Nicky Gumbel in his book Why Does God Allow Suffering? tells the story of a young New Yorker who had a life-long dream of going on a mission to Ecuador. He was at the airport and remembered that he hadn’t sent a note to his mom. He didn’t know where to get a card but found an advertisement circular with “why” spread across the sheet. He wrote his message all around the “why”. Fourteen thousand feet above a Colombian peak, the airplane he was on exploded. His mother received the note after news of his death and spread across the note paper was that huge question – “why?”
People, myself included, struggle with the question “why?” Usually we ask because we have been hit personally by tragedy, like why is my granddaughter autistic? Or why did I lose my job? Or why does someone I love have cancer? It grows when we notice the ways people live: why do families feel the need to fight? Why do people die so young? Why are children abused? And it spreads as we hear the news each night: Why are worshiping Christians in the Sudan being raped, tortured and murdered? Why are there natural disasters? Why these people? Why now? What we are really asking is “In the grand scheme of God why do such things happen?”
The Christian mystic, Meister Eckhardt said “Our spiritual journey begins when we start wrestling with the problem of suffering”. Over the season of Lent we’re going to journey together exploring suffering from different perspectives. With the help of God’s Spirit, we may gain some new insights that will help us or change us. I’m not promising to leave you with an ultimate explanation for why there’s suffering in the world. My hope is that by the end of Lent we’ll be more readily able to locate God in the midst of our suffering.
When it comes to suffering, we all have thoughts or beliefs to help us cope. If one believes there is no God then suffering, while terribly painful, is simply the way of evolution to ensure the survival of the fittest. War and illness strengthen the human gene pool. To a certain extent suffering is part of life’s natural order. Living near a fault line means you had better get ready for earthquakes. Living on flood plains means you could well see TV’s floating by your door. Death, through illness, aging or catastrophe comes to all of us. It’s nature’s way. However, Christians find things more complicated when it comes to suffering. The conundrum was well stated by C. S. Lewis: “If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty, He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore, God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.”
There’s no perfect or easy answer to this dilemma. Some suggest God is in control of everything. All events, tsunamis, sickness or poverty, are interpreted as the judgment of God. Others prefer to think that all good things come from God and bad things from the devil -a position which still doesn’t get an all-powerful God off the hook. Others think God creates suffering in order to test or refine our faith; while God might indeed use our suffering for those purposes, would a loving God set us up to suffer horrible events and heartbreaking losses? Personally, I find a better answer lies in the nature and decisions of both God and humanity. The Bible tells us God made a ‘good’ creation; a world in which evil and death were unknown. Although God is all powerful, for reasons only he knows, God chose to submit his authority and power to the natural laws he created (jump off a roof and you’ll go down and it’s unlikely God will reverse the process). While humanity was part of God’s good creation, God didn’t make us to be perfect (or we’d be God). God gave human beings the freewill to make choices. In our ability to make judgments, there’s room for human error. Human freedom comes with the potential for both good and bad decisions. As J. B. Philips said, “evil is the risk within the gift of free will.” When human beings chose not to follow God’s way of living, death, injustice and suffering were birthed. Those consequences, which we label “original sin”, permeated and tainted God’s creation including humanity. According to the New Testament “There is no one who is righteous, not even one; there is no one who has understanding, there is no one who seeks God” (Romans 3:10-11). We now live in a world which was not God’s hope, intention or creation. In this world bad things happen and suffering is part of life.
All of us have the potential to make bad choices. Few of us have the maturity to take responsibility for them. So, when one chooses to embezzle there’s the risk that when you get caught you’ll end up in jail with nothing. Isn’t the reason obvious? If you go to work high as a kite and are fired, don’t lament over ‘why’ God let this happen. If you have sex without birth control and it results in an unwanted pregnancy don’t blame God. Instead of feeling angry or betrayed by God, when we take ownership of our lives we discover that although God didn’t create the problem, God is still willing to work with us to bring healing to our lives.
