Face to Face with Suffering

The Rev. Canon David Roseberry

God, We Need to Talk
There was a time in college that I actually stopped reading the newspaper. Up until then I was an information junkie. When I became a Christian in college, I had a crisis of faith every time I opened the daily newspaper...bombings, shootings, accidents, bad news, hardships, and turmoil everywhere and every day. As an adult, I am not calloused to the events of the day. However, I have become desensitized to the onslaught of bad news. Recently, within one week, I remember reading about shootings at a midwestern school, a dozen people drowned in a boating accident, half a dozen youth were killed coming home from a church camp, and a busload of seniors plunging into a ditch. It was almost too much to hear that a Level 5 tornado had raced through Oklahoma causing untold damage. I read about these things silently saying to God, “God, this doesn’t make You look good at all!” Soon after this deluge of bad news, one hapless homeowner summed up the dilemma of Christian faith and suffering. A tornado had demolished this fellow’s home, taking the roof off and dumping it into the pool, and smashed down the front of the house, exposing the walls of his living room. The unfortunate owner had written in graffiti on the torn exposed drywall, “God, we need to talk.” These issues run everywhere through our lives, no matter what level of faith we have. What about suffering? What about evil? What about tragedies that are in this world? How can we understand them? How do we explain them? These questions have been even more troubling since facing the aftermath of Hurricane 1

Katrina. While mobilizing the country to address the disaster it has exposed our vulnerabilities, fears, and weaknesses. We realize that despite our ever-growing technological abilities, we’re not immune to suffering. I know that for every public spectacle of horror that we read or hear about, there are dozens of families in their own private pain. I look across the congregation I serve and know quite a bit about what is going on and what is afflicting people: disease, death, divorce, defects, depression and disasters. Where does suffering come from? How are we to think about its cause and its reasons? How do we deal with suffering?

When confronted with evil, most people who believe in God begin with a question directed towards Him: “Why does He do this?” Why, if He is a God of love and compassion, does He permit the evil and suffering in the world? Behind this question is what I call an “ant-based theology.” That is, we think of ourselves as a colony of ants, minding our own business, doing our own things and building our own worlds. We are busy, productive, and ingenious. The second part of this worldview holds God as a malicious little boy who, for no real reason, decides to upset the perfect little world of the ants. Without warning, the ants are subjected to the whims and vices of the mischievous boy. He decides to do something to this pile of ants. Capriciously, he kicks the pile over; he floods it with a garden hose; he drops heavy rocks on it; he takes a shovel and digs up the whole colony. He is the powerful force, and the ants are the victims of his strength. Whatever you can imagine a young boy doing to an ant pile is what we filter into our “ant theology” of evil. We imagine that God is this huge foreign, malicious, malevolent being who comes along and kicks our world apart or pours pain and suffering and grief into our life. Maybe He moves us to a place where we don’t want to be. If God is not actually doing these things, we cannot escape the conclusion that He is allowing them 2

to happen. Someone is kicking our world, and we are powerless to stop it. The Scriptures do not shy away from the issue of suffering. On the contrary, they deal with the dilemma and the questions with utmost honesty and candor. If the books of the Bible were placed in the order in which they were written, the very first book would be the book of Job: the unflinching and faithful story of the reality of evil and suffering in the life of a righteous man. In fact, the whole of Scripture gives us a clear indication of the source of evil. You may be surprised. It comes from three places.

Broken Foundations
First of all, evil and suffering begin as a violation of a natural or spiritual law. A violation of a natural law is very easy to understand. When we attempt to violate the law of gravity it will usually hurt! One of the members of our church broke both of his knees one Christmas season trying to put Christmas lights up at his office. He was standing on a ladder, reaching for a spot on a high wall. He was attempting to violate the law of gravity. The feet of the ladder slipped out from under him, and he became its latest victim. We live in a world where car accidents happen, skin cancer occurs, and harmful mistakes occur because natural laws are violated or ignored. Gravity exists. Physics happen. We can’t change these things. Many scientists believe we live in a carcinogenic age. We have introduced toxins and chemicals into our world that actually are causing cancer to occur frequently in seemingly innocent people. They may, in fact, be innocent of any intentional ingestion of a cancer-causing agent. But throughout our lives we may nevertheless ingest or inhale agents of disease. Things are the way they are. Things are the way they are because God made an ordered universe. Granted, much of that order has been distorted because of fallen humanity, and even the earth is in a fallen state 3

