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;
God’s written moral laws if obeyed, protect us from ourselves and others.
Our consciences which all humans have, sends out alarm signals that we’re about to do something sinful or unwise.
The stories in the Bible inform us about the consequences of both sin and obedience as played out in the characters of scripture and allow us to learn both from their mistakes and to be inspired by their righteousness.
The Holy Spirit helps believers remember God’s commands and empowers and encourages us to obey them.
Because humans can think rationally, we can calculate the possible consequences of our actions, which ought to limit the sin we’re willing to risk committing.
God has provided a community of others to encourage us to do good and warn us.
Family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.)
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