I’ve been working on what I hope will be my second book for strengthening and equipping people in their faith. The subject matter is one that is universal to everyone: the idea of suffering. Suffering is all around us so it is important to assess how your worldview not only explains it but gives you counsel in it. Many times people think the existence of suffering means that there can’t be a God. So I think it’s important that we are able to logically understand that suffering does not mean that God does not exist. We may sometimes wonder why evil and tragic things are happening, but that does not negate the existence of an almighty Creator. And there are multiple reasons for that. In reality, the fact that we can even identify evil exists proves that a good, loving God exists.
But I don’t want to go into the purely logical arguments for that right here (hopefully you’ll get to read that in my book soon!). I wanted to speak more to the heart of the idea of suffering. Because suffering is something that affects us all in a very real and personal way. In fact, it has hit me in a real and personal way again this week. What I wanted to discuss here is the uniqueness of the Christian God in the midst of suffering. You see, every worldview (whether atheistic or theistic or polytheistic) must explain the existence of suffering. It must to our heads about understanding a world that has suffering in it. But your worldview must also speak to our hearts. Your worldview must explain why we respond like we do to suffering. Our response to suffering tells us an awful lot about the human spirit and the God who created us. We respond to suffering with brokenness, sadness, and grief. We use words like “tragic” to convey that this thing just ought not be so. How does your worldview give you comfort and peace in the midst of suffering?
Some worldviews imply that your suffering is just an illusion, that you haven’t overcome your circumstances with your mind. But that implies that suffering is not real – yet we know suffering is very real. Most other worldviews imply that your suffering is from some fault of your own. It is your karma or bad decisions that have led to this suffering. Granted, many times suffering is a consequence of your bad decisions, but not all suffering can be explained that way.
So here’s where I want to explain the Christian God because the God of Christianity is a God of compassion, a point that believers and unbelievers alike often miss. Many times when tragedy strikes we picture God up there with a frown on His face and a disapproving shake of the head, saying, “That’ll teach ‘em!” Or we imagine that He is sadistically laughing with delight when we stumble and fall on our faces, mumbling to Himself, “I told them so.” And while there are plenty of Biblical examples of God using suffering as a judgment on our sin, that is not always the case. We must also see this creation from God’s perspective to realize how much our pain and suffering must break His heart. Sickness, disease, and evil was not a part of this world in the beginning. When He created everything he declared it was “good.” His initial creation was with us living in peace and fellowship with Him; walking in His ways and in the beauty and perfection of the Garden of Eden, a phrase that now to us only symbolizes an idyllic place was once a real entity. He wanted that to be the life for His creation and for His children.
But our sin broke that. Our choice to reject His ways, to walk in disobedience, that Garden of Eden cannot be a reality for us. And it broke not only our fellowship with Him but it broke His heart. It broke His heart to see His very creation reject that goodness, that perfection, that beautiful place of peace. And now He knows that suffering is going to be an ever-present part of our existence. Evil decisions will have evil consequences. A nature no longer “good” will be rife with sickness, hurt, and pain. And God, knowing that was not how it could have been, is hurt by it too. So when we hear the word “cancer” for a loved one, it not only breaks our hearts, but it breaks the heart of God too – not out of surprise that it happened because He knows all things, but that cancer is even a part of this world. He sees this fallen creation and knows what it should have been like. He sees our hurt and our pain and it breaks His heart. It is just like a mother watching over her child, desiring the best for her child, but knowing because of the sinful world in which we live, this child will experience heartbreak and injury. This child, whom she wants to protect from all harm, must still navigate the pitfalls of life in order to grow, in order to learn. This child, whom she loves more than her own life, will make decisions to disobey the rules she laid down out of love. And this child, whom she wants to have peace and joy, will then find himself in suffering and pain.
