December 10, 2006

On Suffering

Job 42:5-6

A friend asked me a difficult question about something she saw on tele-vision the other day. There was a commercial about children who have cancer and St. Jude’s Hospital asked for donations to help them fight this disease. And the question was: How can there be a God who allows children to hurt and be in pain?

Suffering is a problem in life that comes home to everyone. A child is born blind, deformed or physically afflicted and the question comes: Why? After all, the child has done no harm.

Millions in the world are suffering from starvation and disease in countries with vast populations. Others perish or are made homeless in floods and earthquakes. It is asked: Why should they suffer?

These questions imply that suffering in human life is inconsistent either with the power of God or with the love of God. That is, as a God of love, He doesn’t have the power to prevent the suffering, or if He has the power then He doesn’t have the will. It is assumed that the prevention of suffering is something we should expect from a God of love who is also Almighty.

One basic assumption is that suffering is evil in itself. It is this belief that suffering is the essential evil that lies at the root of Buddhism. The Bible view is radically different; suffering is not evil in itself, but a symptom of a deeper evil. The Scriptures portray suffering as a consequence of sin, not necessarily the sin of the individual who suffers, but sin in the history of man and in human society.

There was a time on this earth when suffering and sorrow did not exist. When God first created man upon the earth, everything was perfect. There was no sickness, no pain, no sorrow of any kind. It was God's plan for man to live in peace and harmony. According to Genesis 3, it wasn't until man chose the way of Satan, rather than the way of God, that sorrow entered the world. Man sinned against God and He revealed to Adam and Eve the consequences of their sin in Genesis 3:16-19. God told man: "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."

The teaching is simple. With man's disobedience there came a separation in the relationship between the Creator and man. The relation between God and man is broken. The first sin brought a fundamental change, not only in the relationship with God but also in the environment itself, which affects everyone with the evils which are common to man. Death is universal in man and also the world. That is, disease, famine, droughts, floods and other natural disasters are a reflection of the fallen world. God does not modify it for the particular individual or region.

Sometimes God has to allow tragedy to enter a life in order to get someone to look to Him for Salvation. As someone has said, "Some people won't look up to God until He puts them on their back." This is sad, but true. There are many people who would still be lost in their sins if God had not brought some tragedy into their life to get their attention. I can personally vouch for this.

At the same time it is true that in the Bible, for those who seek to serve God, suffering takes on new meaning; they are in a new relationship to the Creator, and will learn to see tragedy in a new light. What is it?

Suffering can be a way in which God works with men for their own spiritual development and to bring them to a knowledge of Himself; and the outcome for Job was a new and intimate knowledge of God. He could say: "I have heard of thee with the hearing of the ear: But now mine eye seeth thee. Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:5-6).

This working of God with man must in its nature be individual; only the man who suffers can gain this as a personal experience. The larger problem of suffering remains, and the only answer to be extracted from the Book of Job is that man cannot question the majesty and wisdom of God. He is the Creator and Sustainer of all life, and His works are beyond man's know-ledge. It is this answer, which is elaborated with such power and beauty by the Voice from the whirlwind in Job 38-41.

While, therefore, the Book of Job offers no simple answer to the problem of suffering, it has been raised to a wider level. Only by loss and suffering could Job know that he did not serve God for the sake of houses, lands, flocks and herds, or even children. He did not even serve for the sake of his own skin, his health and well-being. He worshipped God for Himself, in spite of all the tragedy that befell him. It was only when stripped of everything that he really knew that God was his only refuge, and in that discovery he was triumphantly vindicated against the slander of the Adversary epitomized by the three friends, who believed that Job’s suffering was a consequence of God’s punishment. Job's faith in God was put to the test under trial, and by trial it was tempered as steel when put through the fire. It was by his final acceptance of the wisdom of God, and by learning that faith could be developed through suffering, that Job came at last to the fuller knowledge of God.

So it was that, about 2000 years ago, God intervened in the lives and history of man. In other words, God has not abandoned the world to eternally suffer the consequences of sin. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to provide ultimate freedom from the consequences of sin. By giving His Son Christ Jesus to share in human suffering to the uttermost extreme in order to bring about redemption from sin and death, we have an Advocate and Comforter who understands our suffering. It is wrong to indict God because suffering is not yet eliminated, just as it would be wrong to indict a doctor who treats a gunshot wound he didn’t cause, simply because the wound is not healed instantly.

So, by Christ suffering and dying, the whole problem of man's suffering was raised to a new level. Without faith in God, suffering is an evil to be endured or dampened with drugs. With faith, and the example of the Son of God, suffering brings us closer to God, drawing the sufferer nearer to Himself. It can be truly a divine education.

Also, the assurance that God will eliminate suffering is not the only comfort God gives us. Through suffering we can learn patience, self-discipline and trust. When we suffer we can experience the love, compassion, and self-denial of those who help us. When we help someone who is suffering, we find significance in our own lives as well. The best way to witness about Christ is by showing love through our suffering. Glory be!

We must concede this: For God to rid the world of evil NOW would require ridding the world of all of us! Each one of us has fallen short of the God’s glory. In the future, God will indeed rid the world of evil, since He is too Holy to tolerate evil forever. Remember, sojourners, this world is not our home. We are just passing through. For believers, there is another world we are going to.

But if you are unsure about your standing with God then it is of crucial importance to make certain you know where you are headed for eternity. Jesus talked about hell more than heaven. John 3:36 says, "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." 2 Peter 3:9 tells us that God does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. Please repent of your sins and put your faith in Jesus Christ. Accepting Him as your Savior and Lord is a decision that only you can make for yourself. He is ready and willing to come into your life, forgive you, and be your Savior, your Lord, your God, and your Friend. There is none like Him.

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