Our lives are continuously bombarded by issues which seem too hard to explain. We ask, "Why did that happen? Why the tsunami? Why the New Orleans floods? Why cancer?" In short, "Why suffering?". To attempt an answer will be dissatisfying, but not to attempt is even worse. As moral beings we seem to demand an answer, however inadequate or uncomfortable.
The biblical figure of Job rehearsed precisely these questions. In response to all his problems he maintained that he had lived a good life, full of integrity and good deeds (Job 29 and 31). He even openly acknowledged his faults (Job 31.33,34). So Job was angry and perplexed at all the disasters in his life. Why had God done this? In answer to his dilemma, God shows Job His supreme sovereignty and that His ways are ultimately best (Job 38-41). Like Job we ultimately have to humble ourselves before God and remember our position before the eternal, holy, incomprehensible God. Like Job, we might ultimately see strands of truth, wisdom and purpose in suffering. Let's consider some real-life issues.
Disillusioned with God?
The following is a true, personal testimony from a man who has tried to follow the biblical teachings about God for some 40 years. Here is his response when asked, "Are you disillusioned with God?":
"There have been many times when I have asked 'where is God in all this?', or, 'why doesn't God answer?' For instance:
From these few instances I could logically reject the notion of a loving, personal God. It seems even those who openly acknowledge Jesus as Lord and follow His teachings have little help from Him. Even if God is there, He simply doesn't seem to care for individuals who have trusted in Him. If He was loving towards those who trusted in Him, tragedies like this wouldn't happen. Or, He would hear the prayers of His followers and rescue those who are suffering. At the very least He would explain why someone was dying of cancer. And what about the many biblical verses which state that God hears prayer and responds e.g. Mat 6.6? Can I trust the Bible? Like many, I could easily become disillusioned as the loving, personal God of the Bible fails to come up to expectations. Despite promises in the Bible of a loving Father-like God who hears and answers prayer I could conclude, like Richard Dawkins, that such a God doesn't exist.
Of course I could replay the standard, rather blunt and cold scriptural explanation for suffering found in Rom 5.17,18: the sin of one man, Adam, caused the whole of subsequent humanity to suffer and die! The knock-on effect is human suffering in all sorts of forms, and a physical world which 'groans' (Rom 8.20-22). Presumably this accounts for earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, droughts, famines, and so on. But I could argue, like many, that this is illogical and grossly unjust; why should all mankind suffer for the action of one man? Again, this does not seem compatible with the notion of a loving, personal God. The standard theological answer to my claim of injustice is that the seemingly unfair problem of programmed suffering is balanced by the offer of free reconciliation to God through the death and resurrection of one man, Jesus Christ (Rom 5.18,19). But isn't God now being two-faced, offering both programmed suffering and reconciliation in the same package? Where is the proof of free reconciliation, and what does it mean in the midst of suffering anyway?
If I still want to pursue the notion of God (perhaps in the search for meaning to life), I could try the distant, unknowable, theistic God of Islam (Allah), or the impersonal, indistinct and diverse God of Pantheism (New Age). Either way, I follow a God who I trust exists, but a God who is not intimate and personal, a God who doesn't require or answer my petitions, a God who seems to fit many of my observations of life. One of my friends rejects the Christian God because of all the suffering in the world, but nevertheless believes in this concept of God. Alternatively, I could reject the concept of God altogether and become an atheist.
Unfortunately, these alternatives to my Christian faith can never answer the question 'why?'. The very fact that I keep asking 'why?' implies that I am a moral being - I need answers when things don't seem right. Moral beings need a moral originator, which brings me back to a moral (and hence righteous and just) God. To reject such a God would leave a big hole in my life that no other worldview could fill. But would such a God be personal?
Over the past 40 years I can recall several very clear instances when God has indeed seemed personal - when He definitely seems to have answered my petitions, or those of my friends. Here are some of my experiences:
Given such incidents, how can I reject the loving, caring, personal Father-like God of Christianity just because I can't see the 'why' of suffering? In my case at least it would seem illogical, given what seem to be undeniable personal interventions from God. Somehow I must reconcile the claims in the Bible that God answers prayer, and generally wants to relieve suffering (Jesus did whilst He was on earth), with my observation that often this simply doesn't happen. But wait a minute. Why should I have the answer for everything? Do I have the mind and foresight of such a God? Isn't His way infintely better than mine? I have to follow Job and acknowledge that in my knee-jerk reactions against a loving, caring, personal God:
I have declared on issues which I did not understand ...' (paraphrase of Job 42.3)
I simply can't see the whole picture. When complaining about the injustice of suffering I am 'reasoning without knowledge' (Job 38.1,2). A Bible verse that came to me at just the right time and helped me over personal grief many years ago is:
'And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.' (Rom 8.28)
Apparently He will work the bad times in my life for the common good if I trust Him. Jesus said that our Father in heaven even numbers the hairs of our head; so the simplest thing to do is ask Him 'why am I suffering?', and leave it with Him. My cold, logical approach, and my occasional disillusionment with the God of the Bible, has each time to give way to faith in a loving, caring, personal God. I cannot deny personal experience. Incidently, this is the philosophy of the Christian lady I referred to at the start. Yes she has been frustrated with her God, and has cried to Him for help during her many trials of life, but she has never lost her faith or grace, and she is a pleasure to listen to."