(Gen. 3; Rom. 8), but there are laws and there is order. We cannot change much about it. There is a story of the teacher who is on the school playground and she sees a little boy off in the corner on his knees praying. She walks up closer to him because she’s determined that there should be no prayer in public schools. As she gets closer and hears this heartfelt prayer: “Tokyo please, Lord. Tokyo please, Lord.” She taps the boy on the shoulder and says, “Little boy, what are you doing?” He looks at her and says, “I just took a geography test, and I’m asking God to make Tokyo the capital of France.” Things are the way they are because we live in an ordered universe. If you violate that natural order, you suffer the consequence. Many of the major killers of the human being today – heart disease, lung cancer, murder, AIDS – are all the result of a violation of God’s natural order. As I mentioned, there is a spiritual law at work as well. There’s a natural law that governs the physical universe, but there is also a spiritual law. That law has been compromised and violated as well. We read about it in the book of Genesis. When sin was introduced into the world, an irrevocable breach occurred between God and our human race. In fact, the Bible says that in the fall of Adam and Eve it wasn’t just men and women that were to suffer the punishment for sin. The whole universe fell – all creation was separated from God. Nature, animals, and people are out of harmony with their Creator (Rom. 1, 8:18-25). The entire universe was detached from its state of perfect union with God. The very foundation of the whole universe, the spiritual core of what makes things right and perfect, was compromised by evil. Years ago, when Fran and I moved our family to Plano, we purchased a home in a quiet, established neighborhood. We moved in, got things settled and soon after left for a few weeks of summer vacation. It was a hot summer in the Dallas area. We were new to the region and didn’t know about the natural expansion and contraction of the clay-based soil characteristic of the Metroplex. 4

We didn’t know that foundations of a house required moisture to maintain their integrity. If the soil contracts underneath one area of the house and expands under another area, the opposing stresses can actually break a foundation. When we came back from our summer break, the house was broken. The foundation cracked. There was a huge heave in the middle of the kitchen. The drywall cracked, the nails popped out, the doors stuck open or closed. The family room floor literally fell away from the kitchen area. It was a mess! All kinds of people came over and attempted to help us. We had engineers, architects, builders and lawyers come examine the damage. Their verdict was clear and unanimous. “Nothing you do in this house will ever be right again.” We could patch the walls, but the cracks would eventually return. Our doors would continue to stick. Nothing would ever be straight or true of plumb anymore. Anything with wheels would roll to one side of the house. Why? The foundation cracked. The whole flooring upon which everything else is built was broken. How could we expect anything but imperfection? The expert’s verdict was that this could never be fixed. One expert said, “If you want to live in a house without a cracked foundation, you’re going to have to move.” So, we did. We bought a new house and the foundation was made of rock. The world we live in now has a broken foundation and much of what is built upon it is evil and distorted. But God has promised that He will create a new heaven and earth where no evil will be present (Rev. 21) and the curse which God pronounced on evil and creation will be removed (Rev. 22). The Bible says the same thing has happened to our world and the forces of nature. Our sin and rebellion caused the breach; the foundation of the world fell, and nothing would ever be perfect again. So, when a tornado sweeps through a state and indiscriminately kills men, women, and children, and causes the destruction of property, we have to go back and say, “Could we expect anything else from an imperfect world?” When a child is born with defects, when a person is at the wrong place at the wrong 5

time, when there’s any kind of evidence that random negative things are happening, we must ask, “Could we expect anything else from an imperfect, sinful world?” What else would you expect in a house that stands on a broken platform? The Bible tells us this first point, and it’s a very important one. Suffering, evil, grief and pain often come from the fact that we live in an imperfect world. We’re going to a perfect one, but we’re in an imperfect one today. The hope of heaven is clear and unmistakable. We will one day live in a perfect world, but our world here has been shattered by sin. As one author stated, “The vast majority of human evil and suffering is a direct result of human irresponsibility” (Knechtle, Give me an Answer). In fact, C.S. Lewis, when trying to wrestle with the problem of evil, said, “The question is not ‘Why do the innocent suffer?’ but rather ‘Why don’t we all suffer more?’” In light of the fact that we live in a sinful world of depraved people, it is only by God’s grace that we don’t all suffer much more.

