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Is God the Source of our Suffering?

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Extra thoughts on current series and events.

Is God the Source of our Suffering?

Pastor Charles

Why?

This must be the most vexing question we ask. Why?

Why is this happening to me? Why, God, did you allow this to happen? Why didn't you stop this from happening? You can personalize the details, yet we've all started out with the same word: Why.

In 1947 Glenn Chambers was excitedly rushing toward his desired future. For years he'd dreamed of working with "Voice of the Andes" program on HCJB Radio in Quito, Equador. For years he'd worked toward this day, his day of departure for the 'mission field.'

Perhaps in his rush he kept thinking "I need to send a note to Mom..." but didn't get around to it in the mad dash of packing and preparation for departing one country for life in another. When he was at the airport, he was looking frantically for a piece of paper to write his mom a note. This was, of course, back before airports were like the shopping malls they are today. Glenn found a page ripped out of a magazine and jotted off his note to his Mom, hurriedly posting it before boarding his plane. It didn't matter to him that the magazine ad prominently featured one word: Why?

Did he sit down on the plane and enjoy lift off like I have so many times, all the rush of preparation finally behind him? Did he relax feeling emotionally fulfilled at having sent a note to his Mom while having a heart bursting with expectation of the good life ahead of him? We don't know. Nor did his Mom.

Glenn never made it there. For reasons unknown, this plane crashed into a mountain at 14,000 feet near Bogota, Columbia, killing all on board with the remains of all falling into the ravine hundreds of feet below.

Glenn didn't make it to Equador. But his note made it home. What was Mrs. Chamber's response at seeing the magazine ad, echoing the question she must have had in her heart: Why?

Why would God allow such a tragedy? 

We touched on this in the related topic last week, "Is God the Source of Both Good and Evil?"

What tragedy have you experienced that causes you to ask this question? We have several in our recent past. And even current events cause me to still ask God this question. Why, God?

In all of this, is God the source of the suffering we experience?

A Christian Problem

Nicky Gumble, pastor in London, England, and pioneer of The Alpha Course, wrote this:

The issue of suffering is the most frequently raised objection to the Christian faith. We are constantly confronted by suffering.
— Nicky Gumble

He is not the only one to ask this, of course. Here's another giant of our faith asking it in his own words:

The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. It’s distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair.
— John Stott, The Cross of Christ, p. 311

Just as we know suffering on a personal, individual level, we also see it on a global scale such as with the Syrian war, of the so-called 'war on terror' engaging ISIS, al Queda, Boko Haram and a host of other radicalized groups. We see it in our nation and on our city streets.

Other Religions and The Problem of Suffering

It's worth noting that the problem of suffering isn't exclusive to Christian faith. Here are three for our comparison:

In Taoism, with it’s concept of Yin and Yang, light and dark, good and evil, push and pull being the two sides of everything, suffering and pleasure are merely two sides of reality. Yet Taoism’s approach is simply to stop pushing for both pleasure and those aspects of life that are correspondingly uncomfortable so to achieve balance, like letting water flow around you. There isn’t any so-called “god” to rail against.

I don't know about you, but trying to achieve and maintain such a philosophical neutrality in the face of personal tragedy isn't very appealing. So, we continue looking at other worldviews...

At the heart of Buddhism is this statement, the first of the Four Noble Truths: There is suffering. Indeed it seems that the entire philosophy of Siddhartha Gautama was aimed at answering this question, Why is there suffering in the world? We're told that having achieved enlightenment, he realized that suffering comes from, among other things, attachment. And one of the attachments which cause suffering is the idea of a personal God and personal afterlife. Instead, Buddhism teaches, we must abandon the idea that we are individual, ongoing persons in the after-life and that there is a personal God we will meet and have unrestricted fellowship with in a state of perfect bliss. Rather, we are "not persons" who's five "aggregates" disassemble upon death. Once we accept this and that there is no afterlife to be attached to (among a huge host of other potential attachments since I'm greatly oversimplifying here), nirvana is the answer. No, not the Nirvana of rock and roll fame nor the popularized concept of a paradise full of blissful pleasures. Buddhist nirvana is emptiness. That's the state of no suffering. Nothingness.

Again, I find this very unsatisfying. Indeed, the very idea of it causes me suffering...and I'm not being sarcastic nor facetious in saying so. Since I lived, worked and did my Master's studies in Asia, about half of my esteemed professors were Buddhists, some of whom were former monks. At least half of my fellow students were Buddhist, including a host of Burmese monks. We had hours and hours of conversations. Thus my personal reflections are not mere viceral rejections. And so, on our worldview search goes.

How Does Atheism Address Suffering?

Christopher Hitchens famously claimed "religion poisons everything" in his 2007 book God is Not Great. And it was Richard Dawkins who said "religion causes wars." [To investigate a fuller treatment of these questions, I recommend this link.]

Since atheism claims to be a science based rational worldview, and since science is based on evidence and reproduce-ability of observable facts through experiments, lets test this idea: If we remove religion, do we have peace?

The 20th Century has been a huge petri dish to test this. Prior to the 20th Century one would be hard pressed to find a truly atheistic or non-thestic government in the world. Yet the 20th Century has been replete with them. What has been their performance? Upon having removed religion, have they removed war and suffering? Let the evidence speak for itself:

  • Mao Ze Dong - China & Tibet - killed between 48 and 78 million people.
  • Josef Stalin - USSR - 15 million killed.
  • Adolf Hitler - Germany - 12 million.
  • Pol Pot - Cambodia - 1.7 million
  • Kim Il Sung - North Korea - 1.6 million.
  • General Tito - Yugoslavia - 570,000
  • Suharto's government in Indonesia killed 500,000 Communists.
  • Ante Pavelic - Croatia - 359,000
  • Ho Chi Mihn - Vietnam - 200,000
  • Lenin, USSR - 30,000

In fact, the 20th Century has seen more death than any other in recorded human history. And the majority has been not at the impetus of religion, but rather upon the removal of religion from human government.

