How Can A Good God Allow Suffering
Hard Questions, Honest Answers How Can a Good God Allow Suffering? Pastor Pat Damiani April 15, 2018 If you could ask God one question and know that you would receive an answer, what would you ask?” Several years ago, Christian pollster George Barna posed that question in one of his surveys and the number one response by far was the question that we’re going to deal with this morning: How can a good God allow suffering? I’m not surprised at all that was the question that people would most like to ask God. I’m pretty sure that all of us have wanted to ask God that question at various times in our lives. And it’s certainly a question that comes up every time there is a school shooting or a natural disaster or when there is a terrorist attack or even when a loved one gets cancer and dies. When his 3-year-old son was diagnosed with a degenerative disease that meant he would only live until his teens, Rabbi Harold Kushner attempted to answer that question in his book “When Good Things Happen to Bad People”. And since it was published in 1981, over 4 million other people have apparently turned to his book to get answers to that question. In his book Kushner concludes that there are only 3 possibilities when it comes to suffering: 1) God does not exist 2) God exists but He is not good 3) God exists and He is good, but He is not all powerful. Kushner choose the third explanation – that God is good, but that He just isn’t powerful enough to prevent bad things from happening to “good people”. First, just let me say that Kushner’s entire premise – that bad things happen to good people – is a problem right off the bat. While, as we’re going to see in a moment, God is good, the Bible is clear from cover to cover that no man is truly “good”. That is why I have phrased our question this morning a bit differently – How can a good God allow suffering? Fortunately for us, we don’t have to depend on the ideas of Rabbi Kushner or other humans for the answer to that question because the Bible has a lot to say about this topic. So here is how I want to approach the question this morning. First, I’m going to share some important facts about the nature of God and about suffering. And then I want to spend some time talking about how we ought to deal with suffering in our lives. And then, since I’m not going to have time to address it in this message, we’re going to use the Bible Roundtable time after the service to talk about how we should respond to suffering in the lives of others. 6 FACTS ABOUT GOD, EVIL AND SUFFERING 1. God is 100% good One of the possibilities that Kushner raised was that God exists but He is not good. Even though Kushner rightly rejected that idea, it is one that many people still hold to. But in the first chapter of his letter, where he is writing about the idea of trials and tribulations in our lives, James confirms the idea that we see throughout the Bible – God is 100% good: Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:16–17 ESV) God is, has been, and always will be 100% good because that is His character and He never changes. And because He is good, He gives good and perfect gifts to His children. 2. God is sovereign over all suffering This is where Rabbi Kushner got off track, which is really amazing given the fact he was a rabbi who should be familiar with the Old Testament Scriptures, including the book of Job. If there is any doubt about at all about God’s sovereignty when it comes to our suffering, the book of Job certainly should clear up any confusion, There we see that God is in complete control over the suffering that Satan causes in Job’s life. He determines exactly what Satan is permitted to do and what he is not permitted to do in Job’s life. And we see that even in New Testament times this idea was commonly understood among God’s people. As I’m going to talk about some more in a moment, when the disciples saw a man that had been born blind, they may have been mistaken about the reason for his blindness, but they had no doubt that God was completely in control when it came to the man’s suffering. So if you’re going through some kind of difficulty, trial or suffering in your life, you may not know exactly why that is occurring and it is very likely that I’m not going to be able to discern that either. But what I can tell you with 100% certainly is that your suffering hasn’t in any way caught God off guard because He is in full control of what is happening in your life. 3. Evil results from man’s ability to make choices Perhaps you’ve heard someone ask something like this: “Since God created everything, doesn’t that mean that He created evil as well?” In order to answer that question, it’s helpful to think of evil being like a donut hole. It is more the absence of something than it is the presence of something. Evil is not something that God created, but rather the absence of the good God created that occurs because God gives man the ability to make choices. Before God created man, He existed from eternity past as Father, Son and Holy Spirit in a perfect love relationship. So when He created man in His image He gave us the ability to give and receive love. And that required that we be able to make our own decisions about whether to love or