Why do appalling things happen? Why do events such as the massacre last Sunday in Las Vegas occur? Why do the seemingly innocent suffer?
For the professing Christian who says that God not only exists but that he is compassionate and all-powerful, it is one of life’s toughest questions. And I have to say that there are no complete answers. So what can we say about this profound and perplexing subject? As this is a subject that often crops up in conversations let me briefly touch on a number of points.
First of all, we need to express verbally and practically our compassion for those who suffer, and pray for them.
Second, at an appropriate time – and we need to pray for wisdom about the timing – it is good to be prepared to discuss this issue when God’s existence is questioned.
Many people use the following argument to say that a good and loving God cannot exist: ‘A God who is all-powerful and all-loving would end suffering and pain for his creatures. BUT, suffering and pain exist. Therefore a God who is all-powerful and all-loving does not exist.’
At first sight, this reasoning makes sense. And we should be prepared to acknowledge that when we are talking with others. However, it is useful to point to the response by philosophers such as Alvin Plantinga who conclude, not that God does not exist, but that ‘A God who is all powerful and all loving has a bigger plan’.
This, of course, raises another question: ‘Is there any evidence of a bigger plan and if so, what is it?’ To answer this we need to explore themes we find in the New Testament.
God’s bigger plan. Colossians 2:13-15 reads: You, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, having cancelled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.
Captives. The Bible sees history as divided into two great eras. Before Jesus came there was the present age— the world. Now that Jesus has come a new era has begun—the age to come. For the present, this stands alongside the first era. Yes, God has always been in control, but the first era is in bondage to sin and evil. In it we are captive to moral laws we can’t keep. Even when God’s written law was revealed, we couldn’t keep it.
The accuser, satan, has power over us because he holds a catalog of our failures to present to God’s court of justice. God, being the perfect and just God he is, has no other choice but to condemn us to death because sin – treachery against him – is a capital offense.
C.S. Lewis captures these elements in his Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Edmund had betrayed Peter, Susan and Lucy, and Aslan himself. The white witch demanded Edmund’s life saying he had broken ‘the laws of the deep.’ “His life is forfeit,” she shrieked.
This is our natural condition. Alienated from God, we are in the power of spiritual forces we cannot defeat, and we are en route to a grave we can’t avoid. And so we are captive to the pain, suffering and evil that we have brought upon ourselves.
But then came Jesus. At a single stroke he smashed the bars of the spiritual prison of the first age. He wiped out the moral debt of laws we couldn’t obey and disarmed the demonic powers we couldn’t overcome. Furthermore, he abolished death whose clutches we couldn’t escape.
How is this extraordinary freedom achieved? Paul tells us twice: By the cross. For Paul, the first era has given way to the world to come. The cross is where Jesus Christ has potentially turned our captivity into a glorious liberty.
Having created us, not as robots but in his image, God gave us the capacity of choice and with it the potential to turn from him and experience the consequential suffering. The more we leave God out of the equation of life, the greater the darkness will be.
In an extraordinary act of generous love, God’s bigger plan has been to use his vast resources to destroy the enmity – our hostility towards him and towards one another, and the suffering and pain that follow – without destroying the enemy – you and me.
It’s a plan we would never have dreamed of – God himself providing the means of restoring us as the glory of his creation. No wonder Paul the Apostle wrote, The sufferings of this present age cannot be compared with the glory that is to be revealed (Romans 8:18).
In her Wall Street Journal opinion piece two weeks ago in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation of southern Texas (September 7, 2017), Peggy Noonan canvassed the range of responses to assist people in need following the storm.
At one point she wrote: ‘The local ABC station caught a young Catholic priest, a French Canadian assigned to a Houston parish, out in a kayak in the heavy rain looking for people who could use a Mass. “I guess this is how the Americas were evangelized as well with a canoe,” he said, “and this is a kayak. I hope that can bring a smile to a few people.” Noticing the TV cameras, he said: “I guess we’re live (TV). The Lord is alive, and the Lord is always with us as well.”’
Indeed, this is one of the great things we learn about the Lord God; he is not only alive but is always with us.
Psalm 139 is sometimes described as the crown of Hebrew poetry. In it, David the writer speaks of a Watcher who is not a mere passive receptor of information, like the prying eye of cyberspace. Rather he is someone who knows and understands every detail of our existence – including our motives. And, what is most important, he cares for us at every twist and turn of life.
‘You have searched me God, you know me,’ David says. ‘I have no privacy, no place from which I can exclude you. There is no corner of my mind where I can shut the door against you. Everything I do, everything I say, everything I think, is wide open to you.’ ‘You hem me in behind and before, you have laid your hand upon me’, he continues.
