In 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.
- 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…
- 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.
- 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.