In our first article, we looked at the apologetic and moral question of evil and God's existence. We saw that:
Atheistic secularism cannot provide a satisfactory basis for moral evil - the reality of pain and suffering simply is.
Evil does not disprove God but rather presupposes God.
The Triune God is the ultimate Source of objective morality
Dual Agency means that our intentions matter and that God has good ultimate intentions for all that comes to pass
God works all things (even evil) for the ultimate good of His glory
Now, we’ll turn our attention to finding meaning in suffering.
One of the things which distinguish us from the animals is that we do not simply squeal and flee from suffering. We seek to find some meaning in it to transcend and dignify it. Without meaning, we die. The problem of meaning is not just a philosophical one, but also a pastoral one. Every one of us will experience pain, suffering, and evil in this life - and so, I’m not unaware that this is not just some high-minded philosophizing but a tangible and felt reality for many.
I said at the end of a previous article that all meaning is given. Our world today tells us that we must MAKE our own meaning. However, we are simply not big enough to make anything bigger than ourselves. Thus, any self-made meaning will fail to give you any significance beyond yourself and your end. Unless the purpose is provided from OUTSIDE ourselves, we’ll never have one that is greater than ourselves.
So, what greater meaning does God give us for suffering?
Suffering and the Christian Life
Christianity offers a robust response to the question of finding meaning in suffering. In fact, I know of no other religion or philosophy that can compare. Suffering and the Christian life go together. Every single book of the Bible talks about suffering and in some places even guarantees it for the Christian! The apostle Paul says, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12) That’s a promise you don’t hear claimed very often!
But why? Is Christianity some sort of sadistic religion?
No, it is because Christianity offers what is needed to be able to not only endure suffering but endure it with joy and hope!
We’ll look at 4 ways God gives meaning to our suffering:
1. Suffering as Refinement
The Bible talks of God using suffering to refine us and produce good character in us.
“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5)
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
Professor Thaddeus J. Williams puts it this way,
“A God who both predetermines and grieves evil replaces fears of cosmic alienation and absurdity with a sense of solidarity (because God authentically feels our suffering) and stability (because God authoritatively purposes our suffering).” (Thaddeus J. Williams, Love, Freedom, and Evil, p.99-100)
Just as in Romans 8:28, God works all things (including evil and suffering) for good for those called according to his purpose. Therefore, for the Christian, there is no such thing as meaningless suffering.
2. Suffering and Redemption
God’s plan of redemption through Jesus Christ was not His plan B. It’s not like He created the world good, then the Devil sneaked in and messed it all up to His surprise and He had to come up with something new. The Bible tells us that this was His eternal plan and purpose. Paul writes,
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…” (Ephesians 1:3-5)
“He has saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works, but by His own purpose and by the grace He granted us in Christ Jesus before time began.” (2 Timothy 1:9)
Dr. K. Scott Oliphint, professor at Westminster Theological Seminary comments,
“The way that God has planned, from eternity past, to ‘justify’ himself in light of the sin and evil in the world is by coming down to his creation, appearing in his creation to address and solve the problem of evil. Far from being removed and aloof from the problem, he enters into the rot and ruin of it to destroy it.” (K. Scott Oliphint, You Why You Believe, p.182)
If there is one thing that we know suffering cannot mean, it cannot mean that God does not care for or love us. “For God loved the world in this way, that he sent his only begotten Son so that the one who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
Scott Christensen says it powerfully,
“Sin and evil form a mass of utter blackness. The law of God illuminates this darkness, exposing its repulsiveness. But the grace of God in the cross of Christ outshines even the light of his law. Its glory and magnificence penetrate deeply into that wretched core with the force of ten thousand suns dissolving sin and death. The dark and oppressive reality of evil can never outweigh the glory of the cross. As deep as evil seeks to dive, God’s grace in the cross of Christ dives deeper still… there has never been a more unjust crime, a more heinous display of disregard, or a more despicable act of malice than this: the crucifixion of the perfectly righteous Son of God two thousand years ago… Amazingly, without the planned entrance of evil into human souls epitomized in the unjust crucifixion of Christ, there is no grace, no mercy, no avenue for God to manifest his greatest glory.” (Scott Christensen, What About Free Will?, p.70)
If God could have a greater purpose for the greatest evil, then He surely can for all lesser evils. Indeed, this is what we see:
“...knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence… So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:14, 16 & 17)
God promises that for the Christian, the sufferings of this life will be “light and momentary” when compared to what is revealed in eternity. In fact, suffering is so synonymous with the Christian life that the apostle Paul can talk about it as God’s grace to us:
“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake…” (Philippians 1:29)
The Greek text literally reads “it has been graced to you…” for the sake of Christ, not only to believe in him but also to suffer for his sake. Later in the letter, Paul talks about longing to share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings - not because he’s got some twisted sense, but rather because it is an honour to suffer for his Lord. This was why the apostles went away rejoicing after being beaten up by the Jewish court for the sake of Christ in Acts 5. It says,
“Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.” (Acts 5:41)
Thus, the apostle Peter could tell his readers:
“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:12-13)
Our suffering with Christ and for the sake of Christ helps to confirm our redemption in him because in it we follow our Master who was the Suffering Servant. We follow a crucified Messiah, and this marks his followers - the way of Christ is the way of suffering that leads to ultimate life and victory.