Agents of Evil
Secondly, the Bible tells us that the prince of darkness is an agent of suffering as well. Satan, the evil one, comes into the life of a person and begins to harass them. He begins to do things that disturb them and knock them off center. This means that sometimes the thoughts we think, the words we speak, or the actions we take are inspired by demonic activity. We don’t need much help in this area, because we are all sinners who can sin without the Devil’s help. But, nevertheless, there is evidence in the Scriptures that Satan seeks to deceive and destroy believers and nonbelievers. This is why the Bible says so much about spiritual warfare (Matt. 6:13; Eph. 4:25-31, chapters 2, 6; 2 Thess. 3:3; Jam. 4:4-10; 1 Pet. 5:5-11; Rev. 12;), and why we must remember that “greater is He [God] that is in you, than he [Satan] who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). I remember hearing the story once about John Wimber, the leader of the Vineyard church. He was in the hospital one time trying to 6

get some sleep. He actually heard the voice of the evil one saying, “You’re going to die.” He looked around the hospital room to see if anybody was there. There was no one. He heard it again. “You’re going to die.” Then he addressed the voice. “Satan, is that the best you can do? In the name of Jesus, get out of here!” Then he rolled over and went to sleep. There was a time when I was very stressed about the health and life of the church where I serve. Budgets were tight, people were uptight, and I could tell the leadership was getting ready for a fight. I tried to keep my mind on the mission of the church. I tried to preach well, give clear leadership, and ignore a lot of the tension and rumors in the congregation. Generally, I was successful, but there was a season of about six months when the devil started to come after me. After I would preach a strong sermon, I would turn and walk back to my seat and I could hear a voice whisper, “You’re a phony!” At night I would wake up in a sweat with dreams and visions of being chased by wolves. During the day, I would drive down the street and obsess about the troubles our church might be facing. I would suck wind through my teeth and tightly clench my jaw. One day I confessed all of this to my wife Fran. She suggested I call a senior clergyman immediately. He began to meet and pray with me on a weekly basis. I wore a cross around my neck for the next six months and placed a cross over every bed in our home. Within a few days of doing all of these things, the devil retreated because he knew he was defeated. Was there power in the cross around my neck? Maybe. But the cross was a reminder for me that I had died to sin, that I was raised to new life in Christ (Rom. 6), that Jesus had conquered sin, Satan, and death (Col. 2:8-15), and He alone gives the victory. It was through seeing those crosses that I remembered Romans 8: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, 7

nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 31-32, 38-39). It was the cross that helped me to resist the devil as James and Peter remind us to do. For a believer, this kind of suffering and evil, while serious, is ultimately an annoyance. We know that we are more than conquerors through Christ and that we will have the victory either on earth or ultimately in heaven. But for those who do not believe, this can be very serious. For those who have not been baptized and believe the words of their baptism, these attacks can be utterly dreadful. A newly married couple came to see me a couple of years ago. They said, “We’ve seen Satan.” I took a step back and said, “Have a seat. Let’s talk.” They sat in the two chairs in my office and said that they had been fighting with one another and it had devolved into a terrible session of name calling and cursing. As they were screaming and yelling at each other they both started to scream in terror at what they saw in each other’s face. He said he saw on her face the face of the devil. She told me that she had seen the devil on his face. As they described the situation, I began to understand that they weren’t believers. They weren’t baptized. They had no stake in the Christian gospel whatsoever. In fact, it was just the opposite. They were playing in the devil’s playground. I asked her what she did for a living. She said she was a dancer. I said, “What troupe do you dance with?” She said, “Oh, no, no. I’m not that kind of a dancer.” She was a strip dancer at a local men’s club. I said, “I know why the devil’s in your life – because you go to his ‘church.’” Paul says, “You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? We are not stronger than He, are we?” (1 Cor. 10:21-22). This couple needed a relationship with God through Christ and needed to be discipled. 8

Without God in their life, there was no hope that their marriage would survive.

