I am in the process of finishing up my second book which tackles the existence of suffering. But while in some conversations on the topic, I’ve encountered a challenging idea that I wanted to address here. Many people struggle with the perceived conflict of a good, loving God and the existence of evil and suffering. The explanation for how those two coexist encompasses the concept of man’s free will. We have the ability to make our own choices and thus at times we must face the consequences of those choices. Now, this reasoning doesn’t account for all types of suffering; there are many examples of suffering that is not due to our actions. But many times our suffering comes as the cost of making the choice to disobey God or the choice to sin. Not always, but sometimes. In those cases, our suffering may simply be the natural outflow of our actions. For example, if you choose to smoke your entire life, then the natural consequence may be that you develop certain types of cancers and diseases. That would be a natural consequence of your free-will decision to engage in that activity. Biblically, we could use Samson as an example of that. He chose to stay entangled with deceitful women and therefore eventually paid the price by being betrayed by one of those women.
Sometimes our suffering is a result of judgment for our free will choices. When your free-will choice is to violate the laws of the state, then you will face punishment for those crimes, which involves pain and suffering. Biblically, we know that God does judge against wickedness and sin. He passed severe judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah for their wicked ways. They freely chose to walk in disobedience, therefore, they faced suffering as a consequence of those choices. I see this constantly with my children. Out of their free will, they may choose to jump on the couch. They then face the natural consequence of falling and getting hurt, as well as the consequence of punishment when they get spanked for jumping on the furniture.
Why Free Will?
If God gave us free will to choose how we respond to Him yet knew we would suffer from our choices, then why did He give us free will in the first place? The short answer is that God wanted us to love. He didn’t make us to be robots only responding in obedience because we were forced to or obligated to. God desired loving fellowship from His creation. But to have love, it must be freely chosen and freely given. We can understand that in our earthly relationships as well. Love from another person is only real if the person has a choice to love or to not love. It is the same way with God. However, when we choose to not love God and to not walk in obedience then we suffer the consequences.
This line of reasoning can help us understand that God can exist even though there is suffering. However, recently I have encountered a new question in relation to this argument. What about when we die? As Christians, we share with people how in Heaven there are no more tears, no more pain. So is there free will in Heaven? If you answer yes, then why is there suffering here but not in Heaven? It says we are capable of having free will but not having suffering. But if you answer “no,” then apparently God does want robots programmed to obey Him. It says He would require people to love Him once they are in Heaven because He would have removed their free will.
On the surface it appears to be quite the conundrum. To answer this we must understand the doctrine of salvation. Even though there is a distinct moment of salvation for a believer that is not where it stops. Granted, the process of salvation may appear in some churches today to mean walking down to the front of the church and signing a membership card, but that is not it either. The process of salvation involves three phases: justification, sanctification, and glorification. Justification is a one-time work of God resulting in the believer’s salvation. The sinner confesses their sins before a just and holy God and receives the forgiveness offered through Jesus Christ. In that moment, they are declared innocent in God’s judgment over sin; they are justified through the payment made by Jesus on their behalf. Once the believer has been justified, then sanctification begins.
Sanctification is a process, beginning with justification and continuing throughout life. If justification is the starting point of the line that represents one’s Christian life, then sanctification is the line itself. At the point of justification, the believer becomes a “new creation” and the old things are to pass away (2 Cor. 5:17). What does that mean? It means we are no longer to live as slaves to sin but to live as God’s forgiven child. Paul describes this in Romans 6 as reckoning ourselves to be “dead indeed to sin, alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” We are not to let sin reign over us as though we are to obey its lusts. Instead we present ourselves as instruments of righteousness before God. However, we still live in a sinful and corrupt world. The threat of sin and temptation of the lusts of the flesh are all around us. Therefore we must daily die to ourselves, to put away those fleshly desires and to desire the righteousness which is from God. Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” It is a continual thing where God is changing our hearts to no longer desire the sinful things of this world. He transforms us to desire the things of God.
What Does This Have to Do with Free Will?
What does this have to do with free will? Well, whether you have become a believer or not, you still have free will to choose disobedience or obedience to God. But once you have become a believer, your desires have changed to truly want to do the things of God. You now desire to please God instead of please yourself. According to Romans 8:5, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.” Paul explains this again in Galatians 5:16-17, “I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.” There is this battle between the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit – and they are diametrically opposed. Once you have received justification in salvation then you are in the Spirit. The sanctification that follows is the process of growing the believer to desire the things of the Spirit. You can still freely choose disobedience but the desires of your heart are now to do the will of God instead of your own will.
