Hope in the Midst of Suffering

Awhile back, a dear friend asked me why I would choose to faithfully serve a God who has allowed bad things to happen to me. One could rephrase the question this way--"Why do you choose to serve a God who claims to be all-powerful, loving and good when He has allowed you to suffer so much?" My friend is an atheist. She is intelligent and kind, and she would not have asked this question flippantly or with ill intent. She truly wanted to know. Instinctively, she knew that I had wrestled with the hard questions which suffering brings into the life of a person of faith, and she wanted to know what I had discovered. I felt she deserved a thorough and heartfelt response, a response I would give to anyone whom I love and respect. I doubt very much that my answer satisfied her because the answers we are given to these questions are never satisfying.

Recent events have me revisiting these questions. Why must Jenny suffer the horrors of Stage 4 cancer in the prime of her life, just as she was given everything she had dreamed of and hoped for? Why have things been so hard for my immediate and extended family lately? Why can't a single compartment of my life or the life of my husband go untouched by hardship? Why were 20 children and 6 adults mercilessly slaughtered right before Christmas? It all seems so preventable, so unnecessary.....

Timothy Keller places these questions and those like them under the umbrella of the "Questions of Suffering." I have extensively read and listened to his thoughts concerning these difficult questions. His insight has profoundly shaped my own, which will be obvious if you are familiar with his teaching. I am going to share with you what I wrote in response to my friend's question. I'm going to share this with you now because if you are like me, grieving and suffering in a myriad of different ways this holiday season, you need to be reminded that our existence yet contains the hope of joy because of Christmas and that the birth of Christ is something worth celebrating even if our hearts are not merry.

I wrote most of the following on August 15, 2012. I have edited a bit in order to clarify my thoughts and speak to recent events:

"[Friend], your question is not unique. I recently read somewhere that according to a nationwide survey, the issue of suffering is the number ONE reason many people reject Christianity. I am going to be very honest with you—you won’t be completely satisfied with my answer because I have not found the answer to why there is suffering ANYWHERE in the Bible. And I’ve looked! All we know is that the Bible tells us that once the world was perfect, but man chose to disobey God. Since that choice, evil, sin and suffering has been a part of the world in which we live, and these things are the result of our brokenness, sinful natures and the destructive schemes of Satan, the anti-God.

The best answer I have found to the “why” of suffering is located in Isaiah 55—“’For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’” That’s not very satisfying, is it? 

For a moment, let’s pretend that the issue is a philosophical one. The problem so many people have generally boils down to this—“The presence of evil and suffering in the world must mean that God cannot be simultaneously all powerful and all good because if He can’t stop the evil, He isn’t all powerful, and if He can stop the evil and doesn’t, He can’t be all good.” This problem turns countless people away, people who have never believed and people who at one time said they did. But turning away from God doesn’t help anyone with the issue of evil and suffering because if one turns away from God how does one define suffering?

 Evil and suffering must be defined by some absolute moral code or who is to say "_____ is evil" or "____ is suffering"? If there is no God, there is no divine law. Nature rules, and we all know that nature rules by violence. So if there is no God, who is to say that violence is wrong? And if there is no God, who is to say that suffering is not natural? If there is no God, we are slaves to evolution, which means that the weak have to die so the strong can live and carry on. Suffering should and would still happen if there was no God. If there is no God, there are no moral absolutes, so “right” and “wrong” are just feelings, and who is to say that one person’s feelings about morality are more valid than those of another? So, while I have no real answer for why I am suffering, I realize that disbelief and anger get me nowhere.

I know you didn’t ask, but I want you to know how I get through my suffering with happiness and hope. We are friends, and I love you. It would be wrong to cut short my response at a philosophical level because the real issue you have isn’t one of philosophy, but one of faith. I don’t mean that in a condemning or condescending way at all. I hope you read this feeling the compassion and empathy I’m trying to communicate. 