The Greatest Deception
We see so much suffering in our world because Satan has pulled off the number one deception of all time – he gets people to think that he doesn’t exist. After seeing the pitchfork and horns on cartoon characters, and after the Enlightenment when we live in such a secularized culture, most people don’t believe in spiritual beings, such as angels or demons. When your greatest enemy, the enemy of your soul, has deceived you into believing that he doesn’t exist, you have lost the battle. You lost a battle that you didn’t even know was occurring. Think about it – how many people are being tossed around by Satan because they have never tried to fight Satan with the spiritual tools that God has given us? Imagine that America were at war with another country and we all woke up one day and said, “You know what? I don’t really think that country exists. No, I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t.” Who do you think would win the war? Denying the existence of our enemy has caused us to lose spiritual battles, and has caused us to blame many evils on the wrong people. When couples are fighting, they need to step back and realize that the real enemy is Satan. He wants to cause division and confusion in marriages. While each person is responsible for his or her actions, it is quite possible that demonic activity is behind many of the negative thoughts and words that go on in our home. Before we point a finger at someone, we should resist Satan’s ploys and rebuke him in the name of Jesus. Like Jesus in the wilderness, we need to quote, obey, and stand firm on God’s Word when the enemy attacks (Matt. 4). Before Christians write letters to their congressmen (which is a great and important thing to do), or seek to effect change through natural means, they should pray about the demonic influence that is going on in our schools, political buildings, and homes. Only Christians can do something about that, through God’s grace, power, and authority which He has given us (Eph. 2). 9

A Real God Does Real Things
The third source of evil and suffering is not easy to discuss or explain. Yet it is a clear teaching of Scripture. God the Father can also be the source of our trauma and difficulties in life. It is the Father Himself who on occasion allows the suffering or guides us into a place where it happens. Suffering, we can say, is sometimes from the hand of God the Father who loves us. This is a difficult area for consideration because of our modern viewpoint of God. We have made God in our own image. Through our lack of Scriptural knowledge and our theological presumptions, we have the erroneous perspective that God is in the people-pleasing ministry. This does not mean that all calamity or evil is from God. God is never the author of sin. But God is the sovereign ruler of the world, and He can choose to allow evil to occur for His own purposes. James 1 and Romans 5 speak about how suffering produces character and maturity in Christians. He predestined evil to occur in order to bring about Christ’s death (Acts 2:22) and our salvation. He allows evil to occur so that a greater purpose can be accomplished. This is a mystery, but it never diminishes God’s holiness, righteousness, or justice. As C.S. Lewis said, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

Divine Discipline
Every time the Bible talks about suffering from the hand of God, it uses a word that we don’t use any longer. It uses the word “chasten”. It is an old word, and it means to discipline, instruct, train, strengthen, or to build. It is a good word, although the experience is not always pleasant. The author to the Hebrews wrote, …and you have forgotten the exhortation which is addressed to you as sons, ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor faint when you are reproved by Him; for those whom the Lord loves He disciplines, and 10

He scourges every son whom He receives.’ It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had earthly fathers to discipline us, and we respected them; shall we not much rather be subject to the Father of spirits, and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but He disciplines us for our good, so that we may share His holiness. All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb, 12:5-11). Our Father allows suffering in your life in order to bring you to a point where you’re stronger, and you’re built up. In fact, Hebrews says that if you don’t experience discipline, especially when you sin, it is an indication that you are not saved – you are not a child of God. To chasten is to strengthen to the point of usefulness and ability. Paul writes to the Christian in Rome: “Not only this, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance character; and character hope” (Romans 5:3-4).

Cracked Pots
The word “character” is also an interesting old word with a meaning that should be recovered as well. You’ll find the word “character” stamped on the bottom of items of pottery in the Middle East. There are two kinds of pottery for sale in the shops lining the streets of the towns and villages. There’s greenware and then there’s real pottery that’s been fired. Greenware is simply ornamental pottery. It’s just decoration. It serves no function, no utility whatsoever. It is for show, for taking up shelf space, and adding ornamental appeal to a room. The other kind of pottery has been fired in a kiln. It has been subjected to intense heat and forces 11

that have galvanized its substance and made it strong and sturdy. When the potter is through with that process of firing, he turns the pot upside down and stamps on it, “Characterized.” This is a pot of character. It’s been tested. It’s been strengthened. It is useful. Or, as James says, “Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its perfect result, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).

