Modern Myths ... about Suffering
As we continue to look at some of the Modern Myths prevalent in our world today, the myth we want to look at this morning has to be one of the most common and pervasive. And it has to do with the question of human sufferiing. Undoubtedly, this is the biggest stumbling block that causes many people to doubt the existence of God – “If God really is all-loving and all-powerful, then surely he would not allow the kind of terrible suffering that we see around us in the world today?” No one can deny that the world we live in today is a world that is full of untold pain and suffering. Every day we see reports in the news of people devestated by war, millions of children going to bed hungry, families being killed by drunk drivers, innnocent lives snuffed out by terrorist attacks. We hear not only of suffering & pain inflicted by other people, but also natural disasters such as earthquakes, disease and famine that bring untold suffering to people who have done nothing to deserve it. On a more personal level, many of you may have watched as loved ones have experienced the terrible effects of cancer and other physical afflictions. That's a hard truth for us to face, & what's even harder for us sometimes is to try to figure out where God fits into all of this.
The question we want to ask ourselves this morning is this: "If God is really there, then why would he allow the kind of suffering that goes on everyday around us?” I think we would all agree that this is a very difficult question. I'm not going to even begin to try to tell you there is an answer to that question that can ever be completely satisfying to us. None of us will ever become comfortable with the idea of innocent children suffering unfairly. I don't think this is an issue that we can ever entirely resolve. And yet I believe that God does give us some insight in the Bible into this question. And so I want to try to explore this morning how we can still believe in a loving God, even while we live in a suffering world.
In the passage from the OT that we just read, we encounter this fellow named Job. Job is the classic example of "Bad things happening to good people" Right off the bat, we are given this rather bizarre scenario of Satan coming to God, and challenging him to to a kind of contest, where Job is the football that's going to get kicked around. "What about this guy Job?" Satan says to God. "Of course he's willing to follow you when everything is going so great for him! He's the wealthiest man in the country! He's got a great family, lots of servants. But what happens when all those things are taken away from him? Will he still trust God then?" And so God agrees to this test of Job's faith. And then one day, without warning, disaster strikes Job. A messenger arrives to tell him the terrible news: All of his huge flocks of sheep & herds of oxen have been stolen or destroyed, all of his servants have been wiped out by raiding parties. And then he gets the worst news of all: a storm has hit the house where his 7 sons & 3 daughters were staying, & everyone of them is now dead. Completely gone, all of them wiped out just like that. And the worst part is that Job has absolutely no idea why this has happened to him. He spends the rest of the book trying to figure out what is going on.
So what, if anything, does this story have to say to us about the issue of suffering? Well, a number of things:
1. When we see what is happening in our world today, we need to recognize that we aren't always seeing the whole picture. The Bible gives us a different perspective on the condition of our world today than you might find in your newspaper. The Bible tells us that the reason there is so much pain & suffering in our world, is because we live in a world that has been severely damaged & broken by the presence of evil. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (Rom 8:22) When God first created the world, back in Genesis, he saw that everything he had created was good. Man lived in harmony with his environment, & initially there was no disease, no suffering, no death even. But then when we get to Gen 3 (which we looked at last week), we discover that evil is already present in the world in the form of the serpent, who is God's enemy, Satan. Under the serpent's influence, humankind rebels against God, & this proves to have a catastrophic effect, not only on the human race, but also on the world we live in. And so the presence of sin & evil in the world means that we now live on a planet that is in many ways a hostile environment- natural disasters, famine, disease, and ultimately death are part of this broken world that we live in. On top of that, man also now inflicts terrible damage on his fellow man in the form of wars & terrorism & violent crime. And all of these things can be traced back to the fall of mankind in Gen 3.
2. The logical question then is, If sin was going to have such a terrible effect, Why did God allow for even the possibility of sin & evil in the world? Why couldn't he have created a world where nothing would ever go wrong? And the answer seems to be that, that kind of world would only have been possible if God had taken away our human freedom- our capacity to make moral choices. We can only really make choices if there are genuine alternatives for us to choose. In order for us to freely choose good, there must also be the possibility of choosing evil. In order for us to freely choose to love & obey God, there must also be the possibility of us turning away from him. Now hypothetically, God could have created a race of robots programmed to obey him without question. But what kind of people would we then be? What kind of rel'ships would we have with God & with one another? God understood, as we do, that love that is forced, is not real love. And so God took the terrible risk of allowing us the freedom to love him of our own choosing, but in doing so, he also had to give us another option as well- the freedom to also to rebel & turn away from our own creator. Which of course, is exactly what happened. And so now we live everyday with the consequences of living in a fallen world, which is now alienated from God, & full of imperfections.
