Over Christmas 2015 at City Church Birmingham we invited those who visited our Carol services to take part in a poll to identify the three most important questions that we would like to ask God. On January 3rd, 10th and 17th each question is answered in turn. Here are my notes that provide a reasonably accurate transcript from the second talk and for the audio click here.
Good morning and welcome to City Church. A special welcome if you’re visiting us this morning.
As part of our short series ‘If I could ask God one question . . .‘ we’re looking this morning at the second of the three questions we voted we would most like to ask God from our survey over Christmas time. Twenty-one percent of the 500+ votes cast were for this one; ‘God, why did you create a world with so much misery?‘
‘How are atheists produced? asked George Bernard Shaw” ‘ln probably nine cases out of ten, what happens is something like this. A beloved wife or husband or child or sweethearts is gnawed to death by cancer, stultified by epilepsy, stuck dumb and helpless by apoplexy or strangled by croup or diphtheria; and the looker-on, after praying vainly to God to refrain from such horrible and wanton cruelty, indignantly repudiates faith in the divine monster, and becomes not merely indifferent and sceptical, but fiercely and actively hostile to religion.‘
There is a certain logic to Bernard Shaw’s point isn’t there.
A) The problem of pain
Our world is a world full of pain and suffering so if God exists he must be to blame. There are, finally, so the argument goes, only three possibilities; either God is not good in which case he is not worthy of our worship, or he’s not sovereign in which case he’s not really God at all or he doesn’t exist.
Well what can Christians say in response. I don’t want to suggest that in the short time we have that I can possibly do justice to this question. Not least because for so many of us suffering has a very personal dimension. Maybe you are someone here this morning for whom this is a very difficult question because you are right now experiencing it.
But I do want to offer some pointers that will help us.
And I want to start with the question as put – is God responsible for creating our broken world? In our evening series ‘In the beginning – Genesis 1-3‘ that ran through the autumn up to Christmas we gave quite a bit of time to thinking about the world that God had made and what went wrong. We saw that the Bible is quick to point out that when God created the world he created it good. At the end of the creation account in Genesis 1v.31 we read ‘God saw all that he had made and it was good.’ So, the Bible insists that the problem of pain does not lie at the hands of a faulty designer.
Rather, what we see in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis is that in making human beings God made them good and to be in relationship with Him but he also made them with the freedom to choose good or evil. And pain, suffering and misery only entered our world after the first human beings choose rather than to obey God to decided to do his own thing without reference to God. It is from that first rebellion that suffering entered our world.
So, as Philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it, ‘the source of evil is not God’s power but mankind’s freedom.’ Death itself enters our world and human beings begin to function in selfish and cruel ways. The whole created order itself is fragmented. This is what our world looks like when humanity turns from its creator and to selfish ruin.
But, as many have suggested, that doesn’t quite let God off the hook. If people only got hurt because they did something sinful or just plain stupid that would be one thing but it’s the fact that suffering seems so random and out of proportion that troubles us.
Here is how theologian John Stott puts it in his book the Cross of Christ ‘the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.’
It’s not just that the innocent and vulnerable suffer but so often they suffer the most? Isn’t God just vindictive and cruel to allow it? I want to highlight three responses the Christian can make in just a moment but before I do let me say that the problem of suffering isn’t just a problem for believers.
B) The problem for atheism
On the surface atheist seems a better option. Maybe it’s easier to believe that it’s not a God that causes random suffering but a random universe that results in random suffering. But I want to suggest that the problem for atheism is that we find it almost impossible to live with the atheists conclusion to the suffering question. Human beings seem unable to settle for the answer that ‘stuff happens’ and we yearn for a higher answer. Doesn’t the fact that after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris that the phrase that trended in the social media was #Pray for Paris suggest so?
After the Boston Marathon bombings Eleanor Barkhorn wrote a piece for The Atlantic entitled Why People Prayed for Boston on Twitter and Facebook, and Then Stopped. In the article she comments on the “Pray for Boston” messages. Here’s what she then wrote ‘It was jarring . . It was . . .strange to see so many non-religious friends talking about prayer. The majority of my Facebook friends who wrote about praying aren’t especially observant. . .what I saw on Twitter and Facebook . . wasn’t just faithful people reminding other faithful people to . . .pray. It was also the non-religious invoking prayer.’(HT: Tim Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering)
In the same article she also tells of her own journey to faith as a secular New Yorker after the attack on the Twin Towers in 9/11. She describes how ‘an involuntary urge to call on God’s name’ grew into a full-blown Christian faith.