The Millionaire Teacher
So, there is purpose in suffering as God allows it to occur in our life. God uses it to cause us to draw closer to Him. He uses suffering to purify us, discipline us, mature us, develop our character, and to teach us the value of holiness. Perhaps an example might be of benefit here. I met a man many years ago that made millions of dollars. After he made his first few millions, he opened up trust funds for his three children and started putting money into those trust funds so that by the time his kids were in their teenage years they themselves were worth millions. But he never told them. He never told them that they were each millionaires by the time they were able to drive. They had to get jobs. They had to earn gas money. They had to pay for a portion of their own insurance. They went to college. They went to nice schools. Dad paid for tuition and books, but they had to work to earn spending money. They didn’t get a clothing allowance. They didn’t get a car allowance. They didn’t get spring breaks at beach resorts. Even though they could afford to do anything they wanted to do, their father withheld that; and, in a word, they suffered. They had to live through times of stress. They had to learn what it meant to make ends meet. I ask you, does the father love them less for doing this? No! The father loves them more for doing this then if he did not do it. He is trying to do something in their life that couldn’t be done otherwise. 12

He’s trying to strengthen them so that life does not collapse in on them later.

Bio-Dome Paradise?
There’s a bio-dome outside Tucson, Arizona, a biosphere. It’s a huge, very expensive scientific experiment. The builders had this in mind: they would create a perfect environment in which humans and animals and trees and plants would all get along and all be self-sustaining – like a giant terrarium experiment. Apparently it’s worked to some degree. But one thing they never counted on was the effect that living in this bio-dome would have on the trees. They could reproduce the oxygen, the nitrogen, the nutrients and the soils that would cause a tree to grow, but they could not reproduce wind. As a result the trees grew up and fell over. They grew up and split right down the middle because there was no agent in their life to strengthen them. Isn’t that the danger of the stress-free life we sometimes want from our God? While we can look forward to a sinless existence in heaven, God knows that in a sin-stained world we need trials to grow us and strengthen us for His work. Suffering can come from our sin, Satan, or even our Savior, but we can trust in God’s sovereign plans and rely upon His grace. Paul understood how God and Satan were at work in his life. “Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me – to keep me from exalting myself! Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me. And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’ Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:7-10).

Look to God’s Face, Not to His Hands
When we moved to Texas sixteen years ago, one of my first 13

official acts as a pastor at a church in Richardson was to bury two young people in two funeral services back-to-back within two weeks of each other. Jeff, a troubled young man, took a shotgun to his chest one evening while his new bride was out at the store. He had been deeply troubled about a number of things. He couldn’t seem to get his life to work. Of course, the family was devastated and broken by their loss. Two weeks later, his young widow went for a walk in the rain one night and in her grief, shot herself in the head. I drove with the family to a nearby lake after the funeral for the disposition of the ashes. I don’t remember what I said to them. What I said wasn’t worth remembering. I can remember, though, watching the father kick the beach sand over the ashes of what was once his son. I thought then, “How can people move beyond this?” I was a young priest then. I didn’t have much experience in the pastoral field. I kept wondering, “How can people move beyond this?” In over twenty years of ministry, I have seen hundreds of families and individuals wrestle with the issues of suffering in their lives. I hope that I have been able to help a few. I have seen some families dissolve and collapse under the weight of grief and loss. Other families, like the parents of the young man above, have grown almost heroically through tragedy. What made the difference? Those who rise above the suffering and trauma in their lives have a different perspective. This is what James speaks about, which I referenced earlier. People can have the same trials, but the ones who choose to see them as an opportunity for growth persevere. These people don’t look at what God is or isn’t doing in their lives. They don’t focus their attention on the thing that He is or isn’t taking away from them. They focus on the character, love, grace, and the other wonderful attributes and traits of God. They look beyond the thing He is or is not doing. They choose to look at His face, and not His hands. 14

