From time to time, we hear stories of people giving up their faith because of some difficult circumstances. To be honest, more often I hear about people who give up after observing other people’s suffering rather than from their own experience.
I am currently going through some health issues. I potentially have a life threatening disease. Some could ask why I would continue as a Christian if he would let me suffer with sickness. Trust me I have had some interesting talks with God. But giving up on God has not been one of my options. It is true that I could die from what I have. But I will die anyway. In fact everyone of you who read this post will die one day. Is it fair that I might face death? Is it fair that anyone faces death? I find that people forget that we all have an expiry date. I have done funerals for hundred year olds where the family is shocked that their loved one died. There is an end for all of us and we should all give up the myth of immortality (not counting the afterlife of course).
So I will continue to believe and trust in God. I hope that I am not seriously ill and I pray that I have a long life to serve God and enjoy my family. But even so, this life will come to an end one day and it will time to start the new chapter.
One of the important areas of apologetics is that of the problem of suffering. I separate that from the problem of evil. I consider the problem of evil to be things like crime, war and injustice. The problem of suffering I see as more of what a person goes through personally, whether by sickness, disability or some other change of life quality. Suffering is likely connected in some way with evil, but I am thinking of more the things life throws at us that beat us down.
I’m glad that people write on this issue and there are some great books on this. But it is one thing to reflect on this on a theoretical level and it is another thing to go through the suffering yourself.
I have just returned home from almost a week in the hospital. During part of that time, it looked fairly likely that I might be dying. While I have sinse had some good test results and things are looking better, I am still not out of the woods. However, even in the grimmest time, I really did not wrestle with the problem of suffering. I asked “Why?” but I was not really seeking an answer. Even if God spoke to me in my hospital room, I’m not sure there would be any answer that would make me feel better. I was scared, not so much of dying, but of missing the experience of watching my children grow up. If an apologist came to me and tried to explain why this was happening, I would not have been open to their explanations. I was in a place of desperation where I was calling out to God. It was far more emotional than intellectual. I am thankful that the pastors that reached out to me did not try to explain the situation. They listened to my frustration and prayed for me. That is really all we can do.
What do we do with the problem of suffering? Continue to write on it, but write for the skeptics who struggling to see Christianity as having a place for suffering. But when it comes to people who are suffering, avoid the example of Job’s companions and just show compassion. The truth is you do not know why a person is a suffering or how God will respond.
Any Christian response to the terrible bomb attack at the Boston marathon must begin with compassion and not pious platitudes. We must pray for those who are injured and those who have lost loved ones. We must go beyond prayer and help out in whatever way we can. If you are in the area, donate blood or watch for other material assistance that is needed. We should hug our own families and realize that tragedy can happen at the most unexpected of times.
However, someone is bound to ask: “Why would God allow this to happen?” That is natural to ask, especially for the people directly affected. Beyond that, there will be skeptics who will push this and suggest that if a good God existed, he would not have allowed such suffering. For many people that will sound convincing. But think through what that means. I assume people are suggesting that a good God would have struck dead those responsible before the bombs were ever planted. Let us work through this.
I assume we all want good government. Imagine if the government came up with a plan that they were going to insert a microchip into every citizen’s brain. The purpose of the microchip would be to sense when we are about to commit a crime and then release lethal shock to kill us before we could carry out the crime. Would you be the first one in line to get your microchip? Would you rejoice that the government was regularly killing people in order to prevent crimes? Would you see this as the best example of good government? Likely not.
So why do we think that a good God is required to kill people before they commit crimes? Where is God in the Boston tragedy? He is there. He is working through people, Christian and non-Christian. He is bringing peace and hope and healing to a place of chaos and suffering.
Our prayers go out to the people of Boston, the runners of the marathon and the families affected by this terrible attack. Our prayers go as well to the people responsible and our hope is that they would come to a place of repentance for their horrific deed.
People around the world are trying to make sense of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is a terrible tragedy and it has touched us all. I believe there is an important place for people of faith to speak into this situation. However, some Christians have a specific and unfortunate take on what happened. Christian leaders, including James Dobson, have suggested that this is a part of God’s judgment on America for tolerating same-sex marriage and abortion. You can hear Dobson’s comments here (around the 16 minute mark).