3. Suffering and Retribution
On March 13, 1996, a 43-year-old gunman - Thomas Hamilton - walked into the playground of a primary school in Scotland and made his way to the gym where he opened fire on a class of five and six-year-olds. Within three minutes, sixteen children and their teacher were dead. He continued his massacre until 28 children were tragically murdered, then he turned his gun on himself.
The day after that tragic day, a guest on a TV program trying to make sense of the heinous evil of the event said, “The worst thing for the parents is the thought that justice will never be done.” Because Thomas Hamilton had killed himself, he will never be held accountable for killing all those children and that teacher. Many more similar stories of atrocities could be multiplied. One only need think of Adolf Hitler - a name forever enshrined in infamy who was responsible for the brutal and systematic slaughter of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust but who killed himself when he saw defeat coming at the end of World War 2.
If there is no perfectly just God who will one day call all people to account for their deeds, then indeed these atrocities of history are lost to the cause of justice and will never receive just retribution. However, as Paul said in Acts 17:31,
“God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
While this is a terrible thing for those who are not reconciled to God through Christ, for those who put their faith in Christ, God’s coming judgment is a reason for rejoicing - because it means that all wrongs will ultimately be dealt with. This is why there are songs of rejoicing in the Psalms over this,
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness. (Psalm 96:11-13)
Perhaps this doesn’t feel like a comfort to you or something that would rejoice in your soul. But for those who have suffered incredible injustice and know there is no hope of recompense or retribution in this life, it is a truth that quiets the soul and gives peace. We can leave justice to God.
4. Suffering that leads to Restoration
Our suffering also leads to a definite end and consummation.
“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.” (1 Peter 5:10)
Although right now suffering can seem hopeless and long, in light of eternity, our suffering in this age will seem like a little while and not worth comparing. We see a glimpse of this in the eternal state at the end of time:
“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 anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” (Revelation 21:3-7)
These are some of the most beautiful and precious promises of God to His people who today feel the brokenness of a world ravaged by sin and evil. One day, all will be restored and there will be no more evil. Perhaps even more thrilling is that last line. God the Almighty Creator of Heaven and earth says, “I will be his God and he will be my son.”
“All instances of evil that have not been defeated by the surprising work of the crucified Lamb at his first coming will be defeated by God’s expected use of retributive power as the fierce Lion at his second coming.” (Scott Christensen, What About Evil?, p.11)
Are you tired and weary? Have the pains, sufferings, and evils of this life made your heart groan with longings for something more and better? Have you been frustrated with the futility of a hope that is only as good as this life and only as big as your finite capacities can make it? Then put your hope in Christ. Only in Christ are these things promised and secure.
All of these things - suffering as refinement, redemption, retribution, and leading to restoration serve the end goal of all things that God is working towards - His own glory - and are available to all who put their faith in Christ alone for their salvation and hope.
Ultimately, the answer that God gives to the problem of suffering and evil is, “Trust me.”
Professor Frame is again helpful here:
“Scripture never assumes that God owes us an explanation for what he does… By his failure to defend himself, God is claiming his sovereign right to be trusted and believed, whatever suspicions his actions might provoke in human minds. In the final analysis, he is sovereign in the granting and withholding of mercy… In his decisions, he will not submit to man’s judgment. He reserves the right to behave in a way that might offend human values, that might even appear, from a human viewpoint, to contradict his own values. And when that happens, he is not under man’s judgment. He is not obligated to explain.” (John M. Frame, Apologetics, p.173-174)
Just as with a child and a parent, the parent is not obligated to explain everything they do - and indeed, the child may not have the mental faculties yet to understand it. In an infinitely more significant way, there is an infinite gap between our knowledge and God’s. However, unlike fallible human parents, our Heavenly Father is perfect and wholly worthy of our trust. It is no longer trust if you demand a full explanation - that would be assent or agreement - but that is not what a loving relationship is built upon. Like an earthly parent saying, “trust me”, God’s invitation to trust Him is also an invitation to enjoy a loving relationship with One who is able to work all things according to the counsel of His goodwill.
Will you trust Him?
This short video clip from the documentary - American Gospel: Christ Alone - responds to a distortion of Christianity - a false Gospel - known as the Prosperity Gospel that some so-called Christian ministers and false teachers (such as Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Bill Johnson, and Kenneth Copeland) propagate. It teaches that all God wants for you is to be healthy, wealthy, and happy. It doesn’t have any place for suffering in the Christian life and so struggles to give any meaningful answers to these questions. This clip contrasts these false gospels with the True One which gives hope in the midst of suffering.
Consider the questions below after you've watched this video clip.
Take some time to reflect on these questions: