In an earlier post I began began discussing what is typically called the problem of evil: if God is all-powerful and all-good, then why is there pain and suffering in the world? Either He is not all-powerful and is thus impotent to do anything about it or He is not all-good and is simply unwilling. If He is both powerful and good, then why is does evil exist in the world?
This of course gives birth to a whole host of other very pertinent questions, i.e., “Where is God when it hurts? Where is God in the midst of pain, suffering, and great evil?”
I set out to consider these questions from three different (although overlapping) angles: the philosophical, the existential, and the theological perspectives. Last week we talked about the philosophical perspective and began discussing the existential. This week I would like to pick up where we left off with the existential and then see how all of this is undergirded by the theological perspective.
Now you may remember from last week that by existential I mean simply that each person has certain experiences which are encountered in the course of his or her existence, and that we must in some way square all of our theories and philosophies (and I believe our theologies for that matter) with the way they are borne out in our existence.
Who is the biblical poster-child for existential suffering?
Job – The book of Job is what is called a theodicy – a response to the problem of evil in the world that attempts logically, relevantly, and consistently to defend God as simultaneously omnipotent, all-loving and just despite the reality of evil. Since the question of evil and suffering is so profound in human experience, it is not surprising that Job is perhaps one if the oldest books of the Bible. It seems that as long as man has been contemplating God, one of the central thrusts in that contemplation has been attempting to understand human suffering.
Job is a unique look at the issue because it gives us a view of suffering that we normally are not privy to, namely the eternal view. It’s as if the heavenly curtain is pulled back and through the narrator we see what is actually happening behind the scenes, what is going on in ultimate reality. God allows “the accuser” to attack Job, a very rich man by all earthly standards. Over the course of these attack, Job loses his wealth, his family, his servants, and his health, yet in the midst of his suffering he chooses to worship rather than curse God. The reader sees the dialogue that takes place between God and “the accuser” in the heavenly realms as they discuss Job’s situation.
Although we know what is going on behind the scenes, it is clear that Job does not. The narrator now dumps us into the midst of Job’s existential angst as he struggles with the justice of God and attempts to reconcile popular theology with his life experience. His friends who should be there to comfort him, instead chastise him and tell him that he surely is suffering on account of his own wickedness.
The interesting thing is that when God finally speaks to Job, God doesn’t reveal the purpose behind everything that has happened to Job. God makes no attempt to defend His justice to Job; and why should He? God simply begins asking Job questions that systematically help Job to see that is completely out of his league. All of this leads Job to a fascinating crisis point.
“Then Job answered the LORD and said:
‘I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? ‘Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.'” – Job 42:1-6.
What is Job saying? I thought that I knew you intellectually, but now I know you experientially and that is sufficient for me. This lines up very well with Viktor Frankl’s take on existentialism, “What is demanded of man is not… to endure the meaninglessness of life; but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms. Logos is deeper than logic.” Meaning is deeper than rationalization. When we have a genuine encounter with God in the midst of suffering, all of a sudden suffering doesn’t have to make sense, it just is.
In the prior post I asked can you see Him. But the truth is, sometimes we can’t really see Him or understand what is going at the present moment, because of our limited, finite perspective. However, many times, perhaps even most of the time, we will reach a point later in life when we can look back and see purpose, meaning, and value in some of the most unpleasant experiences of our lives.
Now we get to the ultimate perspective: the theological perspective. I have saved this for last because the philosophical and the existential coalesce into the theological. Theology is the study of God as ultimate reality and is therefore the foundational understanding of man’s existence.
Pain as forge
It is a misrepresentation of the gospel to say that when one comes to Christ all of a sudden they can expect everything to get better. This in fact is rarely the case, but this should not surprise us. When God delivered the Israelites out the oppression of Egypt, where did He take them? Directly into the desert. And what is the dessert? It is the forge where God forms the character of His people.
This of course is not to say that there isn’t a marked improvement when one comes to faith; but that improvement is spiritual rather than physical. It doesn’t mean that we will all of a sudden cease struggling with our addictions, it doesn’t mean that our financial woes will magically disappear. In fact, it may even seem that things get more difficult when we first come to Christ because we become painfully aware of the sin in our lives and we begin to take responsibility for it. The fact is, God is always more concerned with our character than our comfort. My personal conversion was chatastrophic; in some ways I am still recovering from it. This, however, is a very good thing.