To be fair, I understand that the Old Testament does provide examples of God’s judgment against nations (usually Israel) for their sins. But it is another thing to suggest that this shooting is a part of God’s judgment. The examples in the Old Testament were extraordinary circumstances and should not be seen as typical events. Also, those examples were understood to be judgment as a result of prophetic revelation. Are people such as Dobson, suggesting such insight?
Here is the problem with saying that this shooting is God’s judgment. This would require some deeper reflection. Does it mean that God made the shooter act in such a way to punish the nation? Does it mean that God would have stopped it if the nation had rejected same-sex marriage and abortion? Would God have sent angels to take out the shooter? Would he have surrounded the victims with force fields? Think about what you are saying when you say this is judgment. Follow the logical conclusions and see if it makes sense. Instead of taking this tragedy and using it to promote an agenda, see it as the tragedy it is and demonstrate the love of Christ.
As a parent of elementary school aged children, the recent shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut has really touched a nerve. This is every parents’ worst nightmare. You assume that when you send your children to school that they are safe. No one expects that an armed individual would end the life of so many children and teachers. Our prayers must be with the families of the victims and the family of the one responsible. This is truly a heartbreaking situation.
One of the first questions that is asked is: Why did this happen? That is a natural and normal question. We should be asking about the reasons behind this tragedy. Why did this young man kill his own mother and so many innocent children?
For many people, the why question goes beyond the reasons for the individual and into questions about God’s involvement or lack thereof. Why would God allow this to happen? For some this is the normal question of people who are hurting and for others this is the ‘proof’ they have been looking for that there is no God or at least no good God.
I would say for those who are hurting, this is a natural question to ask. But at the same time, we should think through what we would expect God to do. Assume for a moment that there is a God and that he should have done something. What should have God done? Should God have taken control of Adam Lanza’s mind and forced him not to act in such a way? If so, is that something that God should have done just in this case or on a daily basis? Do we want to live in a world where God controls our minds and forces us to act in a certain way? Do we want a world where we don’t have the choice to love our children or the choice to help a person in need? So if we don’t want God to control our minds and actions, what would we want? God could have sent down a lightning bolt and killed Adam Lanza before he committed one murder. But is that really what we want as well? Do we want a world where God is sending bolts from heaven, killing those who are making evil decisions? And where would the cut off be? What level of crime would deserve a divine execution? When we try and be specific, we find the natural questions of why God let this happen are difficult to answer.
I would suggest that instead of dwelling on why God let this happen, that we should be looking at how God is working right now. I do not want people to think that I am suggesting that God is powerless to intervene. However, most often God’s actions are responses to our freewill and not an override of that will. Where is God working in this situation? What good will come from this? I don’t have the answers to these questions as only time will tell. But I am confident that God is present in this situation.
Good Friday is about remembering Jesus’ death on the cross. The cross is central to the Christian hope. But why did Jesus die and why do we consider that death good? Many Christians would respond by saying that Jesus died so we can go to heaven. Well, that is fine as far as it goes but I would want to clarify it a bit. The cross is not just about giving us a more comfortable afterlife. The cross actually reconciles us to God and that means we are adopted into his family for eternity and not just the few decades we are on this planet. But is that the full message of the cross? Is the cross only for the moment of our salvation, that experience of saying yes to Christ and receiving eternal life? I spend a lot of my time talking with non-Christians and skeptics. This might surprise you but most skeptics are not hesitating because they are trying to pick an afterlife, heaven or hell, and they are having trouble making up their mind. Many skeptics are not wrestling with things like the divinity of Jesus or the nature of the resurrection. Many are still trying to figure out God and if he is worth worshipping. Is there a good God? Of course there is. Check out the beauty of spring, the flowers and the trees. Check out the joy of a newborn baby. God is good! But change things around a bit. Take away your health. Lose your job. Find out your child is disabled. A friend is sexually assaulted. A loved one dies a painful death. Is God still good? I recently was talking with a self-proclaimed atheist. After a bit of digging, I discovered that he did not necessarily have a problem with God existing. His real problem is with Christianity’s claim that God is all-powerful and all-good. To affirm that and then look at the evil and suffering in the world seems to naturally lead to atheism. Even if there is a God, perhaps he is not worthy of worship. How should Christians respond when skeptics ask where God is in the midst of suffering? What about the Christian who came to faith in Jesus years ago? They know they will be in heaven when they die, but right now life seems like hell. Broken relationships, broken bank accounts, broken body, broken mind, broken heart. Where is God? Does he care? Or is God only interested in that moment when we become a Christian and the moment we die and in between is completely ignorant of our suffering? Does the cross have anything to say about this?
