Why do appalling things happen? The reality of pain and suffering is probably one of the key reasons many people insist that God doesn’t exist.
Their line of thinking follows this simple syllogism: ‘A God who is all-powerful and all-loving would use his vast resources to 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.
However, consider 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.
Having created us, not as robots but in his image, God has given us the capacity of choice and with it the potential to turn from him and experience the consequential suffering. However, as Jesus’ Parable of ‘The Prodigal Son’ tells us, the very experience of suffering and pain can bring us to our senses and our need to turn back to God.
HOW TO RESPOND
So, let’s consider how we might respond to our questioning or even cynical family and friends.
Wake up. It may sound harsh, but we need to recognize that none of us deserves any good thing from God. We deserve judgment rather than mercy. Nevertheless, God desires that we come to him. Sometimes he uses the tragedies of life, not so much because he is especially angry with one person or group, but rather as a wake-up call. We need to sort out our relationship with our Creator while there is time (see Luke 13:1-5; 2 Peter 3:8-10). CS Lewis spoke of suffering as ‘God’s megaphone’.
Justice. We often overlook the fact that it is God’s ultimate plan to uphold all truth and justice. A good and perfectly just God is behind the universe. One day he will bring us all into his courtroom. Perfect justice will be done – as we read for example, in Luke 12:1-7.
Failures. Suffering sometimes occurs because of the disobedience of God’s people. We can blame society for making a mess of its relationship with God, but we also need to ask ourselves, ‘To what extent are we or the church to blame?’ We may respond to the world’s injustices or poverty by mailing a check to a Christian care program, but we give little heed to the thought that we may have contributed to the ills of others through the inconsistencies of our life or the public disagreements we have with one another. Too often there has been a failure in times of change to make church truly welcoming, forgiving, and joyful.
Transformation. In the meantime, it is God’s desire that we grow up in our relationship with him. It follows that some of our experiences of pain will occur because of God’s disciplining hand (Hebrews 12:3-13). Furthermore, there may be occasions when, for reasons hidden to us, God has given us a special place in participating in Christ’s share of suffering for the sake of others (Romans 5:1-5; 8:17ff; Colossians 1:24-27).
Answers? We also need to be honest and admit there will be times when we do not seem to have any intellectual answers to our suffering. Job’s questions, for example, were not answered in the strict sense. Instead, God himself asked Job a series of questions concerning his own majesty and nature (Job 38-41). Job’s response was to turn to God in humble repentance and wholehearted trust even though he didn’t receive all the answers (Job 42). We can compare Job’s experience with the way Joseph (Genesis 50:19, 20), and Jesus himself, exemplified a confidence that God would ultimately vindicate them (Romans 8:28-30).
We need to remember that God, in Jesus Christ, has experienced every agony that we experience. We may not always understand our plight or the plight of others, but we can be comforted and comfort others in the sure knowledge that God in Christ has tasted the agony of injustice, the pain of suffering, ignominy, and death (Hebrews 2:18). On the cross, when evil humankind crucified the sinless Son of God, when Jesus took evil on himself without retaliation, God bore the sin of those who turn to him. The cross of Christ gives us confidence that God has our best interests at heart. Jesus’ resurrection assures us of it.
In Romans 8:38 we read, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
© John G. Mason