I talked last week about how waiting is a significant part of our Christian experience. When we read through the Bible we discover that Abraham and Sarah waited 25 years for the promise they would have a son to be fulfilled. Israel suffered as slaves in Egypt for 200-300 years before God sent Moses to deliver them. Israel waited 400 years for the promised Messiah to be born. Those who were sick, lame, and blind waited for years before being healed.
This week I want to talk about why we have to wait. God is all-knowing. There is not a person who suffers that God doesn’t know about the suffering. God is all-powerful. God could, at any moment in time, alleviate the suffering. God is love. Love is part of the character of God. Really? If he is a loving God and has the power to alleviate suffering, why do people he loves suffer?
If a parent sees his or her child suffering, won’t a loving parent do anything possible to make the suffering go away? If parents had the ability to snap their fingers and make their children healthy and whole, wouldn’t there be a lot of finger snapping in the world?
Why doesn’t God take away our suffering? Why do we have to wait for healing, for deliverance, for justice, for resolution?
Let me share some of my thinking about this.
First, where does suffering come from?
In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther talked about evil that comes in the form of the world, the flesh, and the devil.
We live in a fallen world. Paul writes in Romans (Romans 8:22)
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.
Because the surface of the earth lies on tectonic plates, earthquakes are frequent occurances. Hurricanes/typhoons are yearly events. There are floods, fires, and famines. There are volcanic eruptions. These are things beyond our control and when we are in the wrong place at the wrong time, we suffer.
We may be driving down the highway, seat belt buckled, obeying the speed limit, and then someone who is drinking and driving or texting and driving or sleeping and driving veers over and our life on earth is over. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We may be traveling by plane or train and there is a crash. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Someone sets off a bomb in a deluded attempt to further their cause and people who were at the wrong place at the wrong time are injured and die.
Jesus said that the Father (Matthew 5:45)
causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
It is also true that suffering falls on the righteous and the unrighteous. People who do evil sometimes prosper and live long lives, while people who do good suffer and die when they are young. When there is a disaster, people who survive will speak of how God rescued them. My questions is always, why didn’t God rescue the others who died in the disaster?
We suffer from natural disasters. We suffer from the bad decisions others make. We suffer from the evil others want to do. We are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Evil also comes from our flesh. We ourselves make poor decisions. When we are the ones drinking and driving or texting and driving and have an accident, people suffer. The harm we do to others and to ourselves is our own fault. If we decide to rob a bank and get sent to prison, our suffering in a prison cell is not anyone else’s fault but our own. When we are tempted and give in to temptation, the unpleasant consequences that follow are our fault. We are responsible for some of the suffering we experience because of our own weakness, our inability to discipline our human nature, our poor decision making.
Evil also comes from the devil and for that reason Jesus and his followers urged us to resist the devil.
Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.
(1 Peter 5:8–9)
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. 9 Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
The evil in this world that causes us to suffer comes from the world, the flesh, and the devil.
Second, God is not the source of suffering.
I have heard many people say something like this, “God gave me this disease, this condition, this circumstance, so I could grow in faith, so God could build my character.”
The problem with this is that this turns God into a sadist who dreams up ways to make us suffer so our character matures and our faith is built. This reminds me of the story of a father who had his son climb up a ladder onto the roof and then told him to jump. “I’ll catch you,” the father said. The son jumped, the father stepped aside, and the son fell onto the ground. “This will teach you not to trust anyone,” said the father.
That is not something a good father would do and this is not how our father in heaven works in our lives. The enormous creative energy of God is directed to creating life, bringing life out of the ashes of failure and defeat, making good come out of evil.
This is the nature and character of God. He is loving. He is just. He creates life. It is not possible for God to create evil because that is not his character; it is not his nature.
James, the half-brother of Jesus, wrote: (James 1:13–18)
When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; 14 but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. 15 Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.
16 Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
God is the creator of good gifts, not evil. When God interacts with us, he works to bring life out of the ashes of suffering. After Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers feared he would now retaliate against them for having sold him into slavery. But Joseph told them: (Genesis 50:20)
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
God’s creative work brought good out of the evil his brothers did. It may seem to us, and it may have seemed to Joseph, that God orchestrated all the events in Joseph’s life, but it only appears to be that way to us because God is so good at making good come out of evil. God takes our good and bad actions and uses them creatively to accomplish his purposes. We can reject God’s A plan for our lives, reject God’s B plan and all the way down to Z plan and still, when we look back, it will seem that it was God’s A plan because he is so creatively at work in our lives.