But that is much easier said than done! The great apostle Paul even tells of this struggle. “For the good that I will to do, I do not do; but the evil I will not to do, that I practice. Now if I do what I will not to do, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.” (Romans 7:19-20) So Paul, having been justified, now desires to do the will of the Lord but because there is still sin here, he struggles and fails – as do the rest of us! It means I am not unique in my struggle of things of the flesh against things of the Spirit. He wants to do good, to obey God; and he wants to not do evil, to not disobey. Yet because of the presence of sin still in this world he finds himself doing the opposite. It is here where the believer longs for the final phase of our salvation: glorification.
Glorification: Our New Nature
Glorification is God's final removal of sin from the life of the believer in the eternal life. God’s glory will be realized in us; instead of being mortals burdened with sin nature, we will be changed into holy immortals with direct and unhindered access to God’s presence. It is the culmination of sanctification. We will no longer have that human nature that our spirits continually fight against. We will have a completely new nature.
We often think about it as one day receiving our glorified bodies that are free from disease, weakness, and frailty. But what makes those bodies free from disease, weakness, and frailty is existing in the absence of sin. And now we can start to see how we have free will in Heaven, yet no suffering there. Revisit the struggle that Paul describes. We desire to do good. We want to obey. But because of sin, we struggle. We are tempted, and we fail. What if those fleshly lusts and temptations were no longer around? What if you were free from the presence of sin? Then we can fully accomplish our true desire in our heart – which is to obey God and walk in His ways.
Look at the words from Hebrews 12:1-2 calling us to live our lives in godliness. The author says to, “Lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” So what if there were no weights anymore? What if there were no sin to easily ensnare us? Then we can live in that full godliness, in full obedience unto Christ. When we make those choices to walk with God, then there is no place for suffering. There is no suffering sin’s natural consequences if there is no sin. There is no suffering punishment for disobedience if no one disobeys. There is no need for trials to grow our faith and lead others to salvation if our faith is fully realized and all have salvation. There is no need for pain from discipline if we are all walking rightly with God. We will be unencumbered by the flesh to freely choose that which we truly desire, which is God. We will have free will and our will is to obey God. We will have no suffering because we will no longer stumble in our choice of obedience due to the presence of sin.
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.
In the previous blog, we took a look at some of the violent and immoral things found in the Bible and whether that means God approves of such things. Of course initially we established that just because it is recorded in the Bible does not mean that God approved of it. But then we did see that in many cases, God caused suffering as a means of judgment. We don’t like to think of God as a judge – we either want to only focus on His love or want to say He must be evil because He judges. However, He must judge our wickedness and sin in order to NOT be evil. Only an evil judge would never punish someone for their crimes. A judge who never punished the wicked would be terribly wicked himself by allowing victims to suffer and the wicked to go free. Another reason for suffering and war in the Old Testament also goes to the nation building of the Israelites. Though it is not a pleasant thing to consider, wars are how nations are built.
But what about other examples of violence and suffering in the Bible that many people reference, like slavery and rape and capital punishment (like stoning for blasphemy)? I’m sure we could take several weeks to analyze each and every example to try to understand why that happened and whether God commanded it or approved it or should have punished it differently. Instead though I suggest we look at the heart of the question. By accusing God of being “violent” or “harsh” or “unkind” with those things, we are implying that we universally agree those things are wrong. If we are going to say God’s morality is wrong because it allowed murder, or rape, or slavery then we are agreeing that murder, and rape, and slavery are bad things; that those are wrong no matter the circumstance. It means those things are objectively wrong based on an objective morality that declares certain things are wrong regardless of what popular opinion says.
And now we find ourselves in a logical conundrum. We can’t accuse God of being evil for those things without relying on objective morality. But without God, we have no objective morality. What basis could we possibly have to say that rape, murder, and slavery are wrong if morality came only from the mind of man? That was actually the point of my initial question: how can an atheist declare things are evil? The atheist framework has no god so the only source of morality for the atheist would be from nature (evolution), from society (the mind of man), or from himself (instinct). When we consider those things, however, we see that none of them adequately explain the moral framework that governs our day to day lives. If morality came from evolution, then anything that progresses the species would be morally good. It would mean that if rape led to a stronger human species to ensure propagation of certain stronger traits, then we could not say that was wrong. If morality only come from society or man’s ideas of right and wrong, then we could never judge another society as being more or less moral than another. We would have as many moral codes as we have men and all would have to be equally valid. Who is to say which man’s opinion is “better” than another…unless there is some standard to compare it against, some standard that is outside of man’s mind? If morality only came from our instincts, then we could never explain why we still have a compulsion for which instinct to act upon. In every scenario we face, there are conflicting instincts, fight or flight, herding or self-preservation, but something rises above our instincts to tell us which one we should do. That moral compulsion for the instinct we ought to act upon can’t itself be an instinct.