Three Crosses
When we are suffering, we can also look to Christ and His cross. When we look there in our mind’s eye, we see three crosses. There’s the man suffering because he was guilty and unrepentant. Then there’s the other thief who was suffering because he was guilty but was repentant (Luke 23). Then there’s the one in the middle, our Lord Jesus Christ, suffering due to no fault of His own. He was completely innocent. In fact, He was suffering to help us. He was dying for our sins. He endured suffering for the benefit of others. Will you be the one who repents if there needs to be repentance? Or will you curse God like the unrepentant criminal on the cross? Will you suffer as Jesus did, entrusting yourself into God’s hands who will vindicate you at the proper time? Will you be willing to suffer if it will bring help to someone else? The focus is on Him, not on us. Hebrews 12 states, “Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” However, this truth makes sense only if we understand the purpose of life.

Two Competing Views
I have a cartoon on the corkboard by my desk that illustrates the seven stages of life as they relate to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The first stage, of course, is Sleepy. Those are the babies. The three- through seven-year-olds are represented by Happy. The next stage is the Bashful stage for the preadolescents. Of course, the teenagers are in that tall, lanky, awkward stage called Dopey. The professional age from 21 to 40 is called the Doc stage. After living through this stage I took the cartoon and threw it away 15

because the next two stages are Sneezy and, of course, at the very end – Grumpy. Indeed, it is easy to identify the stages of life. Many books have been written trying to help people move and transition from one stage to another. But most of them forget to ask a fundamental question: what is the purpose of life? If a person doesn’t have a goal, how can he know if he’s progressing correctly through life? It’s hard to reach an unknown destination. In Scripture we can see two competing worldviews – two different ideas about the purpose of life (see Ps. 1; Prov. 4 and Matt. 7:2427). Moses said, “Today I invoke heaven and earth as a witness against you that I have set life and death, blessing and curse, before you. Therefore choose life so that you and your descendants may live!” (Deut. 30:19). Elijah said to the Israelites and pagan worshippers on Mount Carmel, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). A person can either live for self, or live for God. A person can either worship God or be their own god. The first way, to live well by a worldly standard, is to enjoy life, to have wonderful things, and to only live for this life. In the second ideology, the purpose of the life is to know God and to live for His glory. The second vision for life is to shape and hone a deep relationship and trust with God as Lord. While the first road seems easier, we know that the easy way isn’t always the best way. Solomon said, “There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12). Unless Jesus is our guide, the wrong way can look like the right way. Jesus told us to choose between two ways: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matt. 7:13-14). He also told us to build our lives on the rock, and not the sand. The rock, of course, is Jesus Himself and His teachings. A life built on Christ weathers the storms and 16

experiences the blessings of eternity. A life built on the sand is headed for disaster in this life and the life to come. These two ideologies are in competition with each other from the very beginning of Scripture. From the beginning of time, we see how Adam and Eve struggled between these two ideas. Adam and Eve had to choose between living for self, and enjoying the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, or knowing God and living under obedience to His commandments. Cain and Abel are another example. The first crime committed after the fall involved Cain and Abel. Abel brought a sacrifice that was an acceptable sacrifice because he brought it with faith (Heb. 11:4). He brought the fatted portions of the animal before God because his core value was to know God. Cain brought a couple of leftover bananas and carrots, vegetables and fruits from his vineyard because his desire was to live well and to live for self. He also lacked true faith. Cain saved the best for himself and gave God the leftovers. Abel gave God the best because he wanted to know God, and not to merely live for self. This isn’t to say that we can’t live for God and have an abundant life full of God’s blessings. But, if our goal is to live for ourselves or accumulate wealth and we have no regard for God or loving our neighbor, then we have failed to live according to God’s standard. We have failed to reach our purpose. Do you know the story of how Lot and Abraham chose their land? Abraham deferred to Lot, and Lot chose quickly. Lot lifted his eyes toward the land and saw that it was good and pleasant. He decided to go there because his goal was to live well and to “make a name for himself.” He moved to Sodom and Gomorrah because it was the Las Vegas of the desert. But Abraham decided to know God and walk by faith. This is the collision of values and the conflict of ideologies that we find in Scripture. Lot looked out on the land and saw with his own eyes what was good and the other looked through the eyes of faith. One sought to live for personal advancement alone and the other sought to know and obey God. 17