God is good and creating evil is not something he does. In a world of suffering, hurting people need to know that God is good. God is loving. God is working for our benefit. God can be trusted to bring us life. The message that God causes evil so we will suffer pushes people away from trusting in God.
Suffering comes from the evil in this world. God is not the creator of evil that causes suffering. Third, we live in a world of chaotic, random evil that causes us to suffer.
There is no need for God to create suffering when it is so abundantly present. As I said, natural disasters, human greed and self-interest, accidents happen. Some people seem to attract suffering, like magnets attract iron particles. Some people suffer a lot. Some people suffer only a little. We all suffer to some degree but except when we suffer because of our own bad decisions, suffering is a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
This brings me to a fourth point: God does not create suffering, but he allows us to suffer.
And this brings me back to my first question: God has the power to get rid of suffering. God is loving. Why doesn’t he take away our suffering? If he is a loving God, why doesn’t he ease our pain?
When my oldest daughter was seven years old, she was climbing a tree behind our house while I was watching the evening news. She came into the house crying. She had been climbing over her younger sister and fallen to the ground. (The next day I measured from where she had fallen and she had fallen nineteen feet, about six meters.)
What did I do?
When I was about her age I fell when I was roller skating and broke my arm. I came to my mother who looked at it, poked my arm, said there was no blood, and told me to stop crying. A half hour later when I was still suffering she took me to the hospital where they put my arm in a cast.
This is not what I did. I took my younger daughter to our next door neighbor and drove my oldest daughter to the hospital where they put her arm in a cast. I bought her some ice cream. I did all this because I loved her. I did everything in my power to make her feel better.
God loves us. God loves us more than anyone else loves us. God loves us more than we can love ourselves. It is in the power of God to heal us, to deliver us, to change our circumstances. So why is it that he does not do that? Why does he allow us to suffer?
Five, God allows us to suffer because he sees the larger picture. He sees into eternity and because he loves us, he wants us to be ready and prepared for our eternal home. And, because we are talking about what we cannot see and about what we cannot know, we are talking about mystery.
When my oldest daughter was two or three, we had just returned from a summer vacation at the beach when she pulled over a table and as it fell it cut her on her eyebrow. I took her to the hospital and they needed to put in a few stitches. In order to do that, her head needed to be completely still.
She was crying. She was afraid of what was happening. Someone was going to have to hold her head still and I thought it would be better if someone she knew did this and not a stranger. So I held her head absolutely still as she struggled to move and cried. I kept telling her, “It’s going to be all right. Just a little more and it will be ok.”
Why did I do this? Why did I allow her to suffer? I knew that after this was over she would be better. The cut would heal, the stitches would come out, and she would be fine.
All my daughter could see was the pain, the fear of lying on a table with a bright light shining down on her. She could not see what I could see.
We cannot see our future. We have faith that there is a heaven and that Jesus is preparing a place for us in his heaven. But we don’t know what it will be like. We don’t know what we will do there. We have some hints about what it will be like. There will be no marriage, but what will our relationships with others be like? Will we interact with angels? How will we get from place to place? The Bible talks about a wedding feast. Is that real or a metaphor? Will we eat? If so, will we have a digestive system? What will we do? Will we be able to take classes in physics? Will we be able to learn different languages? Will we be able to learn to play musical instruments? We don’t know these things.
But God knows where we are heading. God knows what it will be like for us. It could be that all the questions I ask will be irrelevant and if I am able to read in heaven what I wrote on earth, I will see how silly they were.
So what can I do? I have to trust him. Without knowing what the future will bring or what the future will be like, I have to trust him. In the mystery of what happens after we die, we put our complete trust in him.
Six, God allows me to suffer because he is preparing me for eternal life in his kingdom.
God uses suffering for his good purposes. As Joseph said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.”
Listen to what the Bible has to say about the redemptive purpose of suffering.
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
We know this to be true. We grow most in faith and trust when we pass through difficult times and stubbornly hold on to Jesus through those difficult times. We would love to grow in faith by relaxing in comfort, but that is not how it works.
we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.
