have a Friend who has a Problem with Suffering
I have to confess that I have a problem with suffering too. I am sure you do to. A couple of months ago I experienced some of the worst pain in my life. I know the scientific reasons why I suffered but that doesn’t make it any easier. If God wasn’t going to answer my prayers I felt like I wanted to die. When the pain had gone I changed my mind. Christians struggle to keep their faith when confronted with setbacks or illness or death. This is therefore one question we will have something in common with our friends. The answers we find should help us as much as them. Our culture finds the issue of suffering a huge problem. The presence of pain and evil in the world is used by atheists as a major argument against the existence of God. David Hume, the philosopher put it like this:
“Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he
is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”
I meet someone who poses the issue in roughly those terms I invite them to reflect
on why they even raise the question if there is no God. If there is no God, there
is no meaning or purpose in anything, no right or wrong, no good or evil, no answers,
no questions. The very fact that they view suffering as wrong and raise the question
indicates that God has put that value judgement in their hearts.
Previous generations did not find suffering so much of a problem; nor is it a problem in some non-western cultures today. In biblical times the issue was faced and explored, and a number of insights gained; but, again, in the New Testament in particular, suffering was not seen as a major, intractable problem, but rather as something to which God has provided the answer and which we can therefore accept and cope with in a positive way. Perhaps underlying our culture's attitude to suffering is the assumption that we each have a right to unbroken health, happiness and well-being throughout our lives. Anything that infringes this right must be an evil, and it is the responsibility of a good God to remove all evil from us. If he fails to do so, something has gone seriously wrong.
It is interesting that this attitude has developed in a culture where suffering has been virtually eliminated. We have dentists to deal with our toothache, pills to take away our pains, hospitals to cure our illnesses. In previous generations gruesome death was a familiar visitor to every home. Parents expected at least half their children to die in childhood. My father, for example was one of eight children. Today, however, people today live for decades without experiencing bereavement, and even when death comes it is generally carefully packaged to cover up its nastiness.
I’d like to recommend another book to help you answer these most common questions are friends have about God, about the world and about Christianity. Peter Hick’s “What Could I say” by IVP.
While the Bible gives no precise or detailed answer to this question, it does speak a lot about suffering, it can help people deal with their suffering, and it does give us a number of principles to help us with the 'problem of suffering'. Underlying the Bible’s teaching on suffering are three great truths.
God is God
He created a perfect universe where we could enjoy perfect relationships (with God and with each other) in a perfect environment (disease and disaster free). In the last analysis we have to allow that he may do as he chooses. He is not required to shape his purposes according to what we might think will give us the maximum amount of happiness. Rather, he shapes the details of the universe, including what happens in our lives, according to his ultimate and perfect purposes. If in the short term these appear painful or unacceptable to us, it is we who have to give way and say as Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will but your will,” not the other way round. God is God and before him we must bow in humble adoration.
Suffering and pain are the result of our rebellion against our creator. It is easy to trace the link between some suffering and acts of human selfishness (eg. terrorist acts, drink-driving). But some suffering is not the direct result of any specific selfish action (eg. injury in a freak storm). It exists because we live in a 'fallen' world. (i.e. a world that has turned it's back on God). Sometimes God allows suffering to alert rebellious and self reliant people to the need to turn back to him and rely on him.
The book of job is a great theological poem which faces the issue of suffering in its starkest form. It ends up with wonder and worship at the greatness and glory of God, whose ways are beyond our understanding. This is not an admission that there is no meaning or answer to suffering; rather, it is an affirmation of the perfect goodness and greatness of God's purposes, even though they may puzzle or hurt us.
And these purposes, though worked out on a huge canvas, include personal love and care for every individual.
God suffered in Christ for us
God has suffered. If anyone knows about suffering, it is God. So far from remaining apart from the hurt and darkness of our world, God has come and taken it upon himself. He has experienced the pain of our rejection of him. Jesus has suffered, by dying on the cross in our place so that we could be forgiven. God hates suffering and the pain it brings to the creation he loves.
Because Jesus suffered, the power of evil over us has been broken. He has also promised that he will wipe away all suffering, and every trace of evil when he re-creates the universe. In this new creation those who have turned back to God and trusted in Jesus will enjoy perfect relationships in a perfect world.
God is purposefully delaying that time so that men and women have the opportunity to turn back to him and receive his forgiveness through Jesus' death and resurrection. God is displaying his patience and love in delaying that great moment because he does not want anyone to experience the suffering of being separated from his love for ever.
3. God calls us to help
those who suffer
The question of suffering is a very different one asked as a philosophical question in a school debate and one asked by someone in deep pain, shock or bereavement.
3.1 Never minimize the pain or pressure they may feel
if we sense they are overreacting, we need to
accept that the issue is a major one to them. Our role is to help them
face the suffering and allow it to be transformed
by God, not to act as though it is not there.
3.2 Talk with people about what they are suffering
Encourage them to express their feelings. Provide a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. The primary need of those who are suffering is love and support, not theological explanations of why they are suffering. The explanations have a place, but we need to give ourselves first, and demonstrate the reality of the love of God through our lives and the lives of God's people.
Gently share that God knows and understands
Point them to incidents in the life of Jesus where he went through a parallel experience they are going through, and shares in its pain and hurt. Assure them that God's love is constant. Our feelings and experiences come and go, but God has promised he will never fail us.
Broaden their vision of the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ (Eph. 3:18). Gently help them to put their trust in God's faithfulness and love rather than in their experiences or feelings.
