Our perspective on pain and suffering is too short. We think in terms of minutes, hours, and days. To God a thousand years is like a day. We’re the ones that get frustrated at the microwave because it takes 45 seconds to heat our food! God sees from the perspective of eternity.
I asked a question at our church last Wednesday night, “Have you ever experienced something that in the moment was painful or tragic but ended up being for your long-term good?” Everyone had examples to share. I shared that when I was in 10th grade I moved to a different part of the state and had to start life over. At the moment, I thought it was the worst thing that could have happened, but looking back, it was the best thing that could of happened because it strengthened my relationship with God and set me on a new path of life.
After college, I lived in Africa for two years as a missionary. Without getting into the whole story, I thought I had made a mistake once I got there because ministry was hard and no one was getting saved. I didn’t know why God would lead me to a place where nothing good happened. That’s what I thought at the time. Looking back, those two years were deepened my relationship with God in ways I never thought possible and through a missionary relationship I made while in Africa, I ended up in North Carolina in the summer of 2001 where I met my future wife.
In the moment, I couldn’t see how any good could come out of that pain and hardship. But after some time had passed, I had gained enough perspective to see God’s plan in it all. Once we have the perspective of eternity, we just might be able to see God’s reason behind all of it. But right now, our perspective is too short.
Our perspective on pain and suffering is too small. If you asked my 2-year-old son and my 1-year-old daughter if I was a good dad, they might have told you ‘no’ this week. Monday we put a chain lock on our front door because our 2-year-old has figured out how to unlock the front door and escape like a lifer on a prison break. Now he can’t. When he first tried to open the door and realized he couldn’t, he gave me that look like I’m the worst dad in the world. From his small perspective, he can’t understand why he shouldn’t be able to wander the neighborhood on his own and play in the street. His perspective is too small.
Last Wednesday I took my daughter Elle to the doctor’s office because she was sick. She had to get a shot while she was there. In that moment, when the needle punctured her skin and I was holding her down, she gave me a look that would just melt your heart. She absolutely couldn’t understand why I would be so mean and cruel to allow the nurse to puncture her body with a needle. She couldn’t understand that I was doing it for her good, to protect her from getting worse and having to go to the hospital. She couldn’t understand that. She just had to trust me that I knew what I was doing.
In Isaiah 55:9, here’s what the Bible says, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Compared to God’s infinite wisdom and knowledge, we’re the 2-year-old failing to understand why there’s a new lock on the door. We’re the 1-year-old who can’t understand why she just got a shot. Our perspectives are too small compared to God’s.
That’s how we can begin to handle the problem of pain and suffering in the world. We can’t understand it all. We can’t just explain it away. We have to trust that there is a reason, beyond our ability to understand. And we have to trust that God knows what He’s doing.
If you’re in pain, whether physical, mental, emotional, relational, financial or spiritual, that pain can blot out everything else and become all-consuming. What can you cling to when you’re walking through the dark valley of pain and suffering? The most powerful thing you can cling to is the cross. When you’re suffering, run to the cross.
Why is the cross so powerful? Because it’s a picture of God’s love for us that is much more powerful than human words. Think about it: one of the biggest arguments against God is that if he was so loving, then why would he allow suffering in the world?
What does the most famous verse in the Bible say? “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
We believe that God is not some cold and calloused Being far removed from all the pain and suffering in the world. He loved us enough to suffer with us, to suffer for us. If God loves us enough to suffer for us, there must be a good reason for it to go on, even if we can’t fully understand it.
When you’re suffering, cling to the cross where God suffered for you. That’s one of the things that makes Christianity unique among all the religions of the world. We believe that our God suffered for us. So when you hurt, know that Jesus hurt. When you feel abandoned, Jesus felt abandoned too. When you’re treated unjustly and unfairly, Jesus walked through that as well.
God loves us, he cares enough to embrace suffering on our behalf. Even if you’ve lost a child. God’s lost a child too. That’s why Jesus is called Immanuel, which literally means “God with us.” When you’re suffering, run to the cross.
This sermon answers the basic question: What does it mean to be saved?
The Bible claims that God is all-loving and all-powerful. But how can you explain the Bible’s description of God given the existence of evil? Or, let me state the argument this way: given the reality of evil and suffering in the world, God may be all-powerful but not all-loving. That is, God has the power to stop evil but chooses not to. This turns God into a distant, removed, deistic god unconcerned with the affairs of the world.
Or, God may be all-loving but not all-powerful. That is, God loves us enough to stop the suffering in the world but doesn’t have the power to do so. This retains the compassion we so long for in God, but it robs Him of His sovereignty and divinity. So according to this argument, given the reality of evil in the world, God can be all-powerful or all-loving, but not both. If He was both, he surely would have stopped evil and suffering long ago. And yet it not only lingers, it flourishes, rampaging across our globe leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake. What kind of God would allow that? Surely not an all-powerful and all-loving God!
And yet the Bible makes the claim that God is both all-powerful and all-loving. He spoke the universe into existence. He is all-powerful. 1 John 4:8 explicitly says “God is love.” He is the very definition of love. So how can you reconcile the claims that God is all-loving and all-powerful with the reality of evil and suffering in the world?
I’m going to be talking about this perplexing question Sunday in week three of our series Step Into the Light. But I would love to get your take. How do you answer this question?