None of those explanations adequately account for the moral framework in which we live. We do consider certain actions in the animal kingdom to be immoral for humans. We do find it morally good to protect the weaker species instead of just saying only the strong survive. We do judge other societies as being morally better or worse than others. We do find the moral code of Hitler and ISIS to be a bad moral code. We do expect man to behave morally above just his instincts. We do make moral judgments for which actions we should take instead of simply responding through instinct. So for the atheist to accuse God of being evil he must invoke the very existence of God. Making moral objections against God requires an objective morality. And without God, there is no objective morality.
Aside from the logical fallacy found in morally objecting to God, we must then consider the life that God led here on earth through Jesus Christ. That would be the only example of what God’s morality was really about. With the life of Jesus, it wasn’t God using a sinful group of people to build a nation, it was how one man lived His life in perfect harmony with God’s morality. With the life of Jesus, it wasn’t God wiping out wickedly sinful people out of judgment, it was God allowing man’s wickedness to crucify His very Son to bring salvation to those wicked people. So what morality did Jesus show? How did He live His life? We know that God had already provided a moral code in the Ten Commandments. But Jesus made the standard of those Ten Commandments even tougher. The Ten Commandments said, “Do not commit adultery.” Jesus said if a man lusts within his heart, he has committed adultery. The Ten Commandments said, “Do not murder.” Jesus said do not be angry. Before it was to love your neighbor, Jesus said to love your enemy. If people couldn’t even obey the moral code from God with their actions, we certainly couldn’t obey it with the attitudes of our hearts and with the thoughts in our minds. So how did Jesus measure up to that standard of morality? Yes, God’s people sinned in the Bible - and God judged the wicked. But the life of Jesus is what our eyes are to be on. We must look at Jesus, not at Christendom or the Israelites, to determine God’s morality. So what is it that you find wrong with Jesus?
A few weeks ago, I posed the question “how do atheists find things morally evil?” It created a big response among several atheists. However, instead of truly answering the question, they made a challenge about the morality that is instituted in the Bible. I thought it might be a good idea to explore this topic a little more in-depth than what a conversation on Twitter could afford. In fact, I’ll have to address this in two parts. First, we’ll look at what the violence in the Bible is really about. Because in all honesty, there is a lot of violence and heinous acts captured in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. And second, we’ll look at why we have an issue with it.
The first thing we must understand is not everything recorded in the Bible is approved by God. So saying that “it’s in the Bible” does not automatically indicate “God approves.” We see that from the very beginning. Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the tree that He had specifically told them not to. Does that mean because that is written in the Bible that God approved? Of course not. Abraham sleeping with Hagar (Genesis 16), the slaughter at Shechem (Genesis 34), Moses murdering the Egyptian (Exodus 2), and David taking Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11) are all examples of things done by God’s people that are not approved by God. The Old Testament captures the history of God’s nation of Israel and all they do – the good, bad, and the ugly. In reality, most of what they do is in direct opposition to what God approves of. We know that because of what the rest of Scripture reveals about God’s character. And God’s character is not defined by what sinful people do.
So when Israel does those things that God disapproves of, they find themselves suffering the consequences. How can we say that when Abraham, Jacob’s sons, Moses, and David from those examples were not immediately punished for their sins? Just because God doesn’t strike them down immediately for their sin, does not mean that God approved of their actions – or that it went unpunished. They all ultimately suffer consequences for those sins. But woe be unto us if we demand God immediately strike people down for sin. We should consider ourselves fortunate that God chooses to refrain His hand of judgment from us until His appointed time and that He is able to use us in spite of our sins.
That leads us to the second thing we must understand. Oftentimes, the suffering is from God removing that restraint in judgment. All our sin must one day be punished. God, as our Judge, has every right to punish that sin how He sees fit. That may make God sound very cold and vindictive, but in reality, it reveals His Holiness and Goodness. A person who lets crimes go unpunished, hatefulness run rampant, and evil triumph would not be considered a good person. We cry out to God to judge evil, yet we shake our fist at Him in anger when He brings down judgment. We question God’s very existence when He doesn’t stop suffering but then question His Morality when He does. Deep down, whether theists or atheists, we long for evil to be judged; we just find ourselves disliking the judgment.
