Friday, November 06, 2009

God in the Midst of Evil and Suffering

Several years ago, I received a call that the spouse of a church member had been killed instantly in a very tragic car accident. When I was asked to speak at his funeral, I wondered what words I could share with hurting people who were asking God, "Why?" The words I felt impressed to proclaim in that service came to my mind this week once more. Having conducted two funerals in the span of two days, seen many tragedies unfold in the daily news (including the slaying of American soldiers at Fort Hood), I have been freshly reminded of the presence of intense evil and suffering in the world. I am aware that today, there are many in this city, this country, and the world asking "Why?" or "How could a loving God allow this to happen?" So, below, I present the words I shared in that funeral several years ago in hopes of providing hope, comfort, and assurance.
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We live in a world where it is not uncommon to encounter much evil, much tragedy, and much suffering. It has been called by some a vale of tears. There is moral evil, whereby suffering is inflicted upon us by the sinful choices made by ourselves or others. There are natural tragedies, whereby calamity strikes in the form of a disaster like an earthquake, a tornado, a hurricane, or something like that. And there is physical suffering, which we deal with nearly daily in the forms of pain, disease, and ultimately death. And the unsettling thing in the midst of it all is the seemingly uneven distribution of it, and the sometimes overwhelming magnitude of it. Some appear to endure very little if any trouble in their lives. Others seem to face it at every turn. And often, one calamity is compounded on top of others, causing us to say, “When it rains it pours.” Scoffers stand by asking with biting cynicism, “Where is your God?”

Underlying this question is what appears to some as a logical conundrum. If God is all knowing, all powerful, and all good, as the Christian church has asserted, then how or why does He cause or permit such things to happen? Yet, if were not for the subconscious awareness that such a Being as this does exist, then our frequent encounters with pain and suffering would be no problem for us at all. The fact that these experiences send us searching for answers is in itself a proof that this all knowing, all powerful and all good God is there, and we need desperately to hear some word of promise to us.

Since the days of Augustine, the great theologian of the later fourth and early fifth centuries, Christians have suggested that God is at work in the midst of the tragedy bringing about a greater good. Well-intentioned though that response may be, often it leaves widows, orphans, and other victims of tragedy disillusioned searching for some unspecified good, and wondering what it might be, to whom it will come, and when it might come. God’s word does promise in Romans 8:28 that He is working all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes, but this does not mean that there will be a one-to-one correspondence between the particular evil or suffering a person experiences and some specific good that may come in the long run. This would seem to indicate that the good that God brings about is dependent in some way upon the evil or the tragedy which occurred. This is a very low view of God’s providence, for He does not “need” the evil to occur in order to bring about the good. He is sovereign over both. In His general providence God is working all of our circumstances together (the entire “trajectory” of our lives and experiences) for our good and His glory, but that does not mean that in every bad thing that happens, we should seek or expect a reciprocal good to come about as a direct result.

We take the easy way out when we shake our fists at God for the problems that arise in life. The fact of the matter is that these things are not God’s fault, but rather the fault of our human condition. The suffering we endure in this life is the result of sin’s entrance into the world. When God created humanity, He created an order in which man might live forever without suffering, enjoying unhindered fellowship with his Maker, and the bliss of a perfect environment. Yet, when Adam and Eve yielded to the temptation to disregard the promise of God and disobey His command, sin and all its disastrous effects came rushing in like a whirlwind. Each of us is born with a nature bent toward rebellion against God, and we demonstrate that fact with every act of disobedience. This world in which we live experienced a catastrophic geological upheaval in the judgment against sin in the universal flood in the days of Noah, opening, as it were, a “Pandora’s Box” of potential natural disasters. And the death that God promised would follow that initial act of sin is working in us from the days of our conception, causing pain, sickness, and disease as our corruptible bodies break down over the course of life.

In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus spoke about two unexpected tragedies that had recently occurred. First He spoke of a slaughter of some 3,000 Galileans who were put to death by the order of Pilate as they offered their sacrifices of worship. And second Jesus mentioned a tower in Siloam which fell and killed 18 people. In both of these instances, innocent people died in the course of living out their daily lives. Both of these tragedies involved the reality of life in this fallen world—one being the result of a sinful decree of a godless governor, the other being an unexplained calamity that struck without warning. The number of casualties was greatly different, but that doesn’t soften the blow of each spouse, parent, child, and friend who learns that their loved one’s life has been taken.

In response to these tragedies, Jesus tells us not to think that these things occurred as an act of judgment against the sins of those people. The Galileans who died at the hands of Pilate were not worse sinners than any other Galileans, nor were those in Siloam guiltier of offense than anyone else living in Jerusalem at that time. In saying this, Jesus is speaking to our hearts that we must not think that God is in the business of zapping people out of this life in response to particular sins that they have committed. If He was, then who among us would be left? Part of the reality of survivor’s guilt is the realization that often the one who died was a much better person, morally speaking, than those of us who are left. The tragedy often leaves us dealing with the remorse that we who survive were more deserving of death than those who died. Granted, there are sins that a person might commit which would bring about their death, but we must not assume that in every case the person’s death is the immediate result of something they have done or not done. If death struck immediately as the result of some sin, then none of us would be here to have this conversation.

Jesus also says concerning these tragedies, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” In saying this, Jesus reminds us of two important facts. First, is that life is uncertain from the human perspective. None of us knows what a routine drive down the street might bring. None of us knows from one moment to the next what severe affliction we might suffer. We simply do not know what a day might bring. There are no guarantees of another moment of earthly existence. Life is a vapor, here one moment, gone the next. We cannot presume in the midst of any given moment that there will be hours, days, or years left for us to live. And that brings us to the second important fact in Jesus’ statement. Since life is so uncertain, then each of us must live in preparation for death. Jesus said we must repent. The Bible tells us, and human experience affirms, that all of us have sinned and failed to live up to the righteous standard of God. But because God loves us and desires for us to know Him and spend eternity with Him, He has made a way of reconciliation.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God has come in human form and lived the life that none of us could ever live. Scripture tells us that He was tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. He alone lived the righteous life that satisfies the standard of God. And yet, Christ suffered and died a horrific death upon Calvary’s cross. Now, if the Bible says that the wages of sin is death, why would such a sinless one as Jesus endure such? The answer is that He did it for us. He died our death for our sins. The Bible says that God demonstrated His love for us in this—that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. And He defeated our sins and their just penalty in His resurrection from the dead. And Jesus Christ lives today, having conquered death by His resurrection, and will receive all who come to Him in repentance and faith, recognizing our own sinful condition, and trusting Him alone as Savior. And not only does He promise to forgive us of our sins because of the death He died in our place, He also promises to give us His very own righteousness, which He lived out for us in His life. This is the gift of salvation which, if we receive this gift, eliminates the fear of the brevity of life. In the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are assured that when we stand before God at life’s end, He will receive us, not on the merits of our own goodness (for we have none), but on the merits of Christ’s righteousness, which He lived and died to impute to us.

Life is brief. It is all too often punctuated by tragedy, sorrow, and suffering. But God has proven His faithful love to us in the gift of His Son. So in the wake of what seems unexplainable, we should not look for some guilt that brought about the tragedy, and we should not look for some specific good that might come which would justify the tragedy. Instead, we must look for God to bring us help, comfort, and assurance of His perfect love. We find Him in Jesus Christ who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by Me.” So come by way of Jesus into the loving arms of Him who is Lord of life and death, and you will find Him faithful and near to your heart in the midst of life’s most difficult days.

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