Last Friday afternoon, 58 yr old father of two, Curtis Cheng was leaving work in Parramatta. He was looking forward to an early start to a long weekend. But he was shot in the back of the head by a 15 yr old radicalised Muslim boy from a local high school.
What sort of God allows THAT to happen?
Or the earthquake that struck Nepal in April this year, killing 9000 people, and destroying 700,000 homes.
What sort of God allows THAT to happen?
Or else there’s the more PAINFUL question when suffering gets PERSONAL. Like P’s prostate cancer, or Ph’s breast cancer and chronic fatigue syndrome, or J’s blindness in one eye.
And lots of non-Christians say, “I can’t believe in a God who would allow things like THAT to happen.”
And their argument goes something like this: If God is infinitely GOOD, and infinitely WISE, and infinitely POWERFUL, then he would STOP things like these.
So he mustn’t be POWERFUL enough to stop it.
One journalist, writing about the 2004 Indonesian tsunami that killed more than 250,000 people, wrote, “If God is GOD, he’s not good. If God is GOOD, he’s not God. You can’t have it both ways.”
At ONE level it sounds reasonable, but behind the argument is a mistaken assumption . The assumption is that just because WE can’t see any good purpose in suffering, there can’t BE any. But that’s arrogant, and blind faith. Arrogance and blind faith just as bad as what a non-Christian accuses a Christian of having.
The reality is/ it’s JUST as reasonable to argue, as the Bible teaches, that God IS wise and powerful, and has some purpose for suffering that our small brains can’t understand. And that he’s LOVING, so it must be a GOOD purpose. Even if we don’t know what it IS.
It’s like a child whose family moves house. There might be all sorts of good reasons why the parents decide to move. For work, or to support family, or to afford a house. But the child thinks it’s terribly unfair and hates his parents, simply because he loses his friends, or no longer has a backyard to play in.
But as a child gets older, he can understand better, and he can see things the way his parents do. He can see more of the complexities. He may not understand COMPLETELY, but he can grow to TRUST his parents.
That’s the position many CHRISTIANS are able to get to as they live through suffering. They don’t understand WHY, but they trust their heavenly Father.
In fact, rather than their suffering disproving the existence of God, many Christians say that, without God, they’d never have made it THROUGH the suffering.
The problem of suffering for atheists
So ONE thing I want to suggest is that, rather than suffering being a problem for BELIEVERS, it’s a GREATER problem for those who DON’T believe in God. (Those humanists, or atheists).
For example, the Nepalese earthquake. If there’s no God, and if we evolved by chance over millions of years of evolution, then there’s no PROBLEM with 9000 people dying. Weak people are wiped out, the strong survive. That’s survival of the fittest.
If there’s no God, why should we WORRY about rape or genocide, or natural disaster.
In fact, even our REACTION to suffering is evidence that God exists. We sense there’s something WRONG about it. Our moral outrage at EVIL / COMES from somewhere. There’s no evolutionary reason for a sense of right and wrong. It doesn’t HELP survival. And Christians say that sense of right and wrong has been PUT in us by God, our just Creator.
And even to ask, “WHY?” presupposes that there’s a PURPOSE. Or DESIGN to our world. To ask WHY suffering happens is meaningless if everything happens by CHANCE. (If there is no wise Creator who has a purpose for doing things.)
Atheists think suffering is a problem for Christians. But I reckon it’s MORE of a problem for ATHEISTS. For me, the thought of facing suffering if it’s just random BAD LUCK is too depressing to contemplate. Far better to trust myself to a wise, good, powerful God even when I can’t understand why.
So, after those few comments about our EXPERIENCE of suffering, let’s look at what sort of answers the Bible gives. And we’ll base ourselves in Hebrews 2.
From verse 5, we’re picking things up halfway through a description of how wonderful Jesus is. And in v6 it quotes Psalm 8 about how GOD CREATED. Look there at v7. God made mankind a little lower that the angels, and crowned him with glory and honour, and put everything under his feet.
In other words, God made us DIFFERENT from everything else. He made us as the climax of his creation. Made in his IMAGE. Which means we’re like him in ROLE and in CHARACTER. Our ROLE is that God appointed us to rule over creation, under God’s kingship.
And that’s how things were IN THE BEGINNING. With Adam and Eve in the garden. As v7 says, “made a little lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honour, everything put under their feet.”
But there’s ANOTHER aspect of being made in God’s image. To do with our CHARACTER. And ONE aspect of that is that God made us, like him, with free will. At least in a sense that’s different from everything else. The rest of creation has no choice in whether to obey God or not.
But we WERE. We were offered the choice of obedience and doing what was RIGHT. Or DISobedience, and doing what was WRONG.
The fallen world
And so, even though God had CREATED his world perfect and good. By allowing us THE CHOICE, he introduced a THREAT to that perfection.