In the Old Testament, God enacts His judgment with three methods.
1) God uses His own power. In Noah’s day, the sins of the people were exceedingly wicked. And it says that all men were corrupt, and the earth was filled with violence. Wouldn’t the people be crying out for that evil, violence, and corruption to stop? Wouldn’t someone that is good HAVE to judge against that wickedness? If they did not, they would cease to be good. So God saw fit to judge against the wickedness of humanity. And in His power, God brought the flood waters. It is important to see that He is the Judge no longer refraining from Judgment, but it is equally important to see that He is Love showing mercy to the righteous. And He called Noah into the ark that day.
The exact same scenario plays out in Sodom and Gomorrah. The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah was great, and their sin was very grave. Think about the term “outcry.” Where sin is great, victims abound. How could God continue to turn a deaf ear to the victims of a totally depraved and wicked society? So in His power, God rained down fire and brimstone to destroy the cities. He was the Judge no longer refraining from Judgment. But again, He is Love showing mercy to save the (slightly) righteous Lot and his family.
2) God uses His chosen people to enact judgment on the pagan nations who have chosen to live in idolatry, in wickedness, and in disobedience. He commanded the Israelites to conquer the Canaanites and completely destroy them. The Canaanites were a people who were totally depraved, practicing things like incest, bestiality, temple prostitution, violence, and child sacrifice. We would be exceedingly angry with a God that did not stop those things. And He wanted His nation to have no association with that wickedness and those practices. So God wanted those things completely wiped out. We see God’s judgment on those nations, but we also see God’s mercy. They were given time to repent and the repentant ones were spared (e.g. Rahab).
We must also bear in mind that most of this time of conflict was under the leadership of Joshua in establishing a new nation. Though war is never pleasurable, it is the method by which all nations are founded, and, ironically, it is the method by which to establish peace. Sometimes the only way to restore peace and to remove tyranny is by use of force. Of course, one could speculate why God didn’t find a different way to establish His nation. But He was establishing His nation by using His people. He wanted to use the people and strengthen the people so they could see their weakness and His power all the more clearly. If you read the accounts of how He led them into battle and how battles were fought and won, you can see God’s power in every step through His people so that His name would be known throughout the nations. His victories in battle were known because it was obvious it was not through the power and strength of men. It proved He was mightier than the idols worshiped by the pagans.
3) God uses the pagan nations to enact judgment on His chosen people when they have chosen to live in idolatry, in wickedness, and in disobedience. Even with those examples of God’s judgment on the pagan nations, it is typically the Israelites on the receiving end of God’s judgment throughout the Old Testament. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt–for 430 years. They wandered in the desert for 40 years until an entire generation died. The Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians after ample warnings to repent by the prophets. The Southern Kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians. The Israelites were taken away into captivity for 70 years. Most of the suffering in the Old Testament fell onto the Israelites themselves because of their disobedience and sin.
What does all this reveal about God’s character? God judges evil. God is exceedingly patient in His judgment. God provides opportunity for repentance. God shows mercy to the righteous.
As a final example, consider the great city of Nineveh at the time of Jonah. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria and was probably the largest city of the ancient world. Nineveh was known for its cruelty and violence, and the people were exceedingly wicked. They now had to face God as Judge. But out of His love, God sent Jonah to warn the Ninevites, even though they were a perpetual enemy of the nation of Israel, and to give them a chance to repent. After receiving that message and repenting, God spared them from destruction. The people of Nineveh had been walking in wickedness and disobedience. God was going to be the source of their destruction as their Judge, but He was also the source of their salvation by sending them Jonah.
A clearer picture cannot be drawn for what God has done for the rest of humanity. We stand full in our sins – our pride, anger, hate, lust, selfishness. And now we stand before the Just God who must punish that sin. God will be the source of our destruction because of His Justice. But because of His Love, He is the source of our salvation by sending us Jesus.
Jesus took on our judgment for us so that we could take on His righteousness and be spared.