Sometimes however we are victims. Our suffering comes about because of someone else’s decisions. When an intoxicated party goer gets into a car and kills a family on the road, the answer to ‘why’ is located in the drunken driver’s actions. Civilians are killed in war because people choose to resolve conflict violently. Cancer is an arbitrary illness. Still, we wonder why God doesn’t intervene in these instances. We hope and wish and pray for something different. More often than not God doesn’t change the results of human actions. When God does intervene, we call it a miracle. Miracles by definition are rare or they wouldn’t be miracles, they’d be the norm. Even Jesus, the only truly good person, died a horrendous death hanging on a cross. No miracles relieved Jesus of his suffering. On the contrary, Jesus suffering is God’s intervention. God doesn’t abandon those who suffer. God enters into our suffering in Jesus Christ and brings new life.
Let’s consider two people who suffered a great deal in life. Job had a very interesting life story. Things had gone splendidly. He had a charmed life. He loved his wonderful wife and terrific kids. Early business decisions ensured huge dividends rolled in each month. He had great health. He believed in and worshipped God every day. Life was sweet. Then all of a sudden, for no apparent reason, the wheels fell off his Beemer. Family members were killed by a tornado. His livestock was slaughtered by foreign invaders. A meteor fell and killed his servants. The economy tanked and he lost everything. Finally, his health broke and he was in unbearable pain. Job said the very things we’d say if we had the same experiences. “I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God, Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me. Does it seem good to you to oppress” (Job 10:1-3). We’ve all been there. We’re disgruntled with the way things are going. We think we deserve better. We feel angry with God. Like children, we decide we’re not going to talk to God anymore or read the Bible ‘cause it’s no use anyway. For 35 chapters Job bemoans his fate and defends himself. All the while, the heavens are still and God is silent.
Then all of a sudden God shows up (Ch. 38ff). The Lord doesn’t offer a succinct, systematic theologically sound, doctrinal answer to Job’s questions. Rather the Almighty takes Job on a tour of creation and asks him, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding?” (38:3). Job learns an important lesson: God is God; Job isn’t. In the end it’s impossible for us to pull the Divine down on the mat to give us an accounting. In the end Job concedes, “I know you can do all things and no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (42:2) In the midst of all the craziness and yes even suffering, God is still God and has all things in hand.
Paul too had once had a comfortable and respected life style. Becoming a missionary was a sacrifice with suffering as well as success. When the 1st Church of Corinth questioned his credentials, Paul established his credibility by boasting (to use his own words) about a vision he had 14 years earlier. This vision was so real that he wasn’t sure “whether [it happened] in the body or out of the body” (2 Corinthians 12:3). He reports being “caught up into Paradise (the presence of God) and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat” (vs. 4-5). Talk about being God’s favorite! We’d expect great success and blessings would follow. It’s fascinating to discover: “therefore to keep me from becoming too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh” (vs. 7). We don’t know what the ‘thorn’ was (migraines, malaria, speech impediment, temptations, persecution from detractors) but a thorn is very painful and brings infections. Paul prayed for God to take it away – that didn’t happen. Instead God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (vs. 9). Paul learned that his suffering made room for God’s grace in his life. In spite of his pain, or along with it, Paul had what he needed – God’s Spirit to sustain him. Knowing that, he found peace. He wrote, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities for the sake of Christ.” (vs. 10)
As I grow older I’m learning a little of Paul’s contentment. That’s not to say a serious blow wouldn’t cause suffering, but when difficulties come my way, I remember that God’s grace has been sufficient for me in the past and it’s all I can really count on. I find I’m able to rest a bit more in the knowledge that God remains God and he has a purpose for all creation, including me. The life of Jesus teaches me that part of God’s plan is to take the worst suffering and turn it into something redemptive, even triumphant. We may not understand why God allows suffering but we do know that any discussion of how pain and suffering fit into God’s scheme ultimately leads back to the cross where “God’s power is made perfect in weakness” (vs. 8)