not love. Many of you are probably familiar with some of those talking dolls where you pull a string on the back of the doll and the doll says, “I love you”. But when the doll says that, does it really love you? Of course not. The doll does not have the ability to make the choice to love you – it was just programmed to say those words. But God didn’t make us like that doll where we have no choice of how we’re going to respond to Him. Instead, He created us with the ability to choose to love Him and obey His commands or to choose not to do that. And, as James confirms for us, when man chose to not love God and obey Him, evil was introduced into the world: Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13–15 ESV) Evil is not something that God created, but rather it is the lack of good that results when man makes a choice not to love God and obey Him. And because every single one of us is a sinner by nature and by choice, that means that every single one of us are responsible, at least to some degree, for introducing evil into the world. 4. Man’s sin has subjected this world to chaos – and Christians are not exempt When God first created the world, it was perfect, which is to be expected given that God is 100% good. He looked at His creation and called it “good”, and even “very good”. There was no suffering at all in that perfect creation. There were no natural disasters. In fact, until the flood, it hadn’t even rained on the earth. And there was no disease, no cancer, no murders, no terrorist attacks, no wars. And the same will be true in the future paradise that is described at the end of the book of Revelation that will be our perfect eternal home. But as soon as Adam and Eve sinned, their sin subjected the entire creation to chaos. Things began to deteriorate and go from order to disorder. Mankind began to engage in conflicts of various kinds. Earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters began to occur on a regular basis. And because we live in this world, we are all impacted by that chaos, regardless of whether we have a relationship with God through faith in Jesus or not. This fall, we will return to our study of Romans, and we’ll look at this passage in more detail then, but I want us to take a quick look at what the apostle Paul has to say about this idea: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing 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 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:18–23 ESV) What I want you to note for now is that sin has subjected God’s creation to futility that Paul describes as being like the pains of childbirth. The good news here is that this condition is only temporary and one day Jesus is going to return to this earth and begin the process of setting this polluted world free from the bondage and corruption that it experiences right now. The consistent message of Scripture is that while God is capable of removing His children from the suffering that results from a world that is in chaos, He doesn’t always or even usually do that. We get a clue here why that is and I’ll explain that a bit more in a moment. But we need to understand that as Christians, pain, trials and suffering are not the exception, they are the norm, just as Jesus told His disciples: In the world you will have tribulation. (John 16:33 ESV) And Peter also reminded those that read his letter that suffering is the normal mode of living for a disciple of Jesus: Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. (1 Peter 4:12 ESV) 5. God’s purposes are often accomplished through suffering I can’t possibly even begin to list all of the things that God accomplishes through suffering, so I’ll limit our discussion to just a few that are the most common. • To draw people to Himself To me, this has always been the main point of the book of Job. At the beginning of the book, Job was a very religious man, but there is no evidence of any kind of personal relationship with God. But after Job goes through the suffering inflicted upon him by Satan and the suffering of his so-called “friends” trying to convince him his suffering was his own fault because of the sin in his life, something changes. And in the last chapter of Job we read these words from Job: I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; (Job 42:5 ESV) Before his suffering, Job knew about God. But after going through his trials, he came to know God in a personal way. God often uses trials and suffering to draw people to Himself, either for the first time or to draw them back to Him when they have fallen away. • Discipline Overall, I was actually a pretty good kid. But there were times in my life when my father inflicted some pain and suffering with his belt in order to discipline me. He did that because he loved me. In Hebrews 12, we learn that God does that in our lives as well. Because He loves us, He often uses suffering and pain as a tool in the process of revealing sin in our lives and getting us to turn away from that sin and back to Him. And when God does that, if we want to minimize the pain and suffering, we need to make sure that we respond appropriately to that suffering as quickly as possible. In order not to embarrass anyone, I won’t identify the person involved, but I