Hebrews 12:5-12 And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: ‘My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives.’ If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness. Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
We are God’s children. And just like earthly parents discipline their children, our Heavenly Father will discipline His children. We know that parents discipline their children out of love. It’s never enjoyable or comfortable while you’re receiving it, but in the end it is to grow us and make us better. Parents do that because they love their children and want their children to grow into the best adults possible. The wonderful thing to think about though is we discipline as sinning, erring human parents. But God disciplines in perfect love. Think about how much better and wiser and more prudent that discipline is. The tricky thing for parents is knowing when to apply discipline and what it should be. We have to figure out when to pick our battles. We know we can’t discipline over every minor infraction. And we can’t apply the same technique for each offense either. Some things require more severe punishment than others. As human parents it is so hard to know the right path on each action. But discipline from God is perfect. He never has to question whether the battle should be picked or not or whether the punishment fits the crime. His discipline is in perfect discernment. Luke 11:13 If you then who are evil, know how to give good gifts to you children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” In the same way, if we who are evil try to discipline our children in love, how much more can the perfect Heavenly Father discipline us in love?
The scary thing is that it says if we are not receiving discipline from the Father then we are not really His children. And since discipline can be seen as suffering in the moment (since discipline is never “fun”), then this pretty much guarantees that as children of God we will suffer at some point just out of our need to be disciplined. We are His children and we will be disciplined, and discipline is painful.
A great example of God using suffering to teach is through Jonah. We all know that Jonah was swallowed by a whale but do we stop and consider why? Jonah was fleeing from God’s command to go to Nineveh. He was being disobedient. As Jonah boarded a ship to go in the opposite direction of where God told him to go, God caused a storm, God directed the lots to fall to Jonah, God prepared the fish, and God had the fish swallow Jonah. Was that suffering of being inside a belly of a fish God’s will? Not exactly. God’s will was for Jonah to obey. Because Jonah freely chose to disobey, God taught Jonah a lesson in obedience – just like we do for our children on a daily basis. But remember, God also had the fish safely spew Jonah back onto to dry land. God was the source of that suffering for instruction, but God was also the source of Jonah’s redemption. God played the same role to the city of Nineveh, where Jonah finally did obey and go preach. God had told Jonah that the sin of Nineveh was so great that He was going to destroy the city. Again, the people freely chose to disobey, but God was going to be the source of their destruction. But God was also the source of their redemption because God sent them Jonah. And because of Jonah’s preaching, the people of Nineveh repented, and God did not destroy the city.
God can also use suffering to teach other people around us. Let’s think about the Israelites who were too afraid to cross over into the Promised Land. Moses sent out twelve spies but only two of them trusted in the provision of God to have the strength to take the land. The other ten, and the rest of the Israelites, decided those people were too big and scary for the Israelites to conquer. They even said they would rather go back and be slaved in Egypt. Can you imagine how that made God feel? Well, we don’t have to imagine too much because it says in Numbers 14:26: “How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who complain against Me? I have heard the complaints which the children of Israel make against me. Say to them, ‘As I live, says the Lord, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above. Except for Caleb and Joshua you shall by no means enter the land which I swore I would make you dwell in. But your little ones, whom you said would be victims, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised. But as for you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness. And your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and bear the brunt of your infidelity, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness.” But check this out in verse 37 “those very men who brought the evil report about the land, died by the plague before the Lord.”
Wow. God was serious wasn’t he? He denied passage to the Promised Land for that doubting and untrusting generation, saving only the younger generation to experience His rest there. What kind of impact do you think that had on that younger generation? They had to live 40 years wandering in the desert all because their parents didn’t trust God. Do you think that made them trust God more? They had to toil and sweat as a punishment for their parent’s distrusting God. Think about the further impact once they finally saw the Promised Land and entered into it. They could see the full picture. They could see that God was trying to bless them if only they had faith in it. They could see where they could have been living for the past 40 years if it weren’t for their parent’s faithlessness. God used the suffering of the older generation to teach the younger generation about trust and faith, about God’s goodness of His promises.
