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Suffering: Why this? Why now?

03.20.20 | Suffering

Suffering: Why this? Why now?

    Where is God in the middle of this pandemic? What is God's answer to suffering?

    The world is currently consumed by the suffering that is being wrought by the pandemic spread of the Corona Virus. The number of infected climbs steadily, hauntingly, reported every morning and every afternoon. The number of deaths also climbs. Steadily. Quietly. We remember, quite by surprise, that there is such a thing as suffering.

    Christian, in the middle of all this news, please remember that this is your last chance to suffer. In a few short years, if you’re a Christian, you will be in a place that is beyond suffering. Beyond sin. Beyond brokenness. You will understand all that God has done and in your heart of hearts you will know it to be good.  For the vast majority of your existence, you will live by sight and not by faith.  But that’s not how it is now, is it?  To reverse how Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 13, “then we shall see face to face.”  But “now we see but a poor reflection.”  “Then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”  But “now I know [only] in part.”  Then . . . we will live by sight.  But now we live by faith.  Then . . . we will understand.  But now we often don’t.  How can God be both good and sovereign—and yet have allowed these things to happen to me?

    The Christian life is one caught up in this most basic tension—between our experience of reality and its apparent conflict with God’s character as found in the Bible.  Philosophers call it the problem of evil.  And living in this tension is a challenge, isn’t it?  If you live long enough, you will suffer.  You will feel the effects of aging, you will get sick, you will watch a loved one die.  You will endure the constant fight against sin, disappointment that ravages your soul, and fear, worry, and stress.  Add to it all the effects of war, racism, unemployment, poverty, abuse, corrupt governments, persecution for religious belief, and the idea of suffering seems enough to break any faith.

    Or does it?  Suffering is a challenge—and it is a challenge to faith.  But it is also an opportunity for faith—and, in fact, suffering in this life is your last opportunity to please God through faith.  The Bible very self-consciously never provides an explanation for all suffering.  Instead, when it grapples with suffering it issues a profound call to faith.  Not a blind faith that trusts simply to trust—but a faith grounded in the evidence of God’s working in this world.  And it is faith that is the goal of this class.

    In that sense, this class is preparation for suffering.  1 Peter 4:12 urges us to “not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.”  We’re surprised because we weren’t prepared.  How do we avoid being surprised?  We prepare.  When suffering comes our way, we want to know how to think, how to respond, how to trust, and how to care for those around us who are suffering. 

    Because, remember, this life is your last opportunity to live by faith, and your last opportunity to use the trials God brings your way to show how great he is. 

    The Origin of Suffering

    Now, with this as our goal: How do we grapple with suffering—especially undeserved suffering—in a universe sovereignly governed by a merciful God?  And so we’ll start with the Biblical origin of suffering, and then hit the places in Scripture where this problem is handled most obviously—beginning with the book of Job.  That’s our outline for the rest of this morning: the origin, and the answer.  Let’s dig in!

    So to begin with, where does suffering come from?  Go back to the beginning of the Bible.  God creates everything good.  You’ll remember that continuing refrain “and it was good[1]” that runs through the first two chapters of Genesis.  No sin, no suffering; everything just the way it was supposed to be.  Then Adam and Eve disobey God and they immediately experience the pain of being separated from Him.  They had known the unhindered fellowship with God but now they hid from Him (Gen. 2:8) and found themselves at odds with each other (Gen. 3:7, 12).  In Genesis 3:16-19 we see the curse on creation because of sin,

    “To the woman he said, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat of it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

    Judgment brought physical, emotional and relational pain; judgment even cursed the earth itself.  Rebellion against God ushered pain and suffering into human history and by Genesis 5, Adam’s dead, and we are faced with a second refrain: “and he died…and he died…and he died” as we see death continue to conquer. 

