Did God do this to me? (part 4)

Everyone suffers in some way: large or small, frequent or infrequent, acute and time-limited or chronic and ongoing.  And sometimes, it challenges our sense of living an orderly, meaningful life.  We can be left grasping at explanations for the bad things that happen.

As observed in the first post in this series, one common explanation is that God either sends or allows suffering in order to teach us some lesson.  And while that’s possible in some cases, I don’t think it explains our every misadventure.  In this final post, I want to suggest that we need a bigger story–a biblical one–to make sense of what we suffer.

First, however, we may need to acknowledge that we live in a culture that promotes variations on its own story of suffering.  Life, it is suggested, is about  comfort and contentment.  Suffering is therefore an unfortunate anomaly, a mistake, a problem to be solved with the proper application of technology or expertise.  And if the solution doesn’t currently exist, we’ll find it.

Our imaginations flirt with utopian scenarios.  In one, technology eradicates hunger and disease.   In another, humanity comes to its collective senses, we lay down our weapons, and learn to play nice.

Please don’t hear me as dismissing cancer research, international diplomacy, or just plain finding reasons to get along.  But in the Christian story, the problem that drives the drama is not a puzzle to be solved by scientists, politicians, philosophers, or therapists.  The problem is sin and the brokenness that comes with it, and the solution begins with the cross.

I say “begins with” because the cross and resurrection of Jesus are not the end of the story.  What follows is the creation (or one could say re-creation) of a people who will walk in the footsteps of their crucified and risen Lord through the power of the Holy Spirit.  And eventually, when Jesus returns in glory, sin and death will be fully and finally defeated and we will live resurrected lives on a restored earth.

So what does all this have to do with the way we face suffering in the present?  Remember what Jesus said to Paul: “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9a, CEB).  And equally important, remember Paul’s response: “So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me.  Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong” (vss. 9b-10).

The point is this.  How we respond to suffering should show which story we believe.  Divine strength in the face of human weakness only makes sense of a life that’s already dedicated to following a crucified Savior.

I personally do not believe that every event we suffer comes directly from the hand of God for the purpose of teaching us a lesson.  But that said, every such event is an opportunity to grow in grace, to learn to respond in such a way that communicates: Yes, I believe that God is sovereign; that he’s at work restoring a broken world; that I am called to be part of that work; and that I am therefore part of a story in which sin and death don’t get the last word, a story that ends in glory, even if I don’t get to see it during my short existence on this earth.

That’s the story to which we need to cling when threatened with meaninglessness.  That’s the story we need to encourage in one another, in our worship together, in our collective imagination.  Being living examples of faith, hope, and love in the midst of everything from major suffering to minor inconvenience is our best witness in a world that has a hard time making sense of suffering.

What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Did God do this to me? (part 4)

  1. In our small group, we are surrounded by “living examples of faith hope and love” and through submission to the sovereignty of our Lord we learn to trust him in all things. We also come to the beautiful realization that being surrounded by these “living examples of faith hope and love”, is God’s way of putting his arms around us as and carrying through whatever we face.

    1. Thanks, Shawn. And please don’t underestimate the extent to which you and Belinda are examples to us; it may not always feel like it, but it’s true.

  2. Thanks for bringing up this topic which is always the question encountered among our non-christian friends. Here is the question: question #1: if He is at work restoring a broken world, how do you explain the world is getting worse & worse, more disastor, hunger, disease, crime, adultery ? why Christian population is getting smaller?
    Question #2: Besides being a living example of faith, hope and love in the midst of suffering, Christian’s only hope is in the future while watching suffering continues, is God in control or Satan in this world?
    Please help me on how to anwer those questions, or is there an answer? Thank you,
    Chih-mei

    1. Thank you for asking such honest and searching questions. I don’t know that I can give you answers that would satisfy anyone who asked; every answer begs further questions. Ultimately, confidence in what God is doing is not something that will be attained by argument, for faith is itself a gift of God. But I will try to answer your questions as meaningfully as I can.

      Regarding question # 1: Is the world getting worse? Some things have changed, yes. And we certainly see the consequences of sin and brokenness all around us, sometimes egregious consequences. But part of our social reality is that we are more aware of suffering through the various media that feed our appetite for negative news. We fear being the victim of violent crime, for example, even when crime rates are down. It may be that there is an increase in all the things you name, in some ways, in some places, but I suspect that we’re less apt to notice when things improve. As humans we seem to be more affected by the negative than the positive, so we may incline more to pessimism.

      I also wouldn’t say that the Christian population is getting smaller. I believe the worldwide church is growing–but that growth is not centered in the western world. And that also begs the question of whether numbers themselves tell the story anyway: put bluntly, not everyone who claims to be a Christian actually follows Jesus.

      But perhaps the more important question is whether God’s work is necessarily manifested by such statistics. They’re the measures we might prefer, but are they a fair measure of the progress of God’s work? This has always been one of the sticking points for a theology of suffering: some seem to assume that human suffering tells against the goodness or power of God, or both.

      This starts to get at your second question. Think of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. The disciples reacted as if this were a catastrophic failure; Rome and the Jewish leadership considered it a victory. Both were wrong. The mightiest work of God was hidden to human eyes by an atrocious and unjust act of violence. And this, Paul seems to suggest, is precisely God’s way of working; what the world considers foolishness is actually the wisdom of God.

      Surely there’s more to say, but let me leave it there for now. I may need to reflect further on such things in future posts. But suffice it to say that people have their own ideas of what it must mean for God to be God; in the gospels, they wanted Jesus to prove himself according to their standards before they would believe. But God the Father had a different plan, and Jesus the Son obeyed. And we, as Christians, are part of that plan. Yes, our hope points toward the future, for that is the nature of hope. But what sustains that hope is that God through his Spirit gives us the eyes of faith, to see those moments of grace that show he hasn’t given up on the world.

      For without faith, the cross is still either the failure of God or the victory of the world. That should give us pause when we’re too easily convinced that God is absent, indifferent, or incapable.

      I hope that helps.

      1. Thank you for clearing up several points. I’m looking forward for more of your thoughts. Your explaination has solidify my thought,enforced my belief and better prepared myself before my non christian friends. thanks.
        Chih-mei

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