once witnessed a young girl who didn’t quite get that idea. After receiving a spanking from one of her parents, she immediately turned around and said, “That didn’t hurt.” So of course she received an additional spanking and for some reason she turned and made the same comment again. Finally after the third spanking, she realized that she might not want to keep saying that. But even though we might not say it out loud, don’t we essentially do the same thing with God sometimes? We keep saying, “That doesn’t hurt” and we wonder why the pain and suffering are getting worse rather than going away. • To prepare me for ministry The apostle Paul reminded the church in Corinth that sometimes God takes us through pain and suffering so that we’ll be prepared to minister to others who go through that same kind of 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 affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3–4 ESV) • My good Most of us are probably familiar with Romans 8:28, but I think it’s important to make sure that we include verse 29 anytime we quote that verse in order to put it in its proper perspective: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:28–29 ESV) God promises that “all things” work together for good, and since suffering is certainly included in “all things”, then that means that God can use our suffering for our good. But there are a couple of very important caveats in this passage. First, God only promises that suffering works for good for those who are called according to His purpose. In other words, the promise here only applies to those who have become God’s children by putting their faith in Jesus. But perhaps even more important is the way Paul defines “good” here. Our definition of good might include things like comfort or riches or success, but God’s definition of good in verse 29 is that we might become more like Jesus. And since Jesus suffered in an unimaginable way when He died on the cross for our sins, why would we expect that our lives are going to be free from pain and suffering? • His glory One day Jesus and His disciples passed by a man who had been blind since birth. And, as I mentioned earlier, the disciples understood the concept of God’s sovereignty over suffering so they asked Jesus who had sinned to cause this blindness – the man or his parents. The answer Jesus gave is instructive for us: Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:3 ESV) Sometimes suffering occurs in our lives simply so that God can do His work in our lives in a way that brings attention and glory to Him. 6. Our current sufferings pale in comparison to our future glory This is a frequent theme in the Bible – one we already saw earlier in the passage we looked at in Romans 8. Let me remind you of verse 18: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Let’s suppose that next year on New Year’s Day you had a really bad day. You got a call from the IRS that they were going to audit you. While you were out to breakfast, your house started on fire and it completely burned to the ground. The tests came back from your doctor and revealed that you have cancer for which there is no treatment and you have less than six months to live. If someone were to ask you on January 2 how your year was going, you would say that it couldn’t be any worse. But then as the year progressed, the IRS completed their audit and found that you had overpaid your taxes and they send you a $10,000 refund. Your son and his wife called to tell you that they were pregnant and your first grandchild was born before the end of the year. Your doctor called to tell you that a drug company had just developed a medication that was 100% successful in treating the kind of cancer that you had and that the insurance company was going to cover it 100%. And your insurance agent called to let you know that since they had sold you the Cadillac plan, the insurance would pay for you to build a brand new house from the ground up exactly as you wanted, pay to replace all your belongings at their full replacement cost and pay for you to live in a nice resort in the meantime, with all costs, even room service and massages at the spa, covered. Now if someone were to ask you how your year went at the end of that year, you would have a completely different answer, wouldn’t you? Paul is saying that our suffering is like that, only those good things don’t just happen once, they keep on happening year after year for eternity. So no matter how bad your suffering might be today, God has a glorious permanent future for you that is going to make you completely forget your current problems. HOW TO RESPOND TO SUFFERING IN MY OWN LIFE I wish I had time to go into much more detail here, but all I really have time to do is to address a couple of basics. Hopefully we’ll have time to explore this idea in more detail at a future time. 1. Pray for wisdom When trials come into our lives, what is the first thing we usually pray? For God to get us out of that situation – right? But there are times when that might actually be the very worst thing we could do. What if God is using that suffering for the purpose of discipline and asking God to take it away is kind of like a child saying “That didn’t hurt?” Or what if God is using my suffering