Guest author Jason Churchill
“How could you possibly believe in God with all the suffering in the world?”
Have you ever encountered a question like this? I was recently asked a very similar question by my sister as we sat across from one another in her living room.
“How could you possibly believe in God with what you are going through?”
The topic of God & Suffering is inescapable in evangelism, because it is common to you the reader and also to everyone you will ever meet. And so, we and they want to know why. Why, if God is good, is there so much pain and suffering and evil in this world?
Now, you might have thought my sister’s question to be merely intellectual, academic. This seems to be how we think most people are asking it. We hear the rabid skeptic in their words; the allegation that God and suffering cannot simultaneously exist in the universe.
If we only had to answer intellectual objections like this, this would be an easy topic. Do you know what the answer to that objection is? Sauerkraut! Yes, sauerkraut. Or you can answer with brussels sprouts or lima beans, or the New England Patriots.
You see, I find sauerkraut (and the Patriots) to be extremely unpleasant, and God and anything I find unpleasant cannot possibly exist in the same universe. That is their argument, after all. Since they cannot have any absolute standard of good and evil, right and wrong apart from the biblical God, it means their standards are simply personal preferences. So, the intellectual skeptic’s argument essentially boils down to saying that God cannot exist because there is something in the world that they don’t like.
But, of course, this is ridiculous. I ordered a bratwurst the other day and the cook put sauerkraut on it. So, naturally, when my plate arrived, I immediately concluded that the cook didn’t exist! Does that sound rational to you?
My mom must not have existed either, since she used to always try to feed me things that I disliked. The NFL must not exist because the New England Patriots do. You see, the existence of pain, suffering, evil and wrong does not preclude God, but rather assumes Him.
But then how can a good God allow evil and suffering to continue? To this question I suggest you take Voddie Baucham’s approach with the intellectual skeptic and simply respond,
“I will gladly answer your question if you will first answer me this… How could God know what you thought, said and did yesterday and not have killed you in your sleep last night?”
This question brings to the surface the real problem, which is their sin; that they, and we, are the cause of suffering in this world. It also brings to light the fact that suffering remains in this world by the sheer mercy of God on them, not ending their lives before they have time to repent, affording them further opportunity to be saved!
But this cerebral objection is actually fairly uncommon. So, let’s look at this topic from a more realistic perspective.
In Luke 13 we read,
There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And [Jesus] answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
I want to draw out a handful of important truths from this passage that will help us with this subject.
First, we need to realize that when engaging people on the subject of suffering, their question will most often only appear to be intellectual, but it’s not; it’s often very personal and heartfelt… even if they don’t show it. We tend to read this passage as if those present are intellectually challenging Jesus, instead of, out of deep-seeded hurt, seeking an answer to alleviate the pain of the slaughter of their kin by Herod.
Take my sister’s question. Though the question seemed intellectual, it was something very personal. You see, just over three years ago, I was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS. It is better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is an incurable illness that debilitates your body before eventually taking your life. It was this that precipitated my sister’s question. That, and her only child being entirely mentally incapacitated since birth, and her having buried both of our parents in the past few years. You see, the question she was really asking was,
“Why should I believe in God with all the suffering I am undergoing?”
We need to hear the pain and desperation and hurt in the question of suffering.
Why all this pain?
Why did my child die in that car accident?
Why did my mother go through that excruciatingly painful bout with cancer only to die in the end?
Why did my wife leave me for another man?
Why was I abused?
We must recognize that people really are seeking an answer, because they are hurting.
Secondly, we need to understand what the reason for their suffering is not. The understanding back in Jesus’ day was that suffering was the consequence of an individual’s sins. Just like Job’s friends contended. But Jesus puts away this idea. It is definitely not because they are worse sinners than others that this has befallen them. Those Galileans did not die because they had been more disobedient or depraved than others.
The curse of sin is an equal opportunity afflicter. This world groans in labor pains from the curse of sin (Romans 8:22) and, despite what the Prosperitites claim, no one is impervious to it.
Now, Jesus is not saying that there was no purpose or meaning to the tragedy, that it just happened as a natural course of things, the purposeless happenstances of a quasi-deistic universe where God’s hand is not directly involved in every detail. Just the opposite. This was from the hand of a sovereign God. Couldn’t God have kept the tower from falling? Obviously. Couldn’t he have kept those eighteen people from being in the tower in the first place? Of course. But He sovereignly decreed that it happen just as it did. And it was extremely personal for them… because it had a very specific purpose for them. Jesus tells us it happened so that they would repent.
Which means that… are you ready for this one? Which means that suffering then is an instrument of God’s grace and mercy. Suffering that does not result in our death is an act of God’s mercy to point us to our need for Him.
That is what Jesus communicates here. Jesus uses the question of suffering, just like everything else, to call people to turn to God. Jesus, rather than pointing to some ethereal answer, points to what should happen in response to adversity… that those who are still alive would repent, that is, that they should turn to God.
What we need to realize in entering into any conversation with others about suffering is that suffering, whether theirs, ours or others, should cause them to cast their cares upon God. To find comfort in the Comforter.
Suffering and adversity have a distinct way of exposing our mortality, sinfulness and need for God. They are designed to bring us face to face with the holy, righteous, omniscient, omnipotent, good and loving God of this universe so that we cast ourselves upon His grace and mercy.
My disease is a gift to me, my wife, my children, my sister and to those that I pastor, to turn us to rely more on God. This is essential to know and understand. There are probably myriad reasons for suffering in the infinite mind of God, but we in our understanding must realize that the pain and suffering of this life ought to cause everyone to cast themselves upon Him. God is our help in time of need. He is our deliverer and sustainer.
Now, when people are struggling with suffering, we rightly look for words that will bring them comfort in the midst of their pain. But often, we turn them to the wrong place for that comfort. We tend to think that since they do not believe in Christ or God that we must then point them to other means of comfort. Since they reject Jesus, there must be something other than a message of ‘turn to Jesus for comfort’ that we can comfort them with.
Really? What is that which is greater than Christ for comfort? Paul exhorts us to, “Comfort them with the (same) comfort with which we have been comforted.” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) What is that comfort that we have been comforted by? It is the comforting care of the triune God in Christ. Our comfort is God’s holiness, His loving care and His tenderness in the midst of adversity. That is my comfort in the midst of a terminal diagnosis. Turning to God. Relying on Him. And it’s my wife’s. And my kiddo’s. And my sister’s. The pain and suffering and sorrow are so very, very real… and God is right there in the midst of it, to walk with us through it.
And this was Paul’s comfort for his thorn in the flesh as well. He said…
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3:8–9).
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
Our comfort is Christ, and so our words need to turn others to the comfort of Christ. He is their only true and real comfort. The triune God alone can quench the real thirst for which their souls long.
My response to my sister that day was, “How could I not believe in God? He has designed it for my good out of His love for me.” And He means it for her good, that she too would trust in Him.
So, what is the response to the question of suffering? It is this, “God wants you to turn to Him, and find your hope and comfort in Him. The God of all comfort awaits to comfort you if only you will turn to him through faith in Christ.”
* Jason Churchill is husband to his beautiful wife Jennifer and a father of four. He also pastors at Hope Chapel in Colorado Springs.