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FAQ: Why is there suffering in the world?

If there is a God, and this God can do everything… why do bad things happen to innocent people? 

This question is posed often – after every earth quake/ tsunami/ tornado/ school shooting? If there is a God, don’t these events show that this God is not good? He must therefore either be Not Good, or Not Great. Don’t these events prove that God either doesn’t exist, or isn’t good. A God that allows a child to get cancer should not be trusted, let alone worshipped.

And I will say that I have tremendous respect for people who are asking this question. People filled with compassion and empathy – people who have an idea of what is right and understand intuitively that this isn’t it.

And sometimes, people of faith who endure a serious of setbacks, will often ask, maybe I had this all wrong. God seems to hate me that way he’s treating me.

And if we are honest, we must first admit that much suffering in life is man made. It isn’t God who is shooting up the theater, who is beheading innocents in the Middle East. But even if 80 percent of suffering in the world is man made – there is the startling 20 percent that we can see no connection to mankind. It seems that it must be coming from God.

Man doesn’t create weather patterns and tornados right? And so it breaks our hearts to see misery befall good, hard working mothers and fathers, and innocent cheerful children. There is enough evidence to make it difficult to harmonize an all powerful, all good God, with events that are horrific and painful.

It’s a legitimate issue. And deserves our careful attention. You have friends who are unable to follow you in faith because they cannot conceive a reasonable answer. And so let’s treat this subject with the reverence it demands.

And of course, when dealing with this kind of subject, it’s fair to ask – who am I to talk about this issue. What are my credentials to address this issue? If you are in the middle of a storm of suffering- the last thing you really want to hear is a sermon from a guy who has not had to taste the sufferings that you have had.

You would probably like to know how I respond to pain when I’m in the middle of it – and not preaching a sermon about it. Fair question. I’ll tell you – I’m a chicken! One writer I read this weak said “I am not trying to convince you that pain is not painful. Pain hurts. And if I knew a way of escaping pain I would crawl through sewers to find it.”

Suffering is painful and so the purpose of this answer is NOT to convince you that suffering isn’t painful, but rather to ask, can a good, all powerful God, co-exist with unjust suffering?

And for help answering that question I want to turn for help from one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century. One of the most important writers for the faith who has ever lived. His name is C.S. Lewis.

C.S. Lewis wrote many books, on a wide range of topics. He is most famous for the Chronicles of Narnia series of books, which are wonderful books that carry the message of Christ and Christianity. He is one of the most important thinkers – who wrote very creative spiritual novels, like for instance the screwtape letters, which is about a young demon corresponding with his mentor demon about how best to incapacitate believers like us.

He was also a great defender of the faith, writing perhaps the greatest short defense of faith ever, when he wrote the book Mere Christianity.

But the interesting part of the story here is that Lewis was not always a follower of Jesus. In fact he was an avowed atheist until the age of 31.

In November of 1908, When Lewis was 9 years old, his life was turned upside down when his mother died of cancer. He wrote that, “With my mother’s death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life.”

What also died was his faith in God. And Lewis became an avowed atheist. It appeared to this bright young boy that God was irrelevant to suffering – and therefore probably didn’t exist.

Soon afterward his grieving father shipped Lewis and his brother off to a boarding school in London where he suffered abuse at the hands of a sadistic headmaster.   From there he was sent to another boarding school where he was bullied and beaten at the hands of basically gangs of kids at the school.

On Lewis 19th birthday he found himself in a trench on front line in the Somme Valley fighting against the Germans. He was injured by shrapnel from a shelling that killed his friends and left shrapnel in his chest so near his heart that doctors would not operate to remove it.

And so for a man who said his reason for being an atheist was the problem of pain and suffering, he certainly tasted more than his fair share.

But while he was in the hospital in WW1 he came across a book by a man named G.K. Chesterton. Lewis had never read anything of Chesterton’s, who was a very strong christian and humble defender of faith.

