“Do you not comprehend that, as you stand on the Earth, you are standing at the very conjunction of Heaven and Hell, the gate of which lies before you.”
(B. James Wilson, “Kingdom of Light“)
Who among you, who confesses their faith publicly, has not been challenged by the plaintiff accusation, “If your God is so loving, why would he let this, (some earthbound suffering), happen?”
“Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Matt. 10:34
It seems to me there is enormous misunderstanding among both believers and non-believers regarding the nature of suffering in the world and the nature of God, and His will, in that suffering; so much misunderstanding, in fact, that the question itself requires examination.
First, in the usual case of the non-believer, the question is not so much a question, as an accusation, rhetoric, that requires no answer at all. “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth. ” (Isaiah 53:7)
And as it is for the Teacher, so it will be for His disciple. In such a case it is better to pray for that person than to give answer, because the question is not a question, it’s a debate, a challenge to God’s sovereignty and authority in the world. In its nature, the question, asked in this way, becomes the very illustration of the problem. It is the heart of rebellion against God, the very heart of sin and not deserving of the knowledge of the mystery of His grace and mercy. Better to pray.
Sometimes, however, the question is truly a plaintiff cry, a wounded heart who cries out seeking answer, seeking understanding. In this case the answer is simply the gospel of God’s love for the individual. Not a defense of His authority, or sovereignty, but an outpouring of His love and compassion through the believer, His ambassador on Earth. God points out His role to us in Job 5:18, “For He bruises, but He binds up; He wounds, but His hands make whole.”
Perhaps you note here that God accepts responsibility for Job’s suffering. Such is the nature of a great king, the seal of His sovereignty, accepting the reality that “the buck stops here.” God has never been shy to announce His involvement in human suffering. He clearly accepts responsibility for the Great Flood, for the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, even for the destruction of His people in Israel and Judah in their exile, Amos speaking for God, in 3:6, “If there is calamity in a city, will not the Lord have done it?”
This reality may be shocking to some, but God has a purpose in human suffering, just as He had a purpose in the suffering of Christ Jesus, His own son, whom He sent to die on a cruel cross, saying through Him, In John 10:17-18 “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”
In these words of Jesus, lies the key to our misperception of suffering and death. You see, as much as you may not like to hear it, God does not place the same value on our temporal lives, here, on Earth, as we do. As Jesus points out to us, He has the power to lay down life and to pick it up again. He proves it again and again from creation to Ezekiel and the valley of the dry bones, and from Jonah to Lazarus, of whom Jesus said, In John 11:14-15 “Lazarus is dead. And I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, that you may believe. Nevertheless let us go to him.”
I repeat, “that you may believe.” You see, what is important to God is your faith, not your life; not that life is not precious to God. It is, and He has plenty to say about that, but your life here, on temporal Earth, is not as precious to Him as His purpose for it. So the real question to be asked is not, “Why would God allow this suffering,” but, “What is God’s purpose in this suffering?”
Believers suffer too. And, like Job, they cry out to God wanting to understand the reason for it. The answer today is the same as it was for Job, in his day. That answer lies, veiled, in the opening scripture of Job’s story, That Satan, a fallen angel, leader of a rebellion against God, is free within God’s permissive will, to challenge faith by bringing suffering upon the faithful. What we, the faithful, fail to understand and what we fail to teach, or even speak of in our churches, is the fact that we are the subjects of a war, an invisible war that surrounds us every day in this temporal world; a war in which we are forced to choose one side or another. That truth is well put in the song, “You Gotta Serve Somebody“, by Bob Dillon. We are free each day, in joy or suffering, to choose between God, or Satan, between goodness, or evil, between darkness, or light. The Gray Empire in which we try to live our lives, to hide from our responsibilities and to hide from God, does not truly exist. It is a myth, it is the only true myth, for all other mythology has some basis in truth. Unfortunately, our fallen nature leaves us more prone to making the best choices while we suffer than when we live in joy and, so, God allows suffering to come to us. Sometimes as an attack on our righteousness, but mostly just the coincidental result of the fallen world we live in.
For those who believe, those of us who recognize the battle that surrounds our lives here, on Earth, the refrain, “onward Christian soldier, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before,” takes on a special meaning. Paul reminds us of this purpose for our lives in his letter to the Ephesians, when he says, in 6:14-18 “Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints—”
These are our draft notice, our marching orders, announcing that we are at war, and war always brings suffering, especially to the “innocent”, those who are lost and confused.
There is one other purpose for the suffering of the faithful. Jesus promised that it would come to us as it came to Him, but there is another purpose.
2 Corinthians 1:3-7 “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 tribulation, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds through Christ. Now if we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effective for enduring the same sufferings which we also suffer. Or if we are comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation. And our hope for you is steadfast, because we know that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so also you will partake of the consolation.”
In the end, as difficult as it may be to accept, God allows us to suffer when we deserve to suffer, or when our suffering can turn us to Him, or when our suffering can prepare us to serve Him. The patterns of suffering in the Bible clearly demonstrate that when God’s people are living according to His will, that is, his moral will and His specific will, suffering in their world is greatly reduced. The opposite is true when the situation is reversed. So what is God’s purpose? It is to put an end to the rebellion that has torn His Kingdom in two. Unfortunately part of that process includes a great deal of suffering. More importantly, however, is God’s will in all of this. His will clearly demonstrates that His love is the driving motivation behind all His actions, from creation to the fact that He sustains us from breath to breath. God’s will is that all should be saved and none lost, as in 1 Timothy 2:3-6, “For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time,”
So, take joy in your suffering, for in it lies the perfect will of God.