Monday, April 01, 2019

Anonymous Asks (33)

“Why does God allow trials, tribulations, and suffering?”

If we are speaking of suffering in general, whole books have been written in answer to this question. Our own Immanuel Can wrote an open letter about it to conservative author Dinesh D’Souza in 2016. If you are looking for a philosophical explanation for the necessity of pain in a fallen world, you may find it there.

One thing we can be sure of: the answer is not simple. Another thing we can be sure of is that people who observe suffering are bound to speculate about its cause. It’s human nature. Perhaps you remember the question Jesus’ disciples asked upon encountering a blind man: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?”

They were wrong, of course. Those are far from the only two options.

Sin as an Explanation

Now, the Old Testament certainly teaches that some suffering is a direct result of sin. That does not mean that all suffering may be confidently attributed to the sins of the sufferers. In Luke 13, a story is told about Galileans murdered by Roman troops. Jesus asks, “Were they worse sinners than other Galileans? No.” He then makes reference to eighteen people killed by a falling tower, and repeats that the victims were not especially sinful.

People still look heavenward to explain suffering today. Some suggest AIDS is divine retribution against homosexuals. A 2010 earthquake had people wondering if maybe God hates Haitians. Considering the Lord’s answers to such questions, all such speculations must be viewed as severely lacking in supporting evidence. We are better to keep our mouths shut about other people’s suffering. Answering “Because you’re a sinner” is not helpful.

Suffering as a General Principle of Existence

Suffering as a general principle seems built into our present existence. I have yet to find a better explanation for this than the fall of mankind described in Genesis 3. The Bible teaches that since the moment mankind disobeyed God, our world has been ruled by Satan. The horrible things that happen to men and women within his sphere of influence reflect his own murderous character, his arbitrariness, capriciousness and deceptiveness. The things human beings do deliberately to one another demonstrate that they too possess the sinful nature of the god of this world rather than the character of their Creator.

In such a situation, speculating about the specific source of any particular bad thing that happens is a lost cause. There are simply too many possibilities: the condition of the world, demonic oppression, God’s judgment, the evil that men do … the list is long, and it’s far too easy to be wrong when we go in search of a culprit. I have written a more lighthearted take on that subject in a post called Did God Do That? You can read it here.

Christian Suffering is Different

But Christians are not in the same situation as the average person living in this world, confused by what we see around us and at a total loss to account for its causes and meaning. We are no longer under the dominion of the god of this world. God has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son. Satan may try to influence our actions, but he does not control us, and needs special permission to be allowed to go to work on us; permission which God may or may not grant depending on his purposes in the life of the believer.

So what about Christian suffering? Are there reasons for it? Does it have any point at all? Absolutely. Here are five ways in which God takes a thing which is a sad, natural part of our fallen world and puts it to use for his glory:
  1. Tribulation comes with the territory. Jesus taught that certain kinds of suffering are not random, but arise “because of the word”. People believe the message of God’s kingdom and begin to act and speak differently because of it. The world around them feels its conscience pricked by their behavior and reacts by trying to hurt them. Suffering in a good cause may be painful, but at least it’s meaningful.
  2. Tribulation builds character. Paul taught that it is God’s way of taking fallen men and women and teaching them to be more Christ-like. Because God’s Holy Spirit is at work in us, “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” Satan may want to sift us like wheat, but God has other goals in mind when we are shaken. I suspect if the god of this world could see what his work is indirectly producing, he would probably leave us alone.
  3. Tribulation makes us empathetic and helpful. Paul told the Corinthians that the Father comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. If Christians were conveniently and obviously exempted from bad things happening to us, it’s likely more people would want to be Christians. It’s also likely that sort of “faith” would be self-serving, shallow and mostly meaningless. It is through suffering that we really come to know God better and understand his character and love for us.
  4. Tribulation is a source of eternal reward. The glorified Christ wrote to the church in Smyrna to tell it “I know your tribulation … Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” Paul says, “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” This is not true of every bad thing that happens to us, but it is certainly true of persecution we suffer for the name of Christ.
  5. Tribulation is following in the steps of Christ. Peter says, “This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly” and “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” Paul says, “… that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” It is one thing to be a person of good character living a quiet life in a corner. It is quite another to be given opportunity to display that character before angels and men. James says faith is “completed by works”. The apostles craved the opportunity to have their faith tested by suffering in order to testify to the universe about the effectiveness of Christ’s work in them. They didn’t want to just become better people; they wanted the evidence to get out there in the world.
Two Ways of Looking at Tribulation

So why does God allow tribulation? The answers of the Christian and of the unbeliever could not be more different.

The unsaved man has no clue why anything happens. He may attribute suffering to the roll of the cosmic dice in a random universe, to the predations of his fellow men, or to the machinations of a hateful deity. None of these answers is ultimately satisfactory. He will go to his grave no wiser or more fulfilled for having contemplated them.

The Christian, on the other hand, recognizes in his suffering the work of a loving God, perfecting him as promised, bringing him into a better understanding of his Creator, building him an eternal legacy and offering him opportunity to shine before men and before unseen thousands in heavenly places.

Which way would you rather look at it?

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