And as Lewis began to read, he said that he began to fall in love with the man’s writing. He loved everything about the man, except for his silly Christianity.

But that was the beginning of God’s great chase to bring Lewis into the Kingdom. And over the next ten years, Lewis began to notice that just about all of the writers that affected him at the deepest level were Christians. He felt the atheist authors he read, were entertaining but not much more. He felt their writings were thin – tinny in comparison to Christians.

Lewis said that he didn’t know that God was setting a trap for him. Lewis writes, in his autobiography called “Surprised by Joy”, that “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. He cannot guard his faith too carefully. Dangers wait on every side!

And then, he writes of God, that ,”My adversary made his final move” by surrounding him with believers like Tolkien, who is the writer of the Lord of the Rings. who one day led him to believe that God is not only possible but necessary. And so He was converted from Atheism to theism, and eventually to Faith in Jesus.

So with that background then, we will look at Lewis thoughts on the matter. How did he eventually make sense of the problem of pain?

Suffering is God’s “megaphone” to get our attention.

A few years ago Jody and I were celebrating our anniversary at Charlestons resteraunt

We ordered our meals – Jody had the shrimp something or another, I had a nice big steak.

About five minutes into the meal, I began to feel weird. I excused myself and went into the bathroom, By the time I walked from the table to the mirror, my face had turn a deep shade of red. And my lips started tingling, and my fingers, and my tongue felt funny – and then, worse, my tongue started swelling. I was obviously having some kind of crazy allergic reaction to something I had eaten. And all I could thing about was my throat closing up or something…

I quickly walked back to the table and said, Jody, We’ve got to get out of here. You’ve got to take me to the hospital, and I mean right now. Jody asked, Can we get a to-go box? No! Are you listening to me? (Gobbles a few more bites) So I walk out to the car and I’m like, where’s Jody – She paid the bill! I’m like, they are going to Kill me and you’re paying the bill?

Sometimes pain disrupts the monotonous drumbeat of life and wakes us up. It gets our attention! And God is not above using sickness and suffering and pain – if it awakens our soul to deeper needs.

A number of times in my life as a pastor I have had the privilege of speaking to someone who knew that they were going to die, and they were finally ready to get their spiritual house in order. And what a joy to be able to say, like Jesus said to the theif ont he cross, if you die tonight you will be with Jesus in paradise.

Lewis wrote that to him this spoke of the humility of God. If you or I were in God’s place how many of us would look on disdain with the ‘11th hour’ conversion? Oh sure, now you want to turn to me? But God is humble and does not mind stopping to save us even if in the last moments of life on this side of eternity.

Sometimes suffering is God’s megaphone to get our attention.

Sometimes suffering is needed to change our view of God.

Lewis wrote, on reflecting about his mother’s death, that at that moment he looked at God neither with reverence or respect, or awe or even fear. Instead, he looked at God mostly as a magician who was supposed to show up and do his trick and then, go home and leave us be.

If we have too small a view of God, and suffering puts us into a place that challenges our view. the common thought process is, since I cannot see any good coming out of this situation I am looking at, there must not be any possible way for good to come out of it. And so our view of Ourselves is too high and our view of God is too low.

I mean, haven’t there been times in your life when you saw good come out of something that seemed terrible at the time? For instance – there is the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis. Joseph is abused by his brothers – sold into slavery – wrongfully accused of a crime, thrown into jail, forget about for years. And he did nothing to deserve it.

The story ends though with Joseph becoming the second in command to Pharoah and orchestrating a drought plan that saved the nation of Egypt as well as Israel – and at the end of the story Joseph says, what you intended for evil, God intended for good.

And certainly, my guess is you have a story – you know about a story – that seemed tragic, that was in fact tragic, and yet something good came about down the road. My own personal story, as I’ve shared before, is that my mother became a Christian when she was in the hospital with breast cancer. She brought me to the church where I began my faith Journey as well. And so my own personal faith story begins with a young mom suffering from cancer.