But in reality, the entire Bible is basically one giant book of hardship. The whole thing involves the suffering. The suffering serves multiple purposes as God can use the same experience to accomplish multiple things. It may be a consequence of our sin that God uses to humble us while teaching a loved one what not to do at the same time it leads a coworker to salvation. But all of these stories of suffering in the Bible have one common effect: they all teach us. We can learn something from every trial and tribulation found in the Bible. We can learn that God is serious about obedience, that God shows mercy, that God hates sin, that God gives us comfort, that God is sovereign, that God judges our sin, that God loves us in the middle of our sin, that God does forgive us, that God loves us, that wants us to love Him, that God disciplines us because we are His children. So God uses the suffering of the saints to teach future generations about His character and about how we are supposed to live in light of who He is
Sometimes the reason for our suffering is to test our faith. It is under that testing that we prove what it is that we truly believe. Aren’t our beliefs and convictions made stronger when they are required of us? Your true beliefs and convictions come out when you are put to the test on them. Jesus warns Peter about a testing of his faith. In Luke 22:31-32: And the Lord said, “Simon, Simon! Indeed, Satan has asked for you, that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith should not fail; and when you have returned to Me, strengthen your brethren.
Jesus is telling Peter that Satan is going to test him, to see whether Peter would remain faithful to Jesus or not. And Jesus has even prayed that Peter’s faith would be strong and not fail. Peter was faced with the test of whether he would admit to being a follower of Jesus and risk being arrested too, or whether he would deny knowing Jesus for his own safety. We know that Peter failed this test – three times that night. But he realized immediately what he had done. And it says that he “wept bitterly” over it. It was that testing that humbled Peter and ultimately strengthened his faith to endure much more difficult trials and tests later in his life. As Jesus had said, Peter returned to Him and strengthened his brethren. This testing allowed Peter to grow stronger to never falter again. His faith was tested later through imprisonment and execution, but he had learned by then how to remain strong by relying on the strength from God instead of himself.
The definitive example of having our faith tested through suffering is found with Jesus. At first glance, it appears that the testing of His faith was in the wilderness where He was tempted by Satan (Matthew 4, Mark 1). Those accounts actually tell us that the Spirit is what took Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. God Himself did not tempt Jesus, nor does God Himself tempt us. But God uses Satan's temptations to serve His sovereign purposes. And Jesus was tempted in all points – the “lust of the flesh,” the “lust of the eyes,” and the “pride of life.” The flesh lust was for food. Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights and Satan tempted Him to turn the rocks into bread. The lust of the eyes was the promise of all the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would worship Satan. The pride of life was to test the angels to save Him if he jumped off the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus had to be tempted in order to show His faithfulness and sinlessness. As with Adam and Eve in the garden, obedience cannot be proven unless there is the opportunity for disobedience. Faithfulness cannot be proven if there is never the moment for lack of faith.
In reality though, the true test of faith for Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus knew the path that was before Him; He knew the suffering of the betrayal, the abandonment, the trial, and the cross that awaited Him. And He wanted more than anything for there to be some other way for man to be reconciled to God. How do we know that? Because of His prayer. It says that He was “sorrowful and deeply distressed.” He cried out for “this cup” of suffering to pass from Him. He prayed that there would be another way. The true testing here was whether Jesus would submit to God’s will or whether He would succumb to the temptation of NOT sacrificing His life on the cross. Jesus could have called down a whole host of angels to fight the Romans and overthrow the Pharisees. But that was not God’s will. The suffering that Jesus would endure was testing His faith and testing His obedience. But His faith proved true and His actions showed obedience as He submitted Himself to God’s will. “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” Matthew 26:39
James speaks on suffering used for testing our faith. In James 1:2-4 My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience. But let patience have its perfect work, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.
James says we should find joy in our trials. That is not our natural response to hardship, but as Christians we are to consider our trials as joy and make a conscience effort to face them with joy. Why? Because we know that it tests our faith. God brings these tests to prove and increase the strength and quality of our faith. It even serves to validate our faith when we rely on Him during our trials. During our suffering, we can either respond in faith in God, which will strengthen our faith, or we can respond in human weakness, which will grow into temptation. But the result of testing is perseverance, endurance, and patience. It brings us to a spiritual maturity – a deeper trust in Christ, which is where we are complete.
In 1 Samuel 16, God sent Samuel to Bethlehem to the house of Jesse to anoint the next king of Israel. David was the youngest of eight sons of Jesse; so young at the time that he wasn’t even initially brought in for Samuel to consider anointing. But when God turned down the older seven brothers, Samuel asked Jesse if there were any other children. He said his youngest was out with the sheep. But this was the one God would anoint to be the next king of Israel. At that time the “Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward.” And in the very next verse we see that the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, who was the current king of Israel. It appeared that things were going smoothly for David after this. David fought and defeated Goliath, winning the hearts of the people. He single-handedly killed two thousand Philistines. He served in Saul’s court as the one harpist who could calm the king’s madness. He grew to love Saul’s family and became especially close friends with Saul’s son, Jonathon. He even married Saul’s daughter, Michal. But Saul begins to resent David. David would spend nearly a decade of life on the run from Saul and battling those loyal to Saul before he could rule over all of Israel.
