Last week we began our study of Amos 4, but we didn’t cover the second half of the chapter so that we could devote our full attention to those verses this morning. I want us to use our Scripture this morning as a launching pad to discuss one of the most unsettling questions that people have wrestled with throughout history. The question is, “How are we to understand our suffering in light of the Bible’s teaching that God is all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing?” John Stott, the great Bible teacher and author of over 50 books about the Bible, has written,
The fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love. (Stott, John R.W., The Cross of Christ, Downers Grove, IL., Inter-Varsity Press, 1986, p. 311.)
Suffering is a universal experience. We all suffer, but how we understand the source and purpose of our trials has been interpreted in many, many different ways. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, who wrote around 300 B.C., saw suffering and evil in the world and it led him to ask,
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God? (Epicurus, 300 B.C.)
If God is all-powerful then He must be able to stop the suffering that we see in the world today. If God is absolute perfect love then surely He doesn’t want us to suffer, does He? If God is unable to do anything about our suffering then can we really claim that He is Omnipotent? If God is omnipotent, but we still suffer, then He must not be the loving God that we have been taught that He is. The problem with this line of thinking is that it really begins with us and not God. I hope that we can gain a better understanding of pain and the presence of God through our study this morning.
Before we try to understand the relationship of our pain and the presence of God, let’s get back to Amos as he is standing on the steps of the king’s sanctuary in Bethel, in the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos writes, in Amos 4:6-13.
6 “I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. 7 “I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away. I sent rain on one town, but withheld it from another. One field had rain; another had none and dried up. 8 People staggered from town to town for water but did not get enough to drink, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. 9 “Many times I struck your gardens and vineyards, I struck them with blight and mildew. Locusts devoured your fig and olive trees, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. 10 “I sent plagues among you as I did to Egypt. I killed your young men with the sword, along with your captured horses. I filled your nostrils with the stench of your camps, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. 11 “I overthrew some of you as I overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. You were like a burning stick snatched from the fire, yet you have not returned to me,” declares the LORD. 12 “Therefore this is what I will do to you, Israel, and because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel.” 13 He who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, he who turns dawn to darkness, and treads the high places of the earth– the LORD God Almighty is his name. (Amos 4:6-13 NIV)
God makes it clear to His people, His Chosen people, the people who have experienced the God of all Creation choosing to set His affection upon them, that He is also the One who has brought hardships into their lives. God has sent famine, drought, blight and mildew on their crops, an army of locusts to devour their figs and olives, plagues like those that devastated the Egyptians, wars that have taken the lives of their young men and prized war horses, and He has even overthrown some of their cities. Why would God do such a thing to the people that He says He loves with an everlasting love? (Jeremiah 31:3)
Throughout history there has been a question looming in the hearts of minds of people. The question is this: “What is the relationship between “pain” and “the presence of God?” Here is how some pose the question: “If God is all-loving, and all-powerful, then why would God allow, or cause, evil and suffering as part of the human experience?” Some seem to have no trouble reconciling the pain and suffering that all people encounter in life with the idea of an all-loving and all-powerful God. For others, this question has led them to despair, even to renouncing their belief in God all together.
Charles Templeton was born in Canada in 1915 and came to believe the claims of Jesus at a young age. Charles became an evangelist and God used him in a powerful way, both as an evangelist and as a pastor of a local church. Charles became the pastor of Avenue Road Church in Toronto and the church exploded with new converts. He also became one of three vice-presidents of a new organization called, Youth For Christ International in 1945. In 1946 he was listed among those “Best Used of God” by the National Association of Evangelicals.
As vice-president of Youth For Christ, Charles Templeton nominated his friend, Billy Graham, to be field evangelist for the ministry. Charles Templeton and Billy Graham traveled the world sharing the gospel with hundreds of thousands of people. Reports were spreading quickly through newspaper and magazine articles about how God was using the charismatic young evangelist. In Evansville, Indiana, over two weeks of meetings, 91,000 people came to hear Charles Templeton preach. There were only 128,000 in the entire city.
Charles was busy sharing the gospel, but internally other things were happening that made Charles uneasy and led to his questioning his faith. Eventually, Charles Templeton wrote a book called, “Farewell to God.” What was it that led to the inescapable questions that eroded Charles’ faith? Well, there were many, but he says the tipping point came down to God and suffering. I’ll let him speak for himself. Charles Templeton told Lee Strobel:
I was reading LIFE magazine and there was a photograph in the magazine of a black woman in northern Africa and she was holding her dead baby in her hands and looking up to heaven. And I looked at it and I thought, “How could a loving God do this to this woman? How is it possible to believe that there is a loving or caring creator when all this woman needed was rain? (Lee Strobel, A Case For Faith, pg. 15)
It is a tragic story. There are many others who share a similar experience. They could not get past the tears of a broken world as they heard about the love of God and read about the “Father of compassion.” (2 Corinthians 1:3) I don’t want any of us to find our faith shipwrecked on the rocky shoreline of suffering. Let’s spend the next few minutes trying to understand the “hows” and “whys” of the experience we all share in common—the experience of pain and suffering.
