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Undeserved Suffering

Thoughts from the Realm of Ideas and The Story of Job, Part 4

When a person is in the midst of a period of suffering, the most helpful role of a friend is to simply be there. Solutions, anecdotes, personal testimonies of how we have persevered, or even Bible verses about suffering all have limited ability to lift the downtrodden heart. A sympathetic ear or a gracious act of kindness will accomplish much to help someone who is suffering. The principles I will be sharing today are meant for the person who is not in the midst of a season of suffering, in hope that they will prepare you for the storm that may be ahead. I am convinced that they will be of greater blessing than any of the things I shared in previous posts because they come not from the realm of ideas, but from the truth of God’s Word! It is even possible that if God is gracious, they may even help those who are currently wrestling with undeserved or innocent suffering. They come from a speech from one of Job’s friends, named Elihu, and they are based on the following proposition, taken from Job 35:9-16.

When we are overwhelmed with the realities of pain and suffering there is no comfort in God. When we are overwhelmed with God there is comfort in the realities of pain and suffering.

When faced with undeserved or innocent suffering:

Seek God’s Presence – Vs. 9-10

Because of the multitude of oppressions people cry out; they call for help because of the arm of the mighty. But none says, ‘Where is God my Maker, who gives songs in the night,(Job 35:9-10 ESV)

Our first impulse is to seek relief from pain instead of the presence of God. But the truth is that sometimes the only way we will get to the point of seeking God is when suffering makes us desperate for him. Elihu reminds us that prayer for God’s presence is neglected because all we pray for is relief from pain. But remember that even though the pain may continue, in the midst of it there is comfort in God’s presence. God gives us songs in the night. In our darkest hours, he meets us in our desperation.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. (Psa 23:4-5 ESV)

Learn about God’s World – Vs. 11

Who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens? 

This is a profound thought. The beasts of the earth and the birds of the air all live by a mathematical principle that is so cold and calculated: 1 + 1 = 2. They have instincts, they have cut and dried lives – survival of the fittest. But God teaches us to live differently than the animals. God teaches us to live in fellowship with him, to nurture intimacy with him, to love him, receive his power, to live as his children, and to rejoice in being in his family. There is a supernatural dynamic in God’s world that is especially comforting during times of suffering. When we suffer, it is easy to desire commentary on our world instead of insights into God’s world. God offers a supernatural overcoming power by his indwelling Spirit. That’s faith.

Marvel at God’s Mercy and Grace – Vs. 13-16

Vs. 12-14 – God does not respond to cries that are focused on self.

There they cry out, but he does not answer, because of the pride of evil men. Surely God does not hear an empty cry, nor does the Almighty regard it. How much less when you say that you do not see him, that the case is before him, and you are waiting for him!

Vs. 15 – Yet God in his mercy and grace just keeps reaching out to us, inviting us to experience his presence

And now, because his anger does not punish, and he does not take much note of transgression, Job opens his mouth in empty talk; he multiplies words without knowledge.” (Job 35:13-16 ESV)

The truth is – if we all got the justice we deserve we would all instantly become toast!! Instead – God offers mercy and grace. We want to justify ourselves. We even judge God. But when we recognize the mercy and grace of his patience toward us when we deserve otherwise – that’s faith.

Elihu’s speech prepared Job to finally hear from God. He does not defend himself, and he does not explain the secret agreement he made with Satan. The mystery of providence remains. Rather, for four chapters, God reveals himself to Job. Finally Job finds his comfort in God.

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6 ESV)

Here is God’s message to all who suffer with undeserved or innocent suffering. Instead of giving us answers, God gives us himself. And isn’t this the only way it could be? If we had all the answers, God would be reduced to some explainable deity, fully understood by those he rules, which would mean that he really didn’t rule them at all. If God was explainable, we would simply put him in a three-ring binder, slip it among our other religious books on our shelf, and pursue another conquest in life. That’s why the writer to the Hebrews says:

 And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Heb 11:6 ESV)

May I encourage you, in the midst of your suffering to take steps to practice being overwhelmed with God. Meditate on God’s Word, or rehearse the texts of some of the great hymns and worship songs that extol the sovereignty and love of God. There is undeserved and innocent suffering in this world. But God will never lead you where his grace will not sustain you.

Undeserved Suffering

Thoughts from the Realm of Ideas and The Story of Job, Part 3

For believers, suffering can have profound purpose and meaning.  Here are a few examples:

Suffering for discipline and growth – Heb 12:6-10. Parents discipline their children, but from the child’s perspective, it is not at all pleasant!.

Suffering to build perseverance and faith – James 1:2-5. Every serious athlete knows well the saying, “No pain, no gain.”

