A Word of Introduction
I’m going to explore a theme in this space this month, the theme of “Faith Questions.” This is an intentional title. As people of faith, we will always have a faith question (or two!) we would like to run past God over a cup of coffee or a glass of something stronger.
I will look at three questions this month:
- This week: Why does God allow suffering?
- Next week: How do we know God answers our prayers?
- Finally: Is Jesus really the only way to Heaven?
The series’ title reminds me of an important value for us as Lutheran Christians: a genuine faith questions. We are not robots, expected to accept our faith or our circumstances blindly, unhesitatingly. It’s perfectly acceptable to question, to push for greater clarity or deeper understanding.
Our model for this is Jesus’ encounter with Thomas the week after Easter (John 20.26-29). On Easter evening, the disciples encountered the risen Jesus, who showed them his hands and broke bread with them and encouraged them that the witness of the women from earlier in the day was not a hoax or a wild rumor, but the truth. Jesus had been resurrected and was now alive! Unfortunately, though, one disciple – Thomas – hadn’t been there for that experience, and when the other disciples tried to tell him about it, he didn’t believe them. Rather, Thomas questioned, and so the next Sunday Jesus appeared to Thomas and the other 10 disciples to show that he had in fact been raised from the dead. Thomas questioned (and the others, too), and Jesus responded with what they needed for a reassured, deeper faith.
One other introductory thought about how we Lutheran Christians understand and use Scripture. Not going to cherry-pick scripture passages to respond to these questions. You know what that can look like. You’ve probably heard the story about the man who wanted to do God’s will, who decided to go to the Bible to seek God’s wisdom. He closed eyes and opened the Bible and read the first verse that he saw: So Judas went out and hung himself. Well, that didn’t sound so good, so he closed the Bible and then opened it to another spot and read: What you are about to do, go and do quickly.
Ah . . . not so helpful, is it?!
Our Lutheran understanding of Scripture is that Scripture interprets Scripture. That is to say, we will wrestle with the entirety of the Bible’s message, taking the passages we explore in their context and use other passages as appropriate to illuminate the ones we are exploring. As needed, we will give preference to teachings from the NT on our topics as the life, death and resurrection of Jesus may transform or even supersede a teaching from the OT.
With all that by way of introduction, on to this week’s faith question: Why does God allow suffering?
The Question of Faith!
Does the name George Barna ring a bell? He does for the Christian community what George Gallup does for the business and political world. Many years ago Mr. Barna took a national scientific poll, in which he asked people this question:
If you could ask God any one question and you knew He would give you an answer, what would you ask?
What do you suppose was the number one response?
“Why does God allow suffering?”
And in the mountain of data he collected, there was an interesting statistical quirk. It showed that married people were much more likely to want to know why there is so much suffering.I don’t know why – that’s just what the statistics show!
But this isn’t simply an intellectual question, is it? I suspect you’ve asked the same question at some point in your faith journey.
I know I have.
Watching a loved one wrestle with a chronic, debilitating health condition can trigger such questioning.
Seeing the news reports of mudslides, tornados, floods, and other so-called “acts of God” can trigger such questioning.
Seeing news reports of girls kidnapped in Nigeria and civil war in Iraq and Syria and the Sudan and another school shooting almost every week can trigger such questioning.
After all, we’ve been taught since Sunday School that God is all-powerful (“omnipotent”), and that God’s desire for us is for good and not evil. So, then, why does God allow suffering to happen in our lives and in the world around us?
And what about the related questions that spring from this question like weeds sprouting in my lawn, questions like:
- If God isn’t to blame for what happens, who is?
- Do we deserve what happens to us?
- Is God just?
- Is God really sovereign over what happens in the world?
What comfort, what hope can we find in Scripture to help us make sense of this?
Suffering a Consequence of Human Sin
Why does God allow suffering? God created the world in all perfection, without suffering. But our human sin introduced a new element into the mix. Because of the cosmic dimensions of sin, the nature of human life is that it contains suffering; there’s no way around that. Jesus made that clear to his disciples the night before his arrest:
In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. (John 16:33, TNIV)
So did Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians:
We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies. (4:8–10, NLT)
Sometimes, there is a direct connection between what we do and what happens to us as a result. That’s how God’s established the relationship with Israel:
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations. I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected — even children in the third and fourth generations. (Exodus 34:7, NLT)
So when Israel defaulted in her relationship with God by worshiping other gods, God punished them by allowing the surrounding countries to beat them up and cart them off into exile. We can accept the idea of suffering for something we’ve done. In our own lives, smoke 2 packs a day for 40 years, it’s no surprise when you develop lung issues like COPD or cancer. We may not like suffering for the consequences of our actions, but at least we can understand the quid pro quo in effect.
Other times, though, we may not be able to connect our every specific experience of suffering back to some particular sin that we committed. And that’s often where making sense of suffering gets more tricky.
Jesus teaching in John 9; the blindness not attributed to blind man’s actions or those of his parents. It happened so that God’s power could be revealed in the world. Joseph and his brothers – they meant Joseph’s being sold into slavery as something bad; God turned it around and used it for good – delivering the Egyptians and Israelites from famine.
Same principle Paul expresses in Romans 8:
And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. Romans 8:28 (NLT)
I don’t believe God sits around thinking up ways to zap us with suffering. But one way to understand our suffering is to recognize that God can use it and our faithful response to it as a witness for others.