The love of God works powerfully in our lives. He is ever-present with us. He never leaves us or forsakes us. The Holy Spirit dwells in us and works to transform us into the perfect, holy creatures God intended us to be.
Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8 If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Hardship is discipline that builds us up. It is a necessary part of our growth and development as followers of Jesus.
The most beautiful and oldest story in the world about suffering is the Book of Job.
Job is the story of a man who suffered. He lost his wealth, his children were killed, his own body was wracked with pain. As he sat in ashes he and his friends talked about suffering, about why Job was suffering. There is amazing wisdom in this story of suffering that was written thousands of years ago. I look forward to meeting the person who wrote this exploration of why there is suffering in the world and what purpose it serves.
Job complains. He sees more deeply than his friends can see. He sees the futility of life. All the things he thought made his life meaningful have been taken from him. Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, Job sees the temporary nature of life. (Job 14:1-17)
“Mortals, born of woman,
are of few days and full of trouble.
2 They spring up like flowers and wither away;
like fleeting shadows, they do not endure.
Job is suffering greatly and he sees clearly his mortality. This is what people experience as they age. When we are young, we think we are immortal. But when we age and our bodies are beginning to break down, we think more about the time when we will die and discover what happens after death. In his suffering, Job is more clearly aware that his life is not immortal.
5 A person’s days are determined;
you have decreed the number of his months
and have set limits he cannot exceed.
This leads Job to hopelessness. In his despair he says
7 “At least there is hope for a tree:
If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
and its new shoots will not fail.
8 Its roots may grow old in the ground
and its stump die in the soil,
9 yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But a man dies and is laid low;
he breathes his last and is no more.
11 As the water of a lake dries up
or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
12 so he lies down and does not rise;
till the heavens are no more, people will not awake
or be roused from their sleep.
Job is crushed by the weight of his suffering, crushed by the weight of all he has lost. How long will his suffering continue? He cries out for a release from his suffering. He wants to die.
13 “If only you would hide me in the grave
and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
and then remember me!
He seeks relief in the grave, but then he asks a question that reveals that he is not completely without hope.
14 If someone dies, will they live again?
And with that slim ray of hope he cries out for help that only God can provide.
All the days of my hard service
I will wait for my renewal to come.
15 You will call and I will answer you;
you will long for the creature your hands have made.
16 Surely then you will count my steps
but not keep track of my sin.
17 My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
you will cover over my sin.
In Job’s laments he calls out for a redeemer, someone who will plead his case for him. (Job 19:25–27)
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
26 And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
27 I myself will see him
with my own eyes—I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!
Job put his hope in a future redeemer. We are privileged because we are able to put our trust in an historical redeemer. For us, the Messiah is not a future promise. We know his name. He is Jesus, born in Bethlehem 2000 years ago to Mary and Joseph.
Jesus gives us hope, even in the darkest of times.
I am having a great time going through pre-marital counseling with two couples in our church. I am telling them that marriage is not easy, that if they want to have a healthy, intimate marriage, they will have to work at it. They will have to work at it, not just for a month or two, but for the rest of their married life.
Our salvation also requires a lot of work. Those who put their faith in Jesus and then coast through life, drift away from an intimate relationship with Jesus into a superficial, lukewarm, religious Christian life. Or they drift away into non-belief.
There are those who put their faith in Jesus and then fall away as soon as it becomes difficult. It is easy to go to church when it does not cost anything. But as soon as there is a price to be paid, they find life with Christ too costly and find something else to do on Sunday mornings.
As I mentioned last week, when we are suffering, it is important that we express what we are feeling and thinking to God. It is important that we don’t hold anything back. Job talked about his depression, his despair, how he wanted to escape this suffering and die.
It is in the midst of our honest struggle with the suffering we are experiencing that God will work powerfully in our lives. He will be present with us. He will never leave us or forsake us. Even when we say the most hurtful things, even when we yell at him, he will be present with us.
We are his beloved daughters and beloved sons and he knows our struggles. He is patient with us, waiting for us to find the hope that is in us.
You may be going though a crisis right now. You may have gone through a severe crisis in your past. You may be approaching a crisis that will shake your foundation and cause you to tremble in your faith.
Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.
Hold on to Jesus. Through good and difficult times, hold on to Jesus.
We wait in hope for the Lord;
he is our help and our shield.
21 In him our hearts rejoice,
for we trust in his holy name.
22 May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
even as we put our hope in you.