When I was a child, my father had a friend who was a sculptor. He was an amazingly talented man who created welded pieces of art as well as chainsaw sculpture. One day I was watching him work on a 6 foot log, turning the saw this way and that, carefully chipping away. After he got the large chunks cut off he switched to a smaller saw and started doing the detail work. After a couple of hours he had turned this log into the most amazing sculpture of a grizzly bear.
I was amazed by the whole process and when he had finished I couldn’t think of anything to say other than, “How on earth did you do that?” He just replied, “It’s easy, I just cut away anything that doesn’t look like a grizzly bear.” This seems not so unlike the purpose of pain in our lives as we are conformed to the image of Christ. Pain is the chisel in God’s hand that He skillfully uses to chip away anything that doesn’t look like Jesus.
Pain can be very productive. Pain yields brokenness. Genuine faith is strengthened in and through suffering. Perhaps this is what Paul was talking about in Phil 3:7-11, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, 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, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
I think C. S. Lewis sums it up well, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” – from The Problem of Pain
All things work together for good
One of the most common verses that people like to quote with application to suffering is Rom 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” I fear, however, that the typical application of this verse is out of context. Before we attempt to apply this verse, we first need to consider what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say that things will work according to your plan, that you will like it the way they work, or that you will be comfortable with the outcome.
What it does say: all things work together for good. It will be good according to whose evaluation of it? God’s. It means that in all things God is there working, sometimes behind the scenes, but always there working and guiding it toward an ultimate good. However, like Job, we may never fully understand exactly how these things in fact work for good. Many times it is very difficult to see God in a situation. Our sight becomes clouded and our vision of God is blurred by the intensity of our emotional experience.
Looking to the unseen
One of the most valuable skills we can intentionally develop is what the Bible calls “looking to the unseen.” In his second epistle to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2Co 4:17; cf. Rom 8:18).
There is widespread agreement among the authors of the New Testament that this world in its present form is passing away. It is therefore reasonable not to allow our focus to rest on temporal things but to see that reality actually lies in the eternal realm. Looking to the unseen allowed Job to exclaim, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Does God still love us?
In the last post we looked at the philosophical questions “Is God powerful?” and “Is God good?” But there is another deeper question that I think we all crave to know the answer to: “Does God love us?” Sometimes you hear the comment made that if God really loved me, He would not have allowed this to happen.
I think this objection comes about because we culturally and linguistically have trivialized the word love. For some reason, love is seen as a synonym to kindness. But as C. S. Lewis points out, “Love is something more stern and splendid than mere kindness.” How many children have been thoroughly spoiled because kindness superseded genuine love on the part of the parent?
I fear that many times what we want God to be is nothing more than an indulgent parent who says something to the effect of “I don’t really care what becomes of my children so long as a good time is had by all.” But we don’t have a heavenly Father like that. We have one Who is so much more than kind. We have a Father who loves us enough to discipline us. “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
6For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives” (Heb. 12:5-6).
This is not to say that all suffering is the result of God disciplining us because this is clearly not the case. Some of the suffering we encounter in life is on account of God disciplining us, some is self inflicted, and some simply seems to be gratuitous. Although, from a theological perspective, there really is no such thing as purely gratuitous suffering. After all, that is the point of all of the first three chapters of Genesis. Evil is rampant in the world not because God has made it so, but because man has chosen it. Suffering is the result of man’s sin.
But according to Romans 5:8, God was not content to leave us to our own devices; to let us suffer alone. In fact, He did something so radical that it is shocking. God became a man. Do you have any idea how heavy that is? God took on human flesh so that He could suffer alongside us. He actually entered into the human condition; stepped into this mess that we have made of the world and set it right through His own suffering. Not to mention the fact that He suffered more intensely than any other human being has ever suffered, taking upon Himself the penalty for the sins of all mankind although He had no sin of His own.
And when did He do this? While we were yet sinners. Not because we deserved it, not because we were essentially good people, not because He owed it to us, but for one simple reason: He loves us that much.
In the midst of the pain, the suffering, and the evil, God still loves us. Though the darkness swells and seems to threaten, though it seems to be closing in on all sides, God’s love prevails through the victory of Jesus Christ. “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not” (Jn 1:5).