Why Does God Allow Pain and Suffering?
1 Peter 2:19–24 – Explore God
Third Sunday after Epiphany – January 27, 2019 (am)
Please Note: The first eight paragraphs of the text below are not included in this recording.
We have before us this morning the most emotionally charged, the most challenging, the most difficult question among the seven we’re addressing in this series. I don’t know that there is a bigger struggle with the concept of God common to those both inside and outside the church than what C. S. Lewis labeled the problem of pain. Among those who select None when asked to identify what religion they follow, the #1 reason for their answer is that they believe suffering disproves the existence of God. In a blog on ZondervanAcademic.com, the problem of evil and suffering was listed fifth among the top ten problems with God that Christians will face as they share the gospel. And anarticle on the Focus on the Family website begins: Probably one of the greatest challenges faced by Christianity and Christians is the reality of evil and suffering. Gavin Ortlund summed it up well in his blog: The problem of evil is a problem for everyone, Christian and skeptic alike. It’s both academic and everyday. None of us can escape it, and many of us stumble over it.
Let’s just dive right in. We’ll approach this under three headings.
Capturing the Vast Dimensions of the Dilemma
Pain and suffering come in many forms, and we’re all acquainted with some form of them. When we use the words this way we’re immediately inclined to think of the extreme, profound forms: natural disasters like the Indonesian tsunami and west coast wildfires or persecuted people groups like the Jews in WWII or Africans under slavery. And surely these are examples of pain and suffering. But so are the flu and power outages and fender-benders. Pain and suffering come from family conflict and poor eyesight and job dissatisfaction and personality disorders. They come from financial pressures and life-altering diagnoses and every sort of misunderstanding.
This past week, my own preparations toward addressing today’s question were shrouded in practical experience. I was thankful for Gwen Wright teaching Children’s Church last Sunday morning, despite that day’s challenges with her M.S. My wife came down with the flu Sunday evening into Monday, changing our schedule and reminding us of the profound weakness even of our relatively healthy bodies. Tuesday morning, I visited Whitney Lecocq in the hospital as she & Dan were just beginning to weigh the variables regarding their little four-day-old Marian. There were far more questions than answers that morning about the course her young life might take.
Wednesday morning a thoughtful email arrived wrestling with painful topic of racism and how little sensitivity there seems to be in the church to how big a difference could be made through patient and persistent exercise of gospel-enabled compassion and mercy.
While I was thinking about that, in the middle of staff meetings, the text exchange began with the Ewoldts and the likely commencement of the next round in Chase’s battle against cancer. And later that same day on that same conversation thread was the news that the teacher who had walked with Chase through the last four years at school had suddenly died of cancer.
There was cancer and celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis and amyloidosis and probably more in the circle of just ten people in Prayer Meeting that night.
I met with others on Thursday and Friday regarding relational struggles in marriage and pre-marriage. I prayed with families whose children are right in the thick of traumatic battles, another whose adult son was injured in a car accident, another who is facing a personal battle that just boiled over during this week.
This is just one week in our little body of believers. And I haven’t named them all. This world is saturated with pain and suffering! Yet, there’s something in us that tells us this isn’t right, it’s unnatural, it shouldn’t be. And that’s the odd part.Where do we get the idea that suffering is strange, that it should be avoidable? And how have so many decided that the very existence of God is proven impossible by it?
On the one hand, pain and suffering seem incompatible with a loving and all-powerful God. If He were all-powerful, He could end our suffering and pain. And if He were truly loving, He would do it. So, either He’s not all-powerful or He’s not truly loving. But either way, we’ve proven that the God of the Bible, Whose existence we affirmed last week, can’t really be real!
On the other hand, it’s not quite that simple because in a world without the God Who’s made the promises and established the purpose of life like we’ve seen these past two Sundays, we wouldn’t have any basis for hope that this world could and should be different. The trouble we face in it would just be the way the world works. It’s only when we have some knowledge or assurance that life could be better than it is that we can actually believe we’re missing something real. And it’s only when we think life should be better than it is that we feel inclined to blame someone for how it actually is. C. S. Lewis made this point pretty well: In a sense, he wrote (Pain 8),[Christianity] creates, rather than solves, the problem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.
So, we’re caught. If we believe our pain and suffering disprove God, then we’ve solved the problem of pain. But we’re left in this world without any hope of things being different. We’re still suffering. And we still don’t like it. But now we haveno good reason either for thinking we shouldn’t need to suffer, or for explaining why it seems to us like we shouldn’t need to suffer. If God doesn’t exist, then we’ve eliminated the only Factor that could give us hope of escaping suffering, not to mention that we’ve also given up the One whose existence explains the existence of the world we live in, and the purpose we find in living here, and why it is that we seem to have this deep inner hope of something better, even entitlement tosomething better.
Crafting the Proper Perspective for a Solution
So, if there is a loving, all-powerful God in this world, how is it that we account for the fact that it is so saturated with pain and suffering? Now there’s the right question! And the quick answer is that this God’s real world hasn’t been delivered yet! We’re living now in the world that prepares us to engage with Himmost fully, most satisfyingly, in His real world once it’s finally delivered. And learning to engage most fully and satisfyingly with this loving and all-powerful God is precisely why this world ends up being so saturated in pain and suffering.
As we’ve already covered in this series, at the pinnacle of His creation of this world, God made image-bearing creatures who were enabled to reproduce in love and fill this world with such creatures, and to rule over all He made on His behalf. But this very first couple soon rejected His instruction and plunged the race into sin and death—broken relationship with Godspiritually and vulnerable to disease and death physically. God’spunishment for their sin was called the curse. Their reproductionwould now be painful (Gen.316). And the earth itself, the ground, would fight back against their cultivation of it—in pain (they would) eat of it all the days of (their) lives (Gen.3:17). The whole creation was cursed (Rom.8:18-25). Everything is broken! Nothing works as it should. And this is all due to the creatures’ rejection of the Creator, their insistence on going their own way.
