Thursday, June 10, 2010

Q&A: on suffering

Today, I start a Q&A forum. I've asked Facebook friends to post questions for discussion. I'll make a humble attempt to explore these questions from a biblical perspective.

Q: "Well, my question is not sophisticated or brainy... But I still struggle with why God allows us to be in danger, get hurt, suffer, and die. Why pray for safety and protection? God says he will hem us in behind and before, but sometimes He doesn't. He doesn't guarantee our safety or the protection of the people we love... My only consolation for this insecurity is that He ultimately provides believers with final comfort and wholeness in heaven. But, here? It doesn't seem so (or seems so sometimes, but not others... At His mysterious whim). So is this God causing calamity? Or is He simply allowing sin and Satan to work? Either way, how do we trust Him on earth?" --Cynthia Cobb Oelkers

A: Cynthia, thanks for asking this bold and relevant question. This may be one of the most-asked questions in history. Why does God allow bad things to happen? The answer, I believe, is found in three spiritual realities.

FIRST, evil exists because sin is in the world. From the beginning, at the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden [Genesis 3], sin has contaminated God's created order. In Romans 8:19-22, Paul writes, "The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time."

This lingering principle of sin has so skewed God's perfect design that tornadoes sweep across farm towns, babies are born with defects and oil rigs explode in the ocean. Every part of us and our world is impacted by the contaminating influence of sin.

It's important to keep this in mind. Otherwise, God takes the blame for sin's destruction. By way of illustration: Suppose a man walks into a convenience store and robs the clerk at gunpoint. He shoots the shop owner and flees as customers look on. Someone might argue that the clerk died because no one stopped the criminal. While it's true that the events might have turned out differently if someone had stepped in, the customers aren't culpable for the criminal act. The clerk died at the hands of a robber, not the others in the store that day. Similarly, I believe we must keep in mind that danger, hurt, suffering and death are the work of enemy who introduced sin into the world and it is that principle of sin that is behind every unfortunate event we face.

SECOND, evil is rooted in the hearts of people. While we talk about the contaminating effect of sin in our natural creation, sin is essentially a moral problem. It resides in the hearts of people. This is important to remember because, for God to remove sin, He would have to remove us.

Let's face it, there are only three options:

1. God doesn't overcome any difficulties.
2. God overcomes some difficulties.
3. God overcomes all difficulties.

In the first option, God removes Himself from the world, ignore the problem of sin and turns a blind eye to the suffering of people everywhere. This would be the god of the deists who think that God wound the world up and permits it to "tick" on it's own. But, of course, we do see God at work in the world. So, this option isn't reality.

In the last option, God overcomes all pain, suffering and hardship in life. But, because sin is a moral problem, God would have to drill down to the source of sin and extinguish it there. In the words of CS Lewis, "If we asked God to get rid of all suffering at midnight tonight, who of us would be left at 12:01?" He adds, in Mere Christianity, "I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when He does....When the author walks on the stage the play is over." There is a day when Christ returns and everything that has been undone will be remade according to God's Divine design. Until then, God will not totally annihilate pain because to do so, He would have to strike at the source leaving too many with no hope at all.

This leaves us with the middle option: God intervenes in some difficulties. And He does. We know He does. We just wish he would intervene in ours...all the time.

This brings me to a THIRD and final spiritual reality: God is good in our suffering. While the source and the suffering of the trauma we face in life is quite "bad," God is at work accomplishing great things in the process [ala Romans 8:28]. God is for our transformation and His exaltation. The two go hand in hand. When we are changed, God is glorified. Second Corinthians expresses these two: "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit." As we are changed by God, we reflect more and more of His glorious image.

Suffering is how God accomplishes that end. Note the Scriptures that speak to this truth:

"[W]e also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope." [Romans 5:3-4]

"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us." [Romans 8:18]

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." [James 1:2-4]

In the end, suffering accomplishes God's great goal for our lives--to make us more like Jesus [who suffered, by the way] and, in conforming us to the image of His Son, bring great glory to Himself. This is our predestination [cf. Romans 8:29].

So, the principle of sin is at work; it is rooted in the hearts of people; and God permits it to linger because, through the havoc of suffering, God produces holy people for His glory. And our hope is that, one day, sin will be dealt a final blow, all of God's creation will be changed and God will get the glory. In this, we rest.


Debbie R said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

Karen Friesen said...

Hi David, thank you so much for this entry. I've been struggling, struggling with this question and I so appreciate the clarity of your answer. I'll re-read it and pass it along. Can you address two other things for me? 1. I'm struggling with God's role in the suffering of Job and 2. Can you address God's sovreignty in suffering? If he's truly all-powerful, how does that line up with the immeasureable suffering in the world? Is his power "in check" because of His desire for people to live and not wipe them out (e.g genesis 6)?

David Daniels said...

Karen, good to hear from you! I believe God's role in Job's case (any many other cases that would follow up to the present time) is a position of permission. Without relinquishing control, God permits Satan to affect Job's life knowing that God's resources would be enough for Job. If Job trusted God (and he did), he would find God sufficient for the duration of the trial.

Regarding your question about God's sovereignty and suffering, I would agree that God permits suffering because the alternative is to control all suffering and to control all suffering (wipe it out) is to destroy it at its evil source...the hearts of people (see the Lewis quote in my post). So, experientially, we think it is BETTER for God to wipe out our present suffering. But, from God's eternal perspective, he knows it is better (for the present time) not to get rid of suffering, but to use suffering in the transformation of people and, by his patience, allow many more to come to know Him in a personal way.

I hope this helps. Blessings to you and your family!