit a garden planted by God Himself, Adam and Eve lived in a literal paradise. The garden was filled with “every tree … that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). Within the bounds of the garden, there was no lack of any good thing—but there was a rule.
“And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die’” (Genesis 2:16-17).
One tree. Out of the whole garden, God placed one single tree off limits, giving the newly created human race unfettered access to everything else. But the tree proved to be too great a temptation. A cunning serpent, later revealed to be Satan the devil (Revelation 12:9), convinced Eve to eat of the tree, promising, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:4). Falling for Satan’s sales pitch, Eve ate from the tree, and Adam followed her lead, forever impacting the course of human history.
Eating from that tree represented a choice. By disobeying God, Adam and Eve decided that it was within their power to define good and evil—and if you know the story, then you know that things went from bad to worse in record time.
Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden—from paradise—to a world that would prove far less gentle. Without God’s blessings, the ground would be less willing to yield its crop (Genesis 3:17). There would be thorns and thistles to contend with (verse 18). Childbirth would be a painful ordeal, and without following God’s standards, marriage would become a battle of wills (verse 16). Then, at the very end of it all, Adam and Eve would die, returning to the dust from which they had been formed (verse 19).
And they did die—but not before their firstborn son murdered his younger brother out of jealousy and rage (Genesis 4:8). As generations came and went, things continued to decline until at last “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and … every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5).
Suffering came with that wickedness. Humanity was so corrupt that God looked down and saw that “the earth was filled with violence. … Indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Genesis 6:11-12).
Within generations, the earth transitioned from a peace-filled paradise to a place filled with violence and suffering. And what caused it?
People cause suffering.
Suffering is an effect. It doesn’t happen without a cause, and almost across the board, that cause is us. Adam and Eve started the ball rolling by disobeying God, and the human race has been following suit for thousands of years. The first humans decided they knew better than God, and all too often, we do the same thing today. The desire to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil—to define and redefine what’s right and wrong—is a desire that’s never really gone away. It’s always so tempting to decide that we know better than God—to decide for ourselves what’s best for us and how to go about getting it.
When we decide that, we suffer. We suffer because we don’t know what’s best, and we don’t know the best way to get it. The Bible warns, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12), and it’s as true today as the day it was written.
The apostle James explains: “Where do wars and fights come from among you? Do they not come from your desires for pleasure that war in your members? You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3).
Suffering comes when we—or those around us—pursue evil, knowingly or unknowingly. It’s what God wants to steer us away from, even though we often fail to listen.
But that raises another equally important question. If the primary cause of suffering is people committing evil, then we have to ask the obvious:
What exactly makes evil … evil?