4200 words, read time: approximately 14-16 minutes.
I recently finished teaching a course on evangelism to a group of high school teens at my church. They each had a willingness to spread the gospel, but also a hunger and curiosity to learn more about the validity of it. The class consisted primarily of kids who were raised in Christian homes where they were taught to believe in God, Jesus and the Bible. Yet within these students resided many unanswered questions that they never asked Mom and Dad. One of the top 10 questions we talked about was, “How can a good God allow suffering to exist?”
At the end of our class one Sunday morning I told the kids that the following week we would look to discuss this question. One particularly bright student chimed in, “I look forward to hearing your answer to this question. Usually when it’s brought up in conversation, I change the subject immediately.” At that moment, I knew that my response could significantly impact this young man’s spiritual life and had the potential to reinforce or weaken his confidence in the Christian message. I therefore set out to diligently seek God and His Word for some enlightenment knowing that He “rewards those who diligently seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6) In His faithfulness, God provided me with a greater understand of His purposes and plan in suffering which I now call “The Seven C’s of Suffering.”
Is God truly good? This simple question lies at the root of many foundational issues each of us face in our relationship to the Almighty. Our ability to trust God, to have a positive outlook on life and to believe in his sovereignty all rely upon the goodness of God’s nature. “I would have lost heart, unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (Psalm 27:13) If God truly is good, why would He permit bad things, even evil things, to happen to people that He says He loves? To answer this question, we need to evaluate God’s design and purpose in Creation.
God created a world that reflects his glory. (Psalm 19:1) When God finished creating the universe He was very pleased with the way things turned out. He looked upon his creation – the earth, the sun, the moon, the skies, the ocean, the trees, the birds, the lions and tigers and the first man – and said, “It’s all very good!” (see Genesis 1:31)
Mankind was the pinnacle of God’s masterpiece being created in His own image and likeness. God gave mankind the ability to choose so that we could enjoy the beauty and freedom of His creation and the fulfillment of a relationship with Himself. This is ability to choose is commonly referred to as “free will”. With that free will, humans were given the choice of agreeing with God and following His plans or living by their own standards ignoring God’s decrees. God’s first creatures, Adam and Eve, chose plan B. Not only did Adam and Eve choose the way of rebellion, so have each and every human being since them, with one exception – God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. The consequences of our choices have changed the course of history and the world we live in today.
For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now. Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.” (Romans 8:19-23)
Can you hear the groaning? It can be heard in the earth as a tsunami unfolds. It can be heard as a doctor informs an expectant mother that her baby is no longer moving. It can be heard with every senseless murder, every heinous sexual crime, every life ended early and even those lives that seem to go on in spite of debilitating diseases. Life hurts.
All of creation aches from the pain that is so effortlessly produced each day around the world. Suffering is not only painful, it is also perplexing. We look at unjust situations and atrocities that take place around us and our hearts cry out, “It’s just not fair!” And in the midst of all the pain, we look to heavens with a clenched fist and yell out, “Where are you now, God?”
If we could tune into heaven we would hear sobbing, yes tears, that stream from the throne of Almighty God. God’s heart is broken over the condition of His creation.
“And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart.” (Genesis 5:6)
“For I have no pleasure in the death of one who dies,” says the Lord GOD. Therefore turn and live!” (Ezekiel 18:32)
“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)
Somehow we’ve been fooled to believe that God doesn’t care, that He’s distant, uninvolved and disinterested. Yet the fall of mankind and the suffering in the world is heavier on God’s heart than it has ever been on our own. God is not only sorrowful over the degradation of His creation, He decide to do something about it.
Throughout the Bible, God is described as being compassionate. To be compassionate is beyond just being sympathetic to others. When a person is said to be sympathetic, it means that they understand and empathize with the plight of another. Such a person is able to grieve alongside someone who is experiencing pain or loss and may even feel the same intensity of emotion of that individual. It is good to have sympathetic friends and counselors in our times of deep sorrow. In fact the Bible instructs all Christians to “mourn with those who mourn”. (Romans 12:15)
Compassion goes a step further. Compassion is sympathy in action. A person who is compassionate towards another will not only feel the pain and loss of another person, he will do something about it. The Bible makes it clear that true faith and love will not only sympathize, but also display practical acts of compassion. “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3:17, 18) (See also Matthew 18:33 and James 2:15,16)
Throughout history God has looked upon the depravity of mankind and has felt sorrow over our sinful condition. Fortunately, God is not only grieved over the sin of mankind and depravity of the world; He decided to do something about it. God’s greatest act of compassion came 2000 years ago when he sent his only begotten Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross for our sins. “But God demonstrated his love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
The God of the Bible is not a distant phantom in the sky. He cared enough about each one of us to leave the glory of heaven, become a human being and live amongst people who would scorn, mock and ultimately kill Him. Jesus experienced the pain and sorrow of the world and was tempted in every way, but never sinned. When He died on the cross, he not only bore all of our sins, He also bore our sorrows and pain. (Isaiah 53:3-5) Through his death we find forgiveness for the sins we have committed and healing from sins committed against us. The cross is God’s ultimate means of redeeming what was lost in Creation. It is through the cross that we realize that God is not distant and uncaring, but that He is actively seeking to provide help and restoration for our fallen condition.
