I heard a brief but excellent sermon by Allistair Begg on the radio the other day related to why God allows suffering to come into the lives of Christians. (http://www.truthforlife.org/broadcasts/latest-aired/) It was brief, as I said, but really very good; it explained in much more comprehensive terms a topic that I have wondered about for many years. This man can preach! I have borrowed liberally from his 10 point outline in this blog, but as you will see, related it to my own life experiences. I’d be willing to bet that the readers of this blog have some thoughts and experiences of their own in this area, though time has proven that most of you are too timid to share them. Still, if you can muster the courage and spare the time, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
There is a popular phrase – even expressed in pop music – these days which says: “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” It’s complete rubbish. Many things that bring great pain in our lives, but which stop short of killing us, make us weaker. As a guy who has messed up his back, I can tell you that I am far weaker as a result, and will be for the rest of my life. No amount of physical therapy or surgery will ever turn my back injury into an advantage. So why did God allow that to happen to me? I imagine all of us have questions about things like that in our lives. As I mentioned in an earlier blog entry, my mother-in-law, a very dear woman who loved the Lord, was killed in a head-on car crash back in 1974. 3 of 6 children remained at home to raise, and although the family survived, it had a devastating impact on all of us. She was driving toward home from a ladies fellowship meeting at her little country church at that time, and was the victim of teenagers drag-racing down a two-lane highway in the opposite direction. Bad things – truly awful things – do often happen to good people; even to those whom the Lord loves.
Over all, according to Pastor Begg, the secret to understanding this situation lays in our willingness to “bow under God’s sovereign purposes”. Some argue that some events are not a part of the fabric of God’s will, and are the product of evil – they are cases where evil wins a battle, even though God ultimately will win the war. Mr. Begg does not agree with that perspective, and provides 10 reasons that he believes God permits these things to happen.
- To Develop Perseverance – James 1:1-3. The scripture passage here tells us to “count it all joy when we fall into diverse temptations, because the trying of our faith produces patience.” Well, here I am in point number 1, and already a pretty dismal failure. While I would consider myself less oriented to instant gratification than most members of my children’s (and grandchildren’s) generations, I am not a patient man. There is so much to be done in life, and it is so sort, that I find myself “chomping at the bit” constantly. Now, I have seen evidence of what Pastor Begg is describing in the lives of others; I have a niece (on my wife’s side of the family) Martha who should have been nominated for sainthood years ago for enduring the illnesses and calamities that God has permitted already in her young life. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. And yet she has not only endured, and grown closer to God, but reflected an incredible example of patience to all those who know her in the process. So I understand this one – I just don’t have it. I am praying that this doesn’t mean I have a lot more hardship and suffering headed my way.
- To Bring Us to Maturity – Matthew 4. In Matthew Chapter 4, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, in order to be tempted by Satan. As a prelude to actually being tempted, He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. According to Pastor Begg, this was done primarily to enable Jesus to mature. On this point, I am a bit skeptical; I don’t believe Jesus required maturation at this point; he flawlessly rebuked Satan at each confrontation, and remained sinless throughout His life. I’m thinking this may be a stretch as a biblical proof. However, I do understand the point. Every educational experience and every training experience comes with suffering, it seems to me, whether it is pulling “all-nighters” in preparation for final exams (a memory I would rather expunge), or the physical training of athletes and soldiers. (I think Pastor Begg would probably have supported his point better with Hebrews 12:1.)
- To Assure Us of Our “Sonship” – Hebrews 12, Romans 8. The point here is that “Whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son he receiveth.” If we endure chastening, the Bible assures us, God is treating us as His children, and we should be pleased about that. Ensuing verses do admit that chastening is no fun at all, but promises us that the end result is “the peaceable fruit of righteousness”, and basically tells us in verse 13 to “buck up.” I’m sure it is the sinful and rebellious side of me that responds this way, but I never react well to the “this is for your own good” argument. I think that may have started back in the days of using castor oil as a laxative, but that’s another story…..
- To Prove the Genuine Nature of Our Faith – Genesis 22. The example offered here was the temptation of Abraham by God (I know that sounds heretical, but the King James version says in verse 1: “Now it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham, and said to him, Abraham: and he said Behold, here I am. And he said, take now thy son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains which I will tell thee of.” Certainly, this qualifies as suffering. The mental duress of Isaac on that journey must have been almost unbearable. I sincerely hope that God never calls on me to make such a journey to prove the nature of my faith. How would you do?
- To Develop Humility – II Corinthians 12 This is the passage where the Apostle Paul describes his physical afflictions – which were many, and severe – and says that when he begged God to take them away so that he could more effectively minister, God replied: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in your weakness.” Paul said that, as a result, he celebrated (took glory in) his infirmities, in order that the power of Christ would rest upon him. Verse 10 fins the Apostle Paul saying: “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then I am strong.” It does seem clear, when reading about the life of Paul, that he grew more humble as his life of service continued, through his persecution, imprisonment, and death as a martyr.
