For the last two weeks, I’ve blogged on the biblical view of death for a believer. This blog and next week’s, addresses why believers suffer at all. If God is sovereign over everything and all powerful, then it’s within his power to stop senseless suffering, so why doesn’t he?
Here’s my honest answer. I don’t know. And some Christians, in their zeal to act as God’s P.R. department have tried too hard to put the best spin on suffering and death, so God doesn’t appear to be either indifferent, or the source of our suffering.
I’ve stood in line at funerals, wincing at the comments made by people right off bumper stickers, God knows best, God’s timing is always perfect, All things work together for our good. All these statements are true. I just don’t think they’re helpful to people who are sad and suffering.
We have the right to ask God “why?” David, Job and many others in the Bible did. And God has the right to keep the answers to himself. However, I have found these verses worth reflecting on whenever a fine Christian dies; “The righteous perish, and no one takes it to heart; the devout are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil. Those who walk uprightly enter into peace; they find rest as they lie in death.” Isaiah 57:1-2
So, today rather than give pat answers, I’d prefer to put forth a perspective that may help you frame your thoughts so that you can have discussions at appropriate times with suffering people, or those who question the goodness of God.
The five primary sources of suffering
1. God can and does cause suffering. Many Christians don’t like to think that a loving God would actually cause suffering, so they say he allows it, but doesn’t cause it. That view simply doesn’t square with the biblical facts. The flood wasn’t a really bad Katrina that God allowed. And likewise the ten plagues in Egypt weren’t just a string of terrible events God allowed to happen. God causes suffering, death and other events for reasons known only to him to bring about his purposes.
“So God said to Noah, “I am going to put an end to all people, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. I am surely going to destroy both them and the earth.” Genesis 6:13
2. Satan can and does cause suffering. Satan caused Job’s suffering. Yes, in this case God allowed Satan to test him, but nevertheless Satan was the cause. It’s also clear from scripture that for reasons known only to God, he has allowed Satan to have a kingdom and within that kingdom Satan has the power to cause suffering for Christians and non-Christians alike. Satan can’t make believers sin, but he can cause us to suffer.
“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” I Peter 5:8
“We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” I John 5:19
3. We suffer because of the sinful and foolish choices we make. I’ve sat with men and women who’ve made terrible, sinful choices that have caused them to suffer the consequences of their own sin. They drank too much and lost their job. We gossip and lose our friends. An investment fails because we were greedy or simply too optimistic. Much of our mental anguish comes from our own sin or foolish decisions.
4. We suffer because of the sinful or foolish choices of others. We are often the victims of other people’s sinful choices and actions through no fault of our own. A drunk crosses the road and hits an innocent person. A child runs away from home and causes his godly parents anguish. A plane crashes because someone was lazy or incompetent and did not tighten a bolt properly on an engine mount.
5. We suffer at the hands of natural forces. When Adam and Eve sinned, not only did humans fall, but nature fell as well. “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” Romans 8:18-21
I don’t think God sits in heaven and says, “Okay, it’s Monday. I think I’ll order up two tornados, a flood and a drought today.” Has God done that before? Yes, of course, I already conceded that he has ordered natural disasters, but that doesn’t mean that all natural disasters, cancer, or bodily pain and sickness is caused by God. He certainly can and does do that for reasons known only to him. But pain, suffering and death are the natural consequences of the fall.
“To the woman he said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the true about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” Genesis 3:15-19
So, which one is it?
Here’s the question we really want to know about our own suffering or that of someone close to us. Which of these five causes of sin is the reason for my suffering? Sometimes it’s obvious, and we know exactly what we or someone else has done. We can “pin the tail on the donkey”. My father died at age 46 from lung cancer because he smoked. He never blamed God for the 100,000 small, foolish choices that caused his death.
But, the honest answer to the reason for most senseless suffering is that we don’t always know why. And, it’s been my experience that spending a lot of time trying to figure out the cause of every painful experience is a waste of time. The Bible doesn’t tell us that Job ever discovered the reason for his suffering. Ironically, he suffered only because he was so righteous.
