A couple of years ago, the actor Stephen Fry appeared on an interview show in England. He was asked the same question all celebrities get asked on this particular show: If there is a God, and you were standing before Him, what would you say to Him? Fry’s answer took the host by surprise. “I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.” We could easily dismiss that as the inflammatory words of an atheist, which Fry is, except that many of us have similar questions, even if we don’t use such disrespectful language. I can remember in 2012, when elementary school children were gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut just before Christmas, a devout friend said to me, “I’m having trouble reconciling this with what I believe about God. He could have stopped that, right? He could have sent a cop to that school to intercept that guy. Why didn’t He?” That’s the question that has bedeviled theologians, philosophers, people of faith and people who want to believe since the beginning of time. Some call it the problem of pain. The logic says that if God is all good and all powerful, then He should be able to create a good world. But since there is so much evil in this world, it must mean God isn’t good, He’s not powerful, or He’s simply not there.
Some people deal with the problem of pain on a much more personal level. I know people, including some in our church, who have been hit with a series of devastating blows in a short period of time. You lose your job. Just when you’ve recovered from that shock, you get sick and have to be hospitalized. Of course, there’s no insurance, so how will you dig out of that hole? Then as soon as you get home, your mom dies. At the funeral, your brother tells you that his wife is leaving him and taking the kids with her. Meanwhile, you look across the street at your irreligious neighbor, and he seems to be doing just fine, living a blissful, happy existence. Why? There’s a quote in Bruce Almighty, which tackles some weighty material for a Jim Carrey film: “God is a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass, and I’m the ant. He could fix my problems in five minutes, but He’d rather burn off my feelers and watch me squirm.”
That question even comes up in the Bible. Psalm 44:23-24 is just one of many places, Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? Many godly people have wrestled with this problem for their entire lives. My favorite author, Philip Yancey, has written several books about this topic alone. The one I appreciate the most, and would recommend to anyone who wants more than a 30 minute sermon on the topic, is Where Is God When It Hurts? I know I won’t be able to answer all your questions today. But I do want to show what the Scripture says. Specifically, I want to show how God in His Word contradicts three commonly held beliefs about suffering and faith. And then I want to talk about what God intends to do about the pain in the world.
False idea #1: Evil is God’s fault. If a family is killed in a car accident, did God push that car across the median? If I find out next week that I have cancer, did God put the tumors into my body? That’s what many people believe, including many religious folks. They will often say in times of tragedy, “It’s God’s will,” words that don’t really bring much comfort to those who are suffering. What does the Bible say? It says God became a man named Jesus, who walked among us. When He saw our suffering, did He shrug it off as the irrelevant struggles of pitiful creatures, the way you and I care nothing for the deaths of mosquitoes? Did He walk around apologizing for messing things up so badly in creation? Neither. John 11 tells the story of Jesus going to the village of Bethany, where one of His closest friends, Lazarus, has just died. Vv. 33-35 record what happened when Jesus got to the tomb and met Lazarus’s sister and other mourners: When Jesus saw her crying, and the Jews who had come with her crying, He was angry in His spirit and deeply moved. “Where have you put him?” He asked. “Lord,” they told Him, “come and see.” Jesus wept.
Verse 35 is well known as the shortest verse in the Bible, but few people consider how remarkable it is that Jesus wept over the tomb of a friend. Many versions of the Bible have the word “troubled” in v. 33 instead of the word “angry,” but Greek scholars tell us that the word used is a very strong word indicating rage. Why was Jesus angry? Because this isn’t the world He created. Genesis 1 says the world God made was very good. Genesis 3 says that when human sin entered the world, death and all other evil came with it. Based on the way Jesus acted that day and throughout His life, the Bible is telling us that God is not oblivious to human pain. He doesn’t cause evil to occur. He hates it even more than we do.
False idea #2: I am qualified to judge what it is reasonable for God to allow. Still, the Bible records times when God intervened and stopped evil from winning. We call those events miracles. It makes sense; if God is strong enough to create a world, He can also do miracles whenever He chooses. So maybe God doesn’t cause evil, but He certainly allows it. Every time He chooses not to do a miracle, He is allowing evil to win. I don’t understand this. I’ve prayed for loved ones to be healed, and they died anyway. I’ve prayed for couples to reconcile, and they divorced nonetheless. I prayed for Hurricane Harvey to miss us completely, but that sure didn’t work out. The Bible’s answer to my confusion is, “If you knew what I know, you’d answer those prayers in exactly the way I did.” The story of Joseph is a classic example. He was sold into slavery by his own brothers at 17, then accused by his owner’s wife of a crime he didn’t commit, then forgotten in prison for years. I’m sure he wondered why God didn’t answer His prayers for rescue, for justice. Then he is called upon to interpret the dream of Pharaoh, Egypt’s King, and realizes this is a message from God foretelling a world-wide famine. Impressed, Pharaoh releases Joseph from prison and puts him in charge of preparing the nation for this crisis. Seven years later, when the famine hits, Egypt has plenty of food because of Joseph’s wise management. Then one day, his own brothers come to him, begging to buy grain. He recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. Ultimately, he forgives them, and the entire family moves to Egypt, where they live happily ever after. But years later, when their father dies, the brothers all assume Joseph will have them killed for selling him into slavery all those years ago. Genesis 50:20 shows us his response: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. Joseph is not saying God caused the brothers to do evil. He’s saying God allowed them to commit this evil act. He refused to intervene because He had a bigger plan. If Joseph had lived a long, happy life at home in Canaan with his brothers, he and they would have all starved to death in the famine. As it was, God allowed this evil so that Joseph could be in position to advise Pharaoh and save millions of people, including his own family, from starvation.
