Don’t misunderstand me…I am not opposed to seemingly unjust or terrible suffering, just so long as there is a good explanation for it and so long as God is willing to deliver all from it who cry out to Him. But that is not what we get from the scriptures and God does not deliver all (or even many) from evil. The best answer we get from scriptures is in Job where God asks Job “What do you know, after all?” My word – Job lost all ten of his children, his wealth, his friends and his health – all (according to God) – without just reason. It just seems God did not grasp how much Job suffered (having never suffered like that Himself as a human being) and was unwilling to share the reason for it (unlike how He answers the “complaint” of an angel in Zechariah 1:13), like He is saying “How dare you question why I allowed you to be brutally savaged by a fallen angel against whom you have no power to withstand?”. Might is not a good explanation for right.
As I think I’ve shown, I don’t take Job to be the “best” answer. It’s AN answer, but plenty more are offered. In fact, I now realized that I missed one —
(2 Cor. 12:7-10 ESV) 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Sometimes God says, “No” even to his apostles.
This is a hard one because God has a long history of winning victories through weakness — from Moses to Gideon to David and Goliath to Jesus to Paul. Jeremiah preached from a prison hole in the ground. Ezekiel suffered all sorts of pains to preach for God. So did many other prophets.
Jesus promised his followers,
(Lk. 9:57-58 ESV) 57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
To borrow a phrase, Jesus never promises us a rose garden. We pick and choose the pretty passages and hope to live like Job after he was tested and tried and not like Jesus or Paul. But it’s pretty clear on a fair reading of the text that many of Jesus’ followers will suffer in this life — as Jesus did. It’s even built into Paul’s theology —
(Rom. 5:1-5 ESV) Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Not many sermons get preached on this one, because “we rejoice in our sufferings” does not look good as a mission statement. But that’s what it is.
It’s not that all Christians suffer — but many do. I can barely type the keyboard because of my arthritis. The pain radiates to my elbows. And yet I type because I feel called to type. You’d think God would take away the pain, wouldn’t you? But maybe he wants me to minister to others who suffer. Beats me. I just know that I’m supposed to type.
I am not sure you have a full appreciation for what goes on in the world. Children are sold as sex slaves. Women in ancient China would have their feet bound from childhood so they would be deformed (that was thought to be desirable among men). There are people in North Korea who have grown up from infancy in a prison camp and lived their lives there. People contract all sorts of horrible diseases all over the world. Earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, floods and blizzards kill thousands every year. Lions and other animals kill and eat human beings. And so on and so forth. If God does not answer people like these when they cry out to Him in humility and dispair, what does that tell us? Why do so many scriptures allude to prayers and cries of people? What, then, is the “work” Jesus said the Father was at even to his day?
Please spare me your condescension. I live in Tuscaloosa, where we cared for Katrina refugees and dealt with an F5 tornado that ran next to my church building and near my house. It’s been years, and I just spent this afternoon talking to my wife about the families we tried to help and how the system works against the poor. My congregation has been at the epicenter of relief efforts for these disasters for years, and it’s been at considerable sacrifice and cost.
We’ve been in the homes of people who can’t afford rent to move out of buildings laced with mold, without utilities, and who refuse to move because their friends and neighbors living in similar squalor can’t move with them — and they need their friends to survive. And I practice law in the affordable housing field. I know how to help people — but not how to get the city to zone for affordable housing.
Although I live a privileged existence in many ways, I beat my head against the principalities and powers daily. I successfully campaigned for the state to grant additional housing credits to Tuscaloosa to bring affordable housing to people displaced by the tornado — and the housing industry couldn’t build enough new housing to use the credits because the red tape defeated my efforts. I beat my head against the principalities and powers daily.
How I’ve got it figured
But here’s the point: I beat my head against the principalities and powers daily. Sometimes, they lose. Not always, but often enough to make the effort worthwhile. God’s power is made perfect in weakness.
I don’t expect you to have an answer to these questions. But if the world is to be won, answers would sure help that cause. It is not simply a matter of preaching the gospel. Most everyone has heard of Jesus. They have to know God is truly good beyond all question. That is a tough sell to someone who has suffered greatly in one way or another. Knowing that Jesus died on the cross for him does not explain why he was born with cystic fibrosis or why she was sexually abused, caged and beaten by her own father for over ten years or…well, you get the picture.
I have friends with CF, relatives with MS. I have friends who were abused and who suffer today from their childhood trauma. I have a brother who traveled to Nepal to free girls enslaved for the sex trade. He didn’t just send a check. I’m not naive.
However, neither do I blame God.
To me, the metaphysics are very difficult to articulate. It’s hard to explain the WHY — except that somehow it has to do with human sin, which infects not just the sinners but the entire cosmos. (Perhaps we don’t understand because we’ve never seen what things would be like if there were no sin.)
But I can explain the THEREFORE, the “what do we do about it?” part pretty well.
What we do about it is —
- Have faith that God’s plan is the right, best, only plan.
- Look forward to a better heaven, earth, and body. (I would rather like a body that didn’t require pain meds to get through the day.)
- Bring more people into the Kingdom.
- Convert the church from politics, moralism, legalism, and Gnosticism to actually serving as Jesus served. Help the church become the church (to quote Hauerwas). Be a light on a hill.
- Beat your head against the principalities and powers every day. And believe that God will — somehow or other — use your sacrifice in a way that betters this world. And believe that there’s no other way.
- Pray — but not for magic. Pray that the church becomes the true church. That we each contribute something that helps redeem the world. Look forward to the day when we meet Jesus in the new heavens and new earth and recognize that the new world is perfect because of something we helped God accomplish. We’ll see the evidence that our works were not in vain when we get there. We’ll have treasures in heaven because of our labors in this life that survive into the next age. What we redeem in this age will remain redeemed in the next.
- In the meantime, we live in the paradox, sustained by faith and the Spirit.
That’s my limit for tonight. Time to take my nighttime meds.