Of all the questions that trouble the people of God, none is greater than the question posed in the title of this sermon. Sometimes, it is asked in other ways: Why do bad things happen to good people? Or, why do the wicked prosper, while the righteous take such a beating? Or, if God really has the power to stop human suffering, why doesn’t he use it? Eventually these questions become very personal. Why did my husband leave me after 15 years? Why did God allow my daughter to die in a car wreck? If God is good, how could he let my closest friend suddenly have a heart attack?
Several years ago, George Barna did a survey on this topic: “If you could ask God one question, what would it be?” The number one response was, “Why is there pain and suffering in the world?” I am not surprised, because this is one of the oldest questions in the world. One writer called it “the question mark that turns like a fishhook in the human heart.”
I want to begin by thinking about this issue in very personal terms. Shortly after the tsunami disaster in December, my friend Ramesh Richard, a professor at Dallas Seminary, sent an email that contained what he called a “dangerous” prayer. “Lord, do things we’re not used to.” The moment I saw that, I knew it should be my personal prayer for 2005. The following Sunday, I challenged the whole congregation to pray that prayer. For our family, part of the answer came during our trip to China in January. While we were visiting our oldest son Josh (who was teaching English in Beijing), God called our two younger sons (Mark and Nick) to go to China as well. Nick went this summer and Mark is there right now, teaching English for 11 months. That was totally unexpected and we’re grateful to God for putting China in the middle of our family’s personal agenda.
The Other Side of the Desk
Then in June, Marlene was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. To say this news came as a shock would be an understatement. It was like being hit in the face with a Mark Prior fastball. No matter who you are, cancer is a scary word. We all know people who have died from cancer. Since the initial diagnosis, Marlene has had two surgeries. Right now she is nearing the end of her radiation treatments. Since they caught it very early, she did not have to have chemotherapy. The doctors say the outlook for a total cure is very good. But there will be continued follow-up treatment and regular checkups for the rest of her life.
We’ve both learned a lot in the last few months. For one thing, cancer looks a lot different on the other side of the pastor’s desk. In my 26 years as a pastor, I’ve dealt with cancer almost every week. I know what to say and how to pray, but it looks different from the other side of the desk. And cancer helps you rediscover your own humanity. I’ve learned, once again, that my feet are made of clay just like everyone else. When we got the news, I don’t mind saying that my feet were shaky for about a month. I have the same worries and fears that we all have. Cancer also changes the way you look at life. Several years ago a man in Pittsburgh sent me a note about his own experience that included these words: “Cancer clarifies. Cancer makes concise. Cancer clears away the cobwebs.” When you learn that your wife has cancer, you discover in a heartbeat that some of the things that had been bothering you don’t really matter at all.
Through it all we have seen many evidences of God’s goodness. We have discovered his grace in an abundance of small things—a kind word, a phone call, a quiet evening, the sound of children playing, the boys laughing around the dinner table, the prayers of many friends, holding hands while watching TV together. I want to thank everyone who has prayed for us. We have felt it and have been made stronger by it. Marlene and I both thank God for this experience. Though we did not ask for it, it has been for the deepening of our faith. It has been good for us even though we are left with questions we can’t answer.
Several years ago Hurricane Katrina slammed into Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Like most people, I spent hours this week glued to the TV screen. It was almost mesmerizing to watch the scenes of destruction, death, sorrow and loss filled our homes. This hurricane has been called the greatest natural disaster in American history. The mayor of Biloxi, Mississippi called it “our tsunami.” One reporter in New Orleans spoke of “apocalyptic scenes” of devastation. As the long process of clean up and recovery began, many questions lingered:
Where is God in all of this human suffering?
One home is destroyed, the one next door has little damage. Why?
One man dies, another lives. Why?
Why did the storm go east of New Orleans and not west?
Why New Orleans and not Pensacola?
It is natural and inevitable that we should ask the question why. The psalmist often cried out, “Lord, where are you?” In times of trouble, we look to the heavens and shout, “Why me? Why now? Why this?” We cannot escape the question of evil in the world. It is the greatest theological problem we face. Although it is always there, accidents happen, cancer invades, disaster strikes, and suddenly the question comes front and center. Every crisis brings us face to face with this difficult issue. The question of suffering is the number one argument for atheism. Most people who have given up believing in God do so not because of some philosophical argument, but because their hearts were broken by something that happened to them or to someone they loved.