- To Keep Us On Track – Psalm 119, Proverbs 3. The message of these passages is that Christians tend to stray from God until they suffer – then we come flying back to ask for help and protection. Psalm 119:67 says: “Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now I have kept thy word.” Verse 71 continues that theme: “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes.” Again in verse 107: “I am afflicted very much: quicken me, O Lord, according to thy word.” I have raised two children, and now have 4 grandchildren. I get this. A swat on the bottom was usually adequate, when all else failed, to get my children’s attention.
- To Deepen Our Insight Into the Heart of God – Hosea 1, 2, and 3. Here is a passage of scripture describing how God stripped away the food, protection, sovereignty, and dignity of Israel – an entire nation – as a result of their disobedience, and after causing tremendous pain and suffering for the Jews, finally restored them again when they had repented. Again, as evidence that this demonstrates how suffering reveals the heart of God, I’m just not seeing it. I do see how this reflects again the willingness of God to discipline the children he loves in order to “keep them on track”, as described in #6, above.
- To Enable Us to Help Others in Their Trials – II Kings 5. This passage of scripture describes a young woman who was taken from Israel and made a slave. While serving her master the King of Syria, this girl was able to inform her master of a prophet in Israel (Elisha) who could intervene on the King’s behalf, and entreat God to cure the king’s leprosy. I understand Pastor Begg’s explanation here, but it does seem like a bit of a stretch to say that this is a reason the girl needed to suffer. It seems to me (and I freely admit I am in no position to question the authority or the methods of the God who created me) that others ways could have been found to inform the king without committing a young girl to a life sentence of indentured servitude. I believe that in this case God used an existing situation (the girl’s position as a slave in the household of the King of Syria) to bring about His will, rather than viewing this as a situation where God deliberately caused a girl to be captured and enslaved for that purpose. Am I splitting hairs here?
- To Reveal What We Really Love – Deuteronomy 13:3. This passage warns Christians about heeding false prophets. It says: “Thou shalt not harken to the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the Lord your God proveth you” (I presume this is the element of suffering in Pastor Begg’s view) “to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (I think the earlier passage describing Abreaham and Isaac is an excellent illustration for this point as well as point #4, above). Again, I get it. Here’s what I don’t understand, though, and it speaks to both points 4 and 9: God didn’t need to do this. He does not need to put people through suffering to “know whether they love the Lord”. God is omniscient. He already knows! So, although there is no question that Pastor Begg must be correct here, because the Bible clearly says what he is saying, it makes no sense to me. God does not need to cause people to suffer in order to know anything; He already knows everything.
- To Display His Glory in the Lives of His Children – The life of Joseph (“You intended this for evil, but God intended it for good.”) This story is told in the book of Genesis, and a good place to start reviewing Joseph’s story is Chapter 37. Without a doubt, this is a case of God causing glory and honor to be reflected back upon Him through the life of a faithful servant. Joseph suffered, as did his father, for many years through this ordeal, as h was sold into slavery by his own brothers, and his earthly father believed that he was dead. Yet, in the end two entire nations were greatly blessed as a result of the way these events unfolded.
Pastor Begg asserts in the course of his message that “with God things don’t just happen; everything is planned.” I sometimes wonder about that. I do understand that God knows everything that has occurred, does occur, and will occur. He created all things, set all things in motion, and knew from before that time what would happen. He knew that Satan would fall before he created Satan. He knew that mankind would sin before He created mankind. He knew that the result of the events He was setting in motion would be that His own Son, Jesus Christ, would have to suffer crucifixion and death in order to reconcile believers to Himself. But in the same way that this doesn’t make God responsible for our sin, it doesn’t mean that God planned every event. God created an environment where sin was permitted to occur, in order to provide free will to mankind so that we could – of our own volition –accept of reject Jesus Christ as our individual personal Savior. But God did not sin, and he did not plan sinful events. He simply knew they would occur, and He did not prevent them. This is a bit of a theological knot, I think, and I do not pretend to understand how God’s unwillingness to prevent sin is better than preventing it, but there it is.
One more personal story: Several years ago, we attended a Baptist church (I believe it is Southern Baptist) in the St. Louis area where the pastor’s family included triplets (two sons and a daughter) who were then 13 years old. They were lively, energetic children who loved the Lord and were loved in turn by everyone, as far as I could tell, in the 200+ member congregation as well as their classmates and teachers. While we attended that church, the daughter contracted cancer. With the love and support of her family and friends, she fought bravely right to the end, but ultimately succumbed to the disease. Stories were related throughout this period of the testimony this little girl reflected into the community and congregation. Hospital nurses and doctors were turned toward Christ, and many among the congregation – and probably well beyond – were drawn to God in many different ways as a result of the life, the suffering, and the death of this young girl. Without a doubt, her suffering brought forth a tremendous outpouring of people’s hearts, and reflected an enormous witness of faith and genuine courage that changed the lives of many, and some, I imagine, forever. Certainly it demonstrated the nature of this family’s faith, the depth of their conviction, and caused an enormous wave of turning on the part of many toward God. So, in light of the 10 points outlined above, I have to ask: Did God actually cause that little girl to develop a terrible, fatal disease to bring glory to Himself? Or did He use a tragic result of the fact that sin entered this world back in the days of Genesis to bring about all the good possible? I choose to believe the second is true.
What do you think?
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