And the Christian God has compassion on us. Mark 6:24 says, “And Jesus, when He came out, saw a great multitude and was moved with compassion for them, because they were like sheep not having a shepherd. So He began to teach them many things.” Jesus had compassion on them. We are so clueless and helpless and bumbling around that God felt compassion on us. We are completely lost without Him. So He Himself came down to teach us. We suffer and have pain and loss and hurt because of our sin. Out of His compassion, He came down so that we could have a better hope, a better future than what sin had for us. Jesus was so full of compassion that He asked God to forgive the very men who were crucifying Him on the cross. He saw that those men – and ourselves – are so lost that they didn’t even fully grasp what they were doing. So He said, “Father, forgive them.” He saw they needed His compassion. Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” He has compassion on us for the burdens that we carry, for the labor that we struggle under, so He gives us rest. First Peter 5:7 says, “Cast all your anxiety on Him for He cares for you.” He has compassion for our anxiety and tells us to bring it to Him. Jesus said in Matthew 14:27, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” He wanted to give us peace. He had compassion on us for our troubles and our fears so He gives us peace.
So when we suffer, are anxious, and feel burdened, God has compassion. God offers us peace and rest. He has compassion on His children, just like we as earthly parents do. What do other gods of religions do in those times? Are they compassionate? Most of them tell you that it’s your own fault. It’s your karma from bad decisions. It’s your retribution for not showing enough devotion. Where’s the compassion? Where’s their god that says, “Come to me when you’re troubled. Cast your fears, your worries, your burdens on ME so that you may rest.” Where is that god in man-made religions? Jesus wept when Lazarus died – KNOWING He was about to raise Him from the dead. But He cried along with humanity for what sin has done to His perfect creation. He understands the sadness of loss and His response was to weep. When Jesus was in the garden of Gethsemane the night of His arrest He said, ““My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here and watch with Me.” He understands the fear of death and His response was to cry out to God – and then submit to His authority. “Not My will, but Thy will be done.” And in that moment, His compassion on us in our sins, His compassion while we reject His authority, was so great that He laid down His life for us. He loves us so much that He died to free us from the pain and suffering that our sins have brought us. His compassion was so great and His heart was so broken for us that He walked among us, that He suffered alongside us, that He suffered and died in our place, and that He defeated death for us so we do not have to walk this road of suffering alone.
I was asked in a recent interview what goals I would encourage others to have for the year 2017. Typically when we set goals for a new year we focus on some area of our life in which we want improvement. But that can sometimes be very personal. Does someone feel like they need to work on a healthier lifestyle? Then they set goals for healthier eating choices and maybe starting an exercise routine. Does someone feel like they are missing out on enjoying life? Then they set goals to work less and maybe take up a new hobby, maybe check off an item from their bucket list, maybe take a trip somewhere they’ve been wanting to visit for a while. Does someone want to learn more? Then they decide to read more books this year, maybe even read your Bible more. But typically as the year progresses, we find we just never have enough time so we let the gym membership expire, we quit that new hobby, we can’t find an open week for that vacation, and we never get around to reading anything new. And at the end of the year we find ourselves just as frustrated in December 2017 as we were in December 2016.
Our problem isn’t that we don’t desire to do more with our lives or to grow in our areas of weakness. Our problem is with insanity. We keep doing the same old things but expect different results. We think that we can add these great goals for personal growth without ever subtracting those things that don’t lead to growth. We want to learn more but we still watch more television than read a book. We want to enjoy life more but we still end up working more hours than spending time with our families. We want to lose weight but we still stuff ourselves with junk food and put off working out. We want to have a better faith, a faith like David or Daniel or Joseph, but we still never read our Bibles. We may add to our reading lists a bunch of books about the Bible, but still not the Bible itself. We may finally buy a devotion book, but only one that requires five minutes a day.
So now I’ll get to what my encouragement was to folks for their goals for 2017. Set aside an extra 30 minutes a day to actually study the Bible, not just a book about the Bible or something written by someone who believes the Bible. But go to the very source of God’s wisdom itself. The Bible is God’s Word to His people. Why are we neglecting to look at it? The next challenge though is to not just read it, but study it. The Bible is not just one book; it is a collection of books. It holds 66 books written by 40 different people from different backgrounds covering a span of 1,500 years. So each book contained in the Bible was written by a different author to a different audience in a different time and place. You have to look at all of the context around the individual books to understand what is meant by it, why the author wrote it, and what the audience would get out of it. You would do that with any other kind of book you would read or study in literature class. If you picked up a book by Chaucer, you would want to know when he lived and what kind of style he used. You would want to know why he was writing and to whom he was writing. So do the same thing with the Bible. Many of the books are letters. Think about if you received a letter from a friend of yours. Would you just read the first paragraph and say you knew what it was about? Would you just read the middle sentence from a three page note? Of course not. So we can’t do that with the books in the Bible either. They need to be read in their entirety so that we can understand the heart of what the author was writing and see the material in context. The Bible was not meant to be read in a 5-minute devotion with one verse selected from a random passage each day.