We’ve looked at many examples as to why suffering exists. We choose sin and must face both the natural consequences of our actions and the actions of others. Sometimes we even have to face the judgment from God for our actions. Sometimes bad things happen because we live in a fallen world. Nature is fallen, and evil exists. But God is still all powerful and could stop our suffering if He wanted to, right? Maybe God allows us to suffer to serve a greater purpose. So why might God allow us to suffer?
We have been looking at different reasons that we may suffer and several of them have to do with our choices or the choices of someone else. Sometimes we suffer the natural consequences of our choices. Sometimes our choices bring about punishment and judgment on our lives or someone else’s. Sometimes the evil choices of someone else results in the suffering of someone innocent. But sometimes we face tragedies that have nothing to do with our own actions or the choices made by others. Natural disasters in the world, like tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, or volcanic eruptions can wreak havoc on people’s lives and take loved ones from us all too soon. And natural disasters in our bodies can cause disease, sickness, and disability causing much suffering to our lives and our loved ones. Those situations typically have nothing to do with someone’s choices. They seem to be almost random yet give our lives so much grief and pain and suffering. How do we explain the existence of those things if there is a loving God?
What we have to understand is that while God is perfect and loving, the world we live in now is not. And it all goes back to the fact that we have free will in this world. When God created the earth and everything in it, it was created good. In fact, at the end of creating God declared it “very good.” God also created a natural order for that good creation with humanity at the head of it. Humanity was given authority for the well-being of the earth and its creatures. So when Adam and Eve made their free will choice to disobey God, it wasn’t just those two that were affected by that choice. Their sin broke humanity’s relationship with God, and the earth fell with it. Genesis 3:17 says that God told Adam, “Cursed is the ground for your sake.” And all other creatures were cursed – the serpent just more than the rest of them.
Adam’s sin caused the earth to be cursed and it fell from wholeness and perfection just like mankind. We see the connection between humanity and the earth with the story of Noah. "The Lord said, "I will blot out man whom I have made from the face of the ground, man and beast and creeping things, and the birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.” Because of man’s sin, nature would be destroyed as well. However, we also see that "Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord." And God developed a plan to save not only Noah and his family, but all the animals and creatures on the earth. From this we see three great truths about our earth.
Romans 8:19-22 For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.
He tells us that the good earth was subjected to corruption because of humanity’s sin. The only way to keep the earth pure after the introduction of sin would be to remove people from the earth. In other words, you can’t have kids and white carpets in the same house. You cannot have sinful people on a perfect earth and expect to keep the planet spotless. Paul tells us that nature is not only fallen, but it knows that it is fallen – and doesn’t like it. It is “groaning” and “laboring” with birth pangs “together,” meaning nature with humanity. Nature does not want to be as it is, but it is powerless to do anything about it.
And just like we, as mankind, can do nothing in our own power to redeem ourselves, there is nothing that mankind can do in our own power to redeem nature. We are both condemned together through the presence of sin and Adam’s choice. And we will both be redeemed together by the second coming of Jesus. We are to be good stewards of the earth, but man alone cannot redeem the earth, just like man alone cannot redeem humanity. All of creation needs to be delivered by God.
So no matter what man does or doesn’t do right now, there will still be hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, ice storms, drought, and floods because the earth is fallen and cursed. We would do well then to remember that as Jesus says in Matthew 5:45 “for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and send rain on the just and on the unjust.”
Think about what all is really included when we we say nature is fallen. Is it just trees and the oceans or would it also include our genetic code and mutations? We see birth defects, cancer, disease, and disabilities in our own bodies because that part of nature is fallen too. Is that God’s will? Is that God’s judgment on the sinful? Jesus was asked this exact question by his disciples.
John 9:1 Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, saying, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The disciples, like most Jews at that time, thought sin was always the cause of affliction. They assumed that if this man was born blind, then someone had sinned – either the man or his parents. But look at how Jesus responds.
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him.”
Jesus says that a man’s affliction is not necessarily a direct result of someone’s particular sin. But He did say that God’s sovereignty and purposes play a part in such matters. Think about the miracles Jesus worked that proved to others His deity and His power. Jesus revealed His power as God through healing the sick, making the lame to walk, causing the blind to see, cleansing the lepers of leprosy, raising the dead to life. In order to do that, those people had to be sick, lame, blind, lepers, and dead. But God allowed them to experience that tragedy here so that the works of God could be revealed in them. No, that doesn’t mean that the works will always result in healing, but it means God will still reveal Himself through them.