The following was written as a Christian response to the tragedy of the 2004 tsunami.
Imagine humanity racing down the motorway of life and arriving at various road signs. Some take the sign to ‘Postmodernism City’, the home of atheists and humanists. Like the rest of humanity, these citizens have great compassion for those caught up in the tsunami, but, since God is officially non-existent, they can’t blame Him for the disaster. Instead, they have to find some other explanation - a natural blip in the evolutionary process perhaps? And since they maintain we are annihilated at death, those who died in the Tsunami have simply ceased to exist.
The rest of humanity doesn’t like these ‘cold’ concepts and races on down the motorway. Some take the next turning – to the ‘City of the New Age’ (twinned with ‘Pantheism City’). These citizens seriously seek God through meditation, and the idea of endless cycles of birth, death and reincarnation in order to work off their bad karma. Unfortunately, since God is impersonal and seen in various forms (humans, animals, and nature), they find it difficult to put the blame for the tsunami in any one direction. Nevertheless, they hold out some hope for the victims since they believe their souls will live on in the next cycle of life.
Most turn off the motorway at the ‘City of Voidism’. These citizens have never really given much thought to God, Jesus Christ, why we are here, ethics, truth, the soul, immortality, death, and so on. They live in a spiritual void of work, shopping, TV and holidays, but nevertheless are moved with compassion for the tsunami victims. They even start thinking about their own eternal destiny, although most reject the notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, loving God, since logically such a God would have prevented the tsunami. Others are inconsistent in that they blame God for the Tsunami, but forget to thank Him for the blessings of a golden sunset, snow covered peaks, the song of birds and the colour of the flowers.
Only a few are now left on the motorway of life and these turn off onto a narrow road sign-posted ‘Heavenly City’. They have read in the bible that ‘broad is the way that leads to destruction, and narrow is the way that leads to life’ (Mat 7.13,14). These citizens can’t explain why the 2004 tsunami happened, although they read in the prophecies that, at the end of this age, ‘the sea and the waves will roar’ and ‘the nations will be in distress ’ (Luke 21.25). In faith they accept that the convulsions of our earth are the result of man’s rebellion against God (Romans 8.22), but they also believe in a personal God who has identified with suffering by dying for their sins on a cross. And so, should they die tomorrow (as in a tsunami), they are safe with God in that Heavenly City:
“For we know that if the earthly tent which is our house is torn down (i.e. our body is destroyed), we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor 5.1)
Has the tsunami made you think about your eternal destiny?
What was your reaction to the New Orleans disaster? A stupid place to build a city (already flooded many times)? Frustration at the slow relief effort? Shared grief with a man who couldn’t find his wife? A feeling of helplessness? The judgement of God upon a godless and hedonistic city? A foretaste of things to come as the world warms up? One instance that stood out was a middle-aged woman who trusted in God and was shown praying alone in church. Apparently she had lost all, but not her faith. Despairingly, her prayer ended with “that’s how it is Lord”. She was frank with God, and poured out her heart to Him. We need to remember that God looks at our hearts and not our outward appearance (1 Sam 16.7).
Did hurricane ‘Katrina’ bear a message or was it a random event? Consider a few facts:
It is interesting to note that the annual Southern Decadence was due to start the day after the levee broke. At that point the mayor publicly turned to God for help, and the City Council President said ‘maybe God’s going to cleanse us’. Did he know that ‘Katrina means ‘purity’ or ‘purifying experience’?
God was working. In March 2006, Billy Graham and Franklin Graham held a 'Celebration of Hope' crusade in the New Orleans Arena. This saw an audience of over 30,000 people, with over 1,300 making a commitment to Christ. Police Lt. Adams said that seeing Christians together praising God gives him a sense of hope that things will get better. Capt. John Bryson, with the NOPD commented "There's an unusual humbleness, a meekness that has come from an act of God". This turnaround in people's lives seems like a clear fulfilment of Isa 26.9:
‘For when the earth experiences Your judgements, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness’
[Source: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association]
In May 2008 a typhoon hit southern Burma. Despite devastation the Burmese military dictatorship consistently refused to give full access to personnel from international aid agencies. Meanwhile, the world looked on as tens of thousands suffered and needed help. Who is not moved with compassion for such human need? Who does not cry “it’s unjust” or “it’s immoral”?
Well, in theory the atheist is justified in not crying. Atheism claims to have no absolute moral code. It says social morals are subject to evolution and change, and if it serves in the best interest of society then what seemed wrong yesterday could be OK today (like abortion). So whilst most atheists today probably cry “injustice”, “immoral”, there is nothing in their moral philosophy to say they should cry this in the future! Imagine it; another Burma in 50 years time and most atheists are complacent and say “so what?”.
But could even atheists ever do this? God’s law is written on their hearts (Rom 2.15) and even they would have a moral dilemma. Since they can’t deny in-built moral absolutes their philosophy doesn’t hold water! Think about it.
Bible quotations are from the New American Standard Bible