for some other purpose of His and I end up missing out on that? In James chapter 1, where James is still writing about trials and suffering, we find this command: If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (James 1:5 ESV) I’ve often seen this verse used as a general exhortation to seek God’s wisdom in our life, but we need to keep in mind that James writes this in the context of how to deal with suffering. We need to see our suffering from God’s perspective so we know how to deal with it. In addition to some of God’s purposes in our suffering that we talked about earlier, sometimes we suffer as a result of our own stupidity. So the first question we need to ask is if we have done something to cause our own suffering. And if that is the case then the wise thing to do is to just cut it out. The next step is to ask God to reveal if He is disciplining us for some reason. And sometimes that is not always obvious. Sometimes it’s not some overt sin in our life that needs to be addressed, but rather some things that are lacking in our lives. I was recently speaking to someone who was questioning why they were having so many problems in their life. So I began to ask some questions about their walk with Jesus. That person admitted that they didn’t read the Bible and pray on a regular basis. They didn’t regularly engage in real Biblical fellowship with other believers. They didn’t give God the top portion of their income on a regular basis. Now I certainly can’t know for sure if God is using that suffering to discipline that person, but it sure seems like a good possibility. Sometimes, the suffering we go through is just because we live in a world that is full of chaos and evil, and while we can’t change that, it is good to at least recognize that. 2. If necessary, repent There is a very instructive passage at the beginning of Luke 13: There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1–5 ESV) In a nutshell, here is what Jesus is saying. In this world, suffering is not always in direct proportion to the severity of our sin. But since we are all sinners, the key issue is whether or not we’ve repented of our sin and put our faith in Jesus. So if when we evaluate our suffering, we discover that it might be due to God’s discipline, then we better make sure that we repent by turning away from what I want to do and turning back to what God wants me to do. 3. Thank God for His presence and for my future glory In the Bible, we find that in many cases God does not remove His children from trials and suffering. But what He does promise is to go through it with them. Noah was not removed from the flood but God went through it with Him. Moses had to go through the Red Sea and spend 40 years wandering in the wilderness leading a people who complained about him and about God. But God was with Him. Daniel’s friends were thrown into the fire and Daniel was thrown in to the lion’s den. But God was with them. With the possible exception of John, every one of the apostles was killed for their faith in Jesus. But even then, God was with them. In just a moment as we close, we’re going to read together a passage that reminds us of the fact that no matter what we’re going through, God has promised that we don’t have to do that alone, because He is with us. So whenever we experience suffering, we need to remind ourselves of that by giving thanks to God for His presence. And we also need to remember that God has a glorious future in store for His children. So when you’re going through difficulties in life, I’d encourage you to read the last two chapters of Revelation that describe the future that God has in store for you. And then give thanks to God for that. That will help to put your problems in their proper perspective. I know that some of you are going through difficult times in your life right now. And during those times, it is easy to start thinking that maybe God really doesn’t exist, or that He doesn’t love me, or that He is incapable of doing anything about my suffering. But my prayer is that this morning you’ve discovered that none of those things are true. Jesus knows more about suffering than any of us will ever know. When He died on the cross, He not only experienced the physical and mental suffering of that horrible death, but because He took all our sins upon Himself, He also experienced something that none of us who trust in Him will ever have to face – the lack of God’s presence. So I want to make sure that we end on a positive note this morning. We’re going to close by reading one of my “go to” passages when people are going through a difficult time – Isaiah 43. Will you stand and read that passage out loud with me. But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold; bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (Isaiah 43:1–7 ESV) Discussion Questions for the Bible Roundtable 1. Based on what we’ve learned about suffering this morning, what are some things to avoid when we’re trying to help others deal with their suffering? What are some Biblical examples of where people did those things? What were the results? 2. What are some things we should do to help others through their suffering? What are some Biblical examples of where people did those things? What were the results?