In his play J.B., Archibald MacLeish puts these words into the mouth of the lead character: “If God is God, he is not good. If God is good, he is not God. Take the even, take the odd.” That’s the whole case against God in a nutshell. If God is all-powerful and could have stopped this suffering but didn’t, then he isn’t good. If he is good and wants to stop this suffering, it must mean that he lacks the power. Either way (people say), I don’t want to believe in a God like that. So they don’t.
What answer does the Christian give? I realize that the greatest minds in history have wrestled with the question of suffering since the beginning of time. I cannot begin to give a complete answer in one sermon because there are many parts to a truly biblical answer. Instead, I will offer what seems to me to be the heart of the Christian response.
I. One Inadequate Answer
Many people look at the tragedies of life and conclude that they have no purpose at all. Stuff happens. Bad stuff happens. Terrible things happen. Calamity comes to all of us. It’s all chance or luck or fate. I cannot imagine a more hopeless philosophy of life. It explains nothing. Indeed it suggests there is no explanation for the suffering we see all around us.
II. One Partially-Adequate Answer
When asked about why God allows disasters, most Christians revert to some version of the freewill argument. I’ve often heard evangelical leaders on Larry King Live use this argument. It goes something like this. When asked why God created a world filled with hurricanes, pain, suffering and death, the freewill argument answers that God didn’t create the world that way. When God created the world, he made it perfect in every way. There were no hurricanes in Eden. And no looters either. And no suffering people waiting for days for help to arrive. And no one died there either. The pain and suffering we see around us didn’t come from God. So how did things get so messed up?
The answer goes back to Adam and Eve. God gave them the choice (the freedom) to obey him and be blessed or to disobey and be punished. Unfortunately, they made the wrong choice. As a result, sin and its attendant, suffering, entered the spiritual DNA of the human race. Genesis 3 also notes that creation itself was put under a curse by God because of Adam’s sin. Death entered for the first time. Pain and suffering became man’s constant companion. Paradise gained became paradise lost. Nature became red in tooth and claw. Instead of the lion and the lamb lying down together, the lion became the lamb’s mortal enemy. That’s why Romans 8:22 says that all creation groans in the present age, waiting for the day of redemption. Adam’s sin didn’t just impact him. It touched all of us. “Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned” (Romans 5:12). What does all this have to do with you and me? In some mysterious way, you and I were there. When Adam sinned, you sinned with him and so did I. This is the doctrine of original sin in its plainest form. It means that when Adam sinned, you sinned. When Adam disobeyed, you disobeyed. When Adam fell, you fell. When he died, you died. To say it another way, although you and I were not historically there in the Garden, because we are descendents of Adam—part of his family tree—we suffer the consequences of what he did.
Imagine a school bus with enough seats for every man, woman, boy and girl on planet earth. Such a bus would be thousands of miles long. And let’s suppose that Adam is the driver of the bus of humanity. When he drove the bus over the cliff of disobedience, we all went down with him. And we all ended up crushed and broken on the jagged rocks of God’s judgment.
The world is the way it is because we humans messed it up. Even the hurricanes and tsunamis and the deadly earthquakes would not exist were it not for human sin. And certainly human sin accounts for the violence and mayhem we see all around us. And human sin explains our tendency toward hatred, unkindness, lust, a critical spirit, selfishness, greed, indolence, and our willingness to point the finger and blame others for our own problems.
If Adam had not sinned, New Orleans would not be a ghost town today.
That argument is biblical and true and useful as far as it goes. If I appeared on Larry King Live, I would use this argument myself because it makes sense to most people. But as it stands, the argument does not go far enough. By putting so much emphasis on freewill, it ends up sounding as if God has given over control of the universe to man. And you end up with an unbiblical dichotomy that puts pain and suffering on one end of the spectrum and God on the other end of the spectrum. It leaves the impression that God washes his hands of the problems on planet earth and says, “You messed it up. Let’s see you try to clean it up.”
Any solution to the problem of human suffering that separates God from human suffering cannot possibly be right. You end up saying that things like Hurricane Katrina are terrible disasters that serve no higher purpose. If you keep pushing in that direction, you end up with something very much like the first answer—that there is no purpose in the tragedies of life.
