"Difficult Questions#1: Why does God allow suffering?" by Rod Bayley, 29 August 2010

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Danny

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Aug 30, 2010, 1:09:56 AM8/30/10
to Sermons from Wollongong Baptist Church
In her book “50 Facts that should change the world,” Jessica Williams
records that: One in five of the world’s people go hungry every day, a
third of the world’s population is affected by war; landmines kill or
maim at least one person every hour, there are 27 million slaves in
the world today, 120 thousand women and girls are trafficked into
Western Europe alone each year, the world’s trade in illegal drugs
continues to wreak havoc in countless lives with the industry worth
400 billion dollars a year, more than 150 countries use torture as
part of their policing, over 30 million people are HIV positive in
Africa alone, and cars kill two people every minute worldwide. In
just the past week a Chinese passenger plane overshot a runway and
burst into flames while attempting to land in China's northeast,
killing 42 of the 91 people on board; continued flooding occurred in
Pakistan which now has an estimated 40 million homeless, not to
mention the rising death toll in the thousands; and an Australian
soldier Jared MacKinney with a young wife and a 3 yr old daughter, and
a second child due soon, has been killed in Afghanistan - the 21st
since 2001. Plane crashes, floods, wars - the daily suffering across
the world is so widespread and constant that it is numbing - you
cannot even take it in, let alone feel the pain and compassion that we
should feel. People are completely distraught every day as they deal
with the often immense suffering of this life.

This pain leads to a pressing spiritual question for many: Why does
God allow this suffering? As John Dickson notes in his book entitled
‘If I were God, I’d end all the pain,’ many non-Christians cannot
reconcile the existence of a loving, all-powerful God and the
suffering of this world. They see in this dilemma a so-called proof
that God cannot exist, as an all-loving God would desire the end of
this suffering, and an all-powerful God would be able to end it. Of
course, it’s a pressing question for Christians also, as we struggle
to come to grips with the broken-ness of our world and our own
suffering. We are going to summarize what the bible says on suffering
under four points, but each of these could be a sermon in itself.
This is a huge topic, and so we will only begin to answer this
question today.

The first point on your outline is: ‘Our expectations and suffering.’
The bible tells us that every earthly life will face trouble and
sorrow. In Psalm 90:10, we read:
“The length of our days is seventy years - or eighty, if we have the
strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly
pass, and we fly away.”
Job says basically the same thing (Job 14:1) - human life is brief and
overshadowed by our frailty and suffering. The bible is not
pessimistic but realistic. In addition to this shadow that hangs over
all people, the bible adds that the Christian will experience further
hardship. Those who follow Jesus are promised further difficulties
for their stance - they will attract persecution from those who reject
the God of the bible. In Acts 14:22 Paul and Barnabas instructed the
young Christians at Lystra, Iconium and Antioch by stating: “We must
go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Our own experience usually tells us that the bible is correct. I say
usually, because we are certainly protected from some of the suffering
faced in many countries. Also, if we are young enough, we may not
have faced the suffering that this life brings to all people.
However, we will eventually face these troubles, and many more. And
so suffering in this life is not an unexpected interruption, bur
rather the normal and inescapable lot of everyone.

The application of this first principle lies in our ability to
acknowledge it, and have the right perspective towards suffering.
It’s a counter-cultural way of thinking, at least in a rich western
country like Australia, because our society relentlessly pursues
comfort. I’d argue that our culture today is not only one of chasing
pleasure, but of avoiding pain, of avoiding suffering by any possible
means. And so people will often put their head in the sand as it
were, and just pretend that they’re immune. ‘Hard things might happen
to others,’ they say, ‘but they won’t happen to me, because I’m in
control, or I’m lucky.’ It’s called denial - denial of reality. But
Jesus calls Christians to another form of denial. In Luke 9:23,
Christ says: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and
take up his cross daily and follow me.” Having foretold his own
suffering and death in the previous verse, Jesus goes on to explain
that those who would follow him must likewise deny themselves. Just
as the Cross preceded the Crown for Jesus, suffering precedes heaven
for us.

This brings us to point two on your outline: ‘The reasons for
suffering.’ The foundational reason for all suffering is original sin
- we live in a fallen world which commenced with Genesis 3. Verses 16
to 19 of Genesis 3 explain God’s punishment of Adam and Eve for their
rebellion, and all humanity through them. Both the filling and
subduing of the earth commanded by God are now made difficult -
childbirth and taming the land to grow food will be painful
processes. Not only is nature cursed, or subject to frustration by
God as Paul will later say (Rom.8:20), but even more telling, death
now enters. The perfect environment of the garden of Eden is now out
of reach, and the perfect relationships with God and with each other
have ended - suffering has begun.