The problem for atheism is that we seem unable to accept that suffering is a brute fact. We can’t or won’t just get over ourselves. We insist of seeking meaning in suffering. As Tim Keller notes in ‘Walking with God’ ‘the secular view of life simply does not work for most people in the face of suffering.’
What’s more, as CS Lewis himself came to discover, the argument used by atheists against the existence of God in the face of suffering, actually, quite inadvertently, serves to bolster the argument for God. You see here’s the problem of pain for the atheist:why do we feel not just pain but moral outrage in the face of innocent suffering?
Evolution might explain the pain but it can’t account for outrage. Moral outrage is more than saying it hurts – it’s saying it’s wrong.
Stephen Fry’s answer to Gay Bryne’s question ‘What will Stephen Fry say to God?’ on the programme The Meaning of Life is full of such outrage. Here’s what Stephen Fry had to say:
‘I’d say, “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?” That’s what I would say.’
There is moral outrage. He talks not just about pain but the moral categories of evil and injustice. Fry seems to suggest that God has failed to do the right thing. He is guilty of breaking a moral standard. But where does an atheist get the idea of an absolute moral standard from in the first place and by what standard are we judging how anyone ought to behave?
Fellow atheists Richard Dawkins is been honest enough to admit in River out of Eden:
‘The universe we observe has … no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’
The simple fact is that there is no place for moral outrage in an amoral universe. To even use the language of good or evil, or right or wrong is to assume things that can’t exist without God. As Keller notes in making the argument Stephen Fry makes ‘in a sense, you are relying on God to make an argument against God.’ CS Lewis came to conclude that our awareness of moral evil was in reality an argument for the existence of God, not against it. For surely, if I believe in evil I must believe in God.
But can we find any hope and reassurance in the face of suffering that God does indeed know what he is doing?
What I’d like to do in the remainder of the time we have is suggest three answers to the problem of pain from the Bible. I don’t claim any of them are answers that fully resolve all of our questions but I do think that they are comfort and reassurance
1) God’s purpose in our pain.
Could we possibly ever come to accept that God himself might be at work in our suffering?
The Bible affirms just this point to suggest that God uses suffering to help us find not just temporary happiness but ultimate meaning. In Romans 5:3-4 the Apostle Paul expresses it this way: ‘We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’
That is not to in any way suggest that this process is easy or automatic. There is a whole book of the Bible, called Job, in which we find a believer in God struggling to come to terms with his suffering. And he doesn’t hold back from God. Here he is speaking to God early in the book (Job 3:11-16, NIV).
“Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?
Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed?
For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest
with kings and counsellors of the earth, who built for themselves places now lying in ruins,
with rulers who had gold, who filled their houses with silver.
Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day?”
Job’s sense of sadness in his suffering is revealed in 6:2;
“If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas.”
Job’s pain is raw and real. He does not take it passively, yet by the end of the book he is a man who has found his suffering has changed him and changed him for the better. He comes to a point where he is ready to trust God but not because God has given him an intellectual answer. Job 42:5 ‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.’ Could it be that God allows us to suffer because there are lessons we learn about ourselves and God that we could ever have learned in other ways. By the end Job realised that more important than the ‘why’ question was the ‘who’ question.
One of the things that I’ve seen in my time as a church pastor is that the bad news or tragic circumstances that might at first push us away from God seem to have the habit of bringing us back to him. What makes suffering a particular challenge in our western culture is that as secular people we often have no higher goal than our own comfort and sense of happiness. And that leaves little or no room to learn through adversity and struggle and pain in our world-view.
Let me ask you this question ‘could God have a purpose in our pain?’ I have seen it happen too many times.
Fiona was a member of our congregation for a number of years and she suffered from a degenerative disease of her nervous system – not too dissimilar from Stephen Hawking. It was a horrible disease – the result was that little by little her body was failing her. She was interviewed at the front of the church shortly before she died – by which time she could not move any of her limbs and had little control over her head. She was going deaf, her eye-sight was failing her and she could only speak very slowly and deliberately yet she could still say ‘I would rather be in this wheelchair and know Jesus than be able-bodied and not.’For her eternal happiness – a relationship with God – trumped everything. Even a life that most people would pity.