Suffering to purify character – 1 Peter 1:6-7, Rom 5:3-5. With heat, the impurities in a precious metal rise to the top and can be sifted off by the metallurgist.

Suffering that, when observed, motivates others to be bold in their faith – Phil 1:14, John 12:24. Believers are motivated to live for Christ when they observe each other persevere under trial and suffering.

Suffering and persecution that becomes the seed of the gospel – Acts 8:4, 11:19. Many times God uses the suffering of believers to reach the hearts of unbelievers.

All of these examples make sense and have purpose and meaning. But it is time to delve into the reality of suffering that has no apparent purpose or meaning. We all know of times, if not in our own lives, in the lives of people around us, when serious pain seems arbitrary. What do we do with an absolutely sovereign and good God who allows suffering? Let me set the context from the story of Job.

In Job chapters 1-3, the narrator tells of a secret agreement between God and Satan that allows Satan to afflict Job with unimaginable suffering. It is obvious that he did nothing to deserve his plight, yet clearly it falls under the passive and permissive sovereign will of God (see Part 1 of this series). Clearly, if we take this story at face value, undeserved and innocent suffering is a reality in this fallen world. Therefore, I believe that one of the purposes of this book is to illustrate what to do when undeserved and innocent suffering enters the life of a believer. The key is found in the speech of one of Job’s friends, named Elihu, found in chapter 35:9-16. I summarize it this way.

When we are overwhelmed with the realities of pain and suffering, there is no comfort in God. When we are overwhelmed with God, there is comfort in the realities of pain and suffering.

When Job was overwhelmed with his suffering, he was left to suffer with little or no comfort from God. This is not surprising because he was convinced that God was doing him wrong and he even accused God of injustice (see 31:35-37). But this would violate everything we just suggested about God being sovereign over both good and evil, yet not the originator of evil but only good, and about man being given the ability to make free decision, but those decisions not making God in any way contingent. Elihu opens the door for Job, not to receive answers or a rationale for undeserved and innocent suffering (the mystery of providence still applies to Job) but rather comfort from God in the midst of undeserved or innocent suffering. After all, God remains good and loving and he is always there to give us comfort even when his passive and permissive will leads us to undeserved and innocent pain and suffering.

Perhaps you are feeling like Job today and the realities of your circumstances trump any of the explanations from the realm of ideas that I have presented. In fact, perhaps you’re overwhelmed with your suffering. Elihu gives us three ways to find comfort by becoming overwhelmed with God. I will share them next time.

Undeserved Suffering

Thoughts from the Realm of Ideas and The Story of Job, Part 2

In my last post I introduced a concept that D. A. Carson calls asymmetry, (How Long O Lord, pg 213) a suggestion that reconciles the apparent contradiction that God is sovereign over both good and evil. I further introduced a theological context for his suggestion that is as follows:

God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized or mitigated.

Human beings are morally responsible creatures–they significantly choose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.  (pg 201)

Far from being a simple, convenient way to answer the unanswerable predicament of innocent suffering, these thoughts are clearly biblical in their origin. Today I share a few illustrations.

The fact that God is absolutely sovereign is clearly portrayed in Psalm 115:2-3

Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?” Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.  (Psa 115:2-3 ESV)

In the NT the Apostle Paul declares,

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, (Eph 1:11 ESV)

Proverbs 21:1 tells of God’s rule over the heart of a king. Proverbs 16:9 also describes God’s sway over every human decision. God is the one who turned the hearts of the Egyptians favorably toward the Hebrews during the Exodus. In Isa 45:6-7 God declares his sovereignty over prosperity and disaster. Yet in all of his absolute control, human responsibility (culpability) for sin remains. For example, God motivates David to take a census, and then judges him for this act of disobedience (2 Sam 24:1ff). God intends to punish Eli’s sons, so he somehow stands behind their disobedience but it is nonetheless their own responsibility to bear the consequences. So, the first statement is clearly presented in the Bible. God is absolutely sovereign, but humanity is responsible for sinful actions.

The second statement is also clearly presented in Scripture. Over and over, we are commanded to obey the Law given by God and we are given the freedom to obey or disobey.

 “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”  (Jos 24:14-15 ESV)

The Ten Commandments and the many invitations to believe the Gospel all point to the freedom of humanity in choices.   But never is God dependent on these choices (contingent), or obligated to humanity for the maintenance of his own character or governance over his creation.  At the same time, however, God is loving, just and good in all that he does.

