The Problem of Pain: Why do we have to suffer?

Doctrine: Because Christ suffered, our suffering matters and gains the power to make us godly. Because Christ died and was resurrected, our deaths have power to help us progress in God’s plan. Because Christ suffered, as we suffer we will come to understand Him and know Him better and thus gain eternal life (John 17:3). Our suffering “according to the flesh” enables us to know how to succor others.

In the beloved movie, the Princess Bride, Wesley (disguised as the Dread Pirate Roberts) says to the Princess Buttercup, “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” And, the interesting thing is that Wesley is right. Life is pain.

In this life, pain hits us from all sides. There’s physical pain, emotional pain, spiritual pain, psychological and pain. There’s pain we cause ourselves. There’s pain that happens to us on accident. There’s pain that’s a default of Mother Nature and Father Time. There’s pain others cause us. And it seems to just go on and on.

girl sits in a depression on the floor near the wall

Recently I heard the question more, or less, asked:

“If Christ suffered for everything, sins and other kinds of suffering too, on our behalf, why then do we still suffer? Since we still suffer, then why did Christ have to suffer if it doesn’t keep us from suffering [referring specifically to physical pain]?”

The answer given to this question was:

“Christ had to suffer for our physical pains—even though we still suffer them too—so that He could understand how to succor us.”

This answer was based on the scripture Alma 7:11-13. And, though it’s not incorrect, I felt that it was insufficient in response to the question asked. Or, at least to me, it didn’t provide much comfort. And when the question was asked, I perceived that the person asking was looking for comfort and more understanding.

Sure, it helps me to know that Christ understands all of my suffering, personally. It helps me to know that everything I go through He comprehends perfectly so that even when I struggle to explain it in my prayers that He knows. But, I think that there is so much more that could be offered in response to this question.

So, let’s look at Alma 7:11-13:

And he [Christ] shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.

Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.

Verse 11 refers specifically to the life of Christ. His life was full of pain, affliction, and temptation. And, as He went through it all He also set a perfect example of how to respond to such struggles. So, for me, the first reason Christ suffered things that we still have to suffer (to a lesser extent, I might point out), was so that He could show us how to respond to suffering in a godly manner.

Verse 12 refers to His ability to take on the ultimate physical pain/problem—death. Yes, we die. But, we don’t have any control over whether or not we die. Christ did. As part of the great vicarious ordinance of the Atonement, Christ had to choose to lay down His life (John 10:18). For those familiar with vicarious ordinance work, Christ basically chose to die for, and in behalf of, each of us. Then, He loosed the bands of death by choosing to take His life up again, in the resurrection, for, and in behalf of, each of us. Because He did this we will all be resurrected as well.

So, why do we still die if Christ already died for us? Because death and resurrection are both ordinances which we must pass through to receive our immortal glories. Ordinances, which would have no power or effect if not for Christ granting them power through the grace of His Atonement. If Christ had not died, He could not have raised Himself up again so that we could also rise again: perfected and immortal. Meaning, that our deaths would be ordinances that had no authority/power to advance us forward in God’s plan. As Latter-day Saints with access to true priesthood authority and power, we often cannot comprehend what it is to partake of ordinances that “avail us nothing” because they are “dead works” (Doctrine and Covenants 22:2-3). But our deaths, without Christ’s death, would be “dead works” and avail us nothing.

Verse 12 also refers to the primary source of the original answer. However,  when quoted out of context from verse 13, it loses a bit of meaning. So, let’s look at them together.

…and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.

The phrase “according to the flesh” is used three times. This seems rather significant to me. Especially in light of the fact that precursor to the final use of it we see the phrase, “Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless…”

From His birth we know that Christ was a perfect vessel that absorbed pure information—through the Holy Spirit—as He grew “grace by grace” until He received a fullness (Doctrine and Covenants 93:12-13). We know that Christ was instructed entirely by the Spirit because “he needed not that any man should teach him” (JST Matthew 3:25). If this was the case, then we could say that He already knew according to the Spirit how to succor us according to our infirmities. Yet, He chose to also suffer for our infirmities “according to the flesh” that He might know “according to the flesh” how to succor us. Then, He suffered “according to the flesh” that He might take upon Him the sins of His people.

