Why Do We Suffer?

polycarpIn the prior blog, we presented the logical problem of evil — how can evil and suffering exist if God is perfectly loving and all-powerful?  Upon closer examination, there is no contradiction here.  It simply means that God allows man free will, and God allows Satan some degree of freedom to tempt and to act.  In other cases, God causes what seems evil to us in order to accomplish some greater good.  In short, God may — in fact, God must — have a morally sufficient reason for allowing suffering.In some cases, suffering works to glorify God.  We know from Romans 8:28 that all things (not just good things) work together for the glory of those who know the Lord, and are called according to His purpose.  There are also times when what man intends to be an evil act can be redeemed by God for good, such as when Joseph was sold by His brothers to slave traders and then to Pharaoh (Genesis 50:20).  Of course, the ultimate example is Jesus Christ Himself — tremendous evil was done to him, and it was the greatest act of goodness (love) in all of history.  In my case, I know that my cancer will glorify God.  I may never see it, and I may die not knowing exactly how my cancer brought Him glory, but I know that it will because Scripture assures me so.

So given that evil and suffering exist, and we are promised that we are going to suffer (1 Tim 3:12, elsewhere), why does God allow it?  We know that he must have a morally sufficient reason, and that it will eventually glorify Him.  But Scripture is even more explicit.

  1.  Suffering is necessary for conforming to Christlikeness.  We are all in the process of sanctification, the process of conforming to Christlikeness (Romans 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18).  But we also know that Christ suffered tremendously, and therefore to be like Christ we must suffer as well.  Fortunately, that’s not all…
  2. Suffering brings us closer to God.  As Paul outlines in 2 Corinthians 1:9, “Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death, but this happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.”  Yes, there are times God allows us to suffer in order to bring us to reliance on Him.  I believe this is the case in my own life.  In fact, I have received “the sentence of death” four times, with four separate cancer diagnoses, each one supposedly “terminal.”  And, like Paul, I think it happened to force me to rely on God rather than myself.  C.S. Lewis agrees, calling pain “God’s megaphone,” and explaining in both “The Problem of Pain” and “A Grief Observed” how pain and suffering (his own, and his wife’s) initially drove him away from the faith, and then back to it in even stronger faith.
  3. Finally, suffering not only conforms us to Christlikeness and brings us closer to God, it can be a tremendous evangelistic tool.  It reaches unbelievers.  We see this throughout Scripture — Jesus didn’t heal blindness, He healed the blind man.  He didn’t eradicate leprosy, He healed the leper.  Why?  Because in both cases, and in many others, those who were healed then went back to their families, towns, and villages to tell them what Christ had done.  Even the way Christians handle suffering — not just Christ and Paul, look at the history of the Christian martyrs from Polycarp forward — has been used to change the hardened hearts of unbelievers from the earliest centuries.

So, did God give me cancer?  I’ve struggled with this one for almost two decades.  I think He did.  His goal in causing or allowing my cancer was to knock props out from under our hearts so that we rely utterly and only on Him.  It has worked for me!  Paraphrasing John Piper, cancer doesn’t win if I die — that’s going to happen anyway.  Cancer wins if it succeeds in turning me away from Christ.

 

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The Problem of Evil

evil-emoticon_318-40171Well, the clear-thinking Christian is back!  After almost a year off, I'm back to blogging with a great deal to share.  In short form, I'm now retired…after 24 years of Active Duty in the Air Force, I'm moving on to other things, one of which I hope to be blogging more regularly.

Shortly after my announced retirement from the Air Force, I was invited to White Sulphur Springs — a Christian retreat center in Pennsylvania — to give eight talks in six days on this extremely difficult topic.  I have an interesting perspective here, since I can speak to the topic both as a theologian, and a brain cancer survivor who has known more suffering than most.  For those who attended that retreat, this blog is for you — essentially the written form of the first lesson or two I taught during the plenary sessions.

So if there is a God, at least the Christian concept of Him, why do we suffer?  Why is there so much evil in the world?  This is classically known as "The Problem of Evil," and an attempt to answer it is formally called a "theodicy."  If God is loving as we claim, then He would want to prevent all evil and suffering.  If God is omnipotent as we claim, then He would be able to prevent all evil and suffering.  Yet, it exists in abundance — so which is it?  Does it exist and He allowed it, so he is not loving?  Or does it exist and He couldn't prevent it, so He is not powerful?  This is traditionally presented in this form as the "logical" problem of evil, often offered by atheists or critics of Christianity as a potential inconsistency or even a contradiction in the Christian concept of God.

But is there a contradiction or inconsistency here?  As Christians, we cannot deny either His sovereignty and omnipotence or His goodness.  Scripture is clear with regard to both.

  1.  God is loving.  We know from Scripture that our God is a loving God.  We can read in 1 John 4:8 that "God is love," and we can read in 1 Corinthians 13 how He defines love.  That means we can take the description of love in Corinthians and actually apply those as attributes of God.  This means God is patient, kind, does not delight in evil, always protects us, hopes, and perseveres.  His love never fails.  Of course, the greatest expression of His love is found in John 3:16 and Romans 5:8, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us — and greater love has no man than this.  Why did He do that?  Because He loves us.  Ephesians 3:18 tells us that even the saints of God struggle to comprehend the width, length, height, and depth of the love of God.  There can be no question that God loves us beyond comprehension.
  2. God is powerful.  This is hardly in dispute, but Scripture is equally clear here.  This is evident from the very first chapter of Genesis — as the One who has created the universe — all space, matter, and time — He is spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, and immensely powerful.  Job tells us in Chapter 42 that "…you can do all things [this is omnipotence], no purpose of yours can be thwarted."   Who can thwart God's plans?  No one.  He is too powerful.
  3. Evil exists.  This is likely the least disputable of the three points normally offered in the "problem of evil" critique of Christianity.  Worthy of its own blog, evil is generally categorized into two "camps" — moral evil (man's inhumanity to man), and natural evil (natural disaster, disease, etc).  In his book The Many Faces of Evil, John Feinberg documents the true extent of man's inhumanity.  Dr. Clay Jones, my professor on this topic at Biola University, also wrote an article several years ago on human evil.  The facts are chilling.  In the 20th Century alone, communism has killed between 20 and 26 million, most in horrible fashion — such as the forced starvation of 6 million Ukrainians.  Under Mao, it is another 30 million, and Mao at one point bragged that he had buried alive 46,000 scholars who disagreed with him.  Read the Rape of Nanking – and we haven't even mentioned the Holocaust yet, with its 17,000,000 dead.  This only scratches the surface — the human capacity for evil is unimaginable.  Natural evil is often more inexplicable, from the Asian tsunami in December 2004 to the Haitian earthquake a few months later, even cancer…if God is good and powerful, how are these things possible?

This is the "Problem of Evil," classically presented.  The world is full of evil, both moral (human) evil and natural evil.  As a five-time cancer survivor, I have seen it and felt it first-hand.  In the next blog, we will work to present a basic theodicy — that is, a basic explanation of how the three facts presented above are not contradictory.  God is good.  God is powerful.  Evil exists.  This is not a contradiction.