And so sometimes – we can see that suffering DOES have a point. And so if it can be true that sometimes suffering produces something that in the end is good, then isn’t it possible that God, from his vantage point, can indeed be big enough to bring all things together for good. (Which is what we are told he does in Romans 8).

Just because it appears pointless to me, doesn’t mean that it is in fact pointless. There are times when good things come out of bad situations. And so when we do see those situations it forces us to adjust our view of God and what he is able to do.

Sometimes suffering is necessary to change something inside of us.

Sometimes our soul needs adjusting – and the only way to produce the change is through pain. And we see this in every day life? We understand that the pain of childbirth brings about a greater joy on the other side.

Ever have a broken bone reset? Every doctor on earth learns the old – okay on the count of three I’m going to do a little adjustment. One crack! AHHHH! Well, yes it’s painful, but needed in order to ultimately bring health.

This is, of course, little to no comfort when you are in the middle of it all. And the truth is that God treats us with enough dignity that he often leaves the decision up to us. Sometimes you endure great pain and suffering and you need to make a decision. Either that pressure on you will move you one way or another. It can push you toward God, or push you away from him.

I remember talking to a man who’s son was ill in the hospital and it was dicey. And he said, if my son dies it’s not going to go well between me and God – I’m out. Well he had already decided which way the pain was going to move him.

God used that moment in his life to soften him, to accepting God’s will and believing that even if his son died. (He didn’t, btw) But in that moment, God exposed something in his life that needed addressing. It exposed a fatal flaw in his heart that needed to be exposed. He loved his son more than God. He was making an idol out of his son. And it needed to be addressed for his soul to be healthy.

Suffering can lead us to hope

      Suffering is a sign that this world is not ultimately satisfying, and fuels our hope for a new world.

When we see another person suffering unjustly, it’s normal to feels some sense of outrage, or compassion, or empathy for them. But the question needs to be asked WHERE we even get this notion of justice? How did we come about this idea of what justice even is? What is it that causes our heart pain when we see others in pain? Well, ultimately there is a word for it and it’s love. Love is a steady wish for the ultimate good of another.

Well where did this love come from? And where is it found? Who has embodied it the best? And what theory of existence answers it the best. And so then you have to compare Christianity to every other world religion, and you should compare it to evolution, which is the current answer for the question of the existence of life.

When you compare these theories – one stands above all the rest – it is the story of Jesus – and it is the story of how God intervened to rescue mankind – who had fallen away from God. But God chased us down, paying the price for sin, so that we might have a hope that someday this messed up world will be made right again. Because the story of Christianity is ultimately a love story. It is a story of a prince rescuing the princess from the dragon. The bible is a love story.

We are placing our faith in a savior who is described as a suffering servant in Isaiah 53.

The best man who ever lived was the “Man of Sorrows.” Many Jews simply could not believe Jesus was the Messiah because he was covered with suffering and disgrace, hanging on a cross. The only man who deserved no pain suffered the most. Christ freely entered into our suffering. He is not removed. He is close to the broken hearted and he saves those who are crushed in spirit.

Yes, he is good. Yes he knows what he is doing. He sees what we cannot see. And so the promise for us is that God will never waste our pain. He will use it somehow for good.

Jesus suffered for us in order to be able to deliver the hope that someday we will live in a place where there is no more suffering. No more heart ache. No more pain. But that day is not today.

In his movie Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen plays an atheist son of a Jewish family who in an argument asks,

“If there is a God, why are there Nazis?” His father replies, “How should I know? I don’t even know how the can opener works.”

The wisdom of Job: we don’t know. 

To quote C. S. Lewis again, “When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer’ . . . Like ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand’” 

We don’t have to understand; we have to trust and obey. And as we come to the communion table we bring that prayer with us… I don’t understand, but I trust a God who is willing to enter into my suffering in order to rescue me from it.

-Phil

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