Friday, June 02, 2006

Pain & Suffering... WHY?

“If God is all-powerful and all-loving, please explain the recent natural disasters like earthquakes, famine and the Boxing Day tsunami to me!” Discuss your friend’s question, giving broad Scriptural evidence for your response.

Life hurts. Nightly news reports seem smothered in the stories of pain, suffering, violence and disaster. The greater the disaster, the more newsworthy. In the last few days alone, news headlines read: “Indonesia quake toll nears 5000”, “Two Powerful Quakes Follow Indonesia Tremor”, “Baghdad bombs kill three”, “Flood toll rises to 77”, “Famine grips North East Africa”, “UN workers flee East Timor as rival gangs riot”. And while it seems intensified amidst the third-world, disaster doesn’t confine itself to the national or economic boundaries. It touches those in my country, my city… honestly, even in my street. Chuck Swindoll captured that unity: “There is one thing we all have in common: We all know what it means to hurt. Suffering is a universal language.”

“This is not just an intellectual issue to be debated in sterile academic areas; it's an intensely personal matter that can tie our emotions into knots and leave us with spiritual vertigo -- disoriented, frightened, and angry.”[1] It’s easy to write some lofty theological ideas about where God is amidst the turmoil, but yet tomorrow I may need to gaze into the face of a mother who lost her child, a family facing terminal illness, a community made homeless because of earthquakes or flooding. Grieving hearts scream out “Why? Why? How could a good God, a loving God, do that? How could he let it happen?”[2] And my response at those moments requires far more than a few shallow comments about ‘God’s will’. Yet despite that chasm, I’ll humbly attempt to peer into the mystery of God working through our pain. God, give us some hope.

It’s the problem of pain. It’s called “the question mark turned like a fishhook in the human heart.”[3] Sceptics mock that either God’s not powerful enough to prevent these events, or he just doesn’t care enough. Either all-loving or all-powerful, but not both. Can these two traits which the Bible describes of God be reconciled?[4]  A while ago, I asked a missionary friend for one principle he wished he’d known at my age. He responded “That pain is normal in the Christian life.”[5]  It’s not unusual; we should even expect it.[6]  But is that fact consistent with the God I follow and love?

What Causes Suffering?

Upon creation, God gifted humanity with free will – the ability to make choices - but in doing so also unleashed the possibility for evil.[7] Genesis explains the cause for our ‘messed up’ world. Rebellion in the Garden of Eden sprung a planetary disaster. Not only did Adam and Eve face a spiritual death upon their fall, but effects rippled out to the entire creation.[8] As humankind chose autonomy, it appears that God in some way removed some of his sustaining influence upon the earth - the perfect creation was wounded. The book of Romans elaborates: “We know that all creation is still groaning and is in pain, like a woman about to give birth” (Rom 8:22 CEV). Perhaps our present upheaval in nature stems from a cursed earth writhing in pain.

Mercifully, God has promised a future redemption, although ironically it’s to be preceded by increasingly destructive events. Jesus said: “There will be strange things happening to the sun, the moon, and the stars. On earth whole countries will be in despair, afraid of the roar of the sea and the raging tides… When all of this starts happening, stand up straight and be brave. You will soon be set free.” (Luke 21:25,28 GNB)

As Jesus prepares to return in his glory, the last days clearly feature disasters that break all historic records. Even within the last decade the planet has faced abnormally-severe weather[9] and natural disasters. The intensity and frequency of earthquakes grow exponentially[10], nations from several continents all experience flooding. Time Magazine calls it the “weird weather phenomenon”. Jesus called it the “beginning of sorrows” (Mat 24:8 NKJV). We’re witnessing God’s final attempt to get our attention; the message that we cannot manage this earth on our own.

At times it’s our own sinful acts that contribute to the pain we feel or cause around us. Betrayal tears families and relationships apart; deceit breaks bonds of trust; self-absorption, apathy and politics all widen the wealth gap and spread of poverty. Yet Jesus straightened the perception of sin’s direct consequences – that our suffering isn’t necessarily connected with a past sin.[11] It’s humanity’s sin that causes planetary pain.

Why Does God Allow us to Suffer?

