Over the past few months we've been asking people what their big questions or objections to Christianity are. Each week we're going to take one of those questions and try to answer it. This week the question is about suffering.
Suffering is all around us… Caribbean hurricanes, earthquakes in Mexico, war, violence of all types, poverty, depression, sickness and disease. Why then, if there is a God, doesn't he do something about all the suffering that we see in the world? It leads some people to conclude that either: God is good but not able to do anything about suffering, or God can do something about suffering but chooses not to in which case he isn't good. Either way the good, loving, all-powerful God that Christians claim to know cannot exist. This has been a big problem for people throughout history. But I'm guessing that this logical, philosophical barrier is not why questions about suffering were picked three times as much as any other question in our survey. No, the problem of suffering isn't out there; it's in here. Our questions are less often why does God allow suffering but rather why has he allowed this thing to happen to this person or to me.
If that's you this morning, then I want to say thank you for coming, thank you for being willing to engage with a topic which is difficult. I also want to say that I don't have an answer for you. There is not a section of the Bible, a verse which tells us the reason why what has happened to you has happened to you. What there is in God's word is something to help us understand what suffering is, what it might be for and how to live through it.
1. Suffering isn't Natural
The first thing to say about suffering is that it isn't natural. It's real, it hurts, the writers of the Bible knew that more than most, but it isn't natural. The first page of the Bible, Genesis 1 records the creation of the world, when each stage is completed it says this; "and God saw that it was good". The world in its original, intended state does not contain suffering; there is no crying, no pain, no death. Why is this important? Well, suffering hurts, doesn't it? When we observe people hurting, whether that is close to home or even far away, when we see poverty and war and famine and violence, instinctively our gut reaction is 'that's not right'. Why? Do you ever think about that? Why is it that we feel so intensely wronged by suffering? If we don't believe there's a God then these things are simply natural; natural disasters, people die of natural causes.
The Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Rome talks about the whole of creation groaning, like a mother in the midst of childbirth waiting for something to be done about the way the world is. And he says we groan inwardly for the same reason. Isn't that how we feel when we watch the news? And I don't mean the politics. I said before, the problem of suffering and evil is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, objections to a belief in the God of the Bible. But if we don't believe in God then the problem of suffering doesn't go away; in fact it gets worse, because we have to grapple with all this pain around us and say with Dawkins that;
"The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference."
That's not how people feel about suffering. It hurts because there is good and there is evil. We feel that things are not the way they are supposed to be and the Bible says 'you're right, they're not'. How then are we to face the suffering that is around us? That's where our reading from 1 Peter comes in (1 Peter 1.1-7). Peter was writing to people who were suffering. See in verse 1 the letter is addressed to 'exiles of the Dispersion', that is Christians who had fled from their homes across Asia minor. Why? Because they lived during the reign of Emperor Nero, a man who used Christians as garden torches.
2. Suffering isn't Meaningless
The first thing Peter tells them is that suffering isn't meaningless. Listen to what he says to these people who have lost everything, verses 3-7:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honour at the revelation of Jesus Christ."
When we are 'grieved by various trails' as Peter's readers had been, the temptation might be to push God away, to say 'if you really exist, I don't have a lot of time for what you have to say right now'. But Peter says "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ". How can he say this?
We have a 3-year-old daughter, Lucy, who is of course very precious to us. A few weeks ago though we took her to a place she'd never been to before and allowed a stranger to take a sharp piece of metal and pierce her skin. Doing so caused her to break down in floods of tears. Why would we do this? Hopefully you've put two and two together and guessed that this sharp piece of metal was a needle which was delivering her latest round of preventative injections. There was real pain, if only for a moment, but we can all see that it was done for a reason to prevent something worse happening.
Peter says the same is true for these believers. The trials that they are going through are testing; they are refining their faith which is more precious than gold. Their suffering is not without purpose or meaning; rather it is being used to achieve something specific.