We are somehow the most Biblically illiterate generation since the first century, yet we have more and easier ways to access the Scripture than ever before. Want it on your iPhone? There’s an app for that. Want it where you can take notes? There’s a Bible for that. Want it in a different language? There’s a translation for that. Need a commentary to help your understanding? There’s a book for that. Want it with pictures for your kids? There’s a version for that. We have so many ways to access and read the Scriptures at any moment of convenience, but do we? Do we, in this land of religious openness, free from persecution, ever actual read the Bible? No, instead, we find 5-minute devotions that cherry-pick just a few random, feel good verses out with a cute little life application story to go along with it. How then can we ever expect to grow in our faith? No wonder we don’t feel like we could ever be like Daniel, standing up for God in the face of the King and culture. No wonder we don’t have the boldness in witnessing like Paul. No wonder we don’t think we could withstand trial and tribulations like Job. Those men were able to do those things because they had a close relationship with God. They were able to face giants, persecution, troubled times, and doubt because they spent a significant amount of time with God. They could interpret dreams and boldly proclaim truth because they were steeped in God’s ways and soaked up God’s wisdom. Do you think they did that with a 5-minute devotion?
So if your goal is to study the Bible more in 2017, let’s put some actionable steps to being able to do that. First, select a single book of the Bible for you to study. If you’re not sure where to begin, pick a simple one to start with (in other words, don’t start with Leviticus or Revelation). Choose one of the Gospels. Matthew is written by one of Jesus’s disciples and John is written by Jesus’s closest friend. Mark is written from Peter’s account and Luke is written like the research from an investigative journalist to put down an orderly account of the ministry of Jesus. Or pick Acts, which gives the history of the founding of the church and the missionary journeys of Paul. You could go with some of the letters written by Paul, like Ephesians and Galatians which give instructions to the churches established in those cities for living a Godly life.
Second, find a commentary or two to go along with those books. Those will help give you the background information on the book and its author. It will help you understand more difficult passages and maybe even make connections to other areas of Scripture that discuss a similar theme to give further understanding of a passage. Third, either wake up earlier, go to bed later, or eliminate wasted time during the day to give yourself time to studying this book. If you continue with your same old routine, you will find that “you just don’t have enough time” to read the Bible. That is why your routine will need to change. It is the same way with anything new we want to try. If you want to start losing weight by going to the gym, you have to either wake up earlier, stay up later, or remove wasted activities from your day in order to make that a priority. And that’s what it is all about: your priorities. This should be the most important thing we can do during the day, studying God’s Word. It is how we get to know God and how we get to know how God wants us to live. It shouldn’t be about an obligation to check the box and say you did it for the day. It should come from deep within our heart out of love for what He has done for us. It should be from the same place where our attitude of worship comes. Because of God’s love and sacrifice for us, we want to know Him, praise Him, and obey Him. Not from a dutiful obligation, but from a heart full of love and gratitude.
Fourth, and last, you should be uncomfortable. I’m not saying you have to sit in an uncomfortable chair while you study, but learning more about God should make you uncomfortable. Studying God will not result in an affirmation of everything you do. Studying God will continue to show us where we need to change and where we need to grow. It will highlight things to stop doing and underscore things to start doing, again all out of love for God. We walk in obedience to God not so that we can be saved but because we are saved. In many of Paul’s letters, he calls on his readers to “walk worthy of the Gospel.” He knows our walk is not the mechanism for our salvation. But because God has loved us so much, we should walk worthy of that salvation that we have received. So studying His Word will make you uncomfortable in your sin to move you to repentance and obedience. Studying God’s Word will change your heart and your thoughts on things in your day-to-day and on things in the culture around you. And that is what it truly means to be walking as a Christian. Being a Christian isn’t just a label we wear because of what we do on Sunday mornings. It is to be a mind set on the things of God. God’s Word should be the foundation for every opinion we form on things. Through studying His Word, we are taught to die to our own thoughts and desires in order to submit to His.
Will you in 2017 be willing to change your routine so that you can be uncomfortable in order to walk worthy of your salvation?