If you’ve come this morning to church and your first thought is that God’s job is to simply make you happy – well first, you’ll be disappointed because that isn’t how life works, and secondly, you’ll never make sense of the deeper work that God wants to do in your life.What if God’s purpose is not to make me happy in this world – in a simply superficial sense – what if his goal is more to make you happy in the next? What if suffering could be redemptive?
The book of Job teaches us that God knows what he’s doing and we can trust him.
The great news this morning is that God has more to say
2) God experiences our pain
John Stott was honest enough to say ‘I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross . . .In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?’The comfort and consolation for any of us experiencing suffering is that if the gospel of Jesus Christ is true then we can say ‘God knows exactly what I’m going through.’
Tim Keller comments ‘we do not know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason is not. It cannot be that he does not love us. It cannot be that he doesn’t care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself. He understands us, he has been there, and he assures us that he has a plan to eventually wipe away every tear. Someone might say, “But that’s only half an answer to the question ‘Why?’ Yes, but it is the half we need.’
In a room of this size there will be some who have experienced suffering at the hands of another. Things that have been said or done that should not have happened to anyone – acts of hate or spite, criminal offenses for which no charge has ever been brought. And you struggle to ever think that God could have allowed these things to happen to you. I don’t have an answer but I would like to ask you to consider the fact that it was the ultimate act of evil that resulted in the ultimate good. the very worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the world – the death of Jesus – the supreme example of innocent suffering – ended up resulting in the very best thing that has ever happened in the history of the world – the salvation of sinners.
Yet, it wasn’t obvious was it. Maybe like you wonder what was going on in the minds of the disciples at the time. But was it not something like this ‘Lord, this is the best man that has ever lived. How can you allow this to happen? How can you abandon him? What possible reason could you allow this innocent man to suffer?’ It would be some time before they would really understand.
As Peter Kreeft comments ‘I don’t know why God allows evil things to happen, but I am glad that he did allow one evil thing to happen – He allowed Jesus to die on the cross.’
3) God will bring an end to pain
Pain is hard and suffering is real but for all of those who trust in Jesus Christ there is still a great hope for the future.
Paul writes in Romans 8:18 (NIV) ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’
One of the problems of pain is that evil people seem to get away with hurting others and we ask How can God do nothing? And God’s answer is that people aren’t getting away with it. For there is a judgement day to come and on that day God will right every wrong. At last, justice will be done and be seen to be done – fully and perfectly. And God will bring about a new world. We read of the future in our reading from Revelation 21:1-5 (NIV);
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
It will be a new world in which there will be no more suffering, misery or death. It is of course the world we all want.
Horatio Spafford is the author of the hymn ‘when peace like a river’ and we’ll be singing it together in a few minutes. An American lawyer Spafford decided that he, his wife and four daughters should enjoy a holiday in England. Delayed by business he sent his wife and four children on ahead. The ship they were on the Ville du Havre was struck by another ship midway across the Atlantic. All four of Spafford’s children drowned, only his wife survived. The pain of such a loss must have been unbelievable. Later Spafford set sail to join his wife in England and the ship’s captain showed him the very place where his daughters lives were lost. It was on this journey, in the depths of his grief that he penned the hymn;
When peace like a river, attends all my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll
Whatever my path, you have taught me to say,
‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’
The tune to which we sing it is called Ville du Havre – the name of the ship on which his daughters lives were lost.
Is misery the inevitable consequence of suffering? No. Our three reasons for confidence offer us hope and reassurance that God is working through our suffering, that he knows our suffering personally and that he will bring in an end to our suffering.
Gerald Sittser wrote a book entitled A Grace Disguised in which he describes the horrendous fall-out of losing his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law in a car crash caused by a drunk driver coming the other way.
Yet his conclusion is a testimony to God’s grace even in his suffering;
‘I am still not over it; I have still not recovered. I still wish my life were different and were alive. The accident remains a horrible, tragic, and evil event to me. But I have changed and grown. . . What I once considered mutually exclusive – sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure, death and life – have become part of a greater whole. My soul has been stretched. My soul has grown because it has been awakened to the goodness and love of God. Though I have endured pain. I believe that the outcome is going to be wonderful.’
As we read in Revelation 21:6 (NIV) ‘He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’
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