God told us we would suffer
1. The Bible says we will suffer for being a Christian. “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. If you were insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” I Peter 4:12-16
2. It’s a method God uses to test our faith. “In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” I Peter 1:6-7
3. God disciplines us, like our parents, out of love. “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined – and everyone undergoes discipline – then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who discipline us and we respected them for it. How much more should be submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:7-11
The good news!
God hasn’t left us defenseless against sin and evil. He’s given believers an amazing array of resources to help prevent or mitigate the consequences of sin and suffering in a fallen world. I’ll simply list a few for you to think about;
If you want to pass on these ideas to the next generation, I’d suggest taking the time to memorize some of these points or modify them with your own thoughts from scripture. I actually practice what I want to teach others, saying it out loud in my car as I’m driving, long before a need arises. I want to be ready. So, work on your “talk” – get it straight in your head. Because if you don’t prepare, the next time God gives you a teachable moment with someone, you’ll wish you had. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason or the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” I Peter 3:15b
Next week: Part II on Senseless Suffering
Question: Do you have a different way to explain suffering? Please share it with us.
Following Jesus in Real Life
Three times in the last few weeks I’ve been asked by good Christians to help them explain to their teenage and college age children what happens after Christians and non-Christians die. I think most of us grew up hearing a Sunday School explanation and many Christians still believe that, but there’s so much more.
To each person, I sent these edited excerpts from the book, One Minute After You Die, by Dr. Erwin Lutzer, the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago. He does a wonderful job of clarifying what the Bible teaches on this important subject.
One of the most important words in the Old Testament which speaks of the afterlife is the Hebrew word Sheol. In the King James Version it is translated as hell thirty-one times and grave thirty-one times, which has caused some confusion. Sheol is not hell. Sheol actually refers to a conscious after life.
First, there is a clear distinction between the grave where the body rests and Sheol where the spirits of the dead are gathered (Isaiah 14:9). Second, Sheol is spoken of as a shadowy place of darkness (Ezk. 26:20). Third, after death one can be united with his ancestors in Shoel. Jacob went down to Sheol and was gathered to his people (Gen. 49:33). Fourth, there are hints that Sheol has different regions (Duet. 32:22).
The reason Sheol has different regions is that it has two different kinds of inhabitants. In the Old Testament Sheol is a general term for the nether world, the region of departed spirits. Here, both the righteous and the wicked enter, though when they arrive they do not have the same experience. Some inhabitants of Sheol are the faithful lovers of God and for them it is a pleasant experience. Others are the ungodly and their experience is not pleasant.
“This is the fate of those who trust in themselves, and of their followers, who approve their sayings. Like sheep they are destined for the grave, and death will feed on them. The upright will rule over them in the morning; their forms will decay in the grave, far from their princely mansions. But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself.” Psalm 49:13-15
When the Old Testament was written in Greek, the word Sheol was translated into Hades. However, the concept is the same.
“In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.
So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.
And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’” Luke 16:23-26
Both the rich man and Abraham were in Hades or Sheol, but not hell. (More about that later.) Hades, even to this day is the abode for departed spirits, a temporary intermediate state where those who have not received God’s forgiveness must await the judgment.
“If this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment.” II Peter 2:9
THE NEW TESTAMENT AFTER LIFE FOR BELIEVERS
But after the ascension of Christ, the Old Testament believers and the New Testament Christians are said to go directly to heaven. The thief on the cross heard Jesus promise him that, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:43) In other words, the two regions of Hades no longer exist side by side. “Abraham’s bosom” is heaven today. However, Catholics believe that Hades (Purgatory) still exists for believers and non-believers.
One minute after believers die, believers enter into the presence of Jesus (Phil. 1:23; II Cor. 5:8). Once in heaven, they will meet all other believers from all time. They will have knowledge and an understanding of many things, which we could not in this life.
“Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” I Cor. 13:12
THE INTERMEDIATE STATE
What kind of body will we have in heaven, since our permanent, resurrection body is still in the future? The truth is that scripture is not clear. Since believers will speak, sing, bow down, wear white robes, etc. some form of “body” is required. However, it is thought that we will have the type of body Jesus had immediately after his resurrection. Jesus could walk through closed doors, yet could eat food and be touched.