If you will take another look at the Scripture we read just a few minutes ago you will notice that each of the hardships that God sent to His people are different, and yet as you read the Scripture, you see that God concludes each sentence in the same way. He defines the hardship and then says, “…yet you have not returned to Me, says the Lord.” It doesn’t take too long to conclude that the reason God sent hardships to His people was so that they would return to Him. As we have been going through our study of Amos it has been more than apparent that God’s people had turned away from God, they rejected His counsel, oppressed and took advantage of others, and worshipped the gods of the Canaanites. God’s desire was to somehow turn the hearts of His people back to Him. In Proverbs 3:11-12 we read,
11 My son, do not despise the LORD’s discipline and do not resent his rebuke, 12 because the LORD disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in. (Proverbs 3:11-12 NIV)
Just as a father disciplines his son so the Lord disciplines His children. When we get off track it is God’s desire that we recognize what we are doing, that we are destroying our lives, and that we turn around and get back on track. The idea of the discipline of God is not some Old Testament theory. This truth is taught in the New Testament as well. In Hebrews 12:7-11 we read.
7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 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 our spirits and live! 10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, 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. (Hebrews 12:7-11 NIV)
Both the Greek and Hebrew words that are translated “discipline” in the Scriptures can mean “correction” and “chastisement,” but there is also the sense of “training, teaching, or causing one to learn” included in these words. There are those times in our lives, just like in Amos’ day, when God’s people turn away from Him, reject His counsel, and God responds by sending hardships into the lives of His people. The Bible compares this type of action by God to the discipline that a father gives his children.
There are other times in our lives when sin is not the source of the hardships God sends, or allows, to come our way. In 2 Corinthians 1:8-9, the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians about a time in his life when he was in such despair that he feared for his life. Paul doesn’t say that he was living in rebellion, he wasn’t. He was living in God’s will and yet he experienced a tremendous trial at the same time. Listen to what Paul says about his experience.
8 We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9 Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9 NIV)
What was the outcome of Paul’s suffering? Paul says that it happened so that he, and those with him, “…might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.” That is a lesson that God wants all of us to learn. You are not the captain of your ship. You are not the maker of your destiny. God wants you and me to grow and grow in our trust and reliance upon Him rather than cling to the misguided thinking that we are all we need to navigate the perils and challenges of life. I can’t speak for you, but I know that I have learned to trust God the most when I was absolutely helpless to do anything about my situation. I’ve learned about His strength and the comfort that He alone can provide during the darkest times of my life.
I don’t believe the Bible teaches that all of our suffering is a result of our sin. We can’t say that all of our troubles and suffering are for the purpose of correction or chastisement. Please hear this; the trials we are facing today are not necessarily God’s rod of correction brought about by our sin. I am emphasizing this because I have heard far too many health, wealth, and prosperity preachers tell people that the reason they are sick or poor or afflicted in one way or another is because there is sin in their lives. They say, “If you will just confess your sin then God will bless you.” Those who teach this are not getting their teaching from God. We just saw from Paul’s testimony that his desperation led to his learning that he can rely upon God. His suffering was instructional, not punishment.
There is another reason why we suffer. Sometimes we suffer for the glory of God. One of the clearest examples in God’s Word of what I am talking about is found in John 9:1-3. Read along with me.
1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. (John 9:1-3 NIV)
Jesus’ disciples saw the blind man and wondered, “…who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus cleared the air didn’t He? Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Does that mean that the man’s suffering was meaningless? Does it mean that it was a random act of suffering? Jesus said, “…but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” It seems to me that Jesus brings another reason for suffering to light. Sometimes we suffer for the glory of God. Not because we have sinned, but for the glory of God.
James Montgomery Boice was the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for 32 years. Dr. Boice was one of the great Bible teachers of our day. In 2000, Dr. Boice found out that he had liver cancer. On May 7, 2000 he stood before his congregation and let them know about his diagnosis. During his announcement Dr. Boice used the opportunity to teach his congregation a powerful lesson. He asked the question,
Should you pray for a miracle? Well, you’re free to do that, of course. My general impression is that the God who is able to perform miracles – and He certainly can – is also able to keep you from getting the problem in the first place.… Above all, I would say pray for the glory of God. If you think of God glorifying Himself in history and you say, ‘Where in all of history has God most glorified Himself?’ the answer is that He did it at the cross of Jesus Christ, and it wasn’t by delivering Jesus from the cross, though He could have…and yet that’s where God is most glorified.
Some of our suffering is for the glory of God. God brings hardships into our lives, or allows our suffering, so that He might be glorified in any number of ways as we go through our struggle.
