For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. – 2 Corinthians 4:17 (NIV)
The next time a major tragedy strikes, take two aspirin and delve into the discussion threads below the online news stories. You’ll discover plenty of compassionate people, but also many whose comments shake your faith in humanity. You’ll almost certainly see the following line of argument played out.
It starts when someone weighs in with prayers for the victims or thanks to God that it wasn’t worse. Close behind are the Atheists on Patrol, who seem to camp out on these threads, scanning for any expression of faith to challenge. Believers respond to them, some with patience and gentleness, others with caustic glee for the day when the atheists learn they were wrong.
The skeptics raise many serious objections, but the one that has always made me pause and squirm amounts to this: God fails as cosmic lifeguard. It’s the question as old as humanity. How could a good God allow so much disappointment, suffering and tragedy, in our lives and in the world? Where was He in the loss of that job, that relationship, perhaps my very health? Why did he allow that earthquake, that famine? Or as CNN asked, drawing more than 10,000 responses, where was God in Aurora?
I started out to write an entirely different post, but God pulled me aside and into some very deep waters. Let me try to retrace the steps.
Believers offer many answers to the question of suffering. God is testing us. He’s refining us. It’s His discipline. It’s setting the table for God to show His power, directly or through His people. He’s teaching us something. He’s preparing us for a greater tomorrow that we can’t foresee. At different times, in different places, all of these explanations can apply. Taken together, they don’t nearly add up to a complete answer.
Dig a little deeper, and the reasoning may be that we live in a fallen world; evil and suffering are the unavoidable consequences of this. Also true, but still there are holes.
Why is the world fallen? Basically, through the exercise of free will, which humanity has misused to rebel and sin against God. And yet, while suffering may be a consequence of human rebellion, it’s not necessarily punishment.
Free will is, after all, a gift from God. To me, it’s among the strongest clues that God even exists. What I didn’t grasp until recently is how profoundly precious that gift is. Its value is measured, in part, in human suffering.
If we say that some suffering is simply the result of people exerting free will, suffering becomes mere collateral damage. That would be true if God had no power to prevent it – and He would look like a reckless God for giving us this dangerous toy we call free will. But God does have the power. Why does He so often refrain from using it?
Perhaps it comes down to this: Every time God intervenes in human events, He encroaches on free will. Satan thought God intervened a bit too much, and challenged God to His face as he sought permission to ruin Job’s life. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?” Satan asked. “…But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-10, NIV)
Satan underestimated Job’s faith, but he put his finger on something pivotal. Under the same blessing and cursing as Job received, how would we be affected? With a strict diet of force-fed blessings, would God steal our freedom to choose or reject Him? If He let it all be taken away, would our faith remain? The life of cradle-to-grave safety and prosperity under God would be a life of comfort without liberty. The life exposed to free will and its consequences, however dire, is one in which we can freely give Him trust and love that have real worth.
Job trusted God to know how much protection was enough. So do I. But imagine if God’s hand shielded everyone, all the time, from every misfortune. To do so, he would have to change our choices and bend the laws of nature and probability, displaying His power so clearly that with any remaining will, we could do nothing other than bow to Him. We would become a race of robots God never intended us to be.
God loves us too much to do that. He loved us enough to sacrifice the perfection of His original creation – even the angels of heaven had free will, and so Satan exists. All this, so we would have freedom to choose the full, deep, satisfying relationship God desires with us.
Perhaps then unexplained suffering is not the collateral damage of free will, but rather the cost God willingly assigns to it and shares with us. Human suffering hurts us and it hurts Him, but the gift is worth the price. It may be among God’s greatest gifts short of redemption itself, which cost the death of His son Jesus on the cross, His blameless body and spirit bearing heaven’s full wrath against sin.
So where do we go with this? Three things come to mind.
First, don’t stop caring. Mercy and compassion are woven through the Bible from beginning to end. God loves us whether He is sparing us pain or allowing it, and we are to let His love flow through us to a world full of hurt, whatever the cause.
Second, you may be able to make peace with God about the suffering you have endured or witnessed. God might have clearer, more specific reasons for the pain He allowed into your life. But even if you can’t see any reason, you can kn0w that the suffering had meaning.
Third, you may be able to make peace with God on the most basic level. Suffering may have left you too angry at God to bow to Him, or too skeptical to believe He exists at all. The very will you assert to push Him away is a precious gift from Him, bound up with the hurt you have seen. You can use this will to receive His greatest gift – redemption through Jesus Christ.
Then you can begin to surrender your will to His, in large chunks or in small pieces, because you want to. All of our suffering will be eternally forgotten in the glory that is waiting for us. It will have been worth the cost.