Antithetical perhaps, yet God longs to work through suffering to bring about a greater good, and truly he is a master at doing so. Peter Kreeft said:
“He [God] has demonstrated how the very worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the world ended up resulting in the very best thing that has ever happened in the history of the world… So the worst tragedy in history brought about the most glorious event in history… Similarly as we face struggles and trials and suffering, we sometimes can't imagine good emerging. But we've seen how it did in the case of Jesus, and we can trust it will in our case too. For instance, the greatest Christians in history seem to say that their sufferings ended up bringing them the closest to God - so this is the best thing that could happen, not the worst.”[12]
If a man attempted to release a bear from a trap, all the bear may see is pain – being pushed further into the trap appears malevolent and cruel.[13]  In truth, the man simply needs to release pressure on the catch to set the bear free. In the same way, God often permits (or even causes) short-term pain for a long-term benefit, while we scream and complain, not perceiving the grand plan.

The bible thankfully acknowledges individual suffering. What we go through is not so different from those centuries before us. Yet God didn’t stand at a distance to observe our suffering, but humbly took on flesh to really feel it.
“How could you not love this being who went the extra mile, who practiced more than he preached, who entered into our world, who suffered our pains, who offers himself to us in the midst of our sorrows? What more could he do? 
…How could God bear all that suffering? He did. He did!”[14]
God isn’t a distant and separated entity that expects so much but doesn’t understand our plight. He’s been through it all, knows pain thoroughly, and promises to be with us through our own turbulence.

The ‘Gift’ of Pain

Paul Brand called pain “the gift nobody wants”[15].  He sees it as something that can actually add value to life, and yet our society is obsessed with removing it.[16]

God can bring good out of any bad situation, yet our response is a critical part of the process. Almost all human beings can look back at their past and see some pain that they learned from. How we choose to see our suffering, and the attitudes and actions flowing out of that can determine whether the suffering is wasted, or whether good surfaces. Several amazing benefits arise out of suffering when we choose to respond well:

HUMILITY, INTIMACY, POWER. Suffering breaks down our pride and self-reliance. No longer do we live with the false opinion that we can handle whatever comes our way. By actually seeking God through the pain he draws near to us[17] and becomes a superior source of strength and intimacy, more than may have occurred otherwise. God is also given room to move and display his power; and as our lack contrasts with his power, he is glorified through it.[18]

CONVICTION & REPENTANCE. Another side-effect of suffering is that more of our true selves are revealed – bad attitudes and false beliefs that may have lay hidden under the surface initially are often exposed when we’re pressured and shaken by circumstances. As we see ourselves clearer, God can more readily convict and deal with internal issues. “Only after suffering, only after disaster, did Old Testament Israel, do nations, do individual people turn back to God. Again, let’s face it, people learn the hard way.”[19] To quote C.S. Lewis: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[20]

GROWTH & CHARACTER. God communicates lessons and forms character more easily through trials. The point of our lives in this world isn't comfort, but training and preparation for eternity.[21] It also helps produce strength and character. Paul - who knew sorely what it meant to suffer – saw purpose behind it all: “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”[22]

VICTORY. Personal trainers and sports coaches often preach the phrase “no pain, no gain”. And it’s true that there’s no victory without a battle, no accomplishment without a challenge.

ZEAL & REVIVAL. Tragedy also has the ability to wake us from mediocrity and laziness. On the physical level, danger heightens our physical senses and produces adrenalin, but a deep dissatisfaction with the current circumstance can help stir passion and hunger for change. Christians under persecution commonly exhibit greater zeal and desire for revival than those living comfortably. The church in the peaceful west is dangerously prone to being lukewarm and missing the aching heart of God towards those who suffer, struggle, and live without hope.[23]

COMPASSION & EMPATHY. The experience of suffering gives us inside knowledge into the worlds of others that no study and research could ever fully bring. Compassion and a desire to serve the hurting around us can emerge if we resist reacting with anger and bitterness at what has happened to us.

IDENTIFICATION WITH JESUS. As we are persecuted, rejected, betrayed or attacked, we actually identify with what Jesus took on willingly for our freedom. The more we experience pain, the greater appreciation we can gain for the lengths he went to for our sake.

Thank God that we don’t need to grieve as those who have no hope.[24] We have hope. We can find a purpose. And as our trials help to grow the colourful assorted fruit of humility, submission, faith, strength, wisdom, character, obedience, victory, zeal, understanding, compassion, and intimacy, we can be confident that nothing we’re going through will be wasted.

