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A question that has bothered people throughout time is why there is so much suffering in this world when God is said to be almighty and full of love. This has also troubled Christians who know that God is their heavenly Father who cares for them and answers their prayers. It is difficult to understand why such a God would permit His own children to suffer Ė sometimes in great degrees and sometimes unjustly too, even when they cry out to them. God has not given us a complete answer for this, and we will be able to understand things clearly only in eternity. But we can see some parts of the truth that can help us to understand enough to trust Him and come to rest in our mind.
When we come down to it, we see that all the problems in this world are due to sin. When God created the world and everything in it, everything was Ďvery goodí (Gen.1:31). But when Adam and Eve disobeyed Godís commandment and sinned, everything changed. The earth and everything in it began to physically go bad, sickness began and bodies began to degenerate and die, and corruption came in into every aspect of life including personal relationships (Ge.3:14-19). This Fall has distorted our faculties of thinking, feeling and making decisions. Obviously this kind of effect on the earth and everything in it has been increasingly leading to immeasurable suffering in peopleís lives. In every generation we can see things going from bad to worse.
A broad classification shows us that sometimes we suffer because of our own foolish and sinful behaviour (Gal.6:7,8). We also suffer from other peopleís behaviour even when we are innocent (just as they suffer from our behaviour!). All of us also suffer from natural calamities, accidents, etc., that are quite unpredictable, and the results of huge human errors like dictatorship, wars, irresponsible use of pesticides and food additives, wrong decisions by government, workplace, church, etc., that affect a large number of Ďinnocentí people.
What we can see is that we do not always suffer according to what we deserve. Many people hold the view that good people get rewarded and bad people get punished and therefore whatever we experience is the result of what we have done. This is wrong because everything we experience is not related to what we have personally done, as we have seen in the previous paragraph. So, we should stop judging other people by attributing sin to them when we see them suffer. This was what Jobís friends did when they saw his suffering, even though we know from the Bible that it was not true at all; he was being tested to see if he would still hold on to his integrity in the midst of suffering (Job.2:3-6). We should also stop condemning ourselves when we suffer, imagining that God must be punishing us for something we might have done. We know we are justified before God by faith and that He has taken away His wrath towards us because Jesus took it on Himself.
Some Christians wrongly believe that everything that happens is the will of God. When someone says God is completely in control of everything and everything that comes to us is from the hands of God, it appears to magnify God as supreme. But, if we look at the statement as it stands, it is wrong! If we think about the practical implications we can see how this distorts the true nature of God. It would imply God not only does good things, but He is also responsible for all the evil in the world! In seeking to magnify God's infinite power and sovereignty, it ends up caricaturing Him as a partly evil person whom we canít adore but only live in fear of, wondering what He will do next!
We must not forget the limited sovereignty (free will) God has given us in His sovereignty! It is this sovereignty Adam and Eve misused in disobeying God and submitting to Satan. It is this free will that people use to do evil to one another, and everyone suffers. If we abdicate our sovereignty thinking that God will anyway do everything according to His will, we can even blame Him for our sins! We need not lift even our finger to do things rightly if we believe anyway it is Godís will that will get done. We need not preach the Gospel to our children (or others) if we think they will anyway get saved if God has sovereignly elected them! But truly, God works in us, therefore let us work it out in our practical life (Php.2:12,13). He has given us everything, so let us Ďaddí to it from our side (2Pe.1:3,5).
Why do Christians get this kind of understanding? I would say that one major reason is a misunderstanding of the inspiration of the word of God. They take each sentence in the Bible as the direct word of God without considering that it is written in a human language with its finiteness of expression and imprecise meaning. As a result, God's truth has to be gleaned from all over the Bible. If we do this we will find that truths in many verses are completed and balanced by other truths in other parts of the Bible. So when we come across verses that tell us about the absolute sovereignty of God we need to see them side by side with truths about the freedom of choice that God has created us with.
An absolutely sovereign God who is responsible for everything that happens, including evil of the worst kind, ceases to have any attraction for man. Isnít it the love of God that prompted Him to give His Son to die for us that draws us to Him? If we were to think that this God may send the worst kind of sicknesses or accidents our way tomorrow because of some inscrutable part of His nature, would we bow down before Him and adore Him? If any calamity comes our way should we simply submit to it as a gift from our Father?
