This week has seen both natural disaster and man made evil. In Libya scores of people have been killed in what seems to be the death throes of Colonel Gaddafi’s reign. While in Christchurch 147 have died and approximately 50 others are missing after the latest earthquake to hit that region. What are we to make of such things? What do they tell us about the world and about God? Christians contend that God is sovereign, good and loving but don’t things like this deny that? Surely if God is loving and sovereign it wouldn’t happen, so either he is loving but incapable of stopping it, or capable but not loving enough to do so.
But the bible maintains that God is loving, good and sovereign and it doesn’t hide from suffering whether as a result of mans evil or natural disasters. In fact the bible has much to say about both, it’s one of the things that makes the bible stand out. Ask a Muslim about suffering and they will tell you it is the will of Allah, ask a Hindu and its karma, but the bible’s answer is both more satisfying and more serious.
But maybe you think actually suffering disproves the existence of God, that it makes it abundantly clear that we are all alone, the result of billions of years of evolution. It may surprise you that the bible gives some thought to describing life like that.
Meaningless, Meaningless: a worldview without God
Ecclesiastes is a book in the bible that looks at life from two perspectives, one as if God did not exist and the other as if God did, and meaningless is the conclusion it reaches about life lived without God. Riches, poverty, promotion, pleasures, wisdom, folly, suffering are all meaningless if there is no God.
If there is no God then suffering is just part of the evolutionary cycle, a way of weeding out the weak from the strong, we shouldn’t cry or be upset by it but marvel at it. We shouldn’t mourn over human suffering any more than we do over the bird or mouse the cat catches and eats, or a bout of myxomatosis which kills some wild rabbits. If there is no God there is no point in suffering, so get over it and get on with your life. But Ecclesiastes is right isn’t it? It makes life meaningless, and we don’t manage well in a vacuum of meaning.
The Bible doesn’t hide from suffering, in fact it shows us again and again God’s people asking God why? In Jeremiah 12:1 the prophet asks God “why does the way of the wicked prosper?” Malachi 2:17 echoes that question, as does the whole of Habakkuk, some of the Psalms and the whole book of Job is taken up with suffering and why it happens. And it isn’t just the Old Testament, the New Testament deals with it to, turn to Luke 13:1-9.
The crowds are gathering around Jesus and what do they tell him about? (1)Pilate massacred some Galileans and mixed their blood with sacrifices.
Every society has its perceived wisdom of the day, in Jesus day it was that those who were killed in such a disaster must somehow have deserved it, that they must have been worse sinners than anyone else. But do you notice Jesus disagrees with that(2-3), in fact he says “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!”
And what he does next is even more surprising isn’t it? (4-5)He raises the bar by raising the issue of natural disasters, and reiterates his point, those who were killed when the tower fell on them were not more sinful than anyone else, but neither does Jesus say it just happened.
(3,5)Jesus warns the crowd that those who died in both incidents were no more sinful than you and he calls on the crowd to recognise they have a common destiny. Everyone dies the only question is timing and circumstance, and he uses both tragedies to warn the crowd to repent. He goes on to tell the parable to show them that they must respond and bear fruit or face judgement.
Suffering is a warning, it reminds us of our frailty and that we will all die, it shows us the consequences of a world where we live without reference to God.
Leprosy is a horrible disease, it stops you feeling pain so that you no longer remove your hand from the hot surface, or feel it when you step on glass, or notice when you slice into your finger. Pain is an early warning sign that something is wrong. Suffering is in part designed to warn us that something is wrong, wrong with our world, and wrong with us.
So what hope is there?
Turn to Romans 8:18-25, which explains why the world is like it is and helps us see that God will not leave it like this.
In the beginning God made the world and it was perfect – no disasters, no death, no murder, no illness. But mankind ruined it because we refused to accept that God’s way is best and think that we can run it better ourselves if we decide what is right and wrong. The chaos and destruction, evil and natural disasters we see around us are the result of our decisions wrecking God’s perfect world.
But God is not finished with creation and us yet. How are the creations groans described? (22)”the pains of childbirth”, it is not a cry of defeat or despair but a cry that is producing life. The groaning of the world shows us something is wrong but they also tell us God is going to restore his creation. God will make a world where there will never be another Dunblane, or a Lockerbie, Tsunami or an earthquake, tear or tumour. But where will we fit in to a perfect world, a world governed and maintained by relating rightly to God, because such a perfect world can only exist if it is governed by God’s word?
If we were put into such a world with our determination to decide right and wrong for ourselves we would ruin it, we would de-god God. That’s why Jesus in Luke 13 says we must repent, we must change our thinking and living.
Jesus gives us a glimpse of what life lived in a world in relationship with God would look like; as he calms raging out of control creation, as he casts out demons and evil, as he heals illness, as he removes grief and suffering, and he rolls back death itself as he raises the dead. And he gives us warnings so that we recognise what is wrong with the world we live in – it is dislocated because it is out of relationship with God. We must understand that we are out of relationship with God and that because we have de-god-ed God we face judgement, we need to repent, to seek forgiveness and instead of living as if we ruled live with God ruling. Jesus comes to warn us and to fit us to live in God’s new creation, to gives us new hearts and minds so that we live to please God not to over rule him.
God is sovereign he rules and will restore all things, he is so loving and patient that he waits warning us that we need to repent, and giving us opportunity after opportunity but one day he will come, end all suffering and deal with all its causes.
Will you repent? When we see suffering and pain, when we see natural disasters or personal ones, when we see great evil it is a reminder of how broken the world is because of sin. The only right response is to repent of our part of it and seek a right relationship with God through Jesus.
Hope – is what marks Jesus followers, disaster reminds us that our hope is not in the world but in God’s kingdom. It reminds us to live for the future not for now.
Compassion – Jesus is never clinical in his response to personal or large scale suffering or loss, as his followers how can we be. We must practically seek to alleviate suffering whilst doing the most loving thing we can; warning and calling people to repentance.