You may have read the entire Bible. If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so, but let me give you the “Cliffs Notes” version of it. One of the main issues and a central question behind all of Scripture is this: Are you going to live for self or are you going to live for God? The answer to that question is what we see unfolded in the pages of the Bible. It’s also the history of the church. Church history has been centered on these two questions. Will the church live for itself? Will it get in bed with the culture and be selfcentered or will it strive to know God and to transform the culture? That’s the question. And that’s the question you and I have to address. We often forget that God cares more about our character than our convenience. He cares more about our walk than our wallet. And, He cares more about our commitment than our comfort! If we believe that the number one goal in life is to live well, then suffering is an annoyance. Any kind of suffering is an intrusion, an interruption to the long series of successes that we want out of life. If I believe that the purpose, the core value of my life, is to live well, then anything that happens outside of that is going to be of no value or purpose whatsoever. But if we choose to live for God then we can accept the suffering that we encounter, trusting that God is in control, God loves us, and that all of this will work out for a greater good (Rom. 8:28). A few years ago I visited a couple from our church. I went into their house and as I stepped into their living room I realized I had never been in a room like this before. It was a room of trophies. It was a room of personal treasures and symbols of conquests and achievements. The room was crowded with plaques, commendations, artifacts, fine furniture and exquisite statues. These were the things that they had collected over a lifetime of achievement. They had had every advantage possible. They had traveled the world with business and with leisure and collected trophies, treasures, symbols and icons. The whole room was just on the edge of being a museum – and they were the curators. 18

The only problem was, I was there to deal with the disease of cancer that had come into their family. The husband was dying of cancer. They had no idea how to handle it or how to work through it. They had no real faith or firm belief that somehow God could be present in this trial. They had lived their life with one goal in mind – to live well, to live for self, and to avoid any kind of pain or suffering. They had achieved it beyond their imaginations but there was an emptiness and hollowness to their “victory.” They did not know God. A couple of years ago a dad called me and said, “Father David, I just have a question. Do pets go to heaven?” Obviously a pet had died in that family. “When did your pet die?” I asked. “This morning.” “Who owned the pet?” “My daughter. She’s very upset.” “Well, put her on the phone. I’ll talk to her.” “Oh, she’s not here.” He added quickly, “She and my wife went down to the pet store to buy a new dog.” What kind of message does this teach our children? Do we teach them how to grieve? Do we teach them that suffering is part of life, or that everything can be fixed with a credit card? Do we teach them how to work through suffering? More importantly, have we forgotten to teach them that there is value in suffering? (Rom. 5; Jam. 1; Heb. 2; 2 Tim.) Or do we teach them by our words and actions that avoiding suffering at all costs is the key to life? Jesus told a parable about a man who had everything. His business was going great. Life was wonderful. Everything was up! In order to accommodate all of his wealth he tore down barns and built bigger barns so that he could store all of his grain there. Then he said, “And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years to come; take your ease, eat, drink and be merry’” (Luke 12:19). Jesus’ parable goes on, “But God said to 19

him, ‘You fool! This very night your soul is required of you; and now who will own what you have prepared?’” He’d lived his whole life for himself, but had nothing to show for God. He amassed wealth, but was poor towards God (v. 21). He had nothing of value; no faith, hope, love, trust, or obedience to show to God. He had no relationship with God. Because of this, he forfeited his soul. Jesus taught elsewhere, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36). Or as the apostle John wrote, “He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life” (1 John 5:12). The biblical core value that will stand the test of any difficulty states that the purpose of life is not to live well or to live for self, but to know God and to live for His glory. Living any other way is to live a life contrary to God’s design. This is equivalent to plugging a toaster into water. We must live according to our Creator’s design. That doesn’t mean you have to sell everything. It doesn’t mean that you have to live in poverty. It doesn’t mean that you have to quit your job and join a monastery to know God. It does mean that you live as though the main purpose of life is to know the God of the Bible – because it is. When we do that, then suffering is not an intrusion or interference. When suffering comes it is an opportunity that God can use to open up our hearts and teach us about Him. It is an opportunity for us to become more like Christ. It’s not an interruption in life. It can be an instruction from God. There are some things than can only be learned about God – His face, His truth, and His character in the midst of suffering and pain. We can be like the apostle Paul who said, “My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings…” (Phil. 3:10).