At first, it seems that David is saying, ‘everywhere I go, every step I take, I feel you breathing down my neck.’ But the larger context shows us that he doesn’t see it this way. The words you hem me in can also be translated, ‘you guard me’ or ‘you encircle me for my protection.’
He doesn’t view God’s all-embracing knowledge as a threat, but rather as a refuge. He is not at all resentful of God’s all-seeing intelligence.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? He asks. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast, we read in verses 9 and 10.
David’s imagery of taking the wings of the morning is that of traveling at the speed of light to a far place. Even there he will still find God. The instant the thought enters his head that he might escape God, he realizes it is impossible.
Many of us have felt the same as David, but we sometimes have a note of frustration in our voice: ‘God, I want to get away from you. I want to forget you’.
But, surprisingly to us, David isn’t trying to run away. His reaction to God’s all-embracing knowledge is one of deep-felt gratitude. For unlike human prying eyes, God’s eyes are pure, and he is just in all his ways. When we truly turn to him, his presence is not a threat or a cause for anxiety, but rather joy. David understood that God’s presence means guidance and protection.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you” (vv.11-12). David was anticipating the possibility that in a moment of panic he might find himself saying, ‘God has left me and forgotten me.’ Instead, he was saying that no matter how dark the situation seems, God has infra-red vision – he sees in the night just as well as he sees in the day.
Yes, God expects men and women to be true neighbors, putting aside differences and serving one another in times of need. But we often forget that such care and compassion springs out of the nature of the God who has made us. Indeed, human acts of compassion do not mean that God is on the sidelines. His reassuring hand is present as much in the tough times as in the good times.
In another psalm (Psalm 23) David could say: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. And, in the aftermath of his resurrection from the dead, Jesus promised his disciples and in turn you and me, that he will be with us always – every moment of every day – until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20).
On the occasions – all too rare these days – when there is a serious conversation about God, the discussion focuses on what we might think of God. Dr. Benjamin Jowett was at one time Master of Balliol College, Oxford, England. He was renowned for his sharp mind and rapier-like wit.
On one occasion, at dinner at the high table, he was asked his opinion about God. He responded, “I think it would be a great impertinence were I to express my opinion about God. The only constant anxiety of my life is to know what is God’s opinion of me.”
With these thoughts in mind, it is helpful to turn to Psalm 103 which begins, Bless the Lord, O my soul…
It is a psalm of David, one he seems to have written for the great choir that he had set up in Jerusalem. From the beginning, he focuses on his thankfulness to God for his many blessings, something we so easily overlook in the busyness of life. We take so much for granted.
What is interesting in this psalm is that David did not go on to list all the specific things God had done for him. Rather he focused on features of God’s character, features that I can only lightly touch on here – God’s mercy, God’s goodness and His awesome power.
God’s mercy: God will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever (v.9). Martin Luther once commented, ‘Wrath is God’s strange work.’ Anger is alien to God: it is his response to our failure to honor him and give him the thanks that is his due. There was a time when there was no anger in God. Equally, there will again come a time when there will be nothing to rouse his anger.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him, David continues (verse 11). Children sometimes ask their parents, ‘How much do you love me?’ and they open their arms saying, ‘This much, or this much?’ When David said this to God, he realized that not even the expanse of the universe illustrates the vast dimensions of God’s love.
As far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us, we read in verse 12. We can’t watch the sun rise and set at the same time; we have to turn our back on one to see the other.
Through the lens of the New Testament we see that with the incarnation and the cross of the Word of God, God created a way of detaching our sin from us, so that he could condemn the one without condemning the other. The metaphor makes the point that when we ask God for mercy, it becomes possible for him to look at us, while at the same time turning his back on our sin. In Christ, the Son of God – and this is God’s greatest glory – he can put us and our sin on two different horizons.
God’s goodness and awesome power: We have even more reason than David to bless the name of God and have every confidence in him, for we live on the other side of the cross that once stood on Calvary’s hill. That cross is a far greater measure of God’s love than the unfathomable depths of the universe about which David spoke. The arms of the cross show us the grief that tore God’s heart because of our sin. In Christ, God not only lifts us out of the pit, but also lifts us from the depths of hell and raises us to the glory of new life forever.
How important it is that we ask ourselves what all this tells us about God’s opinion of us when we turn to the Lord Jesus Christ.
It challenges us to ask ourselves whether there is any real praise of God in our hearts. It’s easy to go to church, to sing songs, say Amen to the prayers, but to have no real personal connection with him. It’s easy to hear sermons that move us, but we’re not really listening to God because we’re more impressed with the preacher than we are with thinking about God’s opinion of us.