But if that is so, why didn’t the Creator just wipe out this world and start afresh? Again, this is the right question! Much has been written in response to this question, and much more than that has been discussed. It’s one of the key questions we can ask in this life. If God truly is fully loving, all-powerful, all-knowing and wise; if He is uncompromisingly pure and holy and just, then there had to be a better reason not to destroy this world and start all over again than there was to do so! The purpose for His creation of the world and all that’s in it had to be better served by letting this world play out in its fallen state than by scrapping it and starting all over again.
This is a profound insight, but it also has to be true. Still,what’s the answer? Why does God allow pain and suffering? To put it most simply, God is more glorified—His purpose is better served, His perfections are more clearly seen, more deeply experienced—by saving sinners in a fallen world, especially in the way He’s doing it, than by wiping them out and starting again. There’s something about God that we see and learn and experience and worship by receiving the redemption He provides for all who believe, something we wouldn’t see or learn or experience as clearly, and surely wouldn’t worshipwithout experiencing His salvation.
Cultivating Genuine Hope Sufficient for the Day
As we begin to grasp this important truth, that’s when we begin to find hope in the midst of our suffering and pain. When we recognize that God is providing a way out of our sin and suffering and death, we begin to understand how a loving, all-powerful God and a pain-saturated world aren’t entirely incompatible. We also begin to see that He actually is wiping the old one and making it all anew; He’s just not doing it immediately. We begin to understand what Peter wrote to His people (2Pe.3:8-9): 8 … with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. He’s in no hurry! 9 The Lord is… patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. This loving, all-powerful God is patient with us! He’s waiting for all who will to receive the salvation He offers!
We need to know more about this salvation. And we’ll hear it in our text for today (1Pe.2:19-24). Peter is talking to his people about (particularly unjust) suffering: 19 [It] is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, [we endure] sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when [we] sin and are beaten for it, [we] endure? But if when [we] do good and suffer for it [we] endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this [we] have been called, because Christ also suffered for [us], leaving [us] an example, so that [we] might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed. Not only did this God save sinners, redeem rebels, He did it at His own cost! It would be like a judge declaring someone guilty of a capital offense, issuing the death penalty, and then stepping down from the bench and taking that punishment himself. If any judge ever did that, he could do it only once! But since this Judge is God, He can do it for all who believe!
He was without sin, that’s what the passage says (22). Yet, He didn’t answer back when He was accused of sin. Rather, 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds [we] have been healed. He entered into this sin-shattered world, which wassuffering because of our sins—He entered into our suffering—received the sentence required by the curse, delivered us from it,and in so doing freed us now to live in His righteousness!
This, then, is the salvation He is [patiently] waiting for all who will to receive. This is why He’s in no great hurry to bring this suffering world to an end! It will bring His offer of salvation to an end! And judgment will fall upon all those who haven’treceived it—the same judgment that fell on Christ for those who have!
But what about this suffering itself. There are some gruesome manifestations of it. We haven’t even mentioned the horrors of things like human trafficking and torture and twisted forms of cruelty. How does this salvation help us with things like that? Two observations here: first, our passage today reminds us that this loving and all-powerful God is also a [just judge] (23). There will not be a single wrong done in this universe, great or small, that will not receive meticulous justice from this pure and holy God. We can count on that. It is Who He is. And second (this is amazing to consider), life in the new world that He will create for all who believe, where they will be with Him and He will dwell among them as their God (Rev.21:3), will be so glorious and satisfying and filled with peace that all the pain and suffering of this world will fade from memory. Paul said(Rom.8:18) 18 … that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. And elsewhere he added (2Co.4:17: 17): For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
Do you hear what he’s saying? Not only do the sufferings of this [world] not [compare] to the glory we’re headed for as His saved ones, but our sufferings are preparing that glory for us—[eternally weighty] glory, beyond all comparison! This means that not only will every evil be judged with perfect justice, but every little bit of the suffering we experience in this world while awaiting the day of our salvation is shaping the expression of glory we’ll encounter in the world to come! And it will be way out of proportion with our suffering! It’s not worth comparing the two. The glory is beyond all comparison!
So, why does God allow pain and suffering? Ultimately, He doesn’t! He is going to wipe it out! The new heaven and new earth where this glory awaits us is characterized by no more tears or death or mourning or crying or pain anymore, for [all these] things have passed away (Rev.21:4). So, ultimately Goddoesn’t allow pain and suffering! They’re just part of this world that’s stained and shattered by our sin. And they’ll last as long as God [patiently] waits for our repentance. And as soon as He says: That’s enough; it’s time to enter into your full salvation,pain and suffering will go away never to be experienced again.
We need to encourage one another with these words(1Th.4:18). We need to preach them to ourselves day by day, moment by moment, in the midst of our suffering. And we need to (Heb.3:13) 13 … exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of [us] may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin, the deceitfulness of [pain], and miss out on the deliverance God provides. Preach this to yourself like David did in Psa.42 (5, 11; 43:5): 11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for Ishall again praise him, my salvation and my God. Preach it to yourself, and to one another, along with Paul’s reminder to the Roman as he was addressing their suffering (8:32): 32 He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? The guarantee that our God will complete our suffering in glory is as sure as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Let’s now remember our Lord’s death, and anticipate the Day of His return, as we celebrate communion together.