THE JUDGEMENT FOR BELIEVERS
The eternal fate of true believers is not based on works, but on personal faith in Jesus Christ. However, the nature of a believer’s works will be examined to distinguish the worthless ones from the worthy ones (I Cor. 3:11-15). The outcome is either reward or deprivation of reward. This deprivation may involve humiliation and shame at the judgment, until God himself “shall wipe away every tear from their eyes”. Rev. 17; 21:4
When we think of the opportunities we squandered on earth, how imperfectly we loved Christ and others, we will grieve for a time. After that – joy. Those whose good deeds prove the presence of saving faith will enter the kingdom.
The Bible says that the old heaven and earth will be destroyed and there will be a new heaven and a new earth, which we believe will be similar to the earth Adam and Eve experienced prior to the fall. Therefore the old adage that “heaven is my home”, is not really correct. Our ultimate home is this future kingdom of God over which Jesus will reign forever. In his kingdom, believers will have tasks to do, which are meaningful, enjoyable, and there will be no sin, pain, or frustration.
THE JUDGEMENT FOR NON-BELIEVERS
When Jesus returns, every person who ever died will be raised and all the living gathered together and judged individually. The believers to eternal life and bliss – non-believers to eternal death. The Bible says that death and Hades will be thrown into the Lake of Fire (hell). That is Hades will be destroyed and all non-believers will go to hell (Rev. 20:14). Hell exists because unbelievers are eternally guilty – they’ve never asked for God’s forgiveness. Hell is eternal torment and abandonment (Rev. 20; Matt.10:28; 12:32; 25:48). Satan and his angels will also be thrown into hell, and contrary to folklore they will not be the tormentors, but the tormented (Rev. 20:10). However, like Sheol or Hades we believe different people will have different experiences. “Although all will share the same doom, like people assigned to the same prison, yet there will be degrees of punishment according to their guilt (Matt. 10:15; 11:21-24; Luke 12:47-48; Romans 2:5-11). It will depend on how much knowledge people had of the Son of God and exposure to God’s truth.” 1
1Barackman, Floyd, Practical Christian Theology, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, Michigan, page 467.
Frankly, I wish Christians didn’t have to talk about hell. And when I’m pressed for answers about those who have never heard and good moral people who just don’t believe in religion I always give the same reply. “Because God is the God of love, mercy and justice, I’m content to leave the fate of those people into his hands.” To some, that sounds like I’m dodging the issue, but I’m not. I believe that and hope you do too.
Question: Do you have any follow-up questions or other ideas supported by scripture?
Following Jesus in Real Life
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That’s the question posed to me by my son, Tyler, and a group of his high school friends ten years ago following the death of a fellow student in a car crash.
Their friend Melissa, an amazing and deeply spiritual girl had been at a beach party at our cottage on Lake Michigan with most of her junior class and having a great time. She and her boyfriend, Jordan, left for the drive home and a mile from the lake, he made a fatal error and another car slammed into them.
I was at the scene in minutes. I was relieved that no alcohol was involved, but that didn’t matter now. I had to return to our cottage and tell her friends that Jordan was injured, but okay. However, their friend Melissa had died. As you can imagine, it was a scene I’ll never forget.
Several weeks later a dozen students were hanging out at our house and our son came in our bedroom, woke me up and asked if I would speak with his friends. So I dressed and walked into a very somber, even angry gathering. “Mr. De Graaf, why do bad things happen to good people?”
“Well, what makes you think something bad happened to Melissa?” I asked them.
They were momentarily stunned by my answer. But before they could respond, I quickly added this. “I’m not referring to the unbelievable anguish and sadness Melissa’s family, you her friends, her boyfriend and the person who hit their car are going through right now. Something very tragic and bad happened in their life and yours. I’m sad myself and for all of you and them and it’s okay to weep with those who weep.”
“But here’s my point; Melissa is happier right now than she’s ever been, or ever would have been in her whole life! And if we don’t believe that, then we don’t believe the gospel. I’m not just trying to put a good spin on a horrible death. It’s a promise of Jesus and others in the Bible that we can take to the bank.”
