Archive for the ‘Suffering’ Category

So many ‘Christian Living’ books and courses seem to fit the ‘Self Help’ genre more than the ‘Discipleship’ genre.

Most are written by people who are successful at the aspect of Living they are teaching about. They generally have a thriving marriage and obedient children who are planning to be missionaries. They read their Bible meaningfully every day, have overcome mental illness, know how to be positive in every situation, normally share the Gospel with strangers, especially those next to them in the aeroplane, and are by-and-large healthy, happy and good looking. Often they will also have some kind of secular high level degree – normally in the medical or scientific field, showing they must know more about Life than those who have only studied their Bible. Those who are also pastors seem to be whimsical communicators, lead one of the country’s fastest growing churches, and have an endorsement by at least 3 other celebrity pastors.

The message this sends is, ‘If you do what I did, you can have what I have.’ This helps us to conveniently forget the truth that they only have what they have as a gift of God’s grace, not because they did what they did. Sure, what they did was involved in the whole process of God giving them what they have, but because it’s a gift, He deserves all the credit for freely giving them what they have. And because He is free to give, He is also free to decide who gets what, and who doesn’t get what.

If I think that by doing what they did I will get what they have, I am treating grace as a commodity, dispensed from the divine vending machine I call ‘God.’ My actions determine what God does and what He gives, and unless I put the coin in the slot and push the button, God won’t give me what I think I need.

Not only does this belittle God, but it exalts me. It makes my Christian Living into something that is based on strengths, when it should be based on weakness.

‘…to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’

(2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Whatever Paul’s ‘thorn’ was – a besetting sin, a physical disability, a spiritual attack, or whatever – chances are someone somewhere has written a book about how to overcome it. (And it’s a pity they didn’t write it back in AD 50, as Paul’s ministry would have been so much more effective!). The Lord’s answer to Paul wasn’t to give him a book or a course or 5 easy steps to removing the thorn. He’d already enabled Paul to see that if the thorn was to be removed, it would have to be the Lord who did it (hence his asking). But in this he was teaching Paul that knowing His sovereignty wasn’t just about accepting whatever comes our way in some kind of fatalistic surrender. It’s about knowing His sufficient grace in times of rock-bottom weakness, even when it seems as though that weakness is here to stay.

I think Paul came to realise that as long as he was trying to deal with and overcome his thorn (or to work out how to teach others to live victorious, thorn-free lives) his focus remained on himself, and he was not able to get on with the high calling that God had put on his life to make the power of Christ known to the nations. It is possible to be so focussed on cultivating the most godly, disciplined and holy spiritual life, that we never get around to seeking our highest calling – giving glory to Jesus Christ by declaring his praises among the nations.

If we take our cue from the world, and make the Christian Life a strengths-based exercise, we will never be content – as Paul was – with weakness. If we think that simply doing what they did we will have what they have, we will end up either prideful (if we succeed), or disillusioned (if we fail), and neither of these bring glory to God. We either pat ourselves on the back for our correct operation of the Divine Vending Machine, or we make God out to be unreliable or weak because He didn’t let us have what they have, even though we did what they did.

This has implications too for how we read and apply His word. A strengths-based Christian Life will treat His commands as instructions – guidelines and principles to be applied to our lives to make us successful; they become a means to achieving personal holiness.

However, someone swimming in grace in the midst of weakness will hear Jesus’ commands and they will fill them with joy – to think that He would consider such a broken clay vessel to be the custodian of such a great treasure! This person will see that the commands of Jesus are not about  making us powerful, but about displaying His power; and the weaker we are, the more His power becomes apparent, because our ongoing failure to perfectly keep His commands shows that we live by His grace, not our works.


Talk one of Flinders Uni Jesus Week 2016google

‘Why does God allow suffering?’ is possibly the most common response people have to the Christian claim, ‘God is love.’

Some people feel that religion has nothing to say to us on the question of suffering. Maybe you are one of these people. Maybe you are sick of religious platitudes, ‘It will all work out in the end,’ ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ or even judgemental statements, ‘God is punishing you!’ ‘You just don’t have enough faith!’ Maybe you have been at the receiving end of promises to the effect that God will heal you or solve your problem, and it hasn’t happened. Or, maybe you just feel that religious answers to the problem of suffering just don’t cut it, or lack intellectual credibility.

It may be that you are reading this because you or someone you love is facing or had faced great suffering, and you are still searching for answers as to why it happened, and whether it is possible to believe that God is loving.

Or may be that for you this is purely an intellectual issue, because, like me, you have never really gone through serious suffering – at least compared to many people in this world. The danger for people like us is that we can treat suffering glibly – either by using one of those platitudes that I mentioned, or by using the reality of suffering as an excuse to justify a refusal to believe in God. Both of these actually trivialise suffering, and neither prepare us to deal with the actual experience of suffering.

