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Vol. 79 - No. 3
March 2008

WORD FROM THE PASTOR:             

               

Responding to Suffering

There are many good reasons for believing in God–the fact that the universe is so beautifully and rationally designed; the cry of our hearts for meaning and purpose in this world; our need for divine guidance on what’s right and what’s wrong. The reasons for belief are numerous–and there’s only one really effective argument against believing...and that’s suffering.

The amount of pain in the world, some would contend, means that there can’t be a loving God. Unbelievers point to various examples of suffering from the natural world and human society–the wasp writhing in pain from parasitic larvae in its brain; the male gorilla killing infants fathered by a rival; lives claimed by tsunami and tornado; the Holocaust in Europe and genocide in Rwanda and Darfur; children with cancer; and countless other instances of pain and anguish. Such things, they argue, make it impossible to believe in God.

We who believe in God are certainly aware of the challenge that suffering presents to faith. Believers are not pollyannas, living in a world in which we are blissfully unaware of pain. Believers feel pain; believers feel loss; believers feel anguish. That pain sometimes challenges our relationship with God. It wasn’t an atheist who said:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1, quoted by Christ on the cross)

Nor was it an unbeliever who cried out:

Awake, O Lord, why do you sleep? (Psalm 44:23)

Believers, therefore, are not living in a dream world–we experience pain and loss. Indeed, we not only know our own pain, we also deeply feel the suffering of others:

When one suffers, all suffer together (I Corinthians 12:26)

Yet the suffering does not crush our faith; it does not drive us away from God. We have some beautiful assurances from the Scriptures that help keep our faith alive in the face of pain:

All things happen for a purpose. One of the best-loved Scripture verses is, "All things work together for good to those who love the Lord, who are called according to His purpose." (Romans 8:25). We are confident that God is in control of the world, and He shapes things according to His good purposes and plans.

Suffering can build us up. St. Paul writes, "We rejoice in our suffering, because we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint." (Romans 5:3). It is the hard things in life that build us up and strengthen us.

Suffering sometimes is used by God to bring forth good. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery; he ended up in Egypt. But in Egypt, God used him to save many people’s lives in a famine. So when Joseph met his brothers many years later, he told them: "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good." (Genesis 50:20). God is active even in negative events to bring about His good purposes.

These are good and true Biblical responses to suffering. Believers find great comfort in them. Sometimes, however, people hear them as a little too pat and smug–a little too much like divine excuses, a little too much like "trying to get God off the hook". But there is one response to pain and suffering that never comes off as pat and smug...and that’s the cross.

On the cross, God doesn’t offer an explanation or an excuse for suffering...on the cross, God suffers. On the cross, God doesn’t get "off the hook"–rather, as Peter Kreeft says, He puts Himself on the hook. God embraces human pain and makes it His own. And that is our most powerful response to suffering: pointing to the cross where God has experienced the world’s suffering. The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: "Only a suffering God can help." And in Jesus Christ, we have a suffering God!

When we cry, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?", we realize that Jesus experienced those same feelings of being God-forsaken. When we cry, "Awake, O God, why are you sleeping?", we remember that Jesus did fall asleep...when He slipped into the sleep of death on the cross. Whenever we experience pain or anguish, we realize that Jesus Christ literally has walked in our shoes...He walked in those shoes all the way to Calvary!

When we think about suffering, then, let’s "cling to the old rugged cross." There’s nothing wrong with the other approaches to suffering: things do happen for a purpose...suffering does build character...God does bring good out of evil. These are all intellectually satisfying arguments. But to me what is most satisfying on an emotional level, on a spiritual level, on a soul level, is the assurance that Christ loves us so much that He was willing to embrace suffering for us. Through the cross, God knows and is touched by the suffering of all creatures. In a world of pain, that is where I find my hope and my peace.

God loves you and so do I!

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