This means that the answer to why suffering occurs is sin, but that
does not mean that you can trace the lines directly between an
individual person’s suffering and some specific sin they have
committed. Notice what John records in John 9, verses 1 to 3:
“As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples
asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was
born blind?’ 3'Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus,
‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his
life.”

It seems like a cruel question to even ask, but we need to grasp that
this was the default assumption in Jewish society, and had been for
centuries. The one major point that Job’s three friends made over and
over, like a broken record, is that if we suffer it is because we have
sinned. If we suffer, it is our fault - God is punishing us for our
sin. But this view wasn’t just a default assumption for Jews, it
persists today, amongst non-Christians and at times Christians. It is
also the belief of one of the major world religions.

In October last year I visited the Nan Tien temple with the Shaw’s and
Phuong, as part of our short-term mission team’s preparation for going
to Thailand last January. We had a guided tour through the temple
and were able to ask lots of questions of our guide Bob, who was a
fairly devout Buddhist, although not a monk. The thing that has
always struck me about Buddhism, and which came out loud and clear
again, is this assumption of karma, or as Bob wanted to summarise it,
‘cause and effect.’ There is a lot of fatalism in this concept of
karma, and for many a sense that you cannot break the cycle of
suffering that your mistakes cause. Sometimes Christians, like Job’s
three friends, have invented a Christian karma, a cause and effect
universal law that means all suffering is due to particular sins. But
the example of Job makes it clear, that such a blanket assumption is
wrong.

So although original sin is the foundational reason for suffering in
this world, we must be very cautious in sitting in judgment of others,
attributing their suffering to some recent sin. The basic logical
problem with this ingrained false belief is that we sin all the time,
every day. God would need to punish every person every day if cause
and affect were the principle. Did you notice that Jesus gives
another reason for the particular suffering of the blind man in John
9? It was to display God’s work in his life.

The next reason for suffering that I’ve listed on your outline is
discipline, and this only relates to Christians. Notice what the
writer to the Hebrews records in 12:7 and v10:
“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what
son is not disciplined by his father? ... 10Our fathers disciplined us
for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for
our good, that we may share in his holiness.”

And so as he says elsewhere in this passage, we’re not to lose heart
as the Lord disciplines those he loves in order to produce a harvest
of righteousness. It’s not pleasant at the time, rather it’s painful,
but God is training us, cutting off our rough edges, molding us to be
like His Son. We have to acknowledge therefore, that the suffering we
experience may not be just due to a fallen world marred by sin, but
because God is shaping us, growing our faith.

Thirdly, another reason for suffering is persecution, and this again
only relates to Christians. Notice what Jesus himself states in John
15, verse 20: “Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is
greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute
you also.” Those who follow Jesus will be persecuted - there are no
ifs or buts. You will only be loved by the world if you belong to the
world. But if you truly belong to Jesus, He assures us that the
people of this world will hate us.

These various reasons for suffering means that we don’t know why in
specific instances, but we must trust in the One who does. In
Deuteronomy 29:29, Moses records:
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed
belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follows all the
words of this law”
We can know the why and wherefore of many things which God has
revealed in His word, but God alone knows why some things happen. We
need to trust and be content in knowing God.

This brings us to point three on your outline: ‘The end of
suffering.’ We need to be aware that God is not detached from our
suffering, uncaring and unable to sympathize. No, rather he has
entered into our suffering through the incarnation of the Son. Jesus
our Saviour was the suffering servant, and he came to defeat death, to
slay suffering once and for all. Notice firstly how Jesus is
described in Isaiah 53, verses 3 to 4:
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar
with suffering. ... 4Surely he took up our infirmities and carried
our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him,
and afflicted.”

How did this suffering servant Jesus carry our sorrows and bear our
punishment - how did he slay suffering? Of course, the answer is at
the Cross - following the harrowing garden of Gethsemane (Matt.
26:38f), he cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken
me?’ (Matt.27:46). It was there that he experienced suffering that
exceeded all that would ever be borne in this world, and put a
deadline on suffering as he defeated the devil, sin, and its
consequence of death. And so the writer to the Hebrews states in
chapter two, verses 14-17:
“... so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of
death - that is, the devil - 15and free those who all their lives were
held in slavery by fear of their death ... 17and that he might make
atonement for the sins of the people.”

Not only does he conquer sin and death but he now acts as our
sympathetic high priest until he returns to draw suffering to an end.
But so many long to see that day come now, as they have for 20
centuries. In Revelation 6:10, we hear the cry of those who have
already been martyred for Christ’s sake, as they ask “How long,
Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the
earth and avenge our blood?” You see it’s not just the question of an
end to suffering, but of justice being done, for many have suffered at
the sinful hands of others. Of course the timing of this justice
coincides with the return of Christ and the end of suffering. The
apostle Paul states in 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7:
“God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you, 7and
give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will
happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire
with his powerful angels.”