Just as Christ’s death and resurrection grants power and progression to our deaths, and makes possible our resurrection. We might also say that Christ’s suffering “according to the flesh” grants power to our suffering “according to the flesh,” and makes possible our sanctification. Let me explain.


I think sometimes we forget that the Atonement of Christ, though deeply individual and personal, is also much more all-encompassing and grand—on a universal scale—than we mortals can ever comprehend. But, for those of us who understand vicarious ordinance work, it seems quite clear that all eternal, saving ordinances must be performed “in the flesh” or “according to the flesh.” From this, we might postulate that while Christ knew enough according to the Spirit to succor us in our infirmities, that as part of His great vicarious ordinance on our behalf, He also had to pass through it all physically as well in order to grant the ordinance power and validity. But, by default it also grants power and validity to our individual sufferings, which, without the Atonement would be powerless to improve, refine, or sanctify us.

So, we have established why Christ had to suffer even though often we still suffer. But let’s now consider the question, “Why do we still suffer if Christ already took all the suffering upon Himself?”

All the answers to this question come from the very same doctrines we’ve already canvassed.

If we are to become like Christ, then even though we do not have to (nor could we) perform the Atonement, it seems clear that in order to become godly we still have to suffer “according to the flesh” that we might be able to learn to succor others. Certainly the Holy Spirit can reveal certain things to us according to the Spirit , and yet I think we can all grasp the fact that our compassion is deeper and our capacity to comfort and succor is greater when we have passed through something “according to the flesh.” This includes emotional, mental, and spiritual anguish because they all manifest themselves in amplified forms through our physical bodies’ reactions.

As well, as mentioned above, because Christ suffered our suffering now matters. Because of Christ’s suffering, our suffering now has the power the help us progress in God’s plan of salvation. Because of Christ’s suffering, our suffering grants us power to actually become godly, and to help others in ways we could not otherwise do. Have you ever considered that without Christ none of our suffering would have any purpose? We would be doomed to misery (Mosiah 16:4). But, because of Christ’s life and Atonement, all of our suffering becomes important, meaningful, powerful and necessary. We cannot become godly without it.

Most importantly, we know that Christ said, “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou has sent” (John 17:3). We also know we can’t become like Christ if He is far from the thoughts and intents of our hearts (Mosiah 5:13). As well, the five foolish virgins were kept from the wedding feast, not because they were late, but because they didn’t really know Christ (Matthew 25:12). They were strangers to Him. They didn’t know Him because they hadn’t become like Him (1 John 3:2).

If for no other reason, we suffer in this life, continually, that we might not only become godly, but that we might come to know God.  I still remember the first time I truly suffered anguish and deep emotional injury because of the deliberate actions of another person. It was so entirely unfair and hurtful. And I remember realizing for the first time this was the only type of pain Christ suffered. All of His suffering was the result of others’ deliberate actions and was unfair. He warranted none of it. I remember this moment so clearly because my love for the Savior grew exponentially as I began to (in a small way) comprehend what He really did for me and for you. I thought I had understood before. But in that moment I realized how little I had ever understood anything. Because of my suffering, I came to know Him better.

Portrait of sad woman.

Certainly we suffer pain from the consequences of sin so that we might be led to repent. But, I find that the majority of the pain in life that we suffer is outside of our own sinfulness. Pain, both fortunately and unfortunately, is what makes everything in this life matter. For, if we can’t be hurt then we also can’t be healed, helped, or blessed.  Pain is what makes it possible for us to come to know God. It makes it possible for us to understand, and purely comprehend, the joy of life without pain (when we are privileged to experience it for a time). Pain is the crux of opposition which is critical to agency (2 Nephi 2:11). This list just goes on and on.

So, as Wesley so wisely said, “Life is pain.” It has to be. It’s a problem, sure. And C.S. Lewis undressed this problem in a literary fashion so much better than I ever could in his book The Problem of Pain. But I congratulate myself that the one thing he doesn’t point out is its most critical function in helping us come to know Christ. But, if he were alive at present he might beg to differ. Who knows.

But it all boils down to this. Christ had to suffer. We have to suffer. I think the sooner we understand this the tiniest bit easier it is to accept pain, rise above it, use it to progress toward godliness, and to help others through it.


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