True blessing. Let me ask: do you ever consider what God’s opinion of you might be? Do you have a sense of connectedness with him that comes through knowing Jesus Christ?
Reflect: The steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep covenant and remember to do his commandments (Psalm 103:17-18).
One of the marks of human selfishness is our failure to say, ‘Thank you.’ King Lear, one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, illustrates this theme. The play tells the story of a man who voluntarily set aside his titles and property in favor of his three daughters, only to find himself reduced to poverty and homelessness. His daughters turned him out. “Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,” King Lear says. “How sharper than the serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.”
Some parents might identify with these sentiments, but how often do we as God’s children express our gratitude to him?
The opening lines of Psalm 95 read: O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods… (Psalm 95:1-3).
While there may be times when we express our thanks in silence or even with tears, singing is a great way to show our love for God. We sing when we are happy and glad when there is joy in our hearts. Have you heard the singing of the Welsh Rugby Union supporters? They can’t stop, and their singing is enthusiastic and full-bodied.
The opening lines of Psalm 95 are the words of people who know God as their refuge and strength – to quote Psalm 46 that I touched on last week.
Consider the repetition of the verbs: sing, make a joyful noise,… How different this is when so many of us drift into church pre-occupied, late and apathetic.
Indeed Psalm 95 suggests that singing is not just a matter of responding to God. Through singing, we also exhort and encourage one another. That suggests that our songs need to be strong on Bible and not insipid, ‘woosy’ stuff. For songs are not intended merely to arouse some spiritual ecstasy: they are instruments of special instruction. Singing is an important way we can express our thanks to God and our relationship with one another.
Further, as the psalm unfolds, we see reasons why we should sing: For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also… (Psalm 95:3-4).
One of the distinct features of Christianity is the insistence that there is a living, personal God at the heart of the universe. God created all that there is, and continues to sustain every part of it.
Furthermore, the more scientists discover, the more extraordinary the universe seems. There are chemists and physicists who tell us what the Scriptures reveal: the universe has not come by chance, but rather is the work of God’s design and purpose.
So, consider the personal pronouns and the imagery of verses 4 and 5: In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it; for his hands formed the dry land. These are personal images.
The word hands speaks of a God who is not some robotic brain behind the universe. When we plumb the depths of the cosmos we find not so much a scientific formula or a mathematical equation, but a divine personality.
All this tells us something else about God and us – he sustains all things, he directs all things. It’s important to know this and remind one another of it, for this helps us make sense of our lives. We see that we’re not just part of a meaningless journey going nowhere.
Here is another great reason for singing to the Lord. Our lives have a purpose, a goal. And that purpose and that goal are bound up with knowing this God who is our refuge.
No wonder Psalm 95 insists that we come and sing to the Lord: Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! For the Lord is a great God, a great king above all gods.
It is often said that people who go to church leave their brains at the door. But worship of God is not a mindless activity. Songs of praise are not simply a strategy to create the right psychological atmosphere. Vital Christianity always gives rise to joyful singing because there are sound reasons for thanksgiving and joy.
How often do you think about the good things you enjoy with a spirit of thanksgiving in your heart and a song of praise on your lips – when you go to church and when you rise in the morning?
The build up of arms in North Korea and the associated threats are troubling – as we see for example, in the fluctuations of the equity markets. In a world where there is so much division and uncertainty, we need wise and cool heads – wisdom for leaders and cool, clear minds amongst the people of God.
Wisdom for Leaders. In his First Letter to Timothy, Paul the Apostle writes: I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Paul expects that God’s people will pray for all people, including those in positions of authority. He has in mind leaders at every level of government.
Something we overlook these days is the fact that the followers of Jesus Christ, for the first three hundred years or so, were often persecuted under Roman rule. The Roman historian Tacitus, for example, tells us that Emperor Nero used the followers of Chrestus as scapegoats for the fire in Rome. Nero put them through all kinds of barbarous cruelty including the lion’s den in the arena in Rome. In Paul’s day, God’s people had every reason to hate the state, yet the New Testament calls upon us to respect the civil authorities for what they are: in the providence of God they are there for the good order and protection of society.
In every generation, God’s people are called upon to pray for leaders. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer reflected this in the liturgies he developed for the Church of England in the 16th century. For example, in a recent update of his 1552 Service of The Lord’s Supper we pray: Almighty and ever-living God, we are taught by your holy Word to offer prayers and supplications and to give thanks for all people… We pray that you will lead the nations of the world into the way of righteousness; and so guide and direct their leaders, especially N, our (Queen/President/Prime Minister), that your people may enjoy the blessings of freedom and peace. Grant that our leaders may impartially administer justice, uphold integrity and truth, restrain wickedness and vice, and maintain true religion.