The freewill answer is very useful but something else needs to be added to it.
III. An Answer You Must Not Miss
The true biblical picture brings God into the midst of the worst things that happen in the world. Consider these four passages of Scripture:
A) God brings prosperity and creates disaster.
“I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things” (Isaiah 45:7). I remember Dr. Ryrie pointing out this verse during a theology class at Dallas Seminary many years ago. There is no easy explanation for this verse except to say that God is the Lord of all things. Even the darkness of the universe cannot exist apart from his divine permission. God is not the author of sin, but sin itself cannot exist apart from God’s decree that sin should be permitted to appear in the universe. While all of this leaves us with many questions, we do know that God’s decision to permit Adam’s disobedience that plunged the human into chaos and untold sorrow also revealed to the universe God’s amazing grace and his boundless love toward the worst of sinners. That love, displayed in the cross of Christ, would never have been seen, nor the wonders of redemption imagined, unless sin had first entered and destruction fallen on the earth.
B) God takes personal responsibility for physical disabilities.
“The LORD said to him, ‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the LORD?’” (Exodus 4:11). This was God’s answer when Moses said he couldn’t lead the Jews because he was not an eloquent speaker. In this case, Moses’ apparent slowness of speech meant that he must depend upon God and not his natural abilities when he stood before Pharaoh. And his impediments meant that when victory came, God alone would get the glory.
C) God ordains the movements of the oceans.
“Who shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment and wrapped it in thick darkness, when I fixed limits for it and set its doors and bars in place when I said, ‘This far you may come and no farther; here is where your proud waves halt’?” (Job 38:8-11). There are many questions regarding Hurricane Katrina. Why did the hurricane go east of New Orleans and not west? Why didn’t it go much farther east or much farther west? Why didn’t it stay at Category 5? Why didn’t it go down to Category 2 before landfall? On one hand, we have no certain answers to these questions. But this passage tells us that God determines the boundaries of the oceans. God put the Atlantic Ocean where it is. He determined the boundaries of the Mediterranean Sea. And he directed (through the natural causes he established) the path of Hurricane Katrina. We cannot answer the why questions with certainty, but we can answer the who question. Behind all the meteorological data stands the Lord God himself.
D) God calls us to accept both good things and troubling things he sends to us.
“Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). This brings us to the bottom line. We thank God for the roses. Do we also thank him for the thorns? We thank God for his blessings. Do we also thank him for the hard times he sends our way?
Tony Evans says it this way. Everything is either caused by God or allowed by God, and there is no third category. He’s right. Several times in recent years, as Marlene and I have faced hard times that made no sense to us, we have said to ourselves, “God is all over that situation.” We may not be able to see it or to feel it or to figure it out, but God is “all over” every situation in life—the good and the bad, the happy and the sad, the positive and the negative. He is always there, always present, always working out his plan. This means that nothing can happen to us that does not first pass through God’s loving hands.
That includes hurricanes and it also includes cancer. This does not transform hurricanes or cancer from bad things into good things, but it does mean that they do not and cannot exist apart from God. Often I have had a conversation with the Lord about the heartaches of life. It usually goes something like this. The Lord says to me, “So you don’t like what I just did?” “No, I don’t.” “You think I made a mistake?” “As a matter of fact, yes I do.” The Lord never seems bothered by that. He already knows how I feel about things. “Do you think I should have asked you for your advice?” “Yes, and if you had, I would have told you to do something different.” “Ray, that’s why I didn’t ask you in advance. I already knew how you felt. Just keep this in mind. I did what I did for my own reasons. But I did it without consulting you so you would know that I take full responsibility for what happened.” That conversation, often repeated, has been a great comfort to my soul. I find it easy to worship a God who can suddenly and without warning do things that make no sense to me. Only an Almighty God gives and takes life, rides upon the storms, sends prosperity and also trouble, answers my prayers and then leaves me speechless and confused, all without feeling any need to explain himself to me. The mystery of it all ends up building my faith. Why would I want to worship a God I could fully understand? “How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Romans 11:33).
