People sometimes question God’s wisdom and sovereignty when they witness suffering in the world, wondering why God would permit human suffering. Anyone who has witnessed human poverty, pediatric cancer or the deaths and injuries resulting from catastrophic weather events has likely had these questions in his or her mind. Why would God allow suffering? The intention of this article is to offer empirical support from a global study for one of the answers: suffering builds and improves human character.
Jordan Peterson (2017) has noted that suffering is a universal human experience: we all suffer in some way and at some point in our lives. Even Jesus suffered when He was betrayed, beaten, and crucified in payment for the sins of the world. And He overcame death to give us eternal life. He also guaranteed that we would suffer too, but He offered us a lifeline when we do.
John 16:33: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
Matthew 11:29: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
What do we know about the human character?
The landmark GLOBE study of 17,300 managers from over 900 companies around the globe was conducted over a ten-year period, culminating in a significant publication in 2004 (House, Hanges, Javidan, Dorfman & Gupta, 2004). In the study, Robert House and other global scholars distinguished societal practices (“as is”) from societal values (“should be”) on a variety of values and leadership characteristics. One of the values the authors identified is called humane orientation. This value corresponds to benevolence and universalism and is defined as “the degree to which an organization or society encourages and rewards individuals for being fair, altruistic, friendly, generous, caring, and kind to others” (House et al., 2004, pp. 569).
In all of the 61 societies surveyed, scores on the “humane orientation” indicated that societal practices were lower than societal values. In other words, people believed the humane orientation practices in their societies were lower than what they would consider to be ideal (pp. 742-747) and the differences were statistically significant (pp. 32). The societal average practices scores was 4.09 with a range of 3.18 to 5.23, while the societal average values score was 5.42 with a range of 4.49 to 6.09. Though we feel we ought to be humane, oftentimes, we are not in practice. Perhaps for this reason, the GLOBE study authors thought it wise to separate practices from values in their study.
Another significant global study found that “astonishingly,” benevolence and universalism are at the top of value preferences universally (Schwartz, 2012). A third analyzed the belief systems of seven major world religions, atheism (American Atheists), humanism and the United Nations (Kinnear, Kernes & Dautheribes, 2000). Kinnear and colleagues (2000) found universal value preferences in the (1) commitment to something greater than oneself; (2) self-respect with humility, discipline and personal responsibility; (3) respect and caring for others and (4) caring for the environment and other living things.
Where are the highest levels of humane orientation practices?
The next question relates to the characteristics of the countries that score the highest in humane orientation practices. Are the countries with the highest humane orientation practices the wealthiest or the most modern? Are they the ones with the least amount of suffering?
Interestingly, the GLOBE authors (House et al., 2004) found the “band” in which societal humane orientation practices is the greatest contains six countries (in order from highest to lowest): Zambia, Philippines, Ireland, Malaysia, Thailand, and Egypt. The band in which the practices are the lowest contains (in order from lowest to highest) Germany (West), Spain, Greece, Hungary, France, Germany (East), Singapore, South Africa, Switzerland, Poland, and Italy. (Note that when response biases were present, the authors corrected the biases).
Below I have presented a table that notes statistically significant correlations between societal humane orientation practices and modernization measures. Negative correlations represent inverse relationships, while positive correlations indicate direct relationships. For example, a low life expectancy is associated with high humane orientation practices (-.35**).
|Modernization Measures||Humane Orientation Societal Practices|
|Percentage of inhabitants living in urban settings||-.37**|
|Human development index||-.37**|
|Infant mortality rate||.33*|
|Maternal mortality rate||.34*|
|Total population with access to safe water||-.34*|
|Gross national product per capita||-.36**|
* p < .05; ** p < .01
Results indicate that people living in the most hostile conditions where suffering is most likely to be prevalent and pervasive have the highest levels of humane orientation practices! The authors state “Humane orientation at the societal level seems to increase under more difficult economic, physical, and climactic conditions. Help and generosity among members of society become the necessary norms for life survival and well-being. As a result of social solidarity, the human condition in the form of psychological and physical health improves in highly humane-oriented societies” (pp. 597).
This brings us back to my original question. Why does God allow suffering in the world? He is shaping our spirits and moral character. He wants us to be selfless and others-focused. He has made the world this way for good reason.
C.S. Lewis’ quotation from George MacDonald from Mere Christianity is instructive:
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage, but He is building a palace. He intends to come live in it Himself.”
Thank you for your time.
House, R.J., Hanges, P.J., Javidan, M., Dorfman, P.W. & Gupta, V. (2004). Culture, Leadership, and Organizations: The GLOBE Study of 62 Societies. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Kinnear, R.T., Kernes, J.L. & Dautheribes, T.M. (2000). A short list of universal moral values. Counseling and Values, 45: 4-17.
Peterson, J.B. (2017). 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Toronto, CA: Random House.
Schwartz, S.H. (2012). An overview of the Schwartz view of basic values. Online Readings in Psychology and Culture, 2(1).https://doi.org/10.9707/2307-0919.1116