The cross of Christ does not remove the pain and suffering found in the world. There is still injustice, poverty, illness, hurt and pain caused by a fallen world, fallen mankind, fallen angels and the most fallen of all creatures, Satan. However, God gives us hope for a day when these things will pass away and everything will become new.
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18) The Apostle Paul’s writings and perspective on life have had a monumental impact on the way Christians have viewed suffering. When the topic of suffering appears in Paul’s writings you often find it counterbalanced with a discussion of eternity and heaven. If we had a larger than life teeter-totter and on one side sat all human suffering experienced throughout history and on the other side sat the glory of heaven, Paul believes that the goodness of heaven would exceedingly outweigh the evil of this world. In his mind there is no comparison.
In fact, Paul describes our suffering as being “light” and “but for a moment” compared to eternity. (2 Corinthians 4:17, 18) This would be hard to swallow theology if Paul had never personally experienced any suffering. Yet, Paul was no stranger to suffering. His firsthand accounts of suffering in life and ministry validate his claims on the matter.
“Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of water, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness – besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches.” (2 Corinthians 11:25-28)
The good news of all good news is that one day we will be united with God and Christ in heaven. Jesus has gone to the Father’s house to prepare a place for each one of his children to call home. (John 14:2,3) Heaven will be no ordinary place. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) There will be perfect peace, perfect love, perfect joy and most of all, the “Perfect One”. (1 Corinthians 13:10-12) We will be united to our Savior and He will be united to His bride and for all of eternity, there will be a holy, happy celebration. When we compare this future glory to the present sufferings of our day, we will agree with the psalmist who said, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked.”
When a good friend of Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy asked him whether or not he’d bring his deceased son James back to life, in light of his understanding of heaven, he responded by saying, “No, I wouldn’t. I would not want him back with what I know about heaven.” Mr. Dungy grieves over the loss of his son and at times misses him dearly, but with an eternal perspective he was able to accept his loss and his son’s gain. “That’s what helped me through the grieving process — because of Christ’s Spirit in me, I had that confidence that James is there at peace with the Lord, and I have the peace of mind in the midst of something that’s very, very painful.” (Ref. 1)
Creation, Cross, Consummation
It’s comforting to know that God is unhappy over Creation’s fall. It’s wonderful to discover God’s redemptive plan in the Cross. It’s inspiring and hopeful to think of the future with our Savior in heaven, yet we still struggle with the seemingly meaningless experiences of suffering that continue to exist today. The question may arise within our hearts to ask, “Why can’t God stop suffering now instead of waiting until heaven?”
Fortunately, God has not only given us hope for the future, He also has a plan for using today’s suffering as a means of greater gain. Or as best put in the words of Joseph to his brothers, “you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good.” (Genesis 50:20a) The remaining four “C’s” will emphasize how God uses suffering in our lives and how suffering can bring about a greater good and bring God greater glory.
The Calling to Conformity
One of the clearest portrayals of unjust suffering found in the Bible is the story of God’s servant Job. Job had everything this world could possibly offer: a close walk with God, good health, financial success, a wife, ten kids and three close friends. And in one day, he lost it all. His children died. His possessions were stolen. He was struck with a demonically induced, painful and disfiguring disease. His wife told him to curse God. And his friends made sure that Job knew it was all his fault. Yet through all the pain and loss that Job experienced, he remained committed to God and endured the hardship. In the end, the Lord restored Job’s losses and gave him twice as much as he had before.
James summarizes the lessons from Job’s story in his epistle by saying, “Indeed we count them blessed who endure. You have heard of the perseverance of Job and seen the end intended by the Lord – that the Lord is very compassionate and merciful.” (James 5:11) James provides two very important keys for anyone going through a trial. The first is to persevere. We don’t lose until we give up. (Galatians 6:9) Secondly, we must trust that somehow and in some way, God is wise and strong enough to make something good out of life’s worse tragedies.
The apostle Paul put it this way, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren.” (Romans 8:28-29) Many Christians can quote Romans 8:28 and will readily agree that God is working everything out for their good. However, scripture promises that God works everything together for His good and purposes. Part of God’s good plan is for his children to mature and develop Christ-like character. The ultimate good is not necessarily our own personal happiness, but instead our own individual holiness. We are called to be conformed to the image of Christ.
Job requested that God would give him a one-on-one talk to discuss his calamity. When his prayer was answered, Job’s pain, suffering and loss diminished in the sight and sound of His Maker. The last recorded words of Job tell of this transformation. “I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear, But now my eye sees You. Therefore I abhor myself, And repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5,6) God did indeed restore Job’s health, wealth and family. More importantly, God restored and transformed Job’s heart using his calamity to mature him into an even more humble and reverent man.
Comfort in Suffering
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulations, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Corinthians 1:3,4)
God loves to comfort people in their troubles and desires for those comforted ones to turn around and comfort others. Ideally, this would create a chain reaction of benevolence and love in our world that could transform any society. Too often when we feel pain and sorrow, we cannot help but to focus in on ourselves and our problem. Instead, we should first look to God who identifies himself as the “God of all comfort” and secondly look for opportunities to share God’s comfort and love with those in need.
