“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, from “Kingdom of Light”)
Who among you, who publicly confesses faith in Christ, has not been challenged by the plaintiff question, “If your God is so loving, why would he let this happen?” (“This” being the latest earthbound suffering, or perhaps even some suffering from the past.)
It seems to me there is an enormous misunderstanding among both believers and non-believers regarding the nature of suffering in the world, and the nature of God’s will and purpose in that suffering; so much misunderstanding in fact, that the question itself requires serious examination. First, in the case of the non-believer, the question is more rhetoric, an accusation against God that is best answered with the question, “Indeed, why?”.
In the same way, Jesus was also challenged, but He answered them not. Instead, “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)
As it is for the Teacher, so it will be for the disciple. In such cases, it is better to pray for that person than to give an answer, because the question is not a question at all, but a premise for debate, a challenge to God’s sovereignty and authority in the world. Their rhetoric is intended to sow the seed of doubt in the same way as the serpent in the garden. In its very nature, the question, asked in this way, becomes an illustration of the problem. It is the heart of rebellion against God, the very heart of sin and not deserving of the knowledge or the mystery of His grace and mercy.
Sometimes, however, the question is truly a plaintiff cry, that is, a wounded heart crying out to God seeking an answer, seeking understanding. In this case, the best 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. As God points out in Job 5:18, “For He bruises, but He binds up; He wounds, but His hands make whole.”
It is important to note here that God accepts responsibility for Job’s suffering. Such is the nature of a great king, the seal of sovereignty, accepting 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 the cities of His people in Israel and Judah and their exile. Through Amos God says, 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 misconception 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 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 over and over, from creation to Ezekiel’s valley of the dry bones, and from Jonah’s rescue 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 the words of our savior, “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 proper 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 your 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; a war in which we are forced to choose one side or another. The truth of that is well put in the song, “You’re Going to Serve Somebody“, written and performed by Bob Dylan, but more importantly, pointed out by God Himself in Joshua 24:15.
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 the world lives, hiding from our true purpose, hiding from our Creator, that empire is the real mythology. It is, in effect, the Matrix of movie fame. Unfortunately, our fallen nature makes us more likely to properly respond while in suffering, than we would in times of joy, so sometimes God allows us to suffer in order to draw us to His side. At other times, as noted in Job, chapter one, we suffer because of an attack on our righteousness. In such a case, however, our suffering is limited by God’s decree. Sometimes our suffering is part of a pruning process, a way for God to use us to produce more and better fruit for Him, but most often our suffering is our own, the coincidental result of the fallen world in which we live.
For those of us who believe, and recognize the spiritual battle that permeates our lives here, on Earth, the refrain, “onward Christian soldier, marching as to war,” actually means something beyond the words of an old hymn. 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.”
This is our draft notice and marching orders, our declaration of war. As with any war there will be suffering, especially for the “innocent”, those who are lost and confused, those who think that the Gray Empire actually exists and will be caught up in the battle, unaware of the truth, when the Matrix collapses.
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 and specific will, suffering in their world is greatly reduced by His mercy. 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 apart and, through sin, brought suffering to the world He created. More importantly, however, is God’s will in all of this. His will clearly demonstrates that His love is the driving motivation behind all of His actions, from creation to the fact that He sustains us each day, from breath to breath. His perfect will is that all people should be saved and none should be lost at the end when the Gray Empire finally collapses. “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,” (1 Timothy 2:3-6.)
Therefore take joy in all your suffering, for in it lies the perfect will of God.
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.”