Pure Joy

Considering he was a deity, Jesus could have escaped his torture at any moment[25], yet he willingly drank the cup of suffering.[26] Paul also possibly had opportunity to escape pain, but instead faced it.[27] James didn’t just face his trials but considered them “pure joy”.[28] Such an opposing view to our pain-intolerant, comfort-driven western culture. Yet I’ve felt that strange sense of joy when a purpose arises in the pain – it’s not just a depressing, hopeless circumstance, but a chance to draw closer to God with greater passion, a chance to learn and grow.

I believe the apostles’ attitude was formed by a heavenly perspective – a combination of seeing benefits released in this life; the knowledge of an eternity with God that will extravagantly compensate even the worst pain; but possibly the most satisfying: an encounter with God himself in the midst of it all.

Presence Beyond Answers

The bible’s magnum opus on suffering, the book of Job, spends 37 chapters questioning God about suffering, yet realises the answer to the question of suffering isn’t nearly as important as the ANSWERER.[29]
“Lovers don't want explanations, but presence.
The answer to suffering, then, is not answer at all. It's the Answerer. It's Jesus himself. It's not a bunch of words, it’s The Word. It's not a tightly woven philosophical argument; it's a person. The person. The answer to suffering cannot just be an abstract idea, because this isn't an abstract issue; it's a personal issue. It requires a personal response. The answer must be someone, not just something, because the issue involves someone -- God, where are you?
Jesus is there, sitting beside us in the lowest places of our lives. Are we broken? He was broken, like bread, for us. Are we despised? He was despised and rejected of men. Do we cry out that we can't take any more? He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Do people betray us? He was sold out himself. Are our tenderest relationships broken? He too loved and was rejected. Do people turn from us? They hid their faces from him as from a leper.
Does he descend into all of our hells? Yes… he does.”[30]


Epilogue

Suffering is the universal topic. Joseph Parker said “Preach to the suffering and you will never lack a congregation. There is a broken heart in every pew.”[31] That statement rings so true and yet it seems so badly reflected in my church and ministry. Our preaching seems focused on getting people to live more morally, shaping behaviour to meet the standard; meanwhile their hearts ache. Loneliness, darkness, and depression attack deep beneath the smiling faces in our congregation. In the last 7 days I’ve read several blogs[32] of our church’s young people describing rejection, loneliness, crying to sleep night after night, drugs and alcohol attempting to numb the pain.

I know God cares deeply for these people. I know God wants to bring hope and transformation from the suffering. I know I need to do much more to minister God’s healing, and yet I don’t know exactly what. I’ll start on my knees by asking God for a strategy: “God, how can we minister to those deep hurts?”

My hope and desperate prayer is that our community, as the body of Christ can be a hospital for those sick, hungry and hurting, where we don’t merely teach morality, theology, and knowledge, but lead broken hearts and emotions to experience the power, presence and person of God intersecting to bring healing, wholeness, freedom, purpose and finally a heavenly perspective on pain. And as people are liberated, they become empowered to liberate and care for others. Perhaps somehow I can fulfil the Isaiah 61[33] vision in our generation and day.