I know that a cold reading of some individual verses can give such ideas. That is why I am emphasising the need to look at all the truths in the Bible together as different dimensions of God. Our worldview must include not only God but also demons and people of all kinds. Our understanding of inspiration must also include the part man had as the joint author. In our zeal to exalt God and His works let us not insult Him by ignoring some parts of His truth.
So when suffering comes our way, let us not get angry with God. A quick examination of our conscience will tell us whether we have done anything wrong that has not been set right with God and people for which God may be disciplining us. He disciplines His children because He loves us and does not want us to go wrong (Heb.12:5-11). If there are wrongs to be corrected, let us deal with them straightaway.
If we find that the Holy Spirit does not remind us of anything like that, we can next see if we are suffering because of someone elseís fault. If so, at least we have rest in knowing where it came from! Then we can forgive them. We have looked at forgiveness in an earlier chapter, and we have seen that we do not have to wait for an acknowledgement or apology from the other person before we can forgive. We also know that as recipients of undeserved mercy from God we have no right to judge anyone. We may be still suffering from what they have done to us, but at least our mind can find some rest knowing that we have cleared ourselves before God. When we leave vengeance in Godís hands (Rom.12:19), we can be free from such desires, and we can be sure that God will take care of it with perfect justice and mercy.
If we are suffering as a result of living in this sin-cursed world with sickness, accidents, natural calamities or similar reasons, we can take comfort from knowing that it is not our fault and that other people in the world are also going through such problems (1Cor.10:13).
If Satan is at the back of our suffering, however he may have used other people or things to trouble us, we can believe that God has a special purpose in giving him permission, as in the case of Job.
Why does God permit suffering? All His plans towards us are for our welfare and not for our calamity (Jer.29:11). We ought to believe this about God even when we cannot figure out what is happening to us. Sometimes He tests us to see what is in our heart, sometimes He wants us to learn special lessons that we cannot learn otherwise, sometimes He trains us through the suffering to become able to comfort others. None of us likes suffering and from our side we would certainly wish we did not have to suffer. But it helps us to know that suffering is to be expected in this world (Jn.16:33) and we had better learn to cope with it in the right way. God sovereignly watches over us in such a way that even when people deliberately do evil towards us, He will cause something good to come out of it for us (Rom.8:28 NASB). A classic example is how Satan tried to do evil to Jesus and got people to kill Him, but it turned out to be Godís greatest blessing for mankind. Josephís brothers sold him off as a slave, but that path led him to become their saviour (Gen.50:20).
When suffering comes into a manís life, it can either make him a better person closer to God or it can break him and make him bitter towards God. This is what we have to keep in mind when we go through suffering, to ensure that our response and behaviour will draw us closer to God instead of becoming bitter. If we humble ourselves before God and allow Him to mould our thinking and behaviour, that suffering will produce some character in us that will be precious in eternity (2Cor.4:17). Here we have to walk by faith, trusting in our Father and His wisdom, and not by sight or what we feel about it.
When we are going through suffering it comforts us to know that our Saviour understands just how we feel, because He Himself has been a Man and knows our weaknesses and our feelings (Heb.4:15,16). He will never leave or forsake us (Heb.13:5). Our Father knows our frame and knows how frail we are (Psa.103:13,14). He will control things in such a way that things will never become more than we can bear (1Cor.10:13). We may not think so when we are in the midst of suffering, but we will be able to handle things better if we look for the way He opens before us to walk in. God will either take us out of our problem, but more commonly, He will help us to go through it with His help.
One of the things we learn from Davidís life as we see from his psalms is that he was very open and frank before God. When he was in trouble, he cried out to God and openly expressed whatever he felt. When we pray to God we donít have to use pious language or the King James version with Thouís and Theeís! Believe that He already knows what is in our mind, and that He is not going to be shocked when we tell Him things as they are. This will help us to have fellowship with God in our prayer.
Another help God has provided for us in our troubles is fellowship with fellow pilgrims. We should not assume that no one would understand us or that no one would care anyway. Of course, there are those who do not care to understand, but there are also those who care. We can open up to them as much as we have confidence in them, and then they can encourage and comfort us, and perhaps guide us to take the right steps. If we stand alone we may miss seeing other dimensions of what God is doing, and it is always to walk in fellowship with others (Ecc.4:9,10).
So, when we believe in Godís love, goodness, wisdom and power, we find rest in leaning on Him when we are in trouble. Then He is able to work for us to bring about an Ďeternal weight of gloryí (2Cor.4:17) for us as we go through our suffering in the right way.
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