“The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. (Deu 32:4 ESV)

“Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”  (Rev 15:3-4 ESV

One of the most revealing passages that illustrates how both of these statements are true and not contradictory is the conclusion of the Joseph saga that is told in Gen 37-50.  Summarizing the egregious act of Joseph’s brothers and the sovereign oversight of our good God, Joseph declares:

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Gen 50:20 ESV)

With this statement, Joseph acknowledged that God was behind every dastardly deed of his brothers, yet he was doing more than merely turning a bad situation into something good. It was God’s intention (“…God intended it…” ) for his brothers to sell Joseph into slavery. But there is never any indication that God was the author of evil; in fact, all along he was only accomplishing good. Joseph’s brothers, and only they, are held responsible for Joseph’s suffering.

If this seems too convenient for God – allowing him to be absolutely sovereign but not responsible for evil and never beholding to the free decisions of man – understand that this describes, exactly, the God of the Bible. Now we understand the term, ”the Mystery of Providence.” (Carson, pg. 199ff)

I hope you have a place in your thinking for mystery, because we clearly see it at work in the life of Job, the ultimate illustration of undeserved or innocent suffering, but suffering that is under the loving and sovereign hand of God.

Undeserved Suffering

Thoughts from the Realm of Ideas and The Story of Job, Part 1

It doesn’t take much effort to observe that there is suffering in this world that is not the result of personal decisions. Some people suffer illness because of lifestyle decisions (smoking, alcohol, and drug abuse, etc.). Some people suffer because of unwise relational practices (anger, lying, adultery, cause marital dysfunction). Other people suffer because of selfishness (debt, gambling, risky investments). All of these instances of suffering make sense. There is much suffering in this world simply because we are sinners and sinners live lives that often produce suffering. We take risks, we neglect safety precautions, we make mistakes. Much of the world’s suffering is our own fault. Paul tells us, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” (Gal 6:7 ESV)

But there is a category of suffering that causes those who follow Jesus Christ considerable angst. We call it innocent suffering, or undeserved suffering. This is suffering that has no apparent cause or reason. It is suffering that appears arbitrary. Examples might include disease that just appears (cancer, MS, arthritis), sexual abuse of children, children playing on a school playground caught in the crossfire of a gang gun fight, loss of life and property due to hurricanes or tornadoes. The litany of undeserved suffering could grow quite substantial. Atheists and critics of biblical Christianity use this category of suffering as a major assault on our faith. How could a loving and all-powerful God allow this type of suffering? Either he is not loving, he is not all-powerful, or he doesn’t exist. What is our response? I want to share some thoughts from the realm of ideas and then from an example from the Bible. First, from the realm of ideas.

It is possible (I would say that what I am about to say is in fact true, but for the sake of not being dogmatic, I’ll say possible) that God can be loving and all-powerful and govern a world where undeserved or innocent suffering exists. Now, I am not a trained philosopher, but I do have some mileage under my belt in theology, so here goes. It is possible that God is sovereign over both good and evil, but not in the same way. He is sovereign over good in a way that is active and causative. He is active over good in that he initiates it. He causes it because he is the source of all that is good. When God created, the Bible says that he declared creation “very good.” But when sin entered the world, his very good world became broken and infected with sin, which produced suffering. Creation cries out in agony, longing to be released from the bondage of sin (Rom 8:22-23). Therefore, undeserved and innocent suffering is a reality. However, this does not require that God initiated and caused evil. I maintain that the Bible clearly teaches that God  can be sovereign over evil but that he did not initiate it nor did he cause it. Rather he is sovereign over evil passively and permissively. Passive means that he did not initiate it. It was initiated by someone other than himself (Satan in heaven and Adam and Eve on earth). Permissively means that before it could come into existence, it had to go through him, which keeps him firmly in control, but not culpable for the havoc it creates. In summary, God is sovereign over both good and evil, but not in the same way. A word to describe this is asymmetry. Symmetry requires a point-by-point parallelism. Asymmetry maintains a comparison, but not an exact comparison. Another way to describe this is in the phrase, “the mystery of providence.” Providence means that God is in control, but the way he can be in control over both good and evil is a mystery. So here we have it, the providential mystery of asymmetry! That is a door wide enough for a critic of our faith to drive a truck filled with explosives right into our biblical storehouse and blow it to smithereens. But maybe not. If God is who the Bible portrays him to be, it is possible that this scenario of life is actually reality. Why can’t there be a category that is unknown but possible, especially if that is the world that is presented in the Bible? I am quite taken by the suggestion of D.A. Carson in his book, How Long O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil,where he introduces readers to two propositions:

God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized or mitigated.

Human beings are morally responsible creatures–they significantly choose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.  (pg 201)

These two statements fall within the bounds of the Bible’s storyline of creation, fall, redemption, and recreation. Over and over, material is given that presents these two statements as fact. While they may appear convenient for the argument I am presenting, the truth is that, taken at face value, this is exactly how God presents His-story!

I’ll present some of the evidence in my next post.

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