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Pain and Suffering

We all know a story like Chuck Frye’s. Chuck was a gifted and bright young man who excelled in his studies and was accepted into medical school. During his first year he made a selfless decision. He wanted to make a difference in this world. Instead of pursuing a lucrative practice in the States he would serve the less fortunate oversees. God’s hand seemed to be upon his life; it looked like he would do big things. But Chuck started to feel tired near the end of his first year in med school. He was diagnosed with Leukemia and by the next November was dead.[1] …What? That’s not a happy ending. That’s not how things are supposed to work. It makes no sense. Why didn’t God intervene and heal Chuck? Why do bad things happen to good people?

If God is good then why is there so much pain and suffering in this world? We’ve all asked this question – maybe you’re struggling with it right now. Maybe you’ve given up trying to figure out why; it’s all just too confusing and pointless. Maybe you’re losing hope that things will ever get better. You’ve quietly resigned yourself to the reality that life IS suffering.

Maybe the question doesn’t bother you much right now … but eventually it will. A fresh wound has a way of getting your attention. Just wait until the next difficulty blindsides you like a tsunami. In the moment of devastation answers seem useless. A new encounter with suffering can bring back a whirlwind of questions we thought we knew the answer to. Pain can be disillusioning.

depressionI would venture to say that the most significant reason why people turn their back on God has to do with suffering – at least in North America. We live in a society that hates pain. We do whatever we can to escape suffering.  We want instant relief and instant gratification. Parents just want their child to “be happy” … suffering doesn’t fit into that equation. Pain is so disdained that it’s hard to imagine how a good God would allow pain into our lives. People lose their faith over it. Often behind sophisticated and intellectual arguments against God is a hurt heart. How can there be a God with all the pain and suffering in the world?

One argument that attempts to disprove God is centered on suffering. It goes like this: if God is all-powerful and all-loving then why is there suffering? If God is loving and powerful shouldn’t He be able to stop all suffering – and wouldn’t He want to? If God is powerful enough to stop pain but doesn’t then He isn’t loving. If God is loving but doesn’t have the power to stop suffering then He isn’t omnipotent. God must not exist because a loving and powerful God would not permit this mess.

At first glance this seems like a compelling argument. It certainly resonates with our emotions. But there’s an assumption in the statement that I disagree with. The assumption is that all suffering and pain is bad. That’s a big assertion. What if suffering can bring about good? What if a lesser pain can protect us from greater suffering in the future? What if suffering can be redemptive? The reality is that, if we allow it, suffering is one of the most (if not the most) powerful means through which we grow in character.

Pain is a powerful teaching tool. Suffering can develop character.

Now, just because we experience pain doesn’t mean we’ll learn from it – nor does it guarantee character development. We have a choice in our pain and it’s easy to choose anger, bitterness, and unbelief. I’ve experienced all of these in my pain. But if we’re open to learning through our pain there’s so much good that can come from it.

As Malcolm Muggeridge says –

Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained … This, of course, is what the Cross signifies.  And it is the Cross, more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ. [2]

I’m not yet where Malcolm has landed. There are painful situations I don’t look back at with satisfaction. But he makes a great point. I hate pain. I’ve desperately pleaded with God to take suffering away. Suffering has led me to question God and His goodness. But through it all I’ve learned a lot that I wouldn’t have otherwise known. When I was young I had life all figured out. Not anymore. Suffering has helped me be more gracious, understanding, empathetic, and humble. Pain has pushed me to be more vulnerable with others. I’ve found that when I share about difficulties with others it has opened up many conversations to talk about the real stuff.

I’m drawn to people who have let God shape them through difficult experiences. There’s a level of realness, of authenticity and humility that my heart connects with. I feel like they “get me.”  Pain can not only develop our character but increase our ability to help others.

C.S. Lewis said, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Pain gets our attention. It helps us focus on what really matters. As hard as it is, what if I looked at my pain as a way to learn more about myself and God? What if there are some lessons that can only be learned through suffering? Hebrews 5:8 tells us, “Even though Jesus was God’s Son, He learned obedience from the things He suffered.” That’s a profound thought to think upon.

So if suffering can be used for a greater good, if it’s a means to develop character, then it’s plausible that a loving God would allow pain. Pain and a loving God can co-exist.