Bibliography

Brand, Paul. “And God created pain”. (Jan 10 1994). Christianity Today, 38, 18. Accessed May 26, 2006, available from ProQuest.
Brother Yun with Paul Hattaway, The Heavenly Man (London: Piquant, 2003)
Hindson, Ted. Earth's Final Hour (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House, 1999)
Kreeft, Peter. Making Sense Out Of Suffering (Ann Abor, Mich: Servant, 1986)
Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962)
Lindsey, Hal. Planet Earth 2000 A.D. (Palos Verdes, CA: Western Front Publishers, 1996)
Missler, Chuck. The Book of Acts [Audio Tape Series] (Koinonia House)
Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000)
Swindoll, Charles R. Hope Again (Word Publishing, 1996)
Wiersbe, Warren W. Be Hopeful (Wheaton, Ill: SP Publications, Victor Books, 1982)
Yancey, Philip. Where is God when it hurts? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1990)
Footnotes
[1] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000), 384
[2] Paraphrased from Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith quoting Peter Kreeft, Making Sense Out Of Suffering (Ann Abor, Mich: Servant, 1986), viii
[3] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith quoting Philip Yancey, Where is God when it hurts? (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1990), 20, quoting novelist Peter De Vries
[4] God’s love and power are vividly evident throughout much of the Bible, but these verses in particular highlight those aspects:
Love - 1 Jn 4:8-9,16; Jn 16:27; 3:16; Rom 5:8; Eph 2:4; Isa 63:9
Power – 1 Chr 29:11; Job 26:14; Eph 1:21; Rev 7:12; 11:17; 1 Cor 2:4
[5] Robert Coyle, from Youth Dimension, 2001
[6] “Dear friends, don't be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you.” (1 Pet 4:12 NLT)
[7] “For to really love him involves a choice, but it involves the possibility of choosing hate.” And also “To prevent all evil, you must remove all freedom and reduce people to puppets, which means they would then lack the ability to freely choose love. You may end up creating a world of precision that an engineer might like -- maybe. But one thing's for sure: you'll lose the kind of world that a father would want.” – Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith reporting an interview with Peter Kreeft, Ph. D
[8] See Gen 3:17
[9] In the winter of 1996 Buffalo (New York) and San Antonio (Texas) each experienced a day that broke both records for the highest and lowest temperatures recorded on that day.
Hal Lindsey, Planet Earth 2000 A.D. (Palos Verdes, CA: Western Front Publishers, 1996)
[10] Statistics from the US Geological Survey are startling: from 1900 to 1980 there were 89 serious earthquakes recorded around the world. In the 80s there were a further 86, and in the 4 years from 1990-1994 there were over 100! In California alone there has been a dramatic increase in quakes: 1980-1994 featured 18 quakes worse than 5.0, the same number as the previous 100 years!
Hal Lindsey, Planet Earth 2000 A.D., 85
[11] John 9:2-3
[12] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith reporting an interview with Peter Kreeft, Ph. D
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Paul Brand, “And God created pain”. (Jan 10 1994). Christianity Today, 38, 18. Accessed May 26, 2006, available from ProQuest.
[16] So much so that in the drugs for pain relief raked in US$63 million in 1994 in the US.Ibid.
[17] Psalm 34:18
[18] John 9:1-3
[19] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith reporting an interview with Peter Kreeft, Ph. D
[20] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 93
[21] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith reporting an interview with Peter Kreeft, Ph. D
[22] Rom 5:3b-4 (NIV)
[23] Chinese pastor Brother Yun wrote “Before I traveled to the West I had absolutely no idea that so many churches were spiritually asleep.”
Brother Yun with Paul Hattaway, The Heavenly Man (London: Piquant, 2003)
[24] 1 Thess 4:13
[25] Matt 26:53-54
[26] Matt 20:22-23; 26:39,42
[27] Paul could have settled comfortably down with a church where the danger was minimal, but his passion for the gospel drove him through all kinds of opposition and trials. (See 2 Cor 6:5; 11:23-27) An event in Acts also highlights Paul’s attitude. It was only after being beaten and thrown into prison that Paul claimed his rights as a Roman citizen, never using that fact to prevent the initial punishment. (See Acts 16)
Concept presented in the audio tape series on Acts by Chuck Missler, Koinonia House
[28] James 1:2-3 (NIV). The Message paraphrase also renders it beautifully: “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors.” (James 1:2-3 MSG)
[29] “God didn't let Job suffer because he lacked love, but because he did love, in order to bring Job to the point of encountering God face to face, which is humanity's supreme happiness. Job's suffering hollowed out a big space in him so that God and joy could fill it.”Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith reporting an interview with Peter Kreeft, Ph. D
[30] Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith reporting an interview with Peter Kreeft, Ph. D
[31] Charles R. Swindoll, Hope Again (Word Publishing, 1996), 12, quoting Joseph Parker
[32] ‘Blog’ is short for ‘web log’, and online journal – becoming increasingly popular amongst teenagers
[33] “…the LORD has appointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to comfort the broken-hearted…” and following (Isaiah 61:1-3 NLT)

1 comment:

Kathryn said...

Hey Simon,
i hope you got A+ for this essay cause it's really good. I found it helpful and encouraging. And i like that you have so many references and footnotes!