Questions in the Wake of Suffering

October 4th, 2017 | Posted in Blog | 1 Comment
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When tragedy strikes, as it did in Las Vegas this week, people begin to ask questions. It is part of human nature: we reason, consider, speculate, and ultimately seek to find answers that will provide meaning or comfort.

 

Why did this happen?

 

Where was God?

 

Couldn’t we have prevented this?

 

These are important questions, but they are not necessarily the questions to which Scripture gives answers. That is, if we look to the Bible for guidance, we will find our questions reframed, and answers to the questions we first ask more elusive than we would prefer.

 

In the face of great suffering—great evil, even—here are five questions we might ask, and five reframed questions that might take us in a different, and ultimately more fruitful, direction.

 

  1. Why did this happen? This is always the first question. We instinctively seek meaning, and when suffering seems meaningless, we despair. We understand why we suffer under a surgeon’s scalpel, because that act has meaning: to cure us from the disease; however, we do not understand why a loved one received the cancer diagnosis in the first place: we can see no meaning, no purpose to their suffering. (As we have become increasingly individualistic in our pursuit of happiness, attaching meaning to suffering has become proportionately more difficult, I should add. But that will take us too far afield today.) Of course, this is precisely the question Job asks of God after he suffers almost unfathomable loss. If God would only explain the why, he would accept it. Interestingly—especially considering we the readers are privy to the explanation—God never answers Job’s question. Instead, in his great theophany at the story’s close, he subtly reframes the question: not Why did this happen? but Do you know who I am? God takes Job through a series of rhetorical questions meant to draw out the answers Job already has (which is what rhetorical questions do). God says, in effect, “Job, you know who I am—you know my wisdom, power, justice, and goodness. You do not need to know why so long as you know the One who does know why.” It is a lesson we all struggle to accept.
  2. How could a good God allow such evil? Surely this is the most prominent objection to faith in the God of the Bible. It almost flows out of the last question: “Yes, yes, we know who you are, God—and that’s precisely the problem! If you’re truly good and truly powerful, why didn’t you stop this?” We will return to that question in a moment, but for now, let’s unpack some of the assumptions in the question. The questioner assumes a good God should have prevented the tragedy because it is wrong. President Trump, for example, referred to the massacre in Las Vegas as “an act of pure evil,” and few of us would disagree. But now a second question emerges, and one with which God’s detractors have to wrestle honestly. If we’re going to ask God How could you allow such evil? we need to ask ourselves Does our worldview allow for the category of evil? In rejecting God because of the evil in this world, many implicitly reject the very standard by which they reject him. They saw off the very branch they are perched on. C.S. Lewis sums it up nicely, “If we reject him, we ought also to reject all his works. But one of his works is this very moral standard by which we reject him. If we accept this standard then we are really implying that he is not a Brute and Blackguard. If we reject it, then we have thrown away the only instrument by which we can condemn him.” When we feel repulsion at evil, we implicitly acknowledge that humans are moral beings created in the image of a moral God. If we reject that notion, however, we can no longer meaningfully speak of evil. The great atheist philosopher Nietzsche embraced this logical consistency in a way that few today are intellectually honest enough to do. When hearing of a tsunami in the Java Sea that left hundreds of thousands dead, he responded, “200,000 wiped out at a stroke—how magnificent!” We rightly recoil at this sentiment—but do we have the intellectual grounds to do so? If we accept a merely naturalistic, “Darwinian” account of humanity, for example, oughtn’t we rejoice at the “thinning of the herd,” at the decreased competition for survival and reproduction? A disgusting thought that surely suggests we reconsider the God question.
  3. Where was God? These first three questions all have a common thread to them, in that they assume we know what God should have been doing. This questions charges, “Had God been paying attention—were he really involved in this world—did he even exist—he surely would have stopped this tragedy from happening.” As we’ve seen already, however, the Bible nowhere affirms that we will understand what God is doing in permitting any tragedy. What the Bible does affirm, though, is that God knows what he is doing. And occasionally he will pull back the curtains and show us, that we might learn to trust him. Joseph, who suffered more than his fair share—attempted fratricide, slavery, unjust incarceration—is able to say to his brothers in spite of his grievances, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). Had Joseph not suffered as he did, he could not have been used by God to save an entire region from starvation. Do we think God is any less capable of using tragedy today? Or, to take an even more obvious example, we might look to Calvary. Only one truly innocent person has ever suffered in the history of the world–and see what God did through his suffering! The question we should ask then, is not Where was God? but Do we trust God? As Tim Keller tweeted yesterday, “In the end, God will use evil to do the opposite of what was intended.” Do we believe this is the case? Can we trust him to bring good from evil? Has he not proven himself more than capable of this? Joni Eareckson Tada states the principle eloquently: “God ordains what he hates to accomplish what he loves.” This is nowhere more evident than in the death of his Son. And if God is loving enough to embrace suffering himself for our sakes, can we not trust him no matter what we might suffer?
  4. Could we have prevented this? Now, hear me clearly: this is a fair question, one we should ask and seek to answer as honestly as possible. Those who believe in the sanctity of human life should be the first to join the conversation. We do not take a laissez-faire approach to God’s image-bearers. But having said that clearly, let me say this too: sometimes our pursuit of prevention is an idolatrous desire for control, for autonomy. We should like to think, in the words of that famous poem “Invictus,” that we can be the masters of our fates, the captains of our souls—and we think so in defiance of the God who made us, and to whom we belong. Beyond the theological trouble attending this desire is the more practical one: we are manifestly not the masters of our fates, and we have no power to stave off death. “Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:27). Ann Patchett, in an article entitled “Beltway Sniper” published in The New York Times Magazine during that horrifying tragedy, captures the folly of this desire: “The fact is, staving off our own death is one of our favorite national pastimes. Whether it’s exercise, checking our cholesterol or having a mammogram, we are always hedging against mortality. Find out what the profile is, and identify the ways in which you do not fit it. But a sniper taking a single clean shot. . . reminds us horribly of death itself. Despite our best intentions, it is still, for the most part, random. And it is absolutely coming.” So while we continue to ask if we could have prevented any single tragedy, we must acknowledge that in the end we still cannot prevent death itself from coming. The question the Bible suggests to us here is simply Are you willing to face your mortality? Psalm 90:10 puts it bluntly: “Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.” What is the answer to this bare reality? “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (v 12). In humble acceptance of our mortality, we embrace an eternal perspective to live rightly.
  5. What did they do to deserve this? I hope no one reading this actually asks this question, but inevitably someone raises the question, especially when tragedy strikes in a place like “Sin City.” This legalistic self-righteousness is not new—for there is nothing new under the sun. Jesus’ own disciples once queried him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1). Of course, this line of questioning circles back to the preceding questions; it seeks to provide comfort to the questioner, knowing they don’t fit the profile of “sinner”; it seeks to provide meaning to suffering—they deserved it—and so to offer pat answers to dishonest questions. But in another instance, Jesus himself reframed the question into a far more fitting one: “Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish’” (Luke 13:1-5). There is the question we should be asking: Do you think those who suffer are worse than you? The Bible answers a resounding No. We are all dead in our transgressions and sins, by nature deserving of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3). The plain fact of the matter is that no one of us suffers more than we deserve, and in fact we all suffer far less than we deserve because of God’s common grace. We deserve eternal condemnation, but God, in his mercy, offers us grace and eternal approbation. The key, as Jesus reminds us, is repentance. We turn from our sins and trust in his finished work on the cross, where he took the punishment for our sins in our place that we might receive welcome as God’s beloved children.