Another approach: in Luke 13 Jesus teaches the disciples about suffering by highlighting two catastrophes that happened: Pilate murdering some Galileans as they offered sacrifices in the temple, and the death of 18 people when a tower fell on them. Were these people worse sinners than others, that God was somehow punishing them more severely? No, Jesus told them. These tragedies simply give us pause to be sure of our relationship of our souls.
One way to answer the question, Why does God allow suffering? is to attribute it directly or indirectly to the brokenness of creation because of the effect of human sin in the world.
Suffering a Consequence of God’s Self-limiting
Scripture and the complexity of creation suggest another answer. To say that God “allows” suffering implies there is a limit to God’s power. By it’s very nature, God created a world that has order to it. It’s a complex world of complicated balances and interconnections. Once the world was made, God limited himself in how he would interact within it. Cause and effect relationships are in effect that cannot be removed or suspended without creating utter chaos in the world. Certainly, there have been times when God has intruded on this created order: for example, the healings Jesus performed during his ministry, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. But for every illness Jesus healed, many more were not. For every person resuscitated, many more were not, and, except for Jesus, they all died.
In addition, God created us with the freedom to trust or to rebel. Conceivably God could have created us with no possibility of rebellion; that we would always know God’s will and never fail to follow it. How much simpler life would have been for God if this had been the case! But then God’s greatest desire to have us love God freely wouldn’t be possible in this situation, would it? A coerced love is really no love at all. As long as the world remains a place in which you and I have the freedom to act in defiance of God, it will be a world in which God will limit himself from exerting complete control over everything that happens. Does God know what will happen in each situation? Absolutely! Can God use our actions so that good can come from them? Absolutely!
Is There Any Hope?
Ultimately, there comes a point at which we cannot make sense of everything that happens to us. The prophet Isaiah reminds us of this:
My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (55:8–9, NLT)
The apostle Paul puts it this way in his first letter to the Corinthians:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. (13.12, ESV)
Honest faith questions; it pushes for clarity and understanding. But it also recognizes that there will be times when we cannot understand fully everything that happens to us. Life and faith are filled with an element of mystery. Besides casting blame for our suffering, perhaps our most pressing need is to believe we can have hope in the midst of our circumstances. Though we may not be able to understand everything behind what we’re going through, what we can know provides assurance and hope for our faith journey.
Our hope comes from who God is. Lasting, sustaining hope doesn’t just come from inside of us, but from outside of ourselves. Hope doesn’t begin with what we feel or think. Hope comes from who God is. Ours is a God who loves us unconditionally, who wants only what’s best for us, and who does whatever is necessary to have a relationship with us.
We see this as we look at the story of God revealed in the entire story arc of the Bible. God establishes a relationship with humans at creation. When Adam and Eve blow it (Gen 3), God reaches out to maintain the relationship. When humanity continues to mess this up (Gen 4-5), God chooses Noah and his family to reestablish creation and a renewed relationship with humans. When humans mess things up again by trying to become like God and storm heaven (Gen 11), God chooses Sarah and Abraham as a means of continuing the relationship. Whether it’s with the judges, the kings, the prophets after them, or the story of Jesus and the early Church, God continues to reach out to us because God wants to have a relationship with us, and in his son Jesus, shows the lengths to which he will go so that we can have it. Our hope comes from God’s promises to us.
Lasting, sustaining hope doesn’t just come from us, or from what we feel or think. Hope comes from what God has promised to do. As Sarah and Abraham waited and hoped for a child, their own feelings of doubt and uncertainty led them to lose hope and take matters into their own hands. Time and time again, they made choices that showed how little hope they were able to manufacture for themselves. In the end, it was God’s repeated promises to provide a child and a land that sustained Abraham and Sarah for nearly 30 years until Isaac was born.
What has God promised to do for us? God has saved us from our sins. God has promised to be with us always, no matter what. (Mt. 1.23; 28.20) God has promised that nothing will ever happen to us that will ever separate us from God’s love. (Rom 8.31-39) God has promised to bear us up with his strength (Is 40.28-31) And God has promised that he will have the final word, that life will come from death, that suffering is not the last word. Our hope is sustained through the faith community.
Finally, this sustaining hope doesn’t last because of our own smarts or strengths or abilities. It is sustained best through the faithful, gathered together and supporting each other when life gets tough. When you and I suffer, we naturally hope for a shoulder to cry on, someone to understand, someone to weep with us. This may sound like a modest hope, but it’s a vitally important one. It’s not always easy to find, either.
When we are going through difficult times, we often feel very alone.Perhaps our distress has made others uncomfortable, and so it’s hard to find a sympathetic ear. Perhaps, in our distress, we have said or done things which our friends have trouble accepting. It’s not easy to be a comforter to someone who is suffering. And yet, at Trinity we have a powerful ministry to those who suffer.
Paul speaks of this in his second letter to the Corinthians:
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. (1:3–4, ESV)
Each of us has some woundedness that we can share. As we come together and share our story, we can comfort others with the comfort God has already given us. I thank God how we are a place of mutual consolation. Whether it’s through the encouragement you share on Tuesdays as you quilt, or during the Sunday morning adult class, or in the innumerable phone calls and cards that go out amongst yourselves each year, by demonstrating that we care and support one another, we also embody the hope that God, too, hears and understands.
A lifeguard was once asked: “How can you tell when anyone is in need of help when there are thousands of swimmers making so much noise?” The guard answered: “No matter how great the noise and confusion, there has never been a single time when I could not distinguish the cry of distress above them all. I can always tell it.” And that is exactly like God. In the midst of the noise and confusion in our lives God never fails to hear the soul that cries out to him for help amid the breakers and storms of life.