    But, of course, the Bible doesn’t end there.  And by the time we come to the end of the Bible we once again see that vision of paradise.  In Revelation 21:1-4 we read:

    “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’”

    That is the end of suffering.  And it’s the end of sin—as as in the new heavens and new earth, “Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev. 21:27).  As Don Carson points, out,

    “Between the beginning and the end of the Bible, there is evil and there is suffering.  But the point to be observed is that from the perspective of the Bible’s large-scale story line, the two are profoundly related: evil is the primal cause of suffering, rebellion is the root of pain, sin is the source of death.[2]” 

    So why is there suffering?  Well, the origin of suffering is sin.  In that sense, all suffering is because of sin.  But does this mean that every time we suffer it’s because we’ve sinned and God is punishing us for it?  To answer that, we now turn to the book of Job.

    Like a number of the Psalms or other Wisdom literature[3], Job is a book that talks realistically about suffering.  When we turn to chapter 1, we’re introduced to a man who was ‘blameless and upright’ (1:1,8).  He had a large family (1:2), great wealth (1:3a), and an honorable reputation (1:3b).  From an outward perspective, life was going well.  In the remainder of chapters 1 and 2, the curtain is pulled back in heaven and we, the readers, get to listen in on a conversation between God and Satan.  In Job 1:9-12 we read:

    “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. But stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your hands, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.” Then Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.

    In a few verses, Job loses his wealth, his family, his reputation, and near the end of chapter 2, his health.  From these first two chapters, we can make three observations about suffering:

    1. Suffering is Real. Unlike some Eastern religions that deny the reality of suffering and pain, the Bible suggests that suffering is real. It hurts. It is a problem. We ought not to have a Buddhist view of suffering. We need to maintain a balanced theology of God’s goodness. If our theology of God's goodness leads us to the conclusion that suffering is not a real problem, then our understanding of suffering requires no faith. And without faith it is impossible to please God. This is a flawed view of suffering. Which is why Job’s experience is so important.  Suffering is real.  And it is a problem.
    2. God is Sovereign over Suffering. Even though Satan is the one causing Job to suffer, he had to gain permission from God to do so. We serve a God who “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of His will” ( 1:11b).  Job did not have the ‘behind the scenes’ perspective that we’re given as readers, but he knows his God well enough to tell his wife, “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10a). Job knew that the trouble he was facing was, “from God.”

    William Henry Green, in his book, The Argument of the Book of Job Unfolded, says of Satan:

    With all his hatred of God and spite against His people, he cannot emancipate himself from that sovereign control, which binds him to God's service. In all his blasphemous designs he is, in spite of himself, doing the work of God[4].

    But suffice it to say that one encouragement we receive in the midst of suffering, one ‘anchor of the soul,’ as the author of Hebrews puts it, is that God is not surprised by suffering and does not make mistakes.  The pain inflicted by a sovereign God is like the difference between the surgeon’s scalpel and the criminal’s knife.  He is in control.  He is good.  He is good to us, his children.

    1. There is Such a Thing as ‘Innocent Suffering’ – Though sin is the ultimate cause of all suffering, not all suffering is due to a specific sin. This is a key lesson of the book. Job’s friends come to him to convince him to repent of whatever sin has caused this calamity.  For surely a sovereign and good God would not allow this unless Job had sinned in a huge way.  But we know that the real story is in fact the opposite.  Why is Job suffering?  It’s because he’s especially righteous!  That was Satan’s point in the first place, wasn’t it?  Though suffering does sometimes reflect specific sin[5], we should take care to not presume we know the mind of God.  Think of the disciples asking Jesus about a blind man: “‘Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’  ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.[6]’”  Oh, if only Job’s friends understood that.

    Which brings us to a fourth lesson from the book of Job on suffering: our job is not to understand but to trust.  The lessons we’ve seen so far come from a fairly omniscient perspective. But think about all this from Job’s point of view.  He’d be completely in the dark as to why this was happening.  Why was God doing this?  What was going on?  At one point, Job had wanted an interview with God: “Oh, that I had someone to hear me! I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing” (Job 31:35).  He had come to God demanding that God explain himself. Well . . . what happens when he gets his meeting? 

    Chapter 38, God breaks His silence and says to Job, “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me” (Job 38:2-3).  What follows then is a barrage of questions, each reminding him that he is not GOd. 

