This sermon is part of the sermon series "Thorns in the Flesh". See series.
Here are two photos, both showing scenes from two earthquakes of similar magnitude that happened within just days of each other just last month. One quake happened at Paso Robles, California—very near to us. The other hit in Bam, Iran, halfway around the world. The quake in Paso Robles, where buildings are built with modern methods according to exacting standards, resulted in 2 deaths. The quake in Bam, Iran, where homes are built of mud brick, resulted in 50,000 deaths! Two equal magnitude earthquakes—two tremendously unequal results. Why are we fortunate enough to live where we do? And why are those who died in Iran unfortunate enough to live where they do?
John Stott, one of the most distinguished Bible teachers of the last three generations, comments: "The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and, therefore, unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God's justice and love."
It is the age-old conundrum that most of us have encountered. Either God wants to stop suffering but cannot (which means God is really not all powerful, as we say he is), or else God could stop suffering but chooses not to (which means God can't really be all loving and good.)
I think of Lt. Dan in the movie Forrest Gump, who lost both legs in Vietnam and was embittered toward life and God. When Lt. Dan and Forrest are caught in a hurricane and waves are threatening to sink Forrest's shrimp boat at any second, Lt. Dan climbs the mast into the teeth of the wind and screams and shakes his fist at God in defiance. Suffering often produces this reaction. We might scream at God literally, as Lt Dan does, or, what is even more common, we might just decide we'll have nothing to do with God or his church.
If there was ever a person with a better right than any of us to ask the question about suffering, it was a man whose story is actually narrated in the Old Testament. His name was Job. The Bible calls Job a "blameless and upright man" who "feared God and shunned evil." Yet Job's life fell apart.
In rapid succession, Job lost all his livestock and wealth, his servants, all his many children (who died on the same day), and, finally, his health. I have known people to overcome economic ruin, the crushing loss of family members, and battle back against disease and pain. But I have never encountered anyone like Job, who experienced utter desolation in every area of life simultaneously. If there were ever a poster boy for the question of suffering, it was Job.
Here is how he describes it in his own words: "Yet when I hoped for good, evil came; when I looked for light, then came darkness. The churning inside me never stops; days of suffering confront me. I go about blackened, but not by the sun; I stand up in the assembly and cry for help. I have become a brother of jackals, a companion of owls. My skin grows black and peels; my body burns with fever. My harp is tuned to mourning, and my flute to the sound of wailing" (Job 30:26-31).
For some of us, the question of suffering is an intellectual puzzle. For others of us—for whom these words of Job could be describing our own lives—it is a daily reality. It is our harps that are "tuned to mourning." As we continue reading his story in the book of Job, we find several answers to the question of suffering.
Suffering is the result of our own sin.
Three friends named Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—who come to sit with Job in his misery—give the first answer. Their answer is: the suffering is Job's own fault. They say to Job: "Is not your wickedness great? Are not your sins endless?" (Job 22:5). Not the kind of friend you'd probably want in your hour of deepest misery! They are saying, in effect: Well, really Job—you are getting what you deserve.
Jesus Christ categorically rejects this view that all suffering is the result of personal sin: "Walking down the street, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, 'Rabbi, who sinned: this man or his parents, causing him to be born blind?' Jesus said, 'You're asking the wrong question. You're looking for someone to blame. This is no cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do'" (John 9:1-3, The Message).
These are important verses because, so often when we experience suffering, our first reaction is, What have I done to deserve this? The answer, often, is nothing. Yet Jesus declares over and over the view that we find throughout the Bible: actions do have consequences, and those consequences can include suffering. Probably the most memorable saying is: "Do not be deceived. God is not mocked. A man reaps what he sows" (Galatians 6:7).
If I sow my body with drugs, I will reap the consequences. If I mistreat or emotionally abuse my wife or children, their coolness, anger, even hatred toward me are the consequences of my own sin. If I play fast and loose with my employer and am fired from my job, I have no one to blame but myself. Some suffering in life is indeed the result of our own sin and no one else's.
But it's also clear, is it not, that a good deal of suffering is also the result of other people's sin or evil? Here we can think not only of obvious examples like the drunken driver who takes an innocent life, or the child who suffers from sexual abuse, but the millions in the world who suffer hunger because of human greed, economic injustice, war, or racism.
But what about natural disasters that cause so much suffering: earthquakes, hurricanes, famines? Couldn't God prevent them if he really wanted to? For the answer, we must go back to the very beginning of creation. Over and over in the first chapters of the Book of Genesis, God saw what he made and declared it "good." Suffering and evil were never part of God's good creation. They entered the world because actions have consequences.
The Bible says that the disobedience of Adam and Eve, who tried to set themselves up as rivals to the God who created them, had this consequence: "Because of what you have done, the ground will be under a curse. It will produce weeds and thorns, and you will have to eat wild plants. You will have to work hard and sweat to make the soil produce anything, until you go back to the soil from which you were formed" (Genesis 3:17).
I know it is a heavy thought, but the original creation was warped into a world of "weeds and thorns." Paul gives an evocative description of the consequences of sin to the natural world: "Yet there was the hope that creation itself would one day be set free from its slavery to decay and would share the glorious freedom of the children of God. For we know that up to the present time all of creation groans with pain, like the pain of childbirth" (Romans 8:20-21).
From all this, I conclude that evil and suffering are alien intrusions into God's good world. When Jesus returns to put everything right, as the Bible promises he will, the apostle Paul reminds us that creation itself will be renewed and restored as well. So, in essence, the problem of suffering is the problem of human free will.
Blaming God for suffering is like a teenager who was caught speeding, arrested because her friends had an open liquor bottle in the car, and spent a night in jail. Then, when her father comes to pick her up the next morning, she says: "This is all your fault! You let me use your car!" The blessings of freedom come with consequences. One of these consequences is suffering. Some suffering is the result of our own wrong, some is the result of the wrong of others, and some suffering is the result of creation itself being warped.
God can be present in suffering.
But let's get back to Job, whom we left with his three friends who weren't much help in his misery. Another friend named Elihu now comes on the scene with a slightly different viewpoint on Job's suffering: that God can be present even in suffering. "But those who suffer he delivers in their suffering; he speaks to them in their affliction. He is wooing you from the jaws of distress to a spacious place free of restriction, to the comfort of your table laden with choice food" (Job 36:15-16).
This is the biblical view that, while God does not produce suffering, God at times does allow suffering for a greater good. C. S. Lewis, in his classic book The Problem of Pain, has developed this view with a famous visual symbol: God's megaphone. "God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world …. No doubt pain as God's megaphone is a terrible instrument; it may lead to a final and unrepented rebellion. But it gives the only opportunity … [some] can have for amendment. It removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul."
We will never fully understand suffering.
Let's return one last time to Job. Finally, it's God's turn to join the conversation. God does not accuse Job, as did his first three friends. Instead, God reminds Job of something he has forgotten: "Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?" God reminds Job of the yawning gap that separates Job, the creature, from God, his Creator. He reminds Job of all the mysteries of God too deep for Job to comprehend.
When God finishes his speech, Job's words change from accusation—Lt. Dan shaking his fist at God—to humility: "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand; things too wonderful for me to know …. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:3, 5-6).
Where does this leave us? With so much evil in the world, why does the Lord not return? Job ended with acknowledging that he was the creature and God was the Creator. He was not in a position to question or condemn. Why God allows suffering to continue, or why some suffer more than others, will always be a mystery.
Two things, however, are sure. "I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). In this world, Jesus tells us we will have trials and tribulations. And Jesus promises that, in him, we can have peace, because he has overcome the world.