Cool Heads. The Book of Psalms reminds us that in the midst of extreme events, as well as the day-to-day realities of life, our only hope is to turn to the Lord God for his help and to his Word for his wisdom and strength. For example, Psalm 46:1-2 says: God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
These words show us that the Bible knows about suffering and evil, especially human evil and its devastating effects on this world. We see here that God ‘s presence is not dislocated from such evils, nor is it abstracted from them. Rather, the Psalm reveals God as being in the midst of them: he is not the cause of evils, but neither is he removed from them.
Further, because the Bible speaks about evil, it anticipates human wickedness. We should never be surprised at what evil men and women might perpetrate, for we live in a world that is in rebellion against God. We should not be surprised at the consequences.
Psalm 46 encourages us: There is a river, whose streams make glad the city of God…. God is in the midst of her; she will not be moved; God will help her at the break of day. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts (Psalm 46:4-6). God has not left us to our own devices: he has committed himself to be involved. While we see the instability of humanity – the nations rage, the kingdoms totter – we are also assured of God’s final say – he utters his voice – in judgment on the nations.
The Psalm concludes with the command: Be still, and know that I am God (verse 10). This is not so much a word to God’s people, but rather God’s word to the turbulent seas and a rebellious world. It is a command that foreshadows Jesus’ words to the stormy seas: ‘Peace! Be still (Mark 4:39). It is the same powerful voice of authority that commanded the deceased Lazarus: ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ (John 11:43)
God will be exalted among the nations; he will be exalted in the earth (Psalm 46:10).
If such a God is with us, the Psalm concludes (verse 11), we can have every confidence that when we turn to him, he will hear us and sustain us. Despite the awfulness of our experiences at times God is our strength and refuge.
Optional. You may want to meditate on Psalm 46.
One of the things I love about the Bible is its earthy realism. It understands the world we live in – the good and the bad, the joys and the sadness. It understands how we feel about life’s injustices especially when we see people who mock the notion of God, enjoying success. Nothing ever seems to go wrong for them.
The Bible also understands our questions in the face of terrorism and the realities of fire and flood, drought and famine. Why doesn’t God just step in? It seems so out of character.
True faith will always have questions. In fact, the faith that refuses to ask questions is one which closes its mind to reality and leaves itself open to the contempt of the skeptic. True faith will want to address tough questions and be willing to experience the doubts that arise.
Doubt. Many people think that to have doubts is to lack faith. But doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt and unbelief are two very different things. Doubt is something that only a believer can experience, for we can only doubt what we believe.
Indeed, when we believe in God we often find our relationship with him grows stronger and more intimate as we are willing to face our doubts by asking tough questions.
Psalm 73 is a good example. The writer tells us that he came close to abandoning his faith in God: But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled; my steps had nearly slipped. Yet at the end of the psalm, he says: But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge,… (73:28). In Romans 8:18, Paul wrote: For the sufferings of this present world cannot be compared to the glory that is to come.
Through the psalm, the writer tells of his spiritual pilgrimage – how he progressed from doubt to complete trust in God. He touches on his reasons for doubt and then speaks of the solution.
One of his key questions is framed by his understanding that God is good to the upright (73:1). ‘Why is it,’ he asks, ‘that many who are godless find life easy while I suffer? Where is God?’
Solution. As he reflects on this, he perceives their end… God will bring about their downfall – and it will be eternal. The idea of a final day of accounting is often mocked today. But if there is no final judgment, morality, however we define it, becomes meaningless. Indeed, unless we see that there is a future accounting, goodness itself has no value. True believers understand that the future is real even though it cannot yet be seen.
Strategy. In Psalm 73:15ff we learn how the poet worked through his doubts. He went to ‘church’: When… I went into the sanctuary of God… I perceived their end. Good churches not only read God’s Word but believe and teach it. Confronted with God’s Word the psalm-writer began to see what happens to those who choose not to believe: They are like a dream when one awakes; on awaking you despise their phantoms (73:20).
We today have all the more assurance about this because we now have the evidence of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without him, life in its fullness will not last.
C.S. Lewis once put it this way: “All your life an unattainable ecstasy has hovered just beyond the grasp of your consciousness. The day is coming when you will wake to find, beyond all hope, that you have attained it, or else, that it was within your reach and you have lost it forever”.
Optional. You may want to read and reflect on Psalm 73.
Photo by Mike Wilson on Unsplash