 

And that is another question we must all ask and answer—ultimately the one question that matters most: Will you repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?



Light and Momentary Troubles

November 1st, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Some of the most difficult verses in all of Scripture come in Paul’s second letter to Corinth: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (4:16-17, NIV).

 

One wonders how Paul can so cavalierly dismiss the very real suffering he experienced. As he details later in his letter, Paul was no stranger to suffering: “Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:25-28). How can he consider these light and momentary troubles?

 

How could we consider the death of a loved one, chronic illness, abject poverty, abuse, as anything but the severest trial, gross injustice, unendurable? How could we not lose heart when faced with these?

 

The answer is Jesus. We may endure any physical or emotional agony because Jesus endured spiritual agony for our sakes.

 

Our troubles in this life are momentary because Christ has won eternity for us through his sacrificial death on the cross. They are light because they are as nothing in comparison to the weight of suffering he endured in being forsaken by the Father. In Gethsemane, Christ felt the full weight of our sin. In a bit of bitter irony, the word Gethsemane means “olive press.” And here, on the Mount of Olives, Christ is certainly pressed, crushed—and the blood oozes from his pores like oil from olives. He seeks the comfort in heaven in prayer, only to find the hell of God’s wrath ready to be poured upon him.

 

That is real trouble—a sheer weight of agony the likes of which we will never know. Having been spared this, can we not endure a touch of persecution for his sake? Can we not yield ourselves to his plans, even when they involve light and momentary pains we had rather not know?

 

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen” (4:18). We walk by faith—a more perfect sight than our corrupted eyes could provide. We live the truth—that Jesus endured the eternal weight of damnation, winning for us the eternal weight of glory. We take heart—no matter the circumstances, knowing joy and peace, always giving thanks—that, in bearing the “mild yoke” of physical and emotional pain, we might glorify him who endured spiritual agony in our stead.