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God, believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” John 17:1-3
“For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.” II Cor. 4:17
Paul himself was so convinced of the glories of heaven that he wrestled with whether or not he even wanted to go on living. “If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me.” Phil 1:22-26 Paul was convinced he should go on living, but only because he believed that by doing so the work of the gospel would benefit, but personally he’d prefer to be with Christ. That’s not just bravado on Paul’s part – that’s faith!
Hanging on to life
Humans, even Christians hang on to life, for dear life and it must surprise God that we do, so tenaciously. Here’s an illustration that may help you to think differently about death for a Christian.
Suppose you were a child born in a concentration camp in Germany in WWII. You’re now six or eight and life in the camp is your only reality. As terrible as it is, you know no other life, so it seems “normal” to you. Then one day allied troops show up to liberate you and tell you you’re going to Switzerland. But, you don’t want to leave. This is the only life you’ve ever known and you know little of Switzerland except what’s been whispered in the camps. And perhaps that’s all they are – rumors. “Oh, no, please don’t take me to Switzerland,” you cry as they drag you onto the truck, away from your friends and everything familiar. “Don’t worry,” the solider reassures you, “Switzerland is amazing and your parents and friends will hopefully join you there”.
A day later, you get to Switzerland. It’s cleaner, brighter and more glorious than anything you could have imagined. And sure enough, soon your friends and parents begin showing up and you can’t believe that you fought so hard to stay in the camp when this awaited you.
Death and eternity for Christians
Life with Jesus, for followers of his is our promise, not a penalty. Truly believing that will allow you to live with far less fear of death for yourself and others. I’ve made this statement many times: Compared to eternity with Jesus, this life is just a bad afternoon.
Having said all this, when I’m at a funeral or visitation I rarely address their suffering with pithy stories like the one above, or remind them that, “All things work together for the good…” Bible verses. I’m just sad for them, try to celebrate the memories of their loved one and leave it at that for the time being.
By the way, you can read the story of Melissa’s death and how her family dealt with it in a wonderful book written by her father, David Branon, entitled Beyond the Valley or you can also just Google Melissa Branon.
I’ve had conversations with all our adult children and our older grandchildren (over 10 roughly) on these thoughts regarding my own death. I’ve told them that someday they’re going to get a phone call that I have died. ” When that happens please, please don’t be sad for me or angry with God. God has given me my reward and I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life. If you really love me, then love God so that someday we’ll be together again forever. Personally, I’m not brave, but I don’t fear death at all. To be perfectly honest what scares me most is the process of dying – chemotherapy, losing my mind to dementia, the pain, loneliness, but not death itself. When Jesus said, “Fear not.” he wasn’t kidding, so to you I also say, Fear not.”
The reason I’ve intentionally had this talk with my grandchildren now is because I’ve sat with too many people who’ve walked away from God because he took their godly mother, father or wife. I don’t want my family to go through that. It’s my job as the patriarch of my family to prepare them for the inevitability of death- mine and their own.
In all fairness, I’ve not addressed what appears to us as “senseless suffering” of good people, but I will in the next few weeks. However, next week I will blog on the subject of what happens one minute after we die another talk I’ve had with our older grand kids.
Questions: Do you think it’s wrong for Christians to fear death?
Following Jesus in Real Life
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Last September my son-in-law, Tony, several other men and myself gathered around our thirteen year old grandson, Max, laid hands on him, prayed over him and pronounced him a man – a man of God. We were all in tears. While we were happy for Max, some of us realized in that moment just how much we wish we’d have had the blessing of our fathers.
This idea of one generation passing on a blessing, a sign of approval, of manhood and with it the responsibility to act as a man is as old as mankind. (Think of Isaac’s blessing of Jacob.) However in modern, western societies that practice has been largely lost.
God triggered this idea for a passage to manhood for our grandson when I had the privilege of attending a Bar Mitzvah for a 13 year old Jewish young man in Washington, D.C. a few years back. I was so impressed with the young man’s poise and maturity, that at the end of the ceremony I asked the Rabbi, if they ever held off the ceremony if a boy didn’t appear to be mature enough. His answer was, “Rarely. Because we don’t wait for a boy to become a man. We believe the process actually matures the boy into a man.” But, just what is this process that shapes a boy into a man?
