Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
A question which is often asked by people down through the centuries is, How can a loving God allow people to suffer? This question gained special urgency on September 11, 2001, with the terrible loss of life in New York. Whenever there is a tragedy and people are killed, that question is asked again and again. In a world of war, famine, disease, and divorce it’s a question that is never far from our minds.
It’s also a question that has plagued Jesus’ followers since they saw him die on the cross. And it’s a question so troubling that it leads many people to turn away from God. They refuse to trust him, wondering, if God loves us so much:
- Why doesn’t God send rain to people starving in a drought?
- Why doesn’t he bring peace to the Holy Land?
- How can he let his children be raped, murdered, and abused?
- Why doesn’t God cure cancer, eliminate Alzheimer’s, and wipe out drug addiction?
The question of human pain and suffering is one of the biggest obstacles to faith. I know people who refuse to believe in God because they say, I won’t believe that there is a loving God if he allows all this horrible stuff to happen.
Like Job in the Old Testament, we must trust that God, the Creator, knows what’s best for his creation. When suffering strikes, we have to trust that God knows what he is doing. As he told the prophet Jeremiah: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11 – NRSV)
Corrie ten Boom and her sister were languishing in a Nazi concentration camp in World War II. On top of all the other indignities they suffered, they also had severe cases of lice. At first, this bothered them, and they wondered when their suffering would end.
Then they realised that it was because of their lice that they kept getting passed over for even worse tortures. They prayed every day that God would keep the lice coming. There is some suffering in our lives that serves to save us from even greater suffering. And if God is behind the lesser suffering, we must thank him for it.
Just because God allows suffering, this doesn’t mean he is the cause of it. Now I need to say that just because God allows suffering, this doesn’t mean that he stands by, passively watching the agony of his children. Of course not. God joins us in our suffering.
God with us
As the Psalmist said, when we pass through the valley of the shadow of death, God is there with us. As Isaiah said, when we pass through fire and flood, God is with us.
In Jesus Christ, we have God-with-us in our joy and in our suffering, too. It’s at the foot of the cross that we meet God. It’s here that Jesus offered his body, broken for us and his blood poured out for us, joining himself forever to those who have been broken by suffering and whose tears pour out no more. Here we meet the God who suffers and who loves us enough to allow us to be like him. Here he freely took on the pain of our life, and by entering into our suffering, he somehow redeemed it. He turned the deepest sorrow into a blessing. Here we receive not an answer to our question, but an Answerer.
I think a truly loving God must allow human suffering. If God eliminated the suffering that sin causes by keeping us from sinning, God would be forcing us to stay at his side. Instead, God loves us enough to let us walk away. God’s allowance of suffering proves his love in another way, too. There is a refining, purifying, and tempering quality in many forms of suffering. The Apostol Paul said, “…suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.” (Romans 5:3-5 – NRSV).
When we put ourselves in God’s hands, suffering can make us more like Jesus, the suffering servant. To paraphrase Robert Schuller, I don’t know why bad things happen to good people, but I do know what happens to good people when bad things happen. They become better people.
Some of the best people on earth became great through the school of suffering. And have you ever noticed how suffering can draw us closer to God, even if it is, sometimes, with us kicking and screaming? It was the pain of the cross that made Jesus cry out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” When the joy of our life is stripped away we look again for the source of our strength, and we hear, perhaps for the first time, God speaking our name.
C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures… but shouts in our pains.” Suffering may sometimes be God’s way of getting our attention.
When we are stuck in the mire of suffering it is very hard to see the possible good in it, isn’t it? But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. There are limits to our knowledge. We cannot always understand God’s ways, but that doesn’t mean God’s ways aren’t loving.
Jeff Gibelius, Pastor (2000-07)
Pluckemin Presbyterian Church