With our world in lock down, panic buying at the shops, people fearing for their health, the world-wide death toll of the coronavirus ever rising, it’s clear we’re going through a time of suffering that is global in its reach.
And I don’t know how you’re currently responding- whether it’s in fear, panic, frustration or sadness. But the chances are that the thought will have crossed all of our minds- where is God in all this? It will certainly be a sentiment we are bound to hear voiced around us as the devastation of the coronavirus moves closer to home. It seems we have all completely lost any control we once had over our lives. Has God lost control too?
I guess behind such thoughts and questions, however they are articulated, is really the simple age-old question of how we can believe in a God when there is so much suffering in the world.
It’s sadly all too easy here in Britain to distance ourselves from so many forms of suffering we might see on our television screens, and to think that they won’t be able to reach us. But I’ve heard Coronavirus described as the great equaliser. It has reminded us that though our civilisations might look very different, whether we live in China or Italy or England, we are all just human. We are all mortal.
And so this wave of suffering that’s sweeping the world will inevitably raise questions about God. And that’s no bad thing! Because questions provide us with a desire to seek out what God’s word says- whether it really does have answers that stand up to examination and which satisfy our fears.
And what we find when we come to God’s word with questions about suffering is that it is something God wants to talk to us about. It’s a theme woven through many books- in fact you could say it’s the main theme of many books, including Job, Psalms, Habakkuk, and Hebrews to name a few.
God knows it’s going to be one of our biggest questions and so he is far from silent about it. And he doesn’t minimise it either. Rather, in his Word we find an honesty about the suffering we face. But more than this, his Word provides answers- real answers that make sense of this confusing world.
Some of these answers will satisfy our questions, and others will have a level of mystery to them. But all of them will point back to the source of all truth and the only one who provides true hope in the face of suffering, the one true God.
Actually I think the concept of suffering is a question that is harder to answer if you don’t believe in God.
If you are a philosophical materialist, i.e. you believe that we and everything that exists is just purely matter, energy and atoms- then what even is suffering?
On the one hand almost universally, suffering would be acknowledged to be a deeply existential human characteristic. We all experience it. We all have a profound emotional response to it. But why do we care about people suffering if they are just atoms?
If there is no God then we can’t really be outraged at suffering. It is just part of nature. If there is no truth, if there is no such thing as good and evil then we can’t be outraged by it.
But we are outraged at it aren’t we. It causes us pain to see it. We feel for those who are suffering because they are not just a bunch of random chemicals. They are made in the image of God.
And we long for it to be different because this is not how it was meant to be!
Have a quick look at Gen 1:24-31
It has not always been like this! We were made in right relationships- in perfect relationship with God and with each other and in a perfect environment.
Now have a quick look at Gen 3:17-19
Sadly the world and our experience in it has been ruined. Man’s rebellion against God brought about the curse/the fall. We have rejected his good and perfect way and sought our own way, trying to make ourselves gods and consequently we are lost and corrupted! Romans 1:25
‘They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator’ v28 … ‘he gave them over to a depraved mind’
Romans 1:25, 28
Even the creation itself has been affected by sin and is subject to decay, disasters and disease. Romans 8:18-22
Therefore, the truths we find in Genesis are consistent with our struggle with the question of suffering- because they make sense of why it is that we suffer– because we have rejected God’s good and perfect ways. And why we question it– because we were created for something better.
Suffering should be expected
And so actually the bible is therefore not surprised by suffering. Coronavirus doesn’t come as a shock, because we understand we live in a fallen world, and suffering is part of the human experience in that fallen world. It is what makes us long for something better. It is what makes us know there must be something better.
We all deep down know that suffering is wrong and we long to be saved from it because it was not part of God’s original creation design. He hates it… more than you. Jesus himself wept at death John 11:35
So where is God in all this? Is the wrong question.
A better question is- what is God doing in all this? Or what is the God of love trying to show us and teach us?
And of course, neither I nor anyone can claim to know exactly what God is doing in this global coronavirus pandemic God is infinite and I am only 37 with limited knowledge and understanding of the bigger picture. But what I do know is that he is doing something for our good.
The fall and sin is the reason for suffering but that doesn’t provide comfort unless there is an answer.
Without God there is no hope… but with him there is great hope and in Romans chapter 8 we have a wonderful verse which says:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”
A promise like this changes everything! It’s one of the most wonderful answers we find in the Bible to the question of suffering. It means that even when we suffer in the most awful way, we can trust that God’s plans are not being thwarted. For Christians this gives great hope and sustains them in times of real pain and difficulty.
God is good and in complete control and he works for the good of those who love him.
It’s a truth that is summed up by a man called R. Sibbes who wrote:
“God teaches us and refines us through pain and suffering. There are dimensions and knowledge of God’s grace that we can only understand through suffering.”