Tim Keller tells the story of a friend of his who was a drug dealer in his youth. Then he was shot in the face during a deal gone wrong. He lost most of his sight, and his recovery involved many painful surgeries. In the aftermath, he gave his life to Jesus. Today, he looks back on the person he was then, with his selfishness and cruelty to others, and how God has changed him. Now he has numerous friends, peace and joy. He doesn’t see how that all could have happened without the shooting. “It was a terrible price to pay,” he said, “But it was worth it.” Any parent knows that sometimes parenting involves allowing pain into your child’s life. You have to take them to the doctor for shots; sometimes, the doctor even asks you to hold them still so he can attack them with that evil needle. At night, you allow them to cry themselves to sleep. You wean them from the bottle so that they can learn to eat real food. As they get older, you don’t bail them out when they get into trouble at school; you let them suffer the consequences of their misbehavior. When they are swamped with homework, you help, but you don’t do the work for them. They don’t understand. If you loved me, they say, why wouldn’t you want to spare me pain? Your response as a parent is, “I hate seeing you suffer. But I know this pain is for your good. I know the purpose for it, and I can’t explain it to you now. Someday, you’ll understand.”
False idea #3: The Bible teaches that good people are exempt from suffering. This one comes from within the Church. And it comes, I believe, because people misuse the Bible. For example, people like to quote Jeremiah 29:11, For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope. They say, “See, God wants to give us prosperity, not suffering. We just have to claim all that prosperity God wants to give us.” But they don’t read the entire chapter. This is a letter written from Jeremiah to thousands of Jews who are in exile in Babylon. Jeremiah is writing with bad news: they won’t get to come home to Israel. They will be in exile for 70 years. But God hasn’t forgotten them. He will bring them home after the 70 years are over. That’s why He says He knows the plans He has for them. He’s not talking there to 21st century Americans; He’s talking to Israelites 600 years before the birth of Christ. Or they will use Isaiah 53:5, which says He was bruised for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed, and say, “Jesus died so you would never have to be sick.” But every other place in Scripture that talks about Jesus’ death talks about the spiritual forgiveness we receive. So it’s obvious the healing Isaiah was referring to meant the healing of our souls, not our bodies.
Think about it: The apostles of Jesus suffered intensely. Paul accepted Christ as his Savior, and then became impoverished, rejected by his own family, imprisoned many times, beaten many times, nearly stoned to death, shipwrecked, falsely accused, hunted constantly, and ultimately betrayed by his own people and beheaded. Was this because he wasn’t a good enough person, or because he didn’t have enough faith? I don’t want to discourage you. Following Jesus brings joy that far outweighs the pain, as Paul himself said many times, especially in Philippians. But it certainly doesn’t exempt us from suffering, no matter how faithful we are. In fact, sometimes faithfully following Jesus involves putting our lives at greater risk, experiencing more short-term pain than if we had a more half-hearted commitment.
So what is God’s answer to the Problem of Pain? In the short term, God’s answer is you and me. We are His Church, the Body of Christ. That means we are supposed to collectively do what He did when He was here. What did He do? He went where the hurting people were, and helped them. He relieved suffering. He fed the hungry. He stood up for the oppressed. And He said an astonishing thing in John 14:12, Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. None of us can do what Jesus did. But collectively, as we all use our spiritual gifts and resources, we can do more good in a day than Jesus could. That’s why, if people think God doesn’t care, it’s because the Church isn’t doing its job. That’s why, when we hear statements like the one Stephen Fry made, instead of being offended, we should feel convicted. We should say, “That’s on us. If we were being the Church, no one would think that way.”
But we aren’t the ultimate answer. Jesus came and healed, but that was only a temporary solution, meant to show people that God loved them and had power to save. All those people Jesus healed later died anyway. In spite of His thousands of miracles, there is still hunger, disease, poverty and oppression. The ultimate answer came on two days at the end of His life. One was Good Friday. On that day, Jesus was crucified. People often see that as evidence of the evil of this world; how could such a good man be executed in such a cruel way? But Jesus Himself saw it differently: I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. (John 10:14-15, 18). And Hebrews 12:2 says Jesus for the joy set before Him endured the cross. For the joy! Just like God allowed evil to be done in Joseph’s life so He could turn it into good, Jesus took all the evil that had ever been done and turned it on Himself, so that He could turn it into the ultimate good. Because He took personal responsibility for every evil deed in history, even though He was guilty of none of them, He opened a door for us to reconcile with God and live with Him forever.
The other day that shows God’s ultimate answer to the problem of pain is Resurrection Sunday. When Jesus walked out of that tomb three days after dying, He wasn’t just saying, “I beat death!” He wasn’t saying, “Now you can leave this cursed Earth and live with me forever!” No, He was saying, “I have totally reversed the curse.” The story of humanity begins with a perfect world, and a perfect relationship with God that was destroyed by sin. But with the cross and the empty tomb, Jesus showed that someday, when He returns after everyone has had a chance to hear the Good News and repent, He will make all things new. The story ends with a perfect Earth and a perfect relationship with God that can never again be sullied or ruined, because it has been fully redeemed.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien is about two little creatures called hobbits, Frodo and Sam, and the others who help them take the one ring, a symbol of all the evil in the world, to be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged. At the end of the story, after so many twists and turns, so many moments when it seemed as if evil would win, the ring is destroyed. Mount Doom is shattered, and the armies of evil are wiped out. Sam wakes up and sees his friend Gandalf the wizard and says the following:
“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” “A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”
Tolkien would often say that his writings were not allegorical. Unlike his good friend CS Lewis, Tolkien didn’t like allegory. But he was also a devout Christian, and he knew that someday indeed, The King will return, evil will be destroyed, and everything sad will come untrue. And we will laugh like we’ve never laughed before.