3. God promises that one day there will be a new heaven & a new earth, where he will set things right. On that day he promises that "He will wipe every tear from our eyes. [Then] there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain." But in the meantime, in this age, we live with the terrible reality that evil and it's consequences are still very much a part of our world. You see God never promises us that he will protect us from suffering and pain in this life. Some people teach that, but the Bible doesn’t teach it. In fact Jesus said “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows” (John 16:33) NLT
And so Job, experienced first-hand some of the pain of living in this kind of world. And all of us here this morning have as well. We may have seen our own families torn apart. We may have watched people we love get sick, and eventually even die. As much as we would like things to be different, that's the way life is. But the good news is that even as we go through times of suffering, we do not have to give up in despair. Althoigh suffering is never a good thing in itself, God is able to use it for good in a number of different ways:
1. God can use our suffering to draw us closer to Christ. The idea of a world without pain may sound very appealing at first. No more headaches, or backaches, no more throbbing sensations when the hammer misses the nail & lands on your thumb instead. But the fact is, that pain serves a very important purpose in our lives. It is a warning system which protects us from doing things which could hurt us. If we happen to accidentally place our hand in boiling hot water, the pain immediately alerts us that we need to get our hand out of there as quickly as possible. Sometimes people lose their capacity to feel pain, & this causes them enormous problems. Leprosy patients for eg, often lose their fingers & toes, not because of the disease directly, but because they have lost sensitivity to pain, & can no longer tell when they are doing something to hurt themselves. In the same way, pain & suffering can also serve to make us more aware of God in our lives. The writer CS Lewis once wrote: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain. Pain is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world." Sometimes it is only when we go thru a painful experience in life, that we finally start to realize how much we need God in our lives. Many of you here this morning could probably attest to that in their own experience
2. God can also use times of suffering to build Christ-like character & maturity in our lives. Rom 5:3: "But we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." Our reaction may be to say: "Lord that's OK, I'd just as soon stay immature & avoid the pain!" But because our heavenly Father loves us, he also disciplines us, just as our earthly fathers disciplined us, for our own good. Now we have to be careful here. We cannot then say that if a person is suffering, it must be because of something they have done personally, for which God is now disciplining them. God doesn't say: "Uh-oh, Jim slipped up again, & now I'm going to make him suffer for it." That is not how God works. Job, for eg, did not suffer because of anything he did personally. God commended him, in fact, as a man who was "blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil."
3. Nevertheless, he was willing to allow Job to be tested, because it is only through suffering, that the genuineness of our faith is revealed. 1 Peter 1:6-7 (NET) "You may have to suffer for a short time in various trials. Such trials show the proven character of your faith "
4. Finally, no matter how much pain God may allow us to go thru, we must always remember that he never asks us to endure something that he himself has not already experienced himself. God is not just looking on as a passive observer, far removed from our situation. When Jesus came to this world, God himself became one of us, so that he would know first hand what it was like to experience hunger & exhaustion, loneliness & rejection, & all of the painful experiences that are part of our human experience. And ultimately, it is in the cross, that we see Jesus endure suffering, perhaps in a deeper way than any of us will ever experience. And he calls us to follow in his steps: “But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:20-21) Jesus died on the cross, not only so that he would be able to identify with our suffering, but also so that he might deal decisively with the root problem that causes our suffering in the first place: that is our sin When Jesus died on the cross, & then rose again, he triumphed over all the forces of darkness & evil that hold such a grip on this world.
And while we still live in a world that is still subject to the effects of sin, the cross spelled Satan's ultimate defeat. He may still be fighting back right now, but one day soon he will finally be driven out & destroyed, when Jesus returns establishes his kingdom forever.
What then should be our response to suffering in the world today?
1. When we see others suffering, we are called to show compassion & do what we can to help relieve their suffering. While he was in this world, Jesus fought against suffering wherever he found it. He fed the hungry, he healed the sick, he had compassion for those who were hurting. And he said that whenever we see someone hungry & we give them something to eat, whenever we see someone thirsty & we give them something to drink, it's like we're doing it for him. And so we are called to help those in our world who are hurting and suffering, just as Jesus himself did
2. When we experience suffering in this present life, we need to remember that the story is not finished. God is using these experiences to prepare us for the glory that is yet to come Romans 8:17 “…we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” I believe it is only at the cross that we can really begin to understand why a God of love would allow suffering. At the cross, we see God working thru suffering: Those who nailed Jesus to the cross intended it for evil, but God intended it for good- that through his suffering he would bring redemption and healing to a broken world. As I said earlier, we may not ever be able to completely resolve all of our questions about this issue. There is an ultimate mystery to this whole question of suffering that we may never understand completely. But as we go thru times of pain, & trial in our lives, we find that it is in that very place, that we can find God, if we will only look for him there