Only a month into my first pastorate, I got a late-night call from our church administrator. The only son of one of our widows had committed suicide, and the police wanted me to tell his mother. So we stepped out into the darkness and headed for her home. As soon as she opened the door, she knew that something terrible had happened, and she started crying her son’s name.
Thirty years later, I learned one of my students and his wife were facing tragedy with their first child. Yet unborn, the baby had been diagnosed with a condition that would kill him within hours of his birth. Convinced that his life was precious, and willing to suffer the pain of losing him, they chose to carry the child to term.
Every pastor—indeed, every Christian—is familiar with such heartrending situations, and when they occur, the question naturally surfaces: “Why, Lord?” After all, God is both all-powerful and all-good, so why doesn’t He just intervene?
Well, what does the Bible say? Actually, a lot of things, including a major insight in Genesis 3. Life was safe and comfortable in Eden, but Adam and Eve couldn’t handle the combination of obedience and blessing. For their sin, they were expelled and condemned to face a difficult, resistant world. That’s why we face treachery and drought and death to this day. But God wasn’t being petulant or vindictive, for we read in Romans 8:20-21 that “the creation was subjected to futility . . . in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” There is a glorious point to it.
The Bible is surprisingly dappled with cranky and desperate utterances from God’s people. It’s not all happy talk.
Indeed, the entire eighth chapter of Romans is full of encouragement, including the assurance that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (v. 28). It’s why Paul could tell the Philippians that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (1:6), and why he could assure the Corinthians that “momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison” (2 Cor. 4:17). Words of comfort and encouragement are found throughout Scripture, often in the Psalms, where we learn of the riches packed into the reality that “the Lord is my shepherd” (Ps. 23:1). And in Revelation 21, we find a breathtaking view of what awaits the saints.
The Lord could have left it at that, with a word on the “power of positive thinking.” But the Bible is surprisingly dappled with cranky and desperate utterances from God’s people. It’s not all happy talk.
In fact, God’s Word is full of “embarrassing” candor. Consider this lament from Psalm 88: “[Lord] You have put me in the lowest pit . . . You have removed my acquaintances far from me; You have made me an object of loathing to them” (vv. 6, 8). Not the sort of sentiment you’d want to put in the church bulletin, yet it’s right there in Holy Scripture.
Then there’s the complaint to God found in Jeremiah 12:1: “Indeed I would discuss matters of justice with You: Why has the way of the wicked prospered? Why are all those who deal in treachery at ease?” David, too, expresses anger toward God for killing Uzzah, who touched the ark of the covenant to keep it from tumbling to the ground. (See 2 Sam. 6:5-16.) In chapter three of his story, Job wishes he had been miscarried or stillborn, and in chapter 30, he says God has been cruel and aloof. And in Romans 9, Paul gives voice to the dismay one could well feel over the plight of Esau and Pharaoh, whose unhappy fates were somehow preset (vv. 11-17).
All these men were crying out, “What in the world’s going on here, God?”
Here and there, we get a glimmer of an answer. For instance, in John 9, Jesus healed a man blind from birth. Jesus said it wasn’t sin that made him blind, but rather “it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him” (v. 3). Of course, that won’t satisfy the hard skeptic who complains, “You mean God used this poor guy in this way? And what about the ones He didn’t heal?” But it’s a start.
Now, you might think God should say something like, Oops. You’re right. I didn’t see how unfair that was. Let me see if I can explain myself to your satisfaction. No, in Job chapter 38, God asks, Who do you think you are to put Me on trial? And in Romans 9:20-21, He retorts, Excuse Me, but I’m the potter. You humans are the clay, and I can do what I jolly well please.
But does this make God an aloof potentate who simply says, Deal with it! No, He joined us in our suffering through His Son on the cross. Do you need evidence? See Jesus in Gethsemane, sweating profusely and asking if there is any option to the torment of crucifixion. See the Lord humiliated and brutalized on Calvary, crying out to God, Why did You abandon Me? (By the way, contrast God in Christ with the Allah of Islam who, despite the fine talk of his mercy and beneficence, reigns untouched above personal suffering.)
It’s said that misery loves company, and it is comforting to know that the company we keep includes our Creator, who, through Scripture, gives empathetic voice to human dismay but firmly insists that we trust Him to sort it all out for the best. He’s far too gracious to let us stew in bitterness. After all, he knows the sweet wisdom of history, which He authors, and the wonders that are ours—not only in the life beyond, but also in the life before us here.
Next month, Mark Coppenger concludes his series by addressing the misguided belief that suffering proves God is neither all-powerful nor all-good.