    • Job 38:4 - “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand.
    • Job 38:12 - “Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place,”
    • Job 38:22-23 “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or seen the storehouses of the hail, which I reserve for times of trouble, for days of war and battle?”
    • Job 38:31-32 “Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loose the cords of Orion?  Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons or lead out the Bear with its cubs?”
    • Job 40:2 “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!”
    • Job 40:8b “Would you discredit my justice?  Would you condemn me to justify yourself?"

    Why is God so harsh? It’s not because Job has sinned. God makes that quite clear (42:7). But Job’s insistence that God explain himself is, as God terms it, “condemning me to justify yourself.”  Not only does God not explain himself to Job, he is emphatic that in no way does Job deserve an explanation or will he ever get an explanation. 

    God is God and Job is not. God is to be worshipped, not questioned in such a way that would accuse him of injustice. Can we ask “why?” or “how long?” Certainly.  We see those themes shot through the Psalms.  But always within a framework of Trust. As Creator, God had an infinitely better perspective than Job did and is infinitely wiser.  Seeing this wisdom is what moved the Apostle Paul to declare, “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!  ‘Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor?’” (Rom. 11:33-34)[7].

    And so Job’s right response to God is not a cry of understanding, but of repentance.  “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6). 

    This is a critical insight that Job offers us on the topic of suffering.  There are some things we will not understand because simply we are not God.  (Parents see a shadow of this with their own kids.)  Far from being a ‘cop-out’ answer to a difficult question, it is recognition that we don’t worship a God who we can put in our little box – He is a God whom “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain” (2 Chron. 6:18b).  No.  What we learn from Job is that our call is not to rely on our understanding of a situation, but to trust God[8].  Job sets up a pattern that holds through the rest of the Bible: God does not often explain our suffering.  Instead, he calls us to trust him despite that lack of understanding.

    But how can we trust Him?  Are we called to a blind trust?  “Yes, the book of Job makes logical sense.  God’s God.  I’m not.  I’m sorry for suggesting otherwise.  But is that all there is?  I’m called to faith, not to understanding—but Lord, I feel I need more than that.  Help me to trust!”

    Well, for Job that’s all there was.  The evidence that Job had of God’s trustworthiness came from what he could see of God’s character as revealed in creation.  Go, look out the window, marvel at what God has made, and then on that evidence trust him as he tears your life to pieces.  That’s true.  But it’s hard.  Job had amazing faith.  In God’s kindness, though, he has given us much more evidence for our faith.  And we see that as we look through the rest of the Bible.

    The Rest of the Bible

    As the books of the Bible progress from beginning to end, we see God’s purposes in suffering—and evidence for our faith—come sharper into focus.  So let’s walk through that evidence.

    The Exodus is God’s debutante party, so to speak—the moment he chose to enter onto the international stage.  And when he enters, Israel has been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years.  The words of Joseph, who led them there, seem almost mockery by that point in time: “what you intended for evil, God intended for good.”  How can 400 years of slavery possibly be intended for good?  But as God tells Pharaoh directly (9:16), all this is happening “that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”  And so single-handedly, God lays waste to the nation of Egypt and leads his people out.  He leads them into a dead-end: caught between the Red Sea on one side and the pursuing army of Egypt on the other—and then parts the sea, saves his people, and destroys the mightiest army on earth.  God leaves the pagan nations in such awe that the Philistines are still talking about these events in 1 Samuel—hundreds of years later[9].  And so in the Exodus God’s people see what Job never did: that God can use their suffering to proclaim his might to the nations.

    Naomi: From international drama, then, let’s move to the little book of Ruth.  God has shown himself to use great national crises for good—but what about the life of a poor widow?  The book is set up as a test of Naomi’s accusation against God: “The Almighty has made my life very bitter”  But by the end of the book God has lavished mercy on Naomi, his accuser—and we see how his blessing in producing King David has gone far beyond what even Naomi could ever have dreamed.