The writer of Hebrews gives us a hint there in v8 how that TURNED OUT.
In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. YET AT PRESENT WE DO NOT SEE EVERYTHING SUBJECT TO HIM.
And if you know the story of Adam and Eve, you know how it turned out. They chose INDEPENDENCE from God, and DISOBEDIENCE. And, as a result, SIN entered the world. And DEATH. And DISORDER. We live in a FALLEN world.
That’s v8. The world is NOT subject to mankind the way God designed.
And it’s TRUE, isn’t it? As much as we like to THINK we’re in control of our world, that’s far from true.
And when we’re sitting in the emergency waiting room. Or watching flood waters destroy our home. Or helplessly holding the hand of a relative slipping away to death. We realise we’re HELPLESS in the face of stuff like that. We’re NOT in control. We’re subject to the forces of the world, rather than the other way around.
And it’s because we refused to follow the Maker’s instructions. Like buying some new IKEA furniture. You pick up the flat pack, and bring it home. You’ve got the instructions, and the Allen key. But instead of following the instructions, you think you know best. You throw them in the corner, and start putting it together on your own.
Before long, you’ve made a COMPLETE MESS of it. Panels on back to front. Wrong screws in the wrong places. And it DOESN’T WORK PROPERLY.
And that’s what we’ve done with God’s world when we ignore HIS instructions.
And so, when it comes to suffering like Curtis Cheng being gunned down on the street, human sinfulness bears the blame. In THIS case, the sinfulness of people who teach and practice that KILLING is something their god approves of.
And much of the suffering we see around us can be connected to human greed or sin in some sense. Like war and murder and abuse. Even FAMINE and DROUGHT can often be connected to the greed and foolishness of those making the decisions, like governments or companies.
But not all. What about natural disasters? The Nepal earthquake? Or the Indonesian Tsunami? What’s the Bible say about THAT sort of suffering?
Once again, it’s to do with the consequences of that first sin. Remember v8? “At present, we don’t see everything subject to mankind.”
You see CREATION ITSELF bears the scars of the sin of mankind. Romans 8 talks about creation GROANING like childbirth, frustrated, waiting eagerly to be liberated from its bondage to decay.
In all sorts of ways our world is corrupted and decaying. No longer perfect the way God made it. Some of it due to US. Like deforestation, climate change and bushfire. Other aspects not so much, like floods, earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes.
And we can add more PERSONAL causes of suffering to that. Like cancer, disease, even old age, arthritis and short-sightedness.
Our world, including us, is declining and decaying. Wearing out. Captive to the results of sin. At least IN A GENERAL SENSE.
Which is NOT the same thing as saying that a person’s suffering is the result of their individual sin. More than once Jesus denied that sort of thinking.
Like in Luke 13, when some people told him about a massacre of Jews by Pontus Pilate. And Jesus said,
“Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3 I tell you, no!
Suffering isn’t necessarily the result of individual sin. Which doesn’t there AREN’T consequences for sin. Jesus goes on to warn them,
“But unless YOU repent, you too will all perish.”
That’s a NEGATIVE lesson from suffering. In John Ch 9 there’s a POSITIVE lesson. The disciples see a blind man and they ask Jesus
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
And once again Jesus points out there’s no direct relationship between someone’s sin and their suffering.
3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.
The disciples want to know WHY. Jesus says it’s not because of anyone’s sin. But instead it’s so that people might see God at work. And then he HEALS him.
In BOTH these cases Jesus sees A PURPOSE in the suffering. They’re an opportunity for people to recognise Jesus, and to RESPOND to him.
Sometimes, suffering opens up new opportunities that would never have happened WITHOUT it. Like Joni Ereckson, who was paralysed diving into a lake. As terrible as that was, Joni says that she’s been able to see all sorts of good things come out of that. She’s had an influence on thousands of people through writing books and a speaking ministry. Something that probably would never have happened OTHERWISE.
Joni also sees ANOTHER good purpose in her suffering. She’s learned to be dependent on God. One of her favourite Bible verses has been Psalm 79:8, that says, “May your mercy come quickly to meet us, for we are in desperate need”
She says, “Basically, I wake up almost every morning in desperate need of Jesus — from those early days when I first got out of the hospital, to over four decades in a wheelchair, it’s still the same. The morning dawns and I realize: “Lord, I don’t have the strength to go on. I have no resources. I can’t ‘do’ another day of quadriplegia, but I CAN do all things through You who strengthen me. So please give me Your smile for the day; I need You urgently.”
‘This, I have found, is the secret to my joy and contentment. Every morning, my disability — and, most recently, my battle with cancer — forces me to come to the Lord Jesus in empty-handed spiritual poverty. But that’s a good place to be because Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”’
God’s used suffering to teach Joni DEPENDENCE.
