A friend just asked me the age old question, “How can a good God allow suffering?” She asked it in slightly different words, but it was the same question it’s always been. I have heard it asked a million times over. Now, this friend has a right to wrestle through this, and although I may have an answer for her, I feel ill-equipped to give it, because she has suffered tremendously in her lifetime, and it’s a hard thing to speak to someone whose grief is so much greater than my own. The right answer may feel like a pat answer. Yet, it still must be given. God, give me grace!
In contemplating the root cause of why we ask this question so often, it occurred to me that, in order to ask this question, we must have a wrong understanding of one (or more) of three things: 1) God’s righteousness in His justice, or 2) our own sin, or 3) suffering and the blessing that it is to God’s people.
1. God’s righteousness as it pertains to His judgments. This is closely linked with the second thing we are prone to getting wrong… our sin.
We cannot fathom tender, compassionate Jesus also being a wrathful God, nor do we want to. We have never seen anger as pure and holy as His’, and we do not particularly want to believe it exists. Hebrews says “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Terror is not an emotion I enjoy experiencing. Repeatedly in Scripture it tells us both not to fear, and simultaneously to fear God. The Scripture uses metaphors such as “the shadow of His wings”. I once had a vision of a giant bird that was spewing fire out of it’s mouth. It was a terrifying sight, but I was sheltered in the shadow of it’s wing. I was protected by the wrath of the bird in my vision. His fire-spewing was intended to protect me from His enemies and mine.
There is something so enlightening about flipping the script and realizing that His judgments are intended to protect His people and that it is His holiness that causes Him to destroy His enemies, which leads to point #2.
2. Our sin. Our sinfulness is buried deep, so deeply that it is not something we do, but it is the core of who we are, apart from Christ. This is the necessity of accepting the cross! We, who are the beloved children of God, are of the same fibers as the world, in our beginning. We range from really good at performing well enough to appear as though God might accept us based on merit, to continuously making gigantic messes out of the life we have been given until we just give up trying. But the thing about our sin is that the perfectionist and the destructionist are both just as foul-stenched as the other, when compared with God’s holiness. There is not a person on earth that even remotely deserves His mercy.
When we lay that, as the foundational understanding, we begin to realize that we deserve suffering, and that we desperately need the cross.
From the moment history began, mankind had a glorious, tender-hearted, loving Heavenly Father, and we immediately rejected Him. It’s easy enough to blame Adam and Eve… until we realize this is every single person on earth’s story. Every person that ever lived, other than Jesus.
We are so proud we try to fix ourselves independently from Him, and this is why the remedy is the cross. The cross is God’s sacrifice, where holiness and mercy meet. He pours out His just wrath, yet He pours it on Himself rather than us, the deserving ones. The cross requires that we humble ourselves and acknowledge our need, and it invites the one who knows they are needy and doesn’t know how to fix themselves. The cross is both a means of crushing our pride and repairing our brokenness. The cross is where we find God’s goodness displayed in the impeccable, ironical combination of His mercy and justice.
And finally, the third thing we tend to get wrong, that causes us to doubt God’s goodness in the face of suffering…
3. Suffering. If we are to make honest assessment of humanity, we are fully deserving of suffering. Our rebellion against God is the root cause of it. Every bit of suffering that exists is the consequence of our sin, someone else’s sin, or the result of a fallen world that has been rejecting God since it’s conception. We want to blame God for all this hardship, when it is honestly our own fault. When we look around at the suffering in the world, much of it is because God has given us over to our own will and ways.
Yet, the irony and bliss of it is that, for those who love Jesus, suffering transforms into a gift. If you look up “suffering” in the Bible, the perspective of it is completely counter-intuitive. The Bible says some incredible things, like “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful, yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” (Hebrews 12:11). And “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have it’s perfect result so that you can be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-3). Romans 8:28 promises us that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” ALL THINGS. There is no stone left unturned, when it pertains to Him working things out for good for us. Earlier in Romans 8, He promises that “the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed to us.” (vs. 18). There are countless other Scriptures that directly say such things, and even more that simply exemplify the principle of redemption.
1 Corinthians 15:19 says that “if we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied.” We look to an unseen Kingdom, and we who have walked with God know that there is nothing this earth could offer us that would compare with the blessing of His nearness.
One of my favorite books, outside of the Bible, is a small, pocket-sized book called “The Loveliness of Christ”. It is full of quotes from an old puritan named Samuel Rutherford. In it, he says things like “Among many marks that we are on the journey, and under sail towards heaven , this is one, when the love of God so filleth our hearts that we forget to love and care too much for the having or wanting of other things; As one extreme heat burneth out another.” In other words, for the Christian that adores Christ, He becomes so lovely to us that our suffering or lack becomes dim in the light of His goodness and glory.
He also said, “What God layeth on us, let us suffer, for some have one cross, some seven, some ten, some half a cross – yet all the saints have whole and full joy, and seven crosses have seven joys.” That means that where suffering abounds in the lives of God’s people, joy is even more potent.
He also says, “Glorify the Lord in your sufferings and take His banner of love, and spread it over you. Others will follow you, if they see you strong in the Lord; their courage shall take life from your Christian carriage.”
One of those whose courage gives me life is Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother and the Lord’s apostle. He was sentenced to death by crucifixion. Through His courage and joy, every generation since has been better equipped to suffer with joy! Upon threat of death, he replied, “I would not have preached the honor and glory of the cross if I feared the death of the cross.” As he walked to the place of execution, he walked boldly towards his own cross and said these words, “O cross, most welcomed and longed for! With a willing mind, joyfully and desirously, I come to you, being the scholar of Him which did hang on you, because I have always been your lover and yearned to embrace you.” It is nearly impossible to imagine singing a love song to one’s own crucifixion, yet Andrew did!
What Samuel Rutherford and Andrew the Apostle had in common was this: They both had a right view of suffering, seeing it in light of the goodness of Christ! As a result, they learned to see it as a gift.
I hope this dissection of our natural thinking and a holy perspective helps anyone who reads it. Honestly, I wrote this a couple of days ago and just sat to edit it, and it helped me, once again, to be reminded of these things. Sometimes what we know needs perpetually brought to the forefront of our minds. To God be all glory and honor! Amen.