Whatever our position, we cannot avoid the fact that every one of us has, or will, encounter suffering in some form. Even if your life is long and relatively comfortable, you will be confronted with suffering in the lives of people you know; not to mention the reality of your fellow human beings around the world who fill our news bulletins with stories of war, oppression, famine, poverty and plague.

Whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not, we all have some view on this issue.

Depending on where you stand, the issue of suffering is either complicated or simplified by introducing the idea that the is a good, loving God who created and is in charge of the universe. For some, a loving God and world with suffering are two incompatible ideas, and so they conclude that God is either not good, or not real. For others, belief that God is both real and loving, is the greatest comfort and source of strength when facing suffering.

I would like to suggest, based on my reading and observation, that the first response is more common among those who try to deal with the problem intellectually – ie. those who may be observing, but not necessarily experiencing suffering; while the second is more commonly expressed by those actually experiencing suffering. It is certainly true that religious – and particularly christian – belief is stronger and growing in parts of the world in which suffering is greater, and especially on places where people’s suffering is due to religious persecution. The Christian church, without fail, has always thrived and grown where Christians have suffered most, and is only declining here in the West where most Christians are comfortable and feel safe.

This begs the question: what is it about the Christian faith that enables people to not just cope with, but even thrive when suffering?

It has been said that religion is one of humanity’s attempts to come to terms with the enigma of suffering, injustice and death.

Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (Karl Marx)

All major religions do try to come to terms with suffering. And they take different approaches. Some may say that it’s a test – to see if we are worthy of God and deserving of entry into paradise. Some say it is an illusion – a symptom of our being trapped in this physical world – from which we must liberate ourselves through enlightenment and suppressing our desires. Others say it’s just the harsh reality of a live that is controlled by the will of a distant, uncaring God, and we must just surrender to it and not ask ‘why’.

Amidst all these attempts, Christianity offers a solution that I put to you is much more satisfying than all of these. When I use the word ‘satisfying’ I don’t merely mean it makes people feel better. Rather, I mean that it provides both the understanding and the tools that enable a person to both live this life with meaning and significance, and to have a hope for the future of both this world, and of life even beyond the grave.

Firstly, the Bible has a realistic and honest view of suffering.

Suffering is a major theme throughout the Bible, and in fact it contains several documents in it that are wholly concerned with the issue (Job, Lamentations, Habakkuk, Ecclesiastes, etc.). And the Bible is raw and honest about suffering, and in endorsing people’s questioning of God about it. Here is an example:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest…
…I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads…
Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me.
Roaring lions that tear their prey open their mouths wide against me…
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me.
My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.
(Excerpts from Psalm 22)

Note that the writer of this song is not merely pondering a question: rather he is requiring God to explain himself. The writer’s suffering is real, and he has very little – if any – hope left; as far as he is concerned, God has abandoned him.

What we need to see is that God is OK with having this kind of sentiment in the Bible. He is big enough to have questions asked of Him and to not be knocked off his perch. He does not get angry at people for being real about suffering, and for demanding to know where He is when they suffer, and why it seems that He is not responding to their calls for help.

If you have your questions, doubts, fears and anger about yours or others’ suffering, God welcomes you to bring it to Him. He will not reject you or be angry at you for asking Him to give an answer to your pain.

Secondly, the Christian faith provides a coherent reason for why suffering exists.

In the Bible, suffering is an intruder into a world that was designed to be good. God created the world and humanity to be living in harmony with one another and with God. When humanity, the world, and God are in right relationship, everything will function as it should. We are made to live under God’s loving authority, caring for one another and for the world in which we live. This, however, is not the case. Human beings have rejected a relationship with God on His terms, and as a result both we, and this world have become dysfunctional. Behind the problem of suffering lies a deeper problem – a moral one.

The Bible presents suffering, from this perspective, on two ways:

First, suffering is the natural consequence of human failure or ‘sin’. Because God has made this world the way it is, actions have consequences. If you smoke, you will most likely get cancer or emphysema. If you drink and drive, you will increase  the chance of dying or killing someone in a crash. If you treat people with disrespect, you will in turn be treated with disrespect. If we exploit and misuse the earth’s resources, we will ruin the ecosystem and cause problems for ourselves. A large proportion of human suffering can be traced ultimately to human greed, selfishness, laziness and malice. In that sense, we have no place to blame or accuse God for suffering which, to put it bluntly, is our own fault.

Second, suffering is a reminder of God’s Justice. Once Jesus was asked about the tragedy of the slaughter of some Jews by the Romans:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Luke 13:1-5

It may seem that Jesus is being insensitive and harsh here in his response, by telling people to repent lest they perish. It’s important to see that Jesus does not say, ‘These people were being punished for some sin they committed.’ In fact, he seems to complicate the dilemma by bringing up another incident – a ‘natural disaster’. It is most likely that the Galileans who were slaughtered by Pilate had tried to rebel against Rome, and one could argue that they had brought their fate upon their own heads. However in the case of the tower of Siloam – ultimately the only question may be, ‘Why did God allow that to happen to people who were just minding their own business?’

