HOW CAN A GOOD GOD ALLOW SUFFERING?

suffering - mother and baby

When we reject the God of the Bible because of suffering, what we are really saying is that we will not accept a God who is greater than our own minds. We are saying that if we cannot work out a purpose or good outcome for suffering, then no such good outcome is possible.

And it is only in Christianity that suffering is redeemed by a God who has suffered himself, and who promises to impart meaning, significance and a good outcome from our own trials.

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Suffering #2. WHY DOES GOD ALLOW SUFFERING?

 Last time, we considered the fact that New Testament clearly teaches that suffering is a normal part of being  a follower of Jesus. I want to unpack that more, later in this series. I believe that trust in Jesus gives us tremendous hope and grace when we experience suffering. But many people have trouble seeing it that way. One of the most common questions that both Christians and non-Christians have about suffering is this: How can a God who is good, loving, and all-powerful allow some of the terrible suffering that we see in the world?

This isn’t just a theoretical question. Many people turn away from the Christian faith because they feel that God has abandoned them in their suffering. Many others use some version of this question to keep God at a distance, and claim it as a reason they could never become Jesus-followers.

This issue of God’s role in human suffering is very deep, and dozens (if not hundreds) of books have been written on the subject, most by people who are much smarter than I am. I don’t want to pretend to have all the answers, because I don’t. But sometimes, I think we make this more complicated than it has to be.

One thing I find interesting is that usually, the people who turn away from Christianity because of suffering have not really considered what they are turning toward. In other words, what are the alternatives to the Christian view of suffering? Just so that we are thorough, I want us to briefly think about how other world-views and religions approach suffering. Obviously, this is all vastly simplified, but I think we can get to the basic idea of each. See if these other approaches can really bring you any better satisfaction than the Christian view.

Buddhism, and many similar religions, take the approach that the physical world is meaningless. The way to deal with suffering is to learn to not let it bother you. So when a five year old boy is repeatedly abused by his step-father, it isn’t a tragedy – it is meaningless. Don’t allow it to affect you. If you let such things bother you, you will never find ultimate peace. In addition, Buddhists generally subscribe to the idea of karma. From the website Buddhanet.net:

Karma is the law that every cause has an effect, i.e., our actions have results. This simple law explains a number of things: inequality in the world, why some are born handicapped and some gifted, why some live only a short life.

In other words, people suffer because they deserve to suffer (possibly because of actions in previous lives).

Hinduism, and many philosophies like it, also view suffering around the idea of karma. So, in both Hinduism and Buddhism, the little boy who is abused by his step-father deserves it. Eventually, (in Hinduism) after about  8.4 million lifetimes of suffering, you’ll finally be free. But in the meantime, you should accept it in your own life, and in that of others, as justly deserved. Is this more satisfying to you than the Christian God, who offers us His presence in the middle of suffering, and even suffers on our behalf?

Secularism (which is more or less based upon atheism) sees suffering as a senseless tragedy. Secularists are motivated to try and minimize future suffering, for the good of the human race. So secularists respond to child-abuse by making laws against such things. They want to build a society of laws and technology to benefit all humanity. But secularists don’t have any compelling reason for why we should care about the human race in the first place, or build that better society. Most would object to that statement, but if we are just the product of a random series of events, there is no meaning to life, nor any value to it.

Secularists may want to make the world a better place, but they don’t have much in the way of comfort for someone who suffers anyway. So, the little boy who is abused is suffering from senseless tragedy. There really isn’t anything to make it OK. And yet, on the other hand, there is no compelling moral logic telling us to care about him in the first place. Is senseless suffering more comforting to you than a God who can impart meaning and significance to pain?

Some religions, like Islam, are more or less fatalistic. Suffering just is what it is, and all we can do is get through it as best we can. God has his reasons, which we won’t understand. So the little boy must simply endure it well. There is no sense that God shares our pain, or participates in suffering on our behalf. While it is noble to suffer well, there is no real assurance that it means anything, or accomplishes anything.

Only in Christianity is suffering redeemed by a God who has suffered himself, and who promises to impart meaning, significance and a good outcome from our own trials.

Now, I know that this is still hard to swallow. What good outcome could possibly justify the repeated abuse of a little child?

The answer is quite simple: I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.