Events of the Cross
Sometimes a story can be so familiar that we lose the impact of what is actually being said. Let us briefly recount the events leading up to and taking place on the cross. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday with his triumphal entry. People cheer and sing and it looks like Jesus has reached the pinnacle of his career. Things quickly fall apart. One of Jesus‘ inner circle of twelve disciples, a man named Judas, makes a deal with the religious leaders to hand Jesus over. The leaders are afraid to arrest Jesus in public and they need to make their move quietly and out of sight. For thirty pieces of silver, Judas could make that happen. The mob comes to bring Jesus in. Judas‘ signal? A kiss! That which is meant for affection is used for betrayal. Jesus is given a mockery of a trial. The decision was already made, they just had to find some evidence and witnesses to fit the verdict. One of Jesus‘ closest friends, Peter, is asked directly if he is a follower of Jesus. Not once, not twice but three times Peter denies knowing Jesus. Jesus is beaten by his accusers, whipped and tortured. He is hurt so bad that when it is time to go to the place of crucifixion, Jesus is too weak to carry his own cross. Jesus arrives at the place of his execution, the place of the skull. His hands and feet are nailed to the cross. He is lifted up and Jesus waits for his body to weaken enough that he will no longer be able to raise his body up to get the next breath. Meanwhile, fellow condemned men as well as spectators take the time to mock him. To make matters worse, Jesus‘ mother is there to witness his sufferings. Not only that, because of the attitude of his half-brothers, Jesus has to use his dying moments to arrange care for his mother after he dies. Finally, Jesus comes to the end of his physical strength and breathes his last. That is what we call Good Friday.
A Suffering World
I want you to keep that in mind as we think about the human experience. We live in a world full of war and crime and natural disasters and poverty and injustice. Many people are afraid to go to the doctor because they are afraid of bad news. The divorce rate is at epidemic levels. Children are abused. There is so much bad that happens. I will share a little of our story, not because I want to focus on myself nor do I want your pity. I simply know my story better than I know your story and it is likely you will identify with at least parts of it. Family is extremely important for us and when my wife and I got married, I had all sorts of ideas of what that would look like. My wife became pregnant soon after we were married. As soon as we knew, we started to buy baby clothes and I started to do baby illustrations in my sermons. Then one day, right before a meeting at the church, we discovered that my wife was having a miscarriage. It was devastating. The doctor was cold, stating that it was a miscarriage in the same way he would have confirmed that bump on your finger was a wart. The nurse dismissed us from emerg, in her words “good as new.” We then went on have two healthy children named Logan and Abby. Beautiful kids and we are very proud of them. However, they also have severe autism. They are nonverbal and will never do many of the things that parents take for granted that their children will do. Some genetic flaw caused a mis-wiring of the brain and all the normal dreams were dashed. My father, a wonderful man and generous parent, suddenly stopped producing his own blood. He had to rely on regular blood transfusions for three years until his death. He never even met his three youngest grand children. My mother, a godly and loving Christian woman, died a painful death from esophageal cancer. She only knew she had cancer for a few weeks. Again, I am not looking for pity. I want you see, as I am sure you already understand, that there is suffering in this world. Many people go through horrors that I cannot even imagine. The question is: Where is God? Does God care? Or does God just say: “Yeah, whatever. See you in heaven.”? We have to wrestle with this. The answer is found at the cross.