No one, including people of faith, is exempt from experiencing hardship. Trials make the glue that keeps humanity united. Trials allow Christians the opportunity to relate to people of various backgrounds and religious convictions. In fact, if we “had it all together” and never suffered, we would be irrelevant to a lost and dying world around us. Jesus himself is able to help us in our temptations because He himself first experienced temptation, yet was without sin. (Hebrews 2:18, 4:15)
Christians are called to spread the love of God indiscriminately throughout the whole world, but also to look specifically for opportunities to help those who are suffering in ways we too have experienced. Often times, God will allow us to meet people who have either gone through a similar tragedy that we now face or are going through one that we’ve already experienced. In these times we are to make the most of every opportunity by receiving and sharing the comfort of God through the care of another person.
God enjoys demonstrating His power through the perseverance of his children. When Christians use the trials they face as a means of becoming a better person and avoid becoming resentful, they provide credibility to the value of genuine faith in God. Furthermore, trials help us to forsake our self-sufficient mentality to rely upon the sustaining power of God’s love.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. (Romans 8:35,37)
God often uses life’s troubling circumstances as a means to convince people of their need to live dependently upon Him. People who live comfortable lives are less likely to find themselves in need of God’s power and provision. They reason to think that they can do just fine without God. Some people live their entire lives under this false premise and die never recognizing their spiritual need for forgiveness of sins.
This may explain why Jesus declared the poor, the hungry, the downcast, the hated, excluded and reviled people on this earth as “blessed” while those who are rich, have a full stomach, laugh through life and are respected by men as cursed. (Luke 6:20-26) It’s not that a person cannot have a “good life” and still be godly; it’s that oftentimes the “good life” blinds a person of their need for God. “Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. (1 Timothy 6:17)
Hardship does not guarantee that a person will seek refuge in God. There are indeed some who turn from God in hardship blaming Him for their predicament. It is ultimately a matter of the heart. Like nothing else in life, trials can quickly break the fallow ground of an impenitent heart or cause one to harden their heart and become calloused toward God. Trials can both build one’s trust in God or destroy it completely.
When we seek God as a refuge and strength in our times of trial, we are sustained by His love and grace. We become conquerors over our circumstances. We become victors and not victims. As we wait upon the Lord our strength is renewed and we mount up with wings like eagles and soar. Through our trials we learn that God is faithful in bad times just as He is in the good times. We come to experience his sufficient grace (power) to get us through life’s challenges. In the end, we can embrace the declaration of the Apostle Paul, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)
When life circumstances rob us of the things we cherish most, we seek to find something in this life that is reliable, trustworthy and steadfast. Tragedy, particularly an untimely death of someone we love, can leave us feeling empty, alone and unstable. The one thing that will never fail is also the thing we need the most in times of suffering – the unconditional love of Jesus Christ.
For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38,39)
The promise of God is that He will love us and be with us through every tribulation, trial and heartache. We are inseparable from His love. We may lay naked and bare, but we will be clothed with the love of Jesus Christ. We may have been robbed and mistreated, but the love of Christ cannot be taken away. We may live or die, but in the end as believers in Christ we will remain in his love. We can run, we can hide, but we cannot be divided from the love of Jesus Christ.
Christ’s love does not answer every question we have or stop bad things from happening to us. Christ’s love will not permit us to evade the suffering present in this world. Jesus said, “In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) God’s love for us does however assure us that He is working on our side and that He does have our best interests in mind.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32)
The greatest act of Christ’s love was his willingness to lay down his life for us. The cross of Christ is proof that God does love and care for us. The resurrection is proof that God is wise enough and powerful enough to bring about good from even the most senseless, unjust evil. The willingness of God to send His only begotten Son on our behalf and the willingness of Jesus to lay down his life provides us with the assurance that God does care for us and will see us through this life’s trials.
I do realize that even the best explanation of suffering cannot take away the pain we experience this side of heaven. However, as I consider some of my most painful trials and examine the implications of the “Seven C’s”, I am comforted to know that God’s eternal plan is greater than any suffering I ever will or have experienced.
I consider my brother Eddie and I can see God’s hand even in the midst of his untimely death at age 42. My brother became a Christian 10 years prior to his death. He too felt the pain of Creation’s fall and would sometimes say, “I don’t know why God just doesn’t save everyone.” Yet he was always willing to give testimony to the grace and mercy of God found in the cross. Eddie looked forward to the beauty of heaven and had often quoted to me, “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man; The things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” (1 Corinthians 2:9)
Eddie was a great example of God’s ability to restore humankind. He overcame both drug and alcohol addictions and became one of the most loving, caring, faithful individuals I’ve ever met. He was always busy sharing the love of Christ with others. He was generous, upbeat, encouraging and eccentrically positive even in the midst of trials. Needless to say, he is missed today. Yet as much as I miss my brother Eddie and can’t understand the timing of his death, I know that if he could see me today his message would not change. He’d still say, “It’s all good!” And in light of God’s redemptive plan and the hope of eternity in heaven, it truly is.