Justice is coming, and an end to suffering is coming, with the return
of Jesus. The eternal hope of the Christian is that we look forward
to a new heavens and a new earth, a place free of suffering, because
it is not marred by sin. In Revelation 7 we are promised freedom from
hunger, thirst and tears, and in Revelation 21 every tear will be
wiped away because “there will be no more death or mourning or crying
or pain” (v4). And so we need to live now in the light of heaven,
with an eternal focus that puts our suffering into perspective.

This brings us to the fourth and final point on your outline: “Our
response to suffering.” This eternal perspective is crucial, but what
will this mean in the present, as we face suffering ourselves, and
respond to the suffering of others? We can learn some very important
principles from Job’s response. Remember that we read in Job 1
earlier how he lost all his possessions, and all his children at
once. Notice again his response in Job 1:21:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The
Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be
praised.”

We can draw the following principles from this: he acknowledges that
we are just passing through - that this is not our home and we can’t
take anything with us; he doesn’t blame God although he acknowledges
that God is ultimately responsible - He ‘has taken away’; he rather
shows trust and submission, and praises God’s name. In the New
Testament we can gather other principles. In 1 Peter 4 we are
reminded that we shouldn’t be surprised by suffering, but rejoice in
it as we await our future glory. Again, in Romans 8 and Philippians 1
and 3, we are to experience suffering now, but this will be followed
by glory as it was for Christ, and so we persevere. In fact,
suffering is a badge of discipleship, and a means by which our
knowledge of Christ deepens. That’s why James can speak of
considering trials pure joy, because they develop our faith - our
perseverance, our maturity. And in Luke 13, not only are we to be
aware that those caught in tragic events are no more sinful than us,
but such events should lead us to repentance, for all people will die,
but not all will perish eternally. Jesus says: “unless you repent,
you too will all perish” referring to the judgment to come.

Well, let’s wrap this up by applying all this, especially to the care
of others who are suffering. What can we say today as we see somebody
suffering? Firstly, we may not need to say anything - just being
present with someone suffering is often the most powerful thing we can
do. As someone once said about friendship, ‘The best kind of friend
is the kind you can sit on a porch and swing with, never say a word,
and then walk away feeling like it was the best conversation you've
ever had.’ At times of suffering or mourning, words often fail us -
but our presence alone can be precious. Job’s friends did well until
they spoke.

In terms of words, the first thing to say is: ‘I don’t know why this
has happened.’ I remember when I was at Castle Hill Baptist as a
student pastor in 2001, a 15 year old girl in the youth group
tragically died. Her name was Caitlin Joy Twible and she attended
William Clarke College. She was on a school camping expedition, when
a large tree fell in a storm, crushing her in her tent. You can
imagine the impact that this incident had on the school community and
on the church community. I didn’t know the family, but I attended the
funeral which was packed. There was hardly a dry eye in the place,
and that wasn’t because she was not a Christian - she was a keen
Christian from a strong Christian family, who woke up each day to see
a card from her parents beside her bed that said, ‘You are a gift from
God!’ It was naturally emotional because a young life was cut short,
and there were no answers, only questions. As we saw from Deuteronomy
29:29 earlier, God alone knows why some things happen - the answer to
many questions will not come in this earthly life.

Secondly, if necessary, we need to say quite clearly that suffering is
not necessarily due to a particular sin. See, we all sin all the time
- and we live in fallen world marred by sin. We need to very hesitant
about attributing an instance of suffering to some particular sin.

Thirdly, suffering might occur because God is disciplining us, or it
might be clearly due to persecution. But above all we must remember
that all suffering, whatever the cause, will shape us and conform us
more to the image of our Saviour. We have to believe that God can
bring good things out of suffering. The Cross is the ultimate example
of this - that through the darkness of that day, God was working out
His sovereign will. We need to affirm Romans 8:28, that “we know that
in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Also, we
can offer to pray, pray for God’s grace in our time of need (Heb.
4:16), for his peace which passes all understanding (Phil.4:7). Pray
with and for the person.

Lastly, what if the suffering friend is a non-Christian who thinks God
can’t exist because of what they are experiencing, or a Christian
who’s faith has been shaken? Well, this may not be the best time to
present the gospel, but God may open a door. As John Dickson notes in
his book ‘If I were God I’d end all the pain’, we need to explain that
we need not reject the existence of an all-powerful, loving God
because of the suffering in the world. Rather, we need to grasp that
God must have loving reasons which He is able to achieve, for
permitting suffering. More than that, he has entered our suffering,
and through his own unique death, he has put an end to this suffering
for those who will trust in Him
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