Sickness, disease, tragedy, and death are not always a result of judgment for a particular sin. Those are things that will always plague mankind because we live in a fallen, sinful world in general. We may ask why God allows those sicknesses because it seems unfair to us. However, we know that God is sovereign and can reveal His works in the midst of our sickness.
Because of the choice made by Lucifer to rebel against God, there is evil. A lot of our suffering is simply because evil exists. And when evil action is taken, the consequences are usually felt by innocent people. Lives lost from school shootings, terrorist bombings, the Holocaust, genocide in Somalia, and chemical warfare in Syria are all because there is evil in this world. The consequences of the actions made by those evil people were at the expense of millions of innocent lives. Does that mean that God caused those people to die or suffer?
In Genesis 1, we learn that in the beginning God created the Heavens and the earth. And all his creation was declared “good.” But only two chapters later we see the fall of Adam and Eve. They chose sin over obedience to God and suddenly creation isn’t so good. The ground was cursed; the animals were cursed; and man and woman were cursed. At first you think that all they did was eat of the forbidden fruit. They did something that God told them not to. Doesn’t that seem like such a small “mistake”? Yet through that one action death and sin entered the world. In that moment, evil entered the world. And only one generation later we see that grow into murder.
Genesis 4 tells the account of Cain and Abel. At some point prior to his incident, God had established the rules for the sacrifice. It didn’t involve just bringing whatever was easiest for you to obtain. It involved sacrificing with innocent blood. The sacrifice wasn’t about whatever we wanted to bring. The sacrifice was about what God commanded us to bring. But Cain decided to just bring what was easiest for him, and that was fruit since he was a farmer. Instead of learning his lesson and doing better next time, he grew angry and sin was in his heart. God even warned him that his sin would grow if he couldn’t control it.
What was God’s will in this situation? Did God desire for Cain to be angry about the rejection of his sacrifice? God’s desire was for Cain to bring an appropriate sacrifice. God even said that if he had been obedient to the rules of sacrifice, then it would have been accepted. Cain chose not to do that and then chose to become angry when God didn’t accept it. He grew hostile toward God, whom he could not kill, and jealous of his brother, whom he could kill.
“Now Cain talked with Abel his brother, and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother and killed him.”
Did Abel do anything wrong? Was Abel being judged for some sin in his life? Abel’s death was because Cain let his jealousy and anger overtake him. Cain murdered because there is sin in this world. Yet because Cain had free will, he could act out that anger and hatred towards Abel by taking his life. In that moment, Abel, Adam, and Eve all suffered the consequences of the presence of evil. Think about the grief that Adam and Eve faced. They had lost their son Abel at the hands of their son Cain. They had to grieve both the death of Abel and the fact that they had a child who committed murder. God’s punishment for Cain was to banish him to be a wanderer and a fugitive. So now Adam and Eve have lost the presence of Cain as well.
Another victim at the hands of evil was Joseph. Joseph may have been an annoying little brother, tattling on his brothers out working in the fields and telling them of these dreams he had about being worshiped as a king. And he may have been a little brat because he was favored by his father, demonstrated by his special coat of colors. But Joseph did not “deserve” the fate that laid before him. His brothers were jealous; they let hatred and bitterness grow in their hearts towards Joseph. And they plotted to kill him. And these eleven brothers were the other heads of the tribes of Israel! Yet they are so consumed by the evil in their hearts that they conspired to murder their brother. Instead, they decide to sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites. Joseph wasn’t being judged for sin. But because of the evil within his brothers’ hearts, he sold into slavery.
Of course we know how that story ends. Because of Joseph’s time as a slave, he has the God-given opportunity to rise to power under Pharaoh in Egypt, which is how his entire family is saved from the famine. As Joseph says in Genesis 45:4: “But now do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For these two years the famine has been in the land, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. And God sent me before you to preserve a posterity for you in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt.
Joseph even explains to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring about as it is this day, to save many people alive.” What those brothers meant for evil, God meant for good. Therefore, sometimes we suffer simply because evil exists in this sinful world. We may bemoan what can be done about “so much evil.” But where we really need to start is assessing the evil within our own hearts.
Jeremiah 17:9 “The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?”