I need to start with an explanation. This is the first of an occasional series – just a break from the ‘Basix’ series we are currently working our way through, and to which we will return next week. We’re going to tackle some of the ‘hot button’ issues that always come up. In the future we’ll take a look at sexuality, the changes in society, and the relationship between faith and science. But for today, we start with suffering.
And I’ve thought and prayed hard about this issue. Like every pastor, it’s been a recurring question over the years. It’s not an academic issue either. Children and babies have died and brought heartbreak. People get cancer, marriages break up, houses get broken into. Suffering is a real issue. And not a day goes by but the TV brings some new atrocity.
As I was preparing for this sermon, I read a sermon by the Christian author Lee Strobel. I intend to quote extensively from Lee – because he says the things that I feel it is right to say. So please be aware of this – I’m not passing off what Lee Strobel has said as my words, I’m acknowledging that a whole lot of this he said first. Thank you, Lee.
He wrote just after the shooting in 2012 in Aurora, Colorado, when James Holmes killed 12 and injured 70.
There are so many tragic stories, so much pain. And many people are asking the question, “Why? Why did God allow this?” There’s illness, abuse, broken relationships, betrayal, sorrow, injuries, disappointment, heartache, crime and death. And perhaps you’ve been asking the question, “Why? Why me? Why now?”
That “why” question goes back thousands of years. It was asked in the Old Testament by Job and the writers of the Psalms, and it was especially relevant during the 20th century, where we witnessed two World Wars, the Holocaust, genocides in the Soviet Union and China, devastating famines in Africa, the killing fields of Cambodia, the emergence of AIDS, the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo. And the 21st Century didn’t start any better. There was 9/11 and now the Syrian slaughters, and on and on. Why all of this if there’s a loving and powerful God? Why do bad things happen to good people?
The first, and perhaps the most important, response, Lee says, is to be honest, and say ‘I don’t know’. There are some general principles – we’ll explore those in a moment or two. But only a fool would attempt to explain a particular tragedy in all its detail. I’m not God, and I don’t have anything like enough understanding of any person’s situation to explain.
And let’s be clear – for many people, that ‘I don’t know’ is as far as an explanation can go. If there is no God and no purpose, then asking the question ‘why’ is meaningless. Ask Richard Dawkins why innocent people suffer, and he’ll tell you that there is no meaning, there is no ‘innocent’. The universe doesn’t care, and never will. Suffering is an issue for people like us who believe that there is meaning and purpose to existence. If you don’t believe that, then get used to the fact that the answer to the question ‘why suffering’ is ‘there are no reasons’.
Five points of light:
What are those points of light? Let me go through five of them that I’ve personally found helpful whenever I’ve been prompted to ask the question, “Why?” The first point of light: God is not the creator of evil and suffering.
This answers the question you hear so often: “Why didn’t God merely create a world where tragedy and suffering didn’t exist?” The answer is: He did! Genesis 1:31 says: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”
But if God is not the author of tragedy or evil or death, where did they come from? Well, when God decided to create human beings, he wanted us to experience love. But to give us the ability to love, God had to give us free will to decide whether to love or not to love. Why? Because love always involves a choice.
If we were programmed to say, “I love you,” it wouldn’t really be love. When my daughter was little, she had a doll with a string in the back, and when you pulled it the doll said, “I love you.” Did that doll love my daughter? Of course not. It was programmed to say those words. To really experience love, that doll would need to have been able to choose to love or not to love. Again – real love always involves a choice.
So in order for us to experience love, God bestowed on us free will. But unfortunately, we humans have abused our free will by rejecting God and walking away from Him. And that has resulted in the introduction of two kinds of evil into the world: moral evil and natural evil.
Moral evil is the immorality and pain and suffering and tragedy that come because we choose to be selfish, arrogant, uncaring, hateful and abusive. Romans 3:23 says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”
So much of the world’s suffering results from the sinful action or inaction of ourselves and others. For example, people look at a famine and wonder where God is, but the world produces enough food for each person to have 3,000 calories a day. It’s our own irresponsibility and self-centeredness that prevents people from getting fed.
In other words: look at your hand. You can choose to use that hand to hold a gun and shoot someone, or you can use it to feed hungry people. It’s your choice. But it’s unfair to shoot someone and then blame God for the existence of evil and suffering.
The second kind of evil is called natural evil. These are things like wildfires, earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes that cause suffering for people.
In two ways, these are also connected to our choices. We can make ‘natural’ disasters worse by our choices – as we build on flood plains (Bangla Desh) or build badly in earthquake zones.
And secondly, the Bible tells us that our world is broken because of our choices. Romans 8:22 says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” In other words, nature longs for redemption to come and for things to be set right. That’s the source of disorder and chaos.
