Sunday, August 16, 2015

The God Over Pain

One of the most difficult topics, in any study of God, is the problem that suffering exists, in significant portion, for all people in this world.  We believe that God is loving, that he created man in his image, and yet there is real and present suffering in this world.  As we are confronted with the bible we want to laugh and toss it aside because, we say, “How could a great and loving God allow me, us, to suffer?”  Today I want to address the real suffering in this world and offer a hope that only the grace filled God of the bible can offer. 

The danger is to think that what I will write will diminish the suffering that we experience.  The danger is to think, “If I just read enough of this good book God will take away my suffering.”  God never promises freedom from suffering.  In fact he promises the opposite. In John 15, Jesus tells his disciples to expect suffering and persecution because they persecuted him. 

God is sovereign in the midst of the suffering of his people.  God is not weak or absent in the midst of suffering.  The people of Israel suffered greatly under the hands of their oppressors and we will see that God was not absent in this.  There are many reasons and purposes for suffering.  When God is doing one thing he is doing a million things.  And the scriptures give us a glimpse into richness and depth of suffering allowed into our life.

We struggle with the reality of pain and suffering in the world.  Especially as a post-modern post-industrial society.  We want to believe that everything is getting better and that we are going to figure out this pain thing.  At the turn of the 19th century many theologians were declaring the end of evil and suffering, and their faith was utterly destroyed by the atrocities of WWI and WWII.  There is a significant amount of pain and suffering in this world and we want to distance God from it. Or else, we want to distance ourselves from God. 

Some of the solutions of God and suffering look like this:

If there is a God and he allows suffering he must be evil.  The danger with this view is that we war against God.  We put ourselves as the moral superior to God and we laughingly lecture God on how to run his creation.  Secondly if God is evil then we have no hope.  The purpose of suffering fulfills a demented deity.

There is no God. Suffering often leads a person to believe there is no God.  But this is not helpful because suffering now is random.  We are helpless in suffering because this life is meaningless.  We lose all of our foundation to hope in the goodness of the future. 

Suffering does not exist. Sometimes the world does the opposite and says suffering does not exist.  This view says that we ascribe the value of suffering to our pain.  In the end there is no pain or suffering because we choose not to believe it.   This is not helpful either because it is a burry my head in the sand approach to suffering. 

Capricious Greco-Roman gods who are helpless. The Greek and Roman gods were I think in part developed to respond the problem of suffering.  The gods were capricious mean and also wrestling between evil and good.  Even the “good” gods were driven by evil and lustful actions.  There was a fatalistic approach to suffering because it did not matter what I did or how I perceived suffering it was just the fate from the gods.  Once again no hope because suffering is random and purposeless. 

There is a God but he is helpless to stop it. One more thought is that there is a God but he is helpless to stop evil and suffering.  Either he bound his hands or he was never powerful enough to stop it.  This is a weak view of God.  This once again provides us no hope because we then have to step in and help God in his weakness.  And as we look at any cross section of human history we see how terrible we are at trying to stop suffering. 

There is one option that offers hope.

God is redeeming us in suffering. Today I long to give hope.  Not only is God sovereign in the good times, but God is sovereign in the times of suffering as well.  As God gave Israel the land, so did God allow the land to be taken, and ordained the suffering of his people.  We have hope because God is in control, he allows his hands to get messy with pain and suffering, so that we can know the true, real, and powerful God who is writing history. 

If you were to read the book of judges you would see this brief section played out several times.  There is a cycle through the course of the history of the Old Testament.  The people of Israel are given the land, they harden their hearts to God; God sends judgment in the way of a physical enemy; the people cry out; and God restores the people to their land; repeat.  This cycle lives itself out many times through the course of the bible.  But here in Nehemiah the cycle changes.  As the people are restored to the land their hearts are changed, and they cry out to God with a new song. 

The house of Israel fell into the hands of their enemies.  In every historical conquest when one nation conquered another the people and identity of that nation was destroyed.  Yet, the chosen seed of Israel remains to this day.  By God’s great covenant love, verse 31 tells us, he did not forsake his chosen people. 

We see that through the people of Israel that even in the midst of their suffering God is with them.  He never leaves them.  He allows them to go through suffering. At the end of their suffering they declare that he is good.  Their pain brought about in the life of the people of God redemption.  The God they once despised, despite his great provision, was faithful to restore and redeem them.  In the end the thorn of sin was revealed and they learned to love the law that was going to extract the infected thorn.

A few weeks ago I took a needle to my daughter’s foot.  I poked the needle into her foot and it began to bleed and it hurt her foot.  If you just heard this part of the story you would think me cruel father who delights in the pain of his children.  I assure you I didn’t like doing it, but I made her bleed none the less. 

If I were to tell you that she had a splinter in both of her feet and that splinter was infected you may think differently of me.  Her little feet were getting red and puffy from the thorn that was infected.  I would not be a loving father if I did not take that needle to her feet.  I needed one way or the other to remove the splitter or else she would have suffered greater pain as the infection grew. 

For the people of Israel here God uses their suffering as a scalpel there is sin deep within his chosen people.  They buck against their heavenly Father yet he is faithful to remove the infection.  He keeps loving them even though he allows them to experience suffering.  The suffering they experience as a people prepare them for this revival they are experience now with humility, repentance, and joy.  The suffering gives a depth to their rejoicing and an honesty to their repentance. 