Not only can pain and love co-exist but when you choose to love you risk pain. It’s an unavoidable chance you take if you want to experience love.

Love cannot exist without freedom and freedom carries the risk of pain and suffering.

One of our cultural values is freedom. Free to think, act, and love as we feel led. We have financial freedom and freedom 55. Individual rights matter – protect at all costs the autonomous self. We rightly understand that when it comes to love, true love cannot be automated or enforced. Love must be free.

Love cannot be controlled. Love is a choice. Forced love is not true love.

Now, let’s not glaze over those last statements too quickly. This is significant. Since love is not forced, it’s always risky to love someone.

Love is powerful and liberating and exhilarating! But love is also risky. The deeper you grow in love and intimacy the greater the cost if that love is betrayed.

We’re told in 1 John that God IS love:

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.
(1 John 4:7-8)

The greatest description of what true love looks like is God. Since God is love, He has no need for more love. He experiences love perfectly. Yet because He is love He decided to share the experience of love with others. So He created us so we could glorify Him and ENJOY God forever. The opportunity given to us is profound. We have the opportunity to experience the greatest of all love. Think of the moment you felt the most loved, when you experienced the greatest feelings of love and acceptance. That gives us a little taste of what God’s love is like. Imagine experiencing that sort of love for eternity!

But there’s always a risk with love, and the greater the love the greater the risk – the greater the cost if that love is betrayed. If God’s love were to be rejected the consequences would be tremendous.

Unfortunately, God’s love was rejected. In Genesis we’re told that Adam and Eve chose to disobey God’s good commands. They broke the trust. The consequences affected their relationship with God. There was now a distance between God and humankind. The effects of this touched everything; no part of creation was left untouched. Everything good was tainted. That’s the effect of sin. Sin hurts us and hurts our world. There’s a cost to a great love being betrayed.

We see the cost of this broken love everywhere. We see it in creation: natural disasters, famines, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanoes that bring death and destruction, dangerous plants and animals that hurt and kill. Our bodies don’t work like they should. People get diseases and die. Cancer, diabetes, auto-immune disease, thyroid problems – the list goes on and on.

We see the cost in broken relationships: families divided, lovers betrayed, terrorism, factions fighting, and wars erupting. We can’t trust each other so we fear for our safety. The greater the love the greater the cost when it is betrayed.

This is where the Christian view on suffering is so unique because instead of God giving up on us, God continues to pursue us. The cost was high. Justice must be honoured. It meant God had to pay the price for our mistakes. Only a perfect sacrifice would do and blood had to be shed. Jesus, the Son of God, comes to His creation and allows them to take His life to pay for all the wrongs they’ve committed against Him. God gives His life so we can be set free. When we accept the free gift of God’s grace we enter into a covenant relationship with God. Even when we’re unfaithful He remains faithful.

At the Cross we learn a few things about suffering.

1. God is redeeming our pain.

For the Christian we can look forward to the future because we’re promised that “All things work together for good for those who love God” in Romans 8:28. God has promised to redeem His creation. It’s hard to imagine but there will be a day when we’ll be able to look back and say ALL our suffering was worth it. Out of brokenness and tragedy God will bring GREATER good.

For I am about to do something new.
    See, I have already begun! Do you not see it?
I will make a pathway through the wilderness.
    I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
(Isaiah 43:19)

2. God understands our pain.

Jonathan Klein blog

God is not distant. He is not the cosmic sadist. God has entered into our pain by coming to this world. Jesus gets our pain.  Jesus’ death for us shows just how much He cares and understands. Jesus, the perfect One, had all the sins of the world thrown on Him! It’s a torment we cannot fathom. We can never say to God, “You don’t understand.” He understands on a much deeper experiential level than we do.

Though it doesn’t answer all the questions or take the pain away, it’s comforting to know that Jesus gets me. He gets my pain. He’s been through much worse and He did it all so I could experience His love. We each have a choice. We can run from God or to God in our pain. I urge you to give God a chance with the pain you’re experiencing. He understands.

Written by Jonathan Klein, Senior High & Young Adults Pastor

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[1] James Dobson When God Doesn’t Make Sense. (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 1993), p. 3

[2] Author: Malcolm Muggeridge, Source: as quoted by Ravi Zacharias in “Jesus Among Other Gods,” p. 135