Let’s make this crystal clear once more: God did not create evil and suffering. Now, it’s true that he did create the potential for evil to enter the world, because that was the only way to create the potential for genuine goodness and love. But it was human beings, in our free will, who brought that potential evil into reality.
Some people ask, “Couldn’t God have foreseen all of this?” And no doubt he did. But look at it this way: many of you are parents. Even before you had children, couldn’t you foresee that there was the very real possibility they may suffer disappointment or pain or heartache in life, or that they might even hurt you and walk away from you? Of course — but you still had kids. Why? Because you knew there was also the potential for tremendous joy and deep love and great meaning.
That’s the first point of light: God created us with the potential to choose freely to love; and that means the ability to choose not to.
Second point of light:
Though suffering isn’t good, God can use it to accomplish good.
He does this by fulfilling His promise in Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
Notice that the verse doesn’t say God causes evil and suffering, just that he promises to cause good to emerge. And notice that the verse doesn’t say we all will see immediately or even in this life how God has caused good to emerge from a bad circumstance. Remember, we only see things dimly in this world. And notice that God doesn’t make this promise to everyone. He makes the solemn pledge that he will take the bad circumstances that befall us and cause good to emerge if we’re committed to following Him.
The Old Testament gives us a great example in the story of Joseph, who went through terrible suffering, being sold into slavery by his brothers, unfairly accused of a crime and falsely imprisoned. Finally, after a dozen years, he was put in a role of great authority where he could save the lives of his family and many others.
This is what he said to his brothers in Genesis 50:20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” And if you’re committed to God, He promises that He can and will take whatever pain you’re experiencing and draw something good from it.
You might say, “No, he can’t in my circumstance. The harm was too great, the damage was too extreme, the depth of my suffering has been too much. No, in my case there’s no way God can cause any good to emerge.”
Now, the third point of light: The day is coming when suffering will cease and God will judge evil.
A lot of times you’ll hear people say: “If God has the power to eradicate evil and suffering, then why doesn’t He do it?” And the answer is that because He hasn’t done it yet doesn’t mean He won’t do it. You know, I wrote my first novel last year. What if someone read only half of it and then slammed it down and said, “Well, Lee did a terrible job with that book. There are too many loose ends with the plot. He didn’t resolve all the issues with the characters.” I’d say, “Hey – you only read half the book!”
And the Bible says that the story of this world isn’t over yet. It says the day will come when sickness and pain will be eradicated and people will be held accountable for the evil they’ve committed. Justice will be served in a perfect way. That day will come, but not yet.
So what’s holding God up? One answer is that some of you may be. He’s actually delaying the consummation of history in anticipation that some of you will still put your trust in Him and spend eternity in heaven. He’s delaying everything out of His love for you. SecondPeter 3:9 says: “The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”To me, that’s evidence of a loving God, that He would care that much for you.
Point of Light #4: Our suffering will pale in comparison to what God has in store for his followers.
I certainly don’t want to minimize pain and suffering, but it helps if we take a long-term perspective. Look at this verse, and remember they were written by the apostle Paul, who suffered through beatings and stonings and shipwrecks and imprisonments and rejection and hunger and thirst and homelessness and far more pain that most of us will ever have to endure. These are his words:
Second Corinthians 4:17: “For our light and momentary troubles” — wait a second: light and momentary troubles? Five different times his back was shredded when he was flogged 39 lashes with a whip; three times he was beaten to a bloody pulp by rods. But he says, “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”
Paul also wrote Romans 8:18: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Childbirth again: worth it?
Finally, Point of Light #5: We decide whether to turn bitter or turn to God for peace and courage.
We’ve all seen examples of how the same suffering that causes one person to turn bitter, to reject God, to become hard and angry and sullen, can cause another person to turn to God, to become more gentle and more loving and more tender, willing to reach out to compassionately help other people who are in pain. Some who lose a child to a drunk driver turn inward in chronic rage and never-ending despair; another turns outward to help others by founding Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.
As one philosopher said: “I believe all suffering is at least an opportunity for good. It’s up to our free choice to actualize that potential. Not all of us benefit from suffering and learn from it, because that’s up to us, it’s up to our free will.”
We make the choice to either run away from God or to run to Him. But what happens if we run to Him?
Jesus said in John 16:33 “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. But be courageous! I have conquered the world.”
In other words, He offers us the two very things we need when we’re hurting: peace to deal with our present and courage to deal with our future. How? Because of the resurrection. Because it isn’t over. Because he has conquered the world! Through His own suffering, death and resurrection, He has deprived suffering of its ultimate power over you. Suffering doesn’t have the last word anymore. Death doesn’t have the last word anymore. God has the last word!