I’ve been studying 1 Peter in the Bible, which could be otherwise titled, “Suffering for Dummies.” This dummy (me) has learned a lot from this letter to the suffering, Roman church. I’m going to quote a passage from Chapter 1 not because I’m trying to preach or whop you over the head with a Bible, but because God’s words have power that mine do not. Also, they have been my lifeline, so you can’t understand my attitude about my illness unless you know the source of my hope--

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His abundant mercy has begotten us again to a LIVING HOPE through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that does not fade away, reserved in heaven for you who are kept by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, whom having not seen, you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the goal of your faith—the salvation of your souls.”--1 Peter 1:3-9

In this passage, Peter likens suffering (trials) to a fire. I will give evidence of God’s goodness in a moment, but for now, I will tell you that God’s wrath (God is wrathful because He is just and righteous, and justice and righteousness can’t allow evil and suffering to go unpunished) is also likened to a fire, and it is the ultimate fire. No fire I will ever face [even the soul-burning fire of losing a child to a mass murderer] will be as great as the fire of God’s wrath. I include that tidbit because there is One who faced that fire. Christianity is the only religion in the world that boasts of a deity becoming a man in order to die for His subjects. Jesus willingly left Heaven, giving up His God-ness and all of the privileges thereof, knowing better than any human that ever lived what the fire of God’s wrath is like, and He PLUNGED Himself into that fire so that He could end evil and salvage us. The fact that He did that does not give me the answer to why there is suffering in the world, but it DOES tell me what the answer ISN’T. It isn’t that He does not care! 

 I firmly believe that my suffering is personal to Jesus because He felt everything on the cross that I am feeling now . . . . only much more profoundly. He was cast into utter darkness so that I could live in light. My mind is so blown by that! Though it is old knowledge, it rips my heart to shreds every time I think of it. I cannot think about the cross without tears. Jesus went to the greatest lengths imaginable to keep His promise He made in Isaiah 43—“Fear not for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name, You are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you . . . . . Fear not, for I am with you.”

In addition to the blazing emblem of God's love--the cross--1 Peter 1 tells me that I have this “living hope” thing to which I can look when all seems lost. I believe that because the living hope is “through the resurrection” of Jesus that I can bank on that hope being more than just some spiritual, ethereal Band-aid that will somehow make me feel better about my suffering. No. I believe it is going to be a restoration of everything I’ve lost—my health, my dreams, my happiness, and every cent I’ve given away believing that I am indeed laying up my treasure in Heaven. It’s going to be this life, this world made right! 1 Peter 5:10 says, “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will Himself RESTORE, confirm, strengthen and establish you.” (If everybody in the house wasn’t asleep right now, I would shout!)

I believe that everyone has to have a “living hope” to get through suffering without being ruined. So, I wonder, what was Jesus’ living hope? What did He NOT have in Heaven?  What could possibly make the ultimate suffering worth it for Him?

 It’s us. WE are His living hope. And knowing that I am His living hope, makes Him mine!

But none of that is philosophical. That’s faith. It boils down to Jesus, “whom having not seen [I] love. Though now [I] do not see Him, yet believing, [I] rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, receiving the end of [my] faith—the salvation of [my soul.]”   

God has given me the gift of faith, and I have accepted His lordship over my life. The Guy who jumped into the hottest fire in existence to save me is worthy of my submission. Once that decision is firmly made, the “problem” of suffering isn’t really a problem anymore. You asked specifically about Job. I will quote from a poem written about Job by John Piper. It is a sentiment to which I deeply relate—“Unkindly has He kindly shown me God.” 

The reason suffering isn’t a problem for me anymore is that I want to see God more than I want to live a life of ease, happiness or comfort. And the truly amazing thing about God is that He ALWAYS shows up in suffering." 

End entry.

This Christmas season, more than any other, I am thankful to serve a God who is "a Man of sorrows and well acquainted with grief." We need the suffering Savior this year. I need the suffering Savior this year. May we all find our solace in Him during this difficult Christmas season.

And if anyone from Newton, Connecticut happens upon my humble blog, I want you to know that I am crying real tears with you, my soul hurts with yours and I am lifting you before my great and awesome God, who will hold you in His very arms if only you will let Him. Grace and peace be with you.