    Habakkuk: Next on our tour comes the prophet Habakkuk—who presents the most concise treatment of the problem of suffering in all of the Bible.  Habakkuk complains to God that he allows the wicked to triumph over the righteous.  God’s answer?  Don’t worry: I’m going to judge the nation through the Babylonians.  Which is even worse, isn’t it?  And just like with Job, God’s answer to Habakkuk’s complaining of innocent suffering is not explanation but a call to trust.  Habakkuk 2:20--“But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.”  And yet unlike in Job or Exodus or Ruth, by the time we get to Habakkuk, God gives us his grand purpose statement for all of history.  Chapter 2, verse 14: “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.”

    God is working all things out for his glory.  There is a strong purpose under-girding all that he does.  Just like the Exodus, or a shepherd killing a giant, or the defeat of a hundred and eighty-five thousand of Assyria while the people slept, God is sculpting history precisely so that only a divinity of infinite strength could rescue.  And then he does.  And that is exactly the point. The glory is God’s. And so with such evidence pointing to God’s ability to make good on his ultimate purpose statement, Habakkuk is called to trust.  As we read in 2:4, “the righteous will live by his faith.” Our posture is not one of questioning, but one of trust.

    And that’s what Habakkuk does.  Some of the most beautiful verses in all the Bible are at the end of chapter 3:

    “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior” (3:17-18). 

    How on earth can he say that?  Because he trusts God’s better purposes. But, of course, God isn’t finished.  Job: don’t question God but trust him.  Exodus: God can turn great tragedy into great good.  Naomi: even at an individual level.  Habakkuk: because everything he does is for one great, ultimate good—the proclamation of his glory to the nations.  And that brings us to the New Testament.  Where we see that everything he does is not merely for his glory—but also for our good.

    The Cross: There, on the cross of Jesus Christ, God uses the most unjust suffering in the history of the universe—for the grandest of purposes.  Exhibit A in the foundation of our faith is the suffering God inflicted on his own son—the suffering that we deserved—so that we could be counted as righteous.  Evil—harnessed for God’s glory.  And, as we read in Romans 8:28, for our good.  “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

    And in this life, that’s what we have: the problem of suffering, a call to faith, and evidence to bolster that faith.  But that’s not where history ends.  Let’s make one final stop in our tour of the Bible: the book of Revelation.

    Revelation: Because at the end of time—and the beginning of eternity—there is no more tension.  There is no more faith.  As the angels sing in Revelation 15:

     “Great and marvelous are your deeds,
       Lord God Almighty.
    Just and true are your ways,
       King of the ages.
    Who will not fear you, O Lord,
       and bring glory to your name?
    For you alone are holy.
    All nations will come
       and worship before you,
    for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

    Did you notice that past tense in the last phrase?  All nations will come and worship before you for your righteous acts have been revealed.  Today, we can’t understand why God does what he does.  It’s painful.  It tries the soul.  And so we live by faith.  But one day, we will all see.  And we will all worship.  Because the apparent contradiction will be no more.  We will see the truth of God’s ways—and all will be revealed.


    So why do we have the Corona Virus? We could also ask why there was the diagnosis cancer for our friend? Or why did she die? Why didn’t the car stop a split second sooner? This side of heaven we may never know.  But this side of heaven, we can trust. 

    The Bible gives us abundant evidence to do so, most perfectly in the death of Jesus: the greatest evil ever became the greatest news in the world.  What man had meant for evil, God has used for the greatest of good. The Bible’s answer to suffering.


    [1] Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31; 2:9, 12, 17, 18

    [2] How Long O Lord, pg. 40

    [3] e.g. Ecclesisastes

    [4] The Argument of the Book of Job Unfolded, pg. 63f  . . . In moving heaven and earth to accomplish the perdition of those whom Christ has ransomed, he is actually fitting them for glory . . . he is constrained to be that which he most abhors, and is furthest from his intentions and desires . . . auxiliary to the designs of grace

    [5] e.g. 2 Chr. 26:17-20; 1 Cor. 11:30; Jn. 5:14

    [6]John 9:1-3

    [7] And keep in mind that these words of Paul follow on the most painful section of his letter to the Romans.  “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were cursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, those of my own race, the people of Israel.”  Paul writes, praising God out of a painful lack of understanding.

    [8] Prov. 3:5

    [9] 1 Samuel 4:8