Removing religion doesn't remove suffering. It increases it.

Suffering as a Challenge to Christian Faith

Suffering is an acute problem for Christianity, however, because we believe that God is both good and all-powerful.

Christian writer and theologian C.S. Lewis characterized each side of this argument in this way:

If god were good he would wish to make his creatures perfectly happy, and if God were Almighty, he would be able to do what he wished. But the creatures are not happy. Therefore, God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.
— C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, p. 14

Theologians, philosophers and the rest of us have wrestled with these questions for not just centuries, but millennia. And we’re still wrestling with it. In fact, we each have to wrestle our ways through this conundrum as suffering intersects our lives.

So Lewis continues with his examination and concludes that to “try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you will find that you have excluded life itself.”

Suffering and the Psalmist

King David knew his own share of suffering. And, like us, it came into his life from all points: Self induced by his own actions, foisted upon him by the evil actions of others, a consequence of natural forces beyond our control – the fallen world in which we live.  We are given a window on his heart and soul in Psalm 22:

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning?
2 Oh my god, I cry out to you by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent.
3 Yet you are enthroned as the holy one; you are the praise of Israel.
4 In you our fathers put their trust; they trusted and you deliver them.
5 they cried to you and were saved; in you with a trusted and we’re not disappointed.
— Psalm 22

David experienced discrimination by his brothers, the ridicule of being an overzealous youth, the shame of his behavior with Bathsheba and loss of their firstborn son, his own children in a case of sibling rape, treason and rebellion by his son, the wars of an entire nation against him led by King Saul on false accusations, and on and on. David knew suffering. 

Which episode drove him to write Psalm 22? We don't know. We don't need to know. God put in in there because he knew we needed to relate to it. We can each identify with David in it. And its inclusion in the Scriptures is part of the beauty of the Word of God. This emotional connection is why the Psalms in particular are appreciated not only by Christians, but by people of many religions world over.

Look at the honesty of his despair and cries to God in the first two verses. Raw. Unrefined. We need to cry out to God like this. It actually helps us.

And also see this: He starts verse 3 with this transition, "Yet..." There's a change, a nuance, another side to his appeals to God. "Yet you are still God." David doesn't seek to dethrone or denounce God in the midst of his pain. He seeks more relationship, more understanding. Railing against God as the source of the suffering isn't the answer. Rail to God, yes, but rail not against Him.

Here I share what I've found to be a valuable thought:

What God allows, God redeems.
— Jim Denison, Wrestling With God

David trusted God. So did Abraham. And it was credited to him as righteousness. Saving faith. We see this reflected over and over in Psalm 22, too: In verses 9 and 19 there are these transitions. And in verse 22 we see his statement of faith in God, his declaration of action before other witnesses.

God alone has the ability to take the suffering of our lives and make it come out for something good. Can Taoism do that? Can Buddhism? Or Islam? Or atheism? Or any other 'ism? I've not found any that can. Yet the God of the Bible does.

How God Uses Suffering in Our Lives

RBC Ministries, the parent ministry of Our Daily Bread devotionals, has a pamphlet on trusting God despite and in the midst of our sufferings. They list many reasons, but I share only three:

  1. Suffering reveals whats in our hearts. While it might seem obvious once you read it, we rarely appreciate this fact they bring out: "Strength of character is shown not when all is well with our world but in the presence of human pain and suffering."  Suffering, then, is like gold and silver in the refiner's fire. It reminds me of the saying I've shared from time to time with my sons from Smith Wigglesworth, "True gold fears no flame." In Christ, you and I will NOT be consumed in the flames of suffering. Rather, as we look to Christ in the midst of them, we will be refined. Cf. Romans 5:3-5; James 1:2-5; 1 Peter 1:6-8.
  2. Suffering gives us opportunity to trust God. Perhaps the most famous sufferer of all time, Job went through the refiner's fire. But have you noticed this: God never told Job why he was suffering. And in the end Job trusted in the character of God, concluding that if God had the power and wisdom to create the physical universe, there was reason to the God of all created wonders in times of suffering, too. See Job 42:1-17.
  3. Suffering takes us to the edge of eternity. Atheists and other philosophical materialists who deny the reality of the spirit world and an afterlife tell us to live this life for all we can get out of it, because that's all there is. Understanding that, RBC Ministries' comment here shines: "If death is the end of everything, then a life filled with suffering isn't fair. But if the end of this life brings us to the threshold of eternity, that the most fortunate people in the universe are those who discover, through suffering, that this life is not all we have to live for. Those who find themselves and their eternal God through suffering have not wasted their pain. They have let their poverty, grief and hunger drive them to the Lord of eternity. They are the ones who will discover to their own unending joy why Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven" Matthew 5:1-12, cf. also. Romans 8:18-19.

So what do we do with all this? I recommend three action steps drawn from what we've seen today and experienced in our own lives:

First, lift up your eyes - and your questions - to the God who is real, who is personal, who sees, who answers, and who seeks to redeem. He is waiting for you.

Second, make a choice like David did: Choose to trust God even though you (and I) don't understand all the particulars of why these things have happened. Trust that He will make His purposes known to you, either in this life or the next.

And third, be an encourager to others today, too. They, too, are suffering through something. Speak words of encouragement to them despite their faith position. Affirm what you've found: The God of the Bible, Jesus Christ, is trustworthy.

You can start your encouragement today by liking this post and commenting below. Thank you!