3.4 Answer their Fears
Should they feel that in some way their suffering is a punishment from God for their sins, or a sign that God is upset with them in some way, some of the following suggestions may be helpful:
· Gently ask them if they have specific sins in mind. If they have, check that they have brought these to God in repentance and received his forgiveness. If they have not, help them to do so.
· If there are no specific sins, but just a general sense of sinfulness, help them to bring that to God, perhaps in a time of prayer ministry.
· Help them to grasp the Bible's teaching on grace and forgiveness, stressing the completeness and totality of the cleansing God gives. You might use verses like Romans 8:1, Ephesians 1:7-8 or Isaiah 44:22.
· Stress the constancy of the grace and love of God; he does not have `off' days; he doesn't change according to our circumstances.
· Point out that Jesus and Paul both suffered greatly, and that their suffering was in no way a sign of God's displeasure or neglect.
When appropriate, talk with them about the nature of suffering, and the Bible's view of it. Help them to accept that as Christians we should view it biblically, rather than accept the mindset of our culture that sees it as an unacceptable infringement of our right to total happiness. Help them to begin to grasp the Bible's view of suffering. Points you might mention include:
· God is sovereign. Jesus is on the throne of the universe, and all things, including evil things, are under his feet (Eph. 1:22). Nothing happens to Christians by accident, or without God's knowledge.
· Christ's victory on the cross has not removed suffering from the world, but has broken its power to harm us (Col. 2:15). For the Christian, the powers of evil cannot use suffering to destroy; on the contrary, God now uses suffering to enrich.
Just as Easter Day transformed the disaster of Good Friday into the most wonderful thing the world had experienced, so the cross and resurrection transform suffering for the Christian and makes it of value.
· God is totally committed to the ultimate good of all his children and has promised that he will work everything to this end (Rom. 8:28).
· Not everything he does will be pleasant or even welcome to us (Heb. 12:5-7); the pruning-knife can be painful (John 15:2). Nevertheless, he knows and understands and is with us in the pain and hurt.
· God could take any suffering away from us, and he will do so if that is for the greatest good. Where we feel it right, we should pray that he will do this, but always with the proviso, `Not my will, but yours.'
· Where he doesn't remove the suffering, we can be sure he has some special purpose in it, either for us specifically, or for others through us. Given that fact, if at all possible, we should accept the suffering as a privilege, and even rejoice in it (Rom. 5:3; 2 Cor. 12:10; Jas. 1:2).
· Where he calls us to experience suffering, he promises us his grace and strength to go through it for his glory. See, for example, Psalm 23:4; Isaiah 43:1-3.
3.5 Lead them to a Deeper Faith in Jesus
A major problem for many is that their particular suffering seems pointless. They could accept it if it was clearly suffering for a purpose (like child birth) and producing some obvious good. But much of our suffering does not produce obvious good. We can see no point in it.
The Bible's answer to this is that for the Christian no suffering is ever pointless; it can all be used by God for good, and everything that God is doing in our lives is for the sake of his kingdom; God does not recognize a religious/secular or Christian life/ordinary life divide in us. He is at work in all the circumstances and situations of our lives, allowing us to be tested and refined and shaped and made more like Jesus through every experience, whether good or bad.
The story of Joseph, culminating in his comment in Genesis 50:20, is a useful illustration of the way God uses apparent meaningless disasters for good. "You meant it for evil but God turned it for good for the saving of many lives." (Gen. 50:20). Other examples are the cross, as viewed by the disciples on Good Friday evening or the death of Stephen and the persecution that arose as a result.
3.6 Help them to apply the biblical teaching to themselves
Stress that it is impossible for us to know for sure just what good thing God is going to bring out of this particular experience. Sometimes, however, we might have an idea ('God is letting this happen to me to teach me patience' or `to give me an opportunity to show love to my enemies' or `to enable me to show how Christians respond to suffering'), and it may be helpful to hold on to this. But the point remains that most of God's purposes are unknown to us, and many of them will be so throughout our lives.
3.7 Turn the Suffering into an opportunity for Prayer
Mobilize prayer support by individuals; pray with the sufferer; pray as a group. View prayer not as an escape hatch, but as a means of furthering the gracious and creative work of God in the situation. Take Jesus in Gethsemane and Paul's `thorn in the flesh' as models for praying (see Luke 22:39-46 and 2 Cor. 12:7-10). Ask clearly and in faith that, where possible, the suffering will be taken away. But leave the decision to God, and, where he so guides, accept that his answer is `No' and that he is working out some special purpose through it.
4. Some helpful New Testament
passages on suffering
Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven (Luke 6:20-23).
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His
disciples asked him, `Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was
born blind?' `Neither this man nor his parents
sinned,' said Jesus, `but
this happened so that the work of God might
be displayed in his life'
Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful (John 15:2).
We rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us (Rom. 5:2-5).
... our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us ... trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword ... in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (Rom. 8:18, 35, 37).
Where, 0 death, is your victory? ... thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:55-56).
... we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
... there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.
But he said to me, `My grace is sufficient for you,
my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I
will boast all the more gladly about
my weaknesses, so that Christ's
power may rest on
me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses,
in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak,
then I am strong
(2 Cor. 12:7-10).
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:10-11).
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons (Heb. 12:7).
Consider it pure joy ... whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything (Jas. 1:2-4)
I am deeply
indebted to Peter Hicks and his book “What could I say” (IVP) for the outline
and some of the content for this sermon. As Jim Packer
used to say at College “sell your shirt to buy it”. I also
recommend C.S. Lewis' 'The Problem of Pain'.