The Bar Mitzvah
In preparation for a Bar Mitzvah, a boy is assigned a tutor/mentor to help him study and prepare for months. He meets with the Rabbi a number of times, and takes on a charity or community service project to demonstrate his love for his fellow man. The ceremony itself is very formal as the boy, now a man actually reads the Torah in a regular Sabbath service and in most cases actually discusses or teaches briefly on the passage. A Bar Mitzvah is more than a ceremony. It’s a serious commitment. Note: Jewish women also undergo something similar, Bat Mitzvah at age 12.
So, I returned home determined to investigate this idea for Christians. To my surprise, there were a number of excellent Christian books and programs that attempted to replicate a Bar Mitzvah and I’ve listed some of them at the end of this blog. The following is the letter my son-in-law wrote to all the men who would be participating in Max’s blessing, or “coming of age” which they chose to call it.
As Max turns thirteen, Jenn and I have been impressed with a call to mark this coming of age to send him with our blessing into adulthood. After reading and talking about how some have taken their sons through this time, we’ve come up with a process that seems wise to us.
First, we want to gather together a group of men who have impacted and will impact Max’s journey as a man; that would be each of you who have received this letter.
Jenn and I have posed four tasks for Max to complete: intellectual, physical, spiritual and the facing of a fear. I would appreciate if you would pray for Max as he begins to engage in these tasks. If you have words of wisdom or knowledge for him as he proceeds that would be most helpful as well. And, if you feel led over the next few months, please spend some time with him playing hockey, target shooting, discussing life or the Bible or whatever else the Holy Spirit puts on your heart.
For his intellectual task, he will be memorizing the book of Philippians. For every chapter that he memorizes, he will meet with Clare (Jenn’s dad) to discuss what he’s been memorizing up to that point and what he’s learned.
For his physical task, he is charged with using his developing hunting skills to secure some meat and prepare it for our feast at the end of this process.
His spiritual challenge will be to disciple Ezra his younger brother, weekly. I will be talking with him regularly about discipleship and would appreciate any support and counsel that you have for Max as he takes this spiritual journey.
As for facing a fear, Max will be team teaching with me in front of the Mission Church this November. He and I will study together, prepare the teaching and conduct it up front together on a Sunday this fall.
After Max completes these tasks, you are invited to a Feast in November of the men who’ve impacted Max. We’ll start with dinner and then move into a time of sharing stories and the giving of godly advice to Max in an attempt to show him what being a man looks like. We would appreciate it if you would bring a small gift of deep meaning that represents something special to him that he can cherish for the rest of his life and hopefully pass on to his sons someday. These gifts are meant to be symbolic of something you want to give him as he heads into manhood. For example, a small mirror that reminds him of the gift of reflection or a straight branch to represent the gift of integrity, etc. These gifts will be concrete reminders of the blessings and the advice that you have showered over him. Some of you also may want to write a letter that you share with him about what God has done in your life, or you’ve seen in his, or what advice you may give as a seasoned man, father or grandfather. The letters can be longer explanations of the gift as well as an explanation of some other things that are on your hearts for Max. I do hope that you can join us for this important ceremony.
Thanks for being my brothers in Christ. Thanks again for your willingness to play this role in Max’s life. I look forward to celebrating with you all.
Peace and grace,
If you’ve been encouraged by this blog to consider organizing a Blessing for your son or daughter, I’d recommend these fine resources:
The Blessing, by Gary Smalley
Bar Barkah, A Parent’s Guide to a Christian Bar Mitzvah, by Craig Hill (This excellent resource also includes many ideas for the blessing of girls.)
Passage to Manhood: www.go-distance.org
Perhaps you know a young man who has no solid, male influence in his life who needs the blessing. Consider coming along side of him and helping him mature into the man he longs to be.
Questions: Have you ever received or passed on “the blessing” and if so what was your experience?
Following Jesus in Real Life
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