Curtain Call
Have you heard the phrase, “Life is not a dress rehearsal?” It is the slogan of the “live-for-self” segment of our society. It is a mantra of those who think that this life is the only realm of existence and 20

that each day should be lived for narcissistic purposes. The Christian faith disagrees with these views at their core. If we have a biblical worldview, we must agree that life actually is a dress rehearsal. This life is an opportunity to practice knowing Him, trusting him, worshipping Him, and relying upon him. As Maximus said in the movie The Gladiator, “What we do in life will echo throughout eternity.” Our lives are lived out in the roughand-tumble of daily life in order that we can practice worshipping him, because the opening act begins on the other side of the grave. That’s the good news. If this is all there is, if this is the best I can live, it’s hardly worth it. But if this is the dress rehearsal for something grander, something greater, something glorious, and where I finally come home to be with God – Hallelujah! Remember – “Look to God’s face, not to His hand.” That means look not to what He can do for you, but to who He is. When Fran and I were dating, I held her hand. I studied her hand. One day I put a ring on her hand. But it wasn’t her hand that I fell in love with. It was her face. When I’m away from home traveling for the church or some other endeavor and I think about who she is, I don’t think about her hands and what she has done for me. I think about her face. When I write her a note, when I speak with her on the phone, I don’t picture her hands doing things – I picture her face, because her face is who she is. Every aspect of her is contained, captured in the countenance of her face. Each Sunday in church we recite the Nicene Creed. It was written in 325 A.D., after three centuries of cruel persecution of the church and of all those who claimed the Christian faith. In the fourth century, 318 church leaders gathered at Nicaea to write out this statement of our beliefs in defense of various heresies. All but twelve of them had been tortured at one point in their lives. These men gathered to write out the summary statement of the Christian faith who themselves knew the severest forms of suffering. Their hands were mutilated, scars were all over their bodies, they were 21

missing eyes and fingers and legs and limbs because they had been tortured for their faith in Jesus Christ. They had suffered, and they had endured by keeping their eyes and their face focused on the face of God. When they gathered at Nicaea what they wrote was a positive statement of the Christian faith. It begins not with, “We believe in a cruel God,” or “We believe in an evil world,” or “We believe in a twisted fate.” Rather, the Nicene Creed begins with this affirmation: “We believe in one God, the Father, Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.” It goes on to say that we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who suffered the cruelest form of torture and death for our sins. God knows we live in a world of sin and shame, a world where Satan wants to destroy us all, but He hasn’t left us without strength and hope. He has already done all that needs to be done to restore all of Creation. Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated the redemption of the world, and one day, when He returns, we will see life as it was meant to be lived. We will have sinless, glorified bodies. We will see Jesus just as He is (1 John 3). We will live in God’s glory and presence. And we will experience a perfect, blissful heaven and earth where righteousness, peace, love and unity will abound. You may be able to close your eyes and say the Nicene Creed by heart. When you do, picture scores of men gathered together– handicapped, mutilated, scarred people – who testify together to the one God whose face shines upon them and promises them a life of eternal joy. That’s what it will be – a life of eternal joy! Therefore, those also who suffer according to the will of God shall entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, by casting all your cares on Him, because He cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experiences of suffering are being 22

accomplished by your brethren who are in the world. After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you. (1 Pet. 4:19, 5:6-10)


Bibliography Help Me Believe: Direct Answers to Real Questions by Cliffe Knechtle Give Me an Answer That Satisfies My Heart and My Mind: Answers to Your Toughest Questions About Christianity by Cliffe Knechtle The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis A Path Through Suffering: Discovering the Relationship Between God's Mercy and Our Pain by Elisabeth Elliot Why Does God Allow Suffering? by Nicky Gumbel Developing a Christian Worldview of the Problem of Evil by Charles W. Colson, Nancy Pearcey God & Human Suffering: An Exercise in the Theology of the Cross by Douglas John Hall The Case for Faith by Lee Strobel

Scripture quotations taken from the NASB or NET Bible. ©2000, reprinted with edits 2005 by Christ Episcopal Church of Plano, Inc. All rights reserved.


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