Maybe I’m the only one that secretly worries that God is mad at me. I promise Him something and then don’t follow through. I know the right thing to do, the thing God would want me to do, and I don’t do it. I care more about myself then others. I fail to live up not only to God’s expectations, but even my own. Sometimes I’m a disappointment in my own eyes. Surely I must be a disappointment to God.
But that’s the trap. We assume God sees us the way we see ourselves. We assume God judges us the way we judge ourselves. And when we assume that, we rob the cross of its power. The Son of God didn’t come down and die for our sins so that we could still stumble and struggle to gain acceptance with God. Jesus died so that our sins would be forgiven, once for all. Here’s a beautiful piece of Scripture, “We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10)
The Bible is explicit on this: when Jesus died for your sins, he imputed his righteousness to you. Your acceptance before God never has been and never will be based on what you do, but on what Christ has done. As Christians we know this from the theoretical sense, but we forget it on the practical level. We assume that every time we fail, God is up in heaven shaking his head, disappointed with yet another mistake we’ve made.
The Bible is crystal clear for those who believe in Jesus: You and God are fine. “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1) If you’re living under a constant cloud of self-condemnation, Satan is keeping you in chains that Christ already set you free from. You and God are fine, so quit worrying about it! Go and live in freedom, knowing that your Heavenly Father loves you and has forgiven you.
Everyone struggles with this question. Christians, non-Christians, religious, non-religious. Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world? Why would God allow such evil to continue? If you want the question posed in the starkest way possible, listen to this interview with renown British actor and prominent atheist Stephen Fry:
It’s a question we all have to wrestle with, especially Christians. Here’s how the popular argument goes: Given the reality of evil and suffering in the world, if God is all-powerful, then God doesn’t care enough about our suffering to stop it. If God is all-loving, then he must want to stop suffering but be unable to do so. And yet the Bible claims that God is both all-loving and all-powerful. You can’t square the two. The way this argument is constructed, you can’t have the God of the Bible and pain and suffering in the world.
And yet Christianity believes that both are realities. We have an all-powerful, all-loving God who created us, and evil and suffering still exists in the world. Why? How can we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory statements?
This subject of pain and suffering will be the subject of several blog posts over the next week. We’ll be discussing these issues tonight at the Conversation and Sunday during my sermon at Mt Vernon Church. If you’re in the area, worship with us, or join us on-line for a livestream of our services (www.mtvchurch.tv).
QUESTION: Why does a good God allow suffering in the world?
Why do we use different terms to describe the same experience? Depending on your background or denomination, you’ll use terms like:
- Get saved
- Pray the sinner’s prayer
- Walk the aisle
- Believe in Jesus
- Ask Jesus in your heart
- Get baptized
- Be filled with the Holy Spirit
- Fall under conviction
- Be born again
Why so many terms? I believe it’s because salvation is such a transcendent experience that human words will never be able to fully capture it. Have you ever had an experience so transcendent that human words couldn’t fully capture it?
Maybe it’s a sunset that takes your breath away. In that moment, calling it “picturesque” can’t do it justice. Guys, it’s that moment when you see your bride walking down the aisle at your wedding. In that moment, describing your bride as “beautiful” can’t do her justice. Moms, it’s that moment you hold your child for the first time after you give birth, and saying you “love” your child can’t contain the depth of emotion you feel.
Salvation is one of those transcendent experiences, when you’re forgiven of your sins, when you become right with your Creator, when the Spirit of the Living God comes to live in you, when your eternal destiny changes forever. Human words can never fully capture the power of that moment. That’s why we use so many terms to describe salvation. We’re just trying to get our arms around it.
QUESTION: What other terms have you heard/used to describe salvation?
Does God speak through dreams today? That’s the unexpected topic of conversation I had yesterday with two separate people. One was recounting a family member who had a very clear dream that she interpreted as a sign from God. The second was a note from a church member saying she had a vivid dream Saturday night that mirrored with detail the sermon I preached to her the next morning (she of course had no knowledge about what I was going to speak on).
So, does God speak through dreams to people today? I believe He does. That might make evangelicals uncomfortable. We like to preach that God can speaks exclusively the Bible. Well, if you read the Bible, guess how God often spoke to people (like Mary and Joseph)? Through dreams. If God did it then, why wouldn’t He do it today?
Some would make a good point that God doesn’t need to speak through dreams today because we have the Bible. My main argument for God still speaking through dreams is the fact that I don’t feel I have the right to limit what God can or cannot sovereignly do. If He can speak through a donkey (see Numbers 22), if He can sovereignly use a worm (Jonah 4), He can speak through a dream.
Now, that doesn’t mean that dreams will be the primary way God communicates or even that God will even use a dream to communicate. I believe that God has the right to sovereignly communicate through a dream if He so chooses. God has never spoken to me through a dream. That’s fine with me. I don’t seek it out. God speaks to me through the Bible regularly.
Important caveat: One of the biggest dangers of dreams is that they can be confusing or misleading. If you have a vivid dream, it may be your own imagination, it may be a bad bowl of chili, or it may even be an agent of darkness sent to mislead you. Relying on dreams to communicate is an easy way to be misled, since dreams can come from a variety of sources. The Bible is the safest bet, since we can rest assured that all of its words come from God.
But at the end of the day, if someone asked me whether or not I believed that God can still speak through dreams today, I would say ‘yes.’
QUESTION: Do you believe God still speaks through dreams today? Has God ever spoken to you through a dream?