There are still other reasons why we go through the trials we go through or suffer from some affliction. Sometimes we suffer from some affliction or trial to keep us humble. A good example of this comes from the life of Paul and is found in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Read along with me.
7 To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10 NIV)
Paul had some amazing encounters with the Lord during his life which could have led him to become spiritually arrogant, but they didn’t. Why didn’t they? Well, Paul says that he was given a “thorn” in his flesh to torment him. The Greek word used for “torment” means “to strike with the fist.” Paul’s thorn in the flesh was like a punch to the gut. We have no idea what that “thorn” was, but we do know that Paul’s thorn kept him humble; it prevented him from becoming, as he says, “…conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations…”
I have known far too many Christians who were willing to give easy answers to complex problems they really didn’t know anything about. I have to admit that I’ve been one of those Christians in times past. I use to know everything anyone would ever need to know about raising kids until Connie and I had kids of our own and we had to deal with some of the problems of those I had counseled in the past. My easy answers didn’t work when I had to deal with those same problems in raising kids. Now, I am much more humble. I don’t have easy answers about raising kids any more, but I am far more empathetic, sympathetic, and prayerful about parents I know who are struggling with trying to raise their kids. The “thorn” in our flesh, whatever that thorn may be can sure humble us and make us better sources of support and compassion for our brothers and sisters in Christ.
There is another truth that the Bible teaches that we need to understand this morning. The Bible doesn’t teach that God actively causes all of the trials and hardships of your life and mine. That doesn’t mean that God is unaware of what is going on in our lives. If God is Omniscient, then to say that God is unaware of what we are going through could not be true. God knows what you are going through, but He is not the cause of every tear that runs down your cheeks when you are going through difficult times. In Psalm 66:10-12 we read,
10 For you, O God, tested us; you refined us like silver. 11 You brought us into prison and laid burdens on our backs. 12 You let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and water, but you brought us to a place of abundance. (Psalm 66:10-12 NIV)
In these three verses we see God as actively “testing’ His people, laying burdens on their backs, and at the same time “allowing” men to oppress them. Another example of God allowing suffering is the story of Job. Job didn’t suffer because he had sinned and God didn’t cause the suffering of Job, but He certainly allowed it. Through Job’s suffering he learned about himself and he learned about God. Through Job’s suffering he learned that God’s ways are far beyond his ways and that He can trust God, even while his life was being dismantled by loss and pain.
This is not all there is to say about pain and the presence of God by any means, but it is a good start. Those who dismiss God’s involvement in our suffering are missing out on a great opportunity to learn and trust. Even when there seems to be no evidence that God is at work in our suffering we can choose to trust that He is. Those who see the suffering of the world and cast God off as some kind of cruel, brutal, uncaring tyrant are simply forgetting that we serve a God who knows about suffering firsthand. The symbol of our faith is a cross. Not a gold plated, ornately decorated cross, but a blood stained, wooden cross. Tim Keller wrote,
The death of Jesus was qualitatively different from any other death. The physical pain was nothing compared to the spiritual experience of cosmic abandonment. Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture, and imprisonment. On the cross he went beyond even the worst human suffering and experienced cosmic rejection and pain that exceeds ours as infinitely as his knowledge and power exceeds ours. In his death, God suffers in love, identifying with the abandoned and god forsaken. Why did he do it? The Bible says that Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us. (Keller, Tim. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, pg. 30)
One of the biggest limitations we as humans face is that when we see a friend or loved one suffering we are limited in what we can do to help. I oftentimes hear people say, “I just didn’t know what to say.” Not only do we not know what to say, but we often don’t know what to do either. We feel so inadequate to do anything to help our friends and loved ones. I have learned something that has allowed me to see God in a whole new light. Those who are most capable of helping are those who have gone through a very similar trial in life. I know many of you who have suffered and now you are actively helping people who are suffering in the same way that you have suffered. I heard recently about a couple in our church who in the past had a child with addiction problems taking another couple to dinner who are suffering that same pain in the present. There is a lady in our church who has had cancer three times who started a ministry to help other women suffering from cancer. I could go on and on. Those who have suffered greatly oftentimes turn out to be the best caregivers to those who are suffering presently.
The people that I have been describing can be caring and compassionate, but they are limited in what they can do to help. Though people may be limited there is One who is not. Jesus is God. He became one of us in every way, except He never sinned. He suffered to the point of sweating drops of blood before He hung on a horrific cross. In regards to limitations—He has none. Isaiah says, 3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. (Isaiah 53:3 NIV) He will comfort us in our suffering. He will lead us through the most painful trials we will encounter in life. He will help us to understand God’s presence in the midst of our pain. And if we struggle to the point of death, He will be there every step of the way. When we draw our last breath He will gather us up in His arms and take us home.
What is the relationship of our pain and the presence of God? God is present in our pain. We may not always understand what we are going through, but we can know the One who is with us all along the way.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
March 6, 2011