But the God of the Bible is not only revealed as good, he is also revealed as infinite

For everything was created by Him in heaven and on earth, the visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities – all things have been created through Him and for him. He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:16-17)

15God will bring this about in His own time. He is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, 16the only One who has immortality, dwelling in unapproachable light; no one has seen or can see Him, to Him be honor and eternal might. Amen. (1Tim 6:15-16, HCSB)

3He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. 4He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them. 5Our Lord is great, vast in power; His understanding is infinite. (Ps 147:3-5, HCSB)

3Do not boast so proudly, or let arrogant words come out of your mouth, for the LORD is a God of knowledge, and actions are weighed by Him. (1Sam 2:3, HCSB)

8“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not My ways.” This is the LORD’s declaration. 9“For as heaven is higher than earth, so My ways are higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:8-9, HCSB)

We human beings are not infinite – there are definite limits to our physical bodies, to our brains, even to our souls. This means that we can only ever grasp a very, very, tiny piece of God. When we reject the God of the Bible because of suffering, what we are really saying is that we will not accept a God who is greater than our own minds. We are saying that if we cannot work out a purpose or good outcome for suffering, then no such good outcome is possible. We are demanding that an infinite God must act in such a way we tiny, finite creatures can understand with our tiny little minds. That is not the God described by the Bible.

All of this is addressed in one of the oldest books of the Bible: Job. Job is good man, with a good life, when God deliberately allows him to suffer terrible tragedies, one after the other. Four friends come to be with Job in his suffering. Job speaks out about his anguish, and he demands an explanation from God. Job’s friends rebuke him, arguing that Job is suffering (basically) as the result of his own karma – in other words, he deserves it. Job disagrees, and maintains that God must explain Himself, and show him the reasons for his suffering. They argue back and forth about this for most of the book. Finally, in chapter 38 of the book, God breaks His silence.

Who are you to question my wisdom with your ignorant empty words? Now stand up straight, and answer the questions I ask you.

Were you there when I made the world? If you know so much, tell me about it. Who decided how large it would be? Who stretched the measuring line over it? Do you know all the answers? What holds up the pillars that support the earth? Who laid the cornerstone of the world?

In the dawn of that day the stars sang together, and the heavenly beings shouted for joy. (Job 38:1-7, Today’s English Version)

I can just hear someone saying, “Ha! We do know better than God: we know the earth isn’t supported by pillars!” That sort of response is a bit silly. This is clearly poetic language, expressing the main idea that next to God we know nothing.

After going on for four chapters reminding Job of all that he doesn’t know, God stops a moment. Job repents. Next God rebukes Job’s friends, who had insisted that Job’s suffering was essentially the result of karma. He spoke to the friend named Eliphaz:

“I am angry with you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7, HCSB)

He tells them to offer sacrifices, and to beg Job to pray for them:

“Then my servant Job will pray for you. I will surely accept his prayer, and not deal with you as your folly deserves, for you  have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.” (42:8, HCSB).

Job did not have the right to an explanation, but in all his demands, he did not say anything untruthful about God. But God says that Job’s three friends – who said many things that some modern Christians often say – were wrong in what they said about God. Note the final twist of the knife against the idea of karma – God says he will not punish Job’s friends, even though they deserve it. The message is clear:

  1. We will not always have an explanation for suffering. We cannot begin to understand God’s perspective, and we are simply not smart enough to comprehend God’s reasons for allowing suffering.
  2. The idea that suffering is always the result of what we do, or don’t do (in this life, or in past ones) is simply wrong. We often have no control whatsoever over our own suffering.

This is the starting point for a Christian view of suffering: God is bigger than we are. He is infinite, we are not, and so we cannot possibly understand the reasons for everything he does, or does not, do. The rest of the Bible, however, calls us to trust this God that we cannot understand. He is willing to suffer Himself, on our behalf. He promises to redeem and make good come from all of our suffering, if we trust Him. Trusting God when we don’t understand may be difficult, but it is not complicated. You don’t have to be a genius to deal with the questions of suffering – you simply need to trust – something any child knows how to do.

I do know – from personal experience – that sometimes trust is a tall order. I haven’t always been able to trust God in the midst of suffering. But when I can, it changes everything. It helps tremendously to remember that Himself has suffered.

18For since He Himself was tested and has suffered, He is able to help those who are tested. (Heb 2:18, HCSB)

God, and His actions are beyond our understanding. But He isn’t just some distant puppet-master. He himself entered into our suffering, and suffered on our behalf. He has helped many millions of people in the midst of their suffering. I know he can help us, also. I know He is trustworthy to do so. Won’t you trust Him yourself?

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