Jan was the eldest of four children. Her rather well-to-do parents had moved to a small college town in the East in order to give their children the best educational opportunities. Jan was a pretty girl, well-liked by her high school friends. With her family background and personal qualities, her future was bright.
But Jan is dead. One November morning she boarded an airplane to visit a friend in the South. As the plane soared high over Maryland, a large bird hit the stabilizer. The pilot lost control, and the plane plunged to the earth. There were no survivors.
I saw the grief in the eyes of Jan’s parents and knew they were asking in their hearts, “Why did God allow this to happen?” And having known this charming young girl, I could not help wondering with them.
Why do men suffer so much in this world? Day after day the news brings reports of human suffering—tornadoes in the Midwest, carnage in Viet Nam, starvation in India, the able and useful felled by cancer, crimes of violence, homelessness, poverty. Why does God allow such things to happen?
This oppressively difficult question has puzzled some of the keenest minds throughout history. The writer of Job depicts the predicament of a godly man who is sorely afflicted, raising the question, Why do the righteous suffer? The Stoic philosophers also wrestled with this problem: If God is all-good and all-powerful, why does he allow evil and suffering? Augustine too searched for an answer. He saw Rome fall into the hands of ruthless barbarians who violated Christian maidens and forced a walled city to surrender by herding captives against the walls and there massacring them in droves, so that the stench of their decaying bodies made the city uninhabitable. And just as Augustine taxed his mind with the problem of suffering, so analytical philosophers today are struggling with this question.
But the problem still remains to shake faith and disturb sincere seekers. Can we find a solution? No, not a final, absolute one. But we can consider a few ideas that shed some light on it.
In considering the problem of suffering, it is important to keep in mind that the Bible shows that something is radically wrong with God’s good creation. There is a destructive, negative, chaotic, almost demonic perversion of God’s world. This perversion is called sin.
Now sin is not, as some Christians think, simply things like failing to attend church, not tithing, drinking, using foul language, or casting hungry glances at sexy pictures. To speak of such things, deplorable though they may be, is to fall far short of describing the essence of sin. Nor is the perversion in creation merely an inadequate socio-economic situation, as the Marxists think. For the Marxist, man’s problems are rooted in the fact that many persons produce goods that are appropriated and exploited by only a few. But sin is much more radical.
Sin is not primarily a deed or a social condition. It is an inner disorientation. It is something inside man, the resolution to center life in the finite rather than in God, and it results in the perversion of all human relations (see Rom. 1:18–32).
Like the spider at the center of its web, sinful man tries to center the world in himself. That is pride. Like the spider, he sits at the center of his world and thinks he has it all under control. He is the arbiter of destinies. That is ignoring God. Finally, like the spider, sinful man—self-centered and supposedly self-sufficient—lurks, waits, and watches for some thing or person to pass within his sphere of influence, so that he may consume it, or possess her, or exploit him. That is greed, and greed leads to injustice and human suffering.
If men repented—if they gave up their self-centered pride, their ignoring of God, and their consuming greed—then a good portion, if not the major share, of human suffering would be abolished. For true repentance roots out sin and implants sin’s opposite within man. Now the opposite of sin is the love and service of God, and a man cannot love and serve God if he is warping, injuring, and disfiguring the lives of others. It is important to remember that this uprooting of sin and implanting of love is a lifelong process. Many Christians think that it is complete once they walk down the aisle, shake the pastor’s hand, and are baptized. By no means! We must pray daily that God’s love will be in our hearts and in our deeds. Then we may bring healing instead of suffering.
If a wave of Christian love should flow over Viet Nam, what would happen? Citizen after citizen would lay down his weapons. He would beat his bullets into ploughshares and his guns into pruning hooks. Blood would cease to wash those streets. Or suppose that our Christian homes experienced a fresh surge of Christian love. Some men would stop courting the affections of other women and would instead be more devoted to the wives for whom they thanked God at the marriage altar. Some women would spend less time attending tea parties and dub meetings and more in building godly, peaceful, and clean homes for their families. It is no secret that scores of American homes are breaking apart daily. Adultery and irresponsible wedlock seem to have become hallmarks of our way of life. Many homes have become hells because of sin.
Or suppose that the Church were to evidence a rebirth of Christian love. Surely the Church would then be far less concerned about building new sanctuaries or changing from central pulpits to split chancels. Instead it would be more anxious about the people who are starving right now in our city slums.
Why do men suffer? They suffer because we are sinners; because we do not and will not repent; because we just do not care about the other man.
Sin, then, may account for the brutalities in Viet Nam and the hell in homes. But what about Jan, who died in the plane crash, and those who die from cancer, and the hundreds killed yearly by cyclones and tornadoes? Here the problem of suffering becomes most bewildering.
Some sincere thinkers have proposed that God permits such things as disease and cyclones because only in such an environment can responsible and mature personalities be developed. But this explanation is hardly acceptable. It is certainly true that suffering often produces stronger, more mature persons. But who will say that God intended or caused suffering from natural causes so that we might mature? I could never say to Jan’s mother, “God intended your girl to die, so that you would gain moral and spiritual stamina.” Nor could I say to a mother clutching in her arms a baby dying of cancer of the throat, “This is God’s will. He has a purpose in all this suffering. Be patient, and you will understand.” He who said “Suffer the little children to come unto me” cannot possibly be the source of a baby’s affliction.
Why, then, do people suffer? The passion of our Lord sheds some precious light on it.
The disciples left Calvary dejected and bewildered. The best man who had ever lived had been nailed to a wooden cross. Hell had done its worst. Then, when the night seemed blackest, God split the darkness apart with the blazing glory of the resurrection of his Son. This mighty act of God has tremendous implications for the problem of suffering.
To have been the cup
His lips touched and blessed,
To have been the bread
Which He broke;
To have been the cloth
He held as He served,
Or water He poured
As He spoke;
To have been the road
He walked on the Way,
To have been His print
In the sand;
To have been the door
That opened the tomb,
But I was a nail
In His hand.
First, it means that our God is Sovereign Lord over suffering. Consider this amazing truth. God used the suffering of his own Son as the cord with which he wove the web of redemption. From the very worst he made the very best. Perhaps he is using our pain to work some miracle of grace.
Second, God’s mighty act at Calvary and at the empty tomb means that our God is a Suffering Lord. That, too, is amazing. When we cry out to him in the midst of our suffering, we are not calling upon a Buddha whose arms are folded and whose eyes are closed in eternal contemplation. Our God’s back is not turned toward his people. His face is turned toward us, and he knows what it is to suffer. In the person of his Son, he experienced hunger, loneliness, pain, and rejection. He wept. He died. Therefore, in our afflictions we have this comfort: our God knows what we are going through. That is great good news.
Finally, Calvary and the empty tomb mean that our God is the great Raiser of the Dead. Suffering in this life is not the final word. There is more to come—the new heaven and the new earth. As Christ was raised from the dead, so shall we who acknowledge his Lord-ship be raised to new life. That, too, is great good news.
Why, then, do men suffer? Some men suffer because of sin. And it is our job to go out into the world to help remove the suffering caused by sin.
Other suffering remains a mystery to us. Yet we have this confidence, that our God is Sovereign Lord over suffering; this comfort, that our God is a Suffering Lord; and this hope, that our God is the great Raiser of the Dead. All this is ours because the Empty Tomb followed the Empty Cross.
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