Where does all this leave us? The answer is, we’re all still hurting. We are still a death-sentenced generation living in a sin-cursed world. We all hurt every day. No one is immune from the sufferings of humanity. All the sons and daughters of Adam live in the wreckage of that bus Adam drove off the cliff. We live with pain and sadness every day. There is no escape from that reality.
When we hurt, we have two choices:
We can hurt with God … or we can hurt without God.
If you are hurting as you read these words, you may feel as if you have come to the end of your endurance. I pray that you will hang on to the Lord. If you turn away from Him, things can only get worse. Pioneer missionary J. Hudson Taylor founded the China Inland Mission to reach the multitudes of Chinese people who had never heard the gospel. During the terrible days of the Boxer Rebellion (1900-1901), when missionaries were being captured and killed, he went through such an agony of soul that he could not pray. Writing in his journal, he summarized his spiritual condition this way: “I can’t read. I can’t think. I can’t pray. But I can trust.” There will be times when we can’t read the Bible. Sometimes we won’t be able to focus our thoughts on God at all. Often we will not even be able to pray. But in those moments when we can’t do anything else, we can still trust in the loving purposes of our heavenly Father.
He Joined Us
There is one final piece we must add to the puzzle of human suffering. We often say that God is able to take the very worst that happens and bring the very best out of it. We utter those words with such confidence, but what do they mean in the face of Hurricane Katrina and the suffering of so many people? How do we know God can do that? Look at the cross! Here is the final piece of the puzzle. This is the ultimate proof that God does not stand aloof from the suffering of the world. Two thousand years ago he left the glories of heaven for the indignity of a borrowed stable. He gave up eternal light to be born in dismal darkness. He walked out of the ivory palaces and entered a world of woe.
He joined us.
He became one of us.
He walked where we walk.
He lived where we live.
He joined us in our sorrows.
He joined us in our pain.
He entered our humiliation.
He suffered what we suffer.
And what did we do to him? We hung him on a cross and spat on him. We screamed at him, mocked him, beat him, laughed at him, jeered at him, and then we watched him die.
God is no bystander to human suffering.
He died the same way we die.
Here is God’s final answer to the problem of human suffering. He joined our race, took our nature, entered our world, ate with us, drank with us, walked and talked with us, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.
He didn’t simply die with us.
He died for us.
Then, he came back from the dead so that we would not stay dead either. When he rose from the dead, he reversed the curse, he broke the chains, he tore down the bars, and he set in motion a chain of events that will one day mean an end to all the hurricanes and all the cancer and all the suffering and all the pain that plagues us and drags us down.
It helps to remember that we didn’t deserve anything he did for us. Ever since Adam drove the bus off the cliff, death and destruction have been our common fate. Jesus came with a “heavenly tow truck” to pull the bus out of the valley of judgment and put us back on the road to heaven. John Piper has some sobering words that put the suffering we have seen this week in proper biblical perspective:
Let us put our hands on our mouths and weep both for the perishing and for ourselves who will soon follow. Whatever judgment has fallen, it is we who deserve it—all of us. And whatever mercy is mingled with judgment in New Orleans neither we nor they deserve.
God sent Jesus Christ into the world to save sinners. He did not suffer massive shame and pain because Americans are pretty good people. The magnitude of Christ’s suffering is owing to how deeply we deserve Katrina—all of us. ("Was Katrina Intelligent Design?” September 2, 2005)
There is only one way to escape the flood waters of God’s judgment. It is not on the broken levee of human virtue, but on the high ground called Calvary. Run to that high ground. It is your only hope of safety.
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame;
And I love that old cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain.
The cross sends a message from God to a rebel world: “I will never stop loving you.” The suffering of the world is great, but the love of Christ is greater still. We cannot escape suffering. It comes to all of us again and again, but we must not stop there. The road continues on from our pain into the arms of Jesus.
If you are hurting … run to the cross!
If you are doubting … run to the cross!
If you are in pain … run to the cross!
If you guilty … run to the cross!
God’s answer to your pain is not a sermon or a theory or a book you need to read. God’s answer to your pain is a Person. God’s answer is Jesus. Run to the cross and lay hold of the Son of God. Fix your gaze on him whose death has set you free. Embrace him in the midst of your pain. May God help you in this moment to turn to Jesus with all your heart. Amen.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.