As we see throughout scripture, suffering is part of God’s training for those who love him, often because it is in our suffering that we grow in our love and trust of God, that we see his grace to us more fully and consider the hope of eternity with him more clearly! A depth of love that cannot be learnt otherwise.
How might he use this time to change us and to transform us to value the things he values? Over the coming days, weeks and months we will need to reflect on this more and more.
And wonderfully, he also uses suffering for the good of those who don’t yet love Jesus. As CS Lewis once said- “suffering is God’s megaphone” Shouting out to us to turn back to him!
Suffering causes many to call out to God in their distress, and many are lead to faith through their suffering. I can think of numerous friends for whom this was true!
It is often not possible for us to see what God is doing in ours and others’ lives through suffering at the time, but God is outside of time, he sees the beginning and the end all at once!
God comforts us with this truth in his word time and time again, that God uses suffering for his good purposes in this world, that his people will know him and love him more deeply, and that those who don’t know him will be drawn to him.
It might be that we never get to see exactly how he has used a particular form of suffering. But that’s where we have to stop and acknowledge that he is God and we are not.
At the end of the book of Job, a man who God takes through much suffering and pain- God steps in, and we hear him speak to Job and He asks a number of rhetorical questions
CH38 v 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”, v34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?“
v35 “Can you send forth lightning bolts, so that they may go?” and say to you, ‘Here we are’?”
It’s a hard point for our proud and stubborn hearts to take in, but it’s glorious if we’ll humble our hearts enough to accept it- that he is above and beyond us. We don’t ultimately get to hold the God of the universe to our account. He reigns, and he will accomplish his good purposes, often in mysterious ways.
“For as the Heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”Isaiah 55:9
God Saves us from our Suffering
Finally, the most wonderful answer to the question of suffering that we find in the Bible is that suffering won’t last forever.
Because God says there will come an end to all suffering. That he will bring an end to sin and death. And He has shown us how through Jesus.
First lets have a quick look at Rev21: 1-8
Verses 1-7 give us a beautiful picture of Heaven- a wonderful hope for those who trust in Jesus- eternal joy in God’s presence.
However, v8 reveals a stark warning of rejecting God’s invitation- eternal suffering away from God’s loving presence.
What this passage reveals is that this life is not it! This world is temporary! There is a Heaven to be gained and a Hell to be feared! And an Heavenly perspective enables the Christian to persevere through much suffering, knowing this world is not the final destination.
We live in a culture where death is the last thing people want to talk about! Far from it in the bible. The gospel-the good news of Jesus- prepares us to die well! And promises eternal life.
As one elderly gentleman was once heard saying, when asked by someone on a Sunday morning how he was doing- “I’m not suffering from anything that a good resurrection can’t fix”
The Apostle Paul was a man who knew what it meant to suffer and it was his desire to be with Christ that helped him endure and persevere!
‘20 For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honour to Christ, whether I live or die. 21 For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better.’
Dying is even better than life- Wow!
For the Christians there is no Fear in death! This is why Jesus could say “don’t fear only believe.“
Whatever the suffering we experience now, however confused we might be by it, we can have complete confidence that it will pale into insignificance when we see the new creation where there will be no more suffering only pure joy, peace and love in God’s presence!
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
And the reason we have this hope is because he has come amongst us in the suffering we experience. He hasn’t left us alone, but he has pursued us and revealed his love to us.
When we can’t understand our suffering we go back to the cross, where we see that God himself came into this fallen world and experienced more suffering than any of us will ever experience.
In our times of suffering when we might be tempted to think- this is not fair, this proves God is not loving– we go back to the cross, where we see that God will put an end to suffering because he suffered as a human for us!
And like Job we can consider that maybe God is doing some things I don’t have the wisdom to see.
Yet, what I can see of God, demonstrates his love to such a profound degree. Suffering is not punishment for the Christian. Christ has taken our punishment. On that wretched cross, God bore all my sins. He dealt with our greatest problem and the cause of all our suffering- our broken relationship with him- and he rose to life again to show his victory over death and sin- that one day we too might rise to be with him for eternity.
And he has sent his Spirit to be with us to comfort us and walk with us in our suffering. He stands with us in our suffering which means there is comfort in the midst of it.
That is the kind of God I want to worship! And that is the God I want people to know for themselves in times of trouble.
Christians are prepared to stake everything on this God because of the way he has revealed himself to us in Christ, the most magnificent demonstration of God’s love for us.
So if the chaos and confusion of a world changed by Coronavirus causes questions about God to rise in your mind, come back to the God of the Bible who not only uses our suffering for good, but who through his Son’s own suffering has made it possible to have a hope beyond this world. It’s a hope worth sharing.
Written by Jon Herring, Pastor of Christ Church Fetcham