Jesus does not give a direct answer to that question, but instead uses the incident to point his hearers to a greater issue: every human being faces the prospect of suffering that is too great for us to imagine, and which makes suffering in this world pale in comparison. This is the suffering of being banished forever from the goodness and love of God – something which we all deserve because of our rejection of Him – that which the Bible calls, ‘hell’. The Bible tells us that God has deliberately, but only partially, handed us and this world over to our dysfunction,  to be cursed, with all of the suffering that entails. This is in order that our suffering – whether caused by human evil or by ‘natural causes’ will serve as wake-up call, or a warning to us about the full consequences of rejecting God and arrogantly insisting on living life our way. C.S. Lewis, the author of the Narnia series, put it this way: “We can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Suffering is like the rumble strip on the edge of a road – a warning that if we continue the way we are going, we’re in trouble.

Thirdly, God has provided the only foolproof solution to the problem of suffering.

God does not stand at a distance or ignore human suffering; nor is He uncaring or unmoved by suffering, but rather comes closer to us that we can even imagine. We see this clearly in the person of Jesus.

A church near where I live has on its fence a banner saying, ‘Jesus was a refugee’. This is a reference to when Jesus’ family had to flee their home country to escape the king of the time who was trying to find Jesus to kill him.

During his public life, Jesus lived without a home, and was at times hungry, thirsty, and physically exhausted. Because of his teaching on love and justice, the time he spent with the outcasts and ostracised, and because of his claims about himself, the religious authorities finally had him arrested and sentenced to death. All his friends deserted and betrayed him. He faced an corrupt trial, and was handed over to the Romans to be beaten, publicly humiliated, and to face one of the most excruciatingly painful forms of execution devised by human beings – crucifixion (in fact, it is the latin word for cross, ’crucis’ that forms the basis for the word, ‘excruciating’).

But Jesus was not just a man who, as some have suggested, showed us how to practice the virtue of enduring under unjust suffering. Jesus is God in person. In Jesus, God the Son has entered into human experience, walked our streets, lived our life, experienced our pain. In Jesus we see that God has not chosen to stand at a distance and remotely fix the problem of suffering. If He did, the only way would be to remove forever every person who is responsible in some way for causing suffering – and they would mean everyone, including you and I. Instead, God in love has chosen to deal with the problem not from the outside, but from the inside. What is first and foremost ‘Revolutionary’ about the love of God is that this God, the creator of the universe, who is above and immune to suffering, has chosen to enter into our suffering and walk alongside us in it; to plumb the depths of human agony both physically and psychologically. In answer to our question, ‘God, where are you when I suffer?’ God calls out from the cross, ‘Here I am.’

But this is more than just God sympathising with us. In Jesus, God has dealt with the suffering problem by dealing with the moral problem.

Jesus not only experienced the existential, physical suffering of abandonment, humiliation, torture and physical death. He also experienced the ultimate suffering to which, as I said earlier, that all points. Moments before his died, Jesus called out,

My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?

Did you notice that these are the exact words from the song we read earlier? In that moment, Jesus was experiencing the ultimate suffering: abandonment by God – the abandonment that all people rightly deserve.

Not only did Jesus share in our suffering, but he stood in our place and came under the punishment we deserve. The Bible puts it like this:

Christ suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
(1 Peter 3:18)

In Jesus’ death, the moral problem behind evil and suffering in this world has been dealt with: by taking our sin and evil onto himself, and by suffering the consequences of our sin in our place, he has ‘reversed the curse’ for anyone who comes to him and receives what he has done for them.

God comes close to us in Jesus, and shared in our suffering, not simply to fix our problems, but to bring us into a relationship with Himself.

God weeps with us so that we may one day laugh with him.
(German Theologian Jurgen Moltmann)

This explains why it is that Christians throughout the last 2000 years have persevered through suffering, and why the Christian message is able to give hope and meaning to people in the depths of pain. Christians have a revolutionary hope which is based on the fact that Jesus’ death was not the final act. God raised Jesus from the dead to demonstrate that this moral problem has been dealt with – forgiveness and reconciliation has been won by him – and that for those who trust in him, suffering will only every be temporary. Christians are able to make the outrageous claim that in comparison with what God has in store for us – a world which will not only be free from suffering, death and grief, but also a place where we will see God face to face and know only his goodness and love – in light of that our sufferings become ‘light and momentary’, not even worth comparing to what is to come.

That’s why Jesus word’s that we saw earlier, ‘Repent, or you too will perish,’ are not harsh words, but loving words. The same one who calls us to trust in him and turn back to God is the same one who has suffered our pain and paid the price to enable us to return to God.

I urge you to hear his call. Repent, and put your trust in him.