Sharing in Suffering
Ravi Zacharias tells the story of Elie Wiesel, Nobel Prize winner and survivor of the Holocaust, when he was forced, along with a few others in a concentration camp, to witness the hanging of two Jewish men and one Jewish boy. The two men died right away, but the young lad struggled on the gallows. Somebody behind Wiesel muttered, “Where is God? Where is He?” Then the voice ground out the anguish again, “Where is He?” Wiesel felt the same question irrepressibly within him: “Where is God? Where is He?” Then he heard a voice softly within him saying, “He is hanging there on the gallows, where else?” Hanging on the gallows. As Christians, when the question is asked: “Where is God in my suffering?” we can say that God is hanging on the cross.
One of the most annoying things is when you are going through a very difficult time and someone says “I know exactly how you feel” and you know they have never experienced anything like this. Does God know how you feel? Of course God knows how you feel, God knows everything. Does God know what it is like to commit adultery? God understands the emotional and spiritual conditions that lead up to it, he understands the impulses in the brain and all the physiological aspects of adultery, but God does not understand adultery from experience. He is only an observer. But does God understand your suffering? That is a different story. God, in Jesus Christ, understands your suffering not just through a comprehensive knowledge of the facts but through the experience of suffering. Betrayed by a friend? Done that. Worried about a family member? Done that. Treated unjustly? Done that. Abused physically and emotionally? Done that. Experience tremendous pain? Done that. Death? Done that. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, knows suffering. God does not ignore human suffering. God comes to earth and experiences human suffering. One of the most powerful moments on the cross is when Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV) This is the first verse of Psalm 22. Many see Psalm 22 as a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. There is definitely many points of contact between the words of David and the circumstances of Jesus. We should see a prophetic role for this Psalm. However, should we see David as consciously writing about future messianic events? Or should we see David as speaking of his own experience, his own suffering, his own feeling of God-forsakenness? There are many Psalms that contain similar messages, cries of abandonment and fear and pain. While keeping the prophetic element, what if we saw Jesus as citing Psalm 22 not just as a proof text for his messianic identity, but as reaching out to this picture of suffering humanity and embracing it rather than avoiding it? Maybe Jesus wanted us to know that he was entering into our experience. You may not be convinced. You may be thinking, forget the fellowship of suffering, Jesus died as a sacrifice for sin. Period. That’s it. Let’s run with that for a minute. Jesus is indeed the sacrifice for our sin. There is no need for animal sacrifices because Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice. The animal sacrifices of the Old Testament point forward to Jesus. The book of Hebrews goes into detail on this. But take a moment to think about how those animals were sacrificed in the Temple. Do you think they were beaten and tortured and then killed slowly and painfully? No, they were quickly and painlessly slaughtered without panicking the animal in any way. If Jesus is only our sacrifice, then he could have had his throat slit and that would have been enough. But we don’t look at the suffering of Jesus as just an extra add-on, in addition to the necessary death. If you have seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, you will know that the suffering Jesus experienced leading up to and on the cross is emotionally moving and in an instinctive way, we know it is important. The suffering of Jesus matters. That means that our suffering also matters to God.
How do we bring this all together? Some people claim that the problem of suffering is the achilles heel of Christianity. I disagree. Of all the worldviews out there, Christianity is the only one that gives an adequate response to suffering. Rational reasons for suffering are not enough, especially if you are the one going through the suffering. What we really need to know is where God is when we suffer. Christianity has an answer. God was on the cross. Jesus Christ, God incarnate, suffered on the cross. His death paid the price for our forgiveness of sins. But his suffering offers us hope in this life. One of my favorite passages is this: “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14–16 ESV) Jesus knows. He knows suffering by experience, he knows like no human being can. But he knows something else. Jesus knows that suffering is not the end. On the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. Sin and death were defeated. Not only did Jesus rise from the dead, he promises that we will join him in the resurrection. Here is the miracle of Christianity, Jesus invites himself to join in our suffering and then invites us to join in his resurrection. As theologian Jürgen Moltmann said “God weeps with us so that someday we can laugh with him.” I think that gives us a great reason to call this a Good Friday.