Their suffering created in them an awareness of their thirst and their need for water.  On a moist cool day you do not always know that you need water; you can dehydrate never knowing that you need to drink.  Sometimes we need the desert to know how important water is to us.  The same is true with suffering.

This means that suffering is not always a result of judgment.  It is a result of sin but not as a result of God bringing judgment.  In 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 Paul writes concerning his trial,

“For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” 

Paul was in despair to the point of death yet he celebrates his afflictions.  He celebrates because he knows this truth: his sufferings drew him closer to God.  Paul did not do anything but be obedient to God, and he still suffered.  The sin in this world and the enemy of God came against Paul, and God allowed it.  Paul gave glory to God for the suffering because it had its purpose to reveal Paul’s desperate need for Christ and he drew nearer to God. 

God is sovereign in the midst of or suffering.  Our danger is in thinking that this is some sort of cosmic Stockholm syndrome, where we are abused and caused to suffer so that we fall in love with our abuser.  God never abuses any one.  The reason this is not an abusive relationship between God and our suffering is that God got his hands dirty. 

What I am about to say is an anathema to all of the other world religions.  God suffered for his creation.  This is a capital offence in Islam, foolishness in Buddhism, Mormonism created another god to deal with this truth.  Every religion of the world except Christianity cannot fathom the idea that God suffered. 

God became a part of his creation.  God became a living breathing human being born of woman and suffered the painful effects of sin along with the creation.  We see Christ’s struggle with sin and death become more than a head knowledge. More than a three day nap.  When Jesus was preparing to face the cross he knelt down in Gethsemane and in agony began to sweat drops of blood. 

This was not just a small, “oh I am dead and rose again suffering meant nothing to me,” act.  This is Jesus, Christ the Creator God of the world, suffering greatly at the hands of his own creation.  Suffering willingly at the hands of the heavenly Father, so that the world, in the midst of her suffering, would be redeemed. 

The cross of Christ was so profound that even as we see images, of the resurrected Lord in heaven, in Revelation 5:6 and 19:13, he is marked by his wounds.  He is marked by his blood.  Jesus suffered greatly so that his creation would be redeemed.  This means that in the midst of our sufferings God is not absent.  He suffers alongside us.  When we say that God knows our suffering it is not just an academic, omniscience.  This knowledge is a lived out, actual suffering, that he experienced on your behalf.  He knows your suffering because he experienced it and so much more suffering.  We do not love an absent God.  Jesus says come to me all who are heavy burdened, because he is going to take up the cross, and take upon himself the final suffering that we earned. 

Please do not think for one moment this is just some academic head game.  This is not academic!  I held the letter in my hand as tears caused the ink to run.  I loved my aunt Patsy.  One of the few moments in my life were I experienced deep and unselfish love, she held me as an 8 year old boy.  I had an ear infection and was in crippling pain.  She held me through the night in her loving arms until the pain past.  She surrendered her night’s sleep and I knew I was not alone. 

As I read the letter from my mom sitting in my room in Iraq, far from my friends and family, and I read, word by word, the letter from my mother how my aunt was losing the battle with cancer.  She told me how she cared for her own sister who was too weak to do so on her own.  She told me how they laughed and cried together as they found restoration.  They became deep friends and sisters.  I loved my aunt but I could not go to the funeral I was over 6000 miles away.  The cancer took her body but Christ Jesus had her soul.  When I returned I returned to a smaller family with a hole in it. 

It was the year of loss and near loss that lead into the moment in seminary where the word of God became an oasis, a cold spring in a desert land, for me.  In my loss and brokenness God taught me about his grace for me.  God taught me to love his words to me.  God taught me about his suffering for me. 

God does not leave us in the face of complex and painful emotions.  When our hearts are raw and painful and the suffering is too much to bear.  When our first daughter was born she lost her aunt.  My sister-in-law’s funeral took place a few hours after our daughter took her first few precious breaths.  We held her our long awaited daughter and whispered sweet memories to her of an aunt she will never know this side of heaven. 

In a moment that should have been marked by rejoicing, the morning of sorrow was heard.  In a year where firsts were supposed to be praised, lasts were remembered. And the house crumbled down around a family, yet the foundation was not shaken.  The God who gave us our daughter and her aunt will always remain in control. And he used the confluence of pain and joy to redeem a family to be His family. 

God is not absent when we cry!  He is alongside his children.  He is redeeming their pain.  He is bleeding for them.  No other answer can satisfy.  God allows suffering so that he can redeem, for himself, a people from a broken and sinful world.  God allows suffering because he himself suffered.  We have a savior who is marked by blood.  Do you find it interesting that we use the sign of the cross as a symbol of healing?  The cross was one of the most evil torture devices ever created.  And we wear it with pride and humility knowing Christ in his suffering redeemed a symbol of torture and pain, and he made it a symbol of grace and healing.  Imagine the great things he will do in our life when we suffer well for God.  

Our hope rests in this.  Even in the midst of the greatest suffering we are not alone.  We who are in Christ are never alone.  God is doing a great work in our pain to redeem us out of a broken world that is falling apart.  We have hope because even the greatest of sufferings is not without meaning or purpose.  We have hope that, as we experience the storm and tumult of suffering, we have a firm foundation.  When we are in Christ we shall not be shaken.  Suffering hurts.  Suffering is no fun.  But when we suffer well, in Christ, our suffering is redeemed to create a rich joy and delight in the beauty and majesty of God. 

On those shoulders
The cross was placed,
Death doled,
Yet we call it grace.

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