That’s JONI. But plenty of times we can see NOTHING good in the suffering. Like a little child who dies of terribly painful cancer. Or the rape and murder of innocent people in wartime. What’s the Bible say about THAT?
Let’s keep reading in Hebrews 2. Because from v9, it gets interesting. Because JESUS is introduced. MANKIND isn’t ruling over creation. But Jesus IS. V9.
9 But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, NOW CROWNED WITH GLORY AND HONOR because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
Jesus was born as a human. Made a little lower than angels. But, unlike the REST of us, he never ONCE chose INDEPENDENCE from God. He never sinned.
He lived in a fallen, painful world. And experienced all sorts of suffering. But never, once, contributed to it. Or DESERVED it.
And then God caused him to suffer an unjust death in our place. The innocent dying in the place of the guilty. So that guilty ones might LIVE.
People look at suffering. And ask, “Why doesn’t God DO something?” And the Bible’s answer is that God HAS done something. He sent Jesus to DEAL with suffering. By SUFFERING. And to DEAL with death, by DYING.
And then, because of his obedience, God RAISED Jesus from death. And then CROWNED him with glory and honour. Not just as a member of the human race, ruling creation. But as the king and Saviour of the world. Who defeats sin and death.
And not just defeats it HIMSELF, but makes it available to THE REST of the human race AS WELL. As we TRUST him.
Look down to v14 to see how it describes it.
14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death-that is, the devil- 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.
Freedom from death! God HAS done something about suffering. Which is WONDERFUL NEWS.
But Christians STILL suffer and die. That’s the time we’re living in. Christ has WON the victory, but we’re still living with the CONSEQUENCES, in a decaying, broken world. We don’t YET see everything subjected under us.
But God’s at work, through the victory of Jesus, slowly bringing his victory to bear. Replacing death with life, and suffering with peace, and guilt with forgiveness.
God USES suffering
God IS at work, bringing people from death to life through Jesus. And renewing them, growing them in patience and endurance and trust. Making them more like Jesus.
And the message of the Bible is that ONE of the ways he DOES that is through suffering. Look at v10, how it worked with JESUS.
10 In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God… should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering.
God USES the suffering of Jesus to COMPLETE or MATURE Jesus. (Not that he wasn’t ALREADY perfect. But that the FULL plan for Jesus included suffering and temptation and testing.)
If God used suffering to work his good purposes in JESUS. Then it makes sense that he might be doing the same thing IN US. We see that, for example, in James Ch 1, which says,
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
BAD THINGS can produce GOOD RESULTS. God uses them to grow things in us. FAITH. And PERSEVERANCE. Or DEPENDENCE, like with Joni.
And MATURITY. That word for MATURITY is the same one as Hebrews 2, where Jesus is made PERFECT through suffering.
God completed Jesus through his suffering. And he completes US through it as well.
God EXPERIENCES suffering
Which COMFORTS us as we suffer. Because whatever WE experience, Jesus has experienced FAR WORSE. He’s not distant and isolated. He UNDERSTANDS. Look down to v17.
17 For this reason he had to be MADE LIKE HIS BROTHERS IN EVERY WAY, in order that he might become a MERCIFUL and FAITHFUL high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 BECAUSE HE HIMSELF SUFFERED WHEN HE WAS TEMPTED, HE IS ABLE TO HELP THOSE WHO ARE BEING TEMPTED.
He’s our BROTHER in suffering. Which is COMFORTING. But that’s not ALL. It gives us CONFIDENCE to ASK FOR HIS HELP. Over in Ch 4 v15, we read
15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are-yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with CONFIDENCE, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Come to God with CONFIDENCE in your pain and suffering. And with your questions. The cross is our guarantee of his LOVE and his ACTION.
We may not understand EVERYTHING about suffering, and about why God allows it. But the cross tells us what type of God he is who ALLOWS it.
In our pain, we’re tempted to accuse God, “You don’t UNDERSTAND my suffering!” But he understands suffering and grief and loss far worse than US.
God HAS DONE, and WILL DO, something about suffering
And in our pain, we’re tempted to accuse God, “Why don’t you DO something?” But God HAS done something. He hates the suffering of this world far more than WE do. He hated it SO much he killed his own Son to DESTROY it. So we can’t accuse God of not CARING.
But not only HAS he done something. He WILL do something about suffering. One day, he’ll run out of patience. And the time for repentance and forgiveness will end. And he’ll destroy suffering once and for all. And all wrongs will be righted. And all injustice called to account.
Which will be the ultimate answer to all our prayers for deliverance from suffering.
And he’ll bring in a new heavens and a new earth. Where there’ll be no more pain or crying or sickness or death.
So, as you live with suffering in this broken world, recognise your weakness, pray with confidence that God understands, cares, and gives grace and mercy. Look to Jesus. And long for the new heavens and earth.
Come, Lord Jesus, Come.