The answer to the question 'how can a good God allow suffering?' is that there is some greater reason behind that suffering. Just like my 3-year-old didn't fully understand why she got her injections, so we don't understand our suffering – but in spite of that we can choose to run to God, rather than run away from God, and trust Him. But why should we? Because of the evidence… See in verse 3 that the living hope which Peter says Christians have to cope with suffering is the result of Jesus' resurrection. Looking to Jesus, to his death and resurrection transforms the way we see suffering:
- It shows us that God knows suffering – Jesus Christ was God become man – no other religion claims this. That God left heaven and lived as a man and suffered. Jesus was tired, he was hungry, he wept over sickness and disease, over the death of a friend. He was rejected by his own people, even his closest friends abandoned him. Our reading from Isaiah 53 calls Jesus; "a man of sorrows acquainted with grief". God doesn't just see suffering and sympathise; he has experienced it. All of which has its crescendo at the cross where Jesus was crucified as a common criminal. He was mocked, spat upon and endured the most excruciating physical pain and, more than that, the most excruciating emotional and spiritual pain as God the Father turns away from the Son that he loves.
- It shows us that suffering is not meaningless – Why would Jesus do this? Why would he leave heaven and suffer like this? Isaiah 53.5 says this: "But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed." Jesus suffered for us, so that we would not have to suffer, so that we would not have to be abandoned like he was. Jesus died, he suffered on our behalf, for our benefit. And the proof of this is the resurrection. The ultimate proof that suffering is not meaningless is when the person who has suffered beyond what anyone else has suffered, by that suffering achieves what no one else could – our salvation. We know a God who has experienced suffering and who, instead of running from it, chose to endure it out of love for us. That's the living hope that Peter is talking about. That's the evidence that allows us to trust God with our suffering.
3. Suffering isn't Forever
Peter tells us first to look back to the cross to see that suffering isn't meaningless. Second, he tells us to look forward to heaven and see that suffering will not last forever.
In 1977, Doug Scott took on Baintha Brakk, a notorious Pakistani mountain known as 'the Ogre'. Almost 25 years after the first conquest of Everest, nobody had ever been able to reach the Ogre's rocky summit. Scott was determined that he would be the first. The expedition he led was so cash-strapped that it had to hire physically disabled porters. Nonetheless, on July 13, Scott and his climbing partner, Chris Bonington, scaled the 250m (820ft) pinnacle of rock that stood at the Ogre's peak. Since it was already late, they decided to speed up their descent by abseiling back down the rock face. This was not a good decision. As he tried to rappel down, a sudden gust of wind swung Scott violently into the cliff, shattering both his legs. Since only his lower legs were broken, Scott managed to abseil the rest of the way down using his knees to push off from the rock.
Fortunately, the pair was soon joined by two other members of the expedition. Unfortunately, they were still over 2,000m (6,500ft) from their base camp. And then a blizzard forced them to shelter in a cave for two days, where they ate the last of their rations. Since the rough terrain made it impossible for the other climbers to carry Scott (especially after Bonington broke two of his ribs in a separate fall), he knew there was only one path to survival—he was going to have to crawl down the mountain. He crawled for seven days, on his hands and knees, down one of the highest mountains in the world. By the end, he had worn through four layers of clothes, and his knees were a bloody pulp. He did it all with two untreated broken legs and on starvation rations, and he still moved so fast that he sometimes ended up ahead of the other three.
Hope enables us to do incredible things; the promise that suffering is only temporary allows us to endure. So look again at what Peter writes in verses 3-4:
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you"
Suffering isn't permanent and that makes a huge difference to our experience of it. The answer to the question 'Why doesn't God do something about suffering?' is that he has done something – he has given us his own Son to suffer on our behalf. But the full effects of that victory are yet to be felt. So Peter says that in order to cope with suffering we must look forward to Jesus' return when all suffering will end. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov writes this:
"I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage… that in the world's finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, for all the blood that they've shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened."
That's the promise of the Bible - that God has done something about it by sending his own Son to suffer on our behalf. That's the promise of Jesus' resurrection - that we can be sure that one day even the most unimaginable suffering will end and be replaced with joy.
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away."