This is without doubt the question that is most asked by people and it is a great question. We are just going to watch a clip from a film called Patch Adams. Patch played by Robin Williams is a student doctor; he has set up a free clinic to care for those without medical insurance. But one of the patients murders his girlfriend. We pick up the story as a grieving Patch confronts God over what has happened.
Clip from Patch Adams Ch 13 1:28:50-1:31:00 “Let’s look at the logic; you create man, man suffers enormous amounts of pain and dies. Maybe you should have had a few more brainstorming sessions before creation. You rested on the seventh day maybe you should have spent that day on compassion.”
I think it’s a clip that sums up our problem as we look at the world. The world is full of tragedy and suffering isn’t it? Tsunami’s, earthquakes, war, genocide, drought, starvation, oppression, slavery and so on.
The bible is not silent when it comes to suffering, it doesn’t hide from issues like death, grief, mourning, illness, childlessness, disability, or the impact of natural disasters. But the Bible maintains that even in the face of suffering God is good and it considers both natural disasters and man-made suffering. Its honesty about these issues is another thing which makes the bible and Christianity unique. Ask a Muslim about suffering and they will reply it is the will of Allah, ask a Hindu and its karma, ask an atheist and they will tell you it is just random chance, part of the natural evolutionary cycle. But the Bible’s answer is both more satisfying and more serious.
It may surprise you but the Bible gives some time to thinking about life without God and concludes that everything; riches, poverty, pleasures, sadness, enjoyment, suffering is all meaningless if there is no God because the end result is the same we die.
If there is no God then suffering is just part of evolution, a way of weeding out the weak from the strong, we shouldn’t mourn over it but marvel at its ruthless efficiency. If there is no God there is no point in suffering so we should just get over it and get on with life.
The author of that book concludes at the end that life only makes sense with God in the picture. So how does the bible explain how a loving God can allow suffering?
Luke 13:1-9. The crowds are gathering around Jesus and they tell him about how (1)Pilate has massacred some Galileans and mixed their blood with sacrifices.
Every society has its perceived wisdom, 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 Jesus disagrees(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? After all its easy to explain this suffering s man made – Pilate did it. (4-5)But now Jesus raises the bar by discussing the issue of natural disasters, and he 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 anyone else and 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 a parable to show them that they must respond and bear fruit or face judgement.
Do you see what Jesus is saying? 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 and to make us ask big questions and search for big answers.
I think we like Patch make an assumption that God made the world like this.
What’s wrong with the world?
Do you notice how Jesus describes the people he is talking to and the people who died? “Sinners” And not just those that died in fact he says all humans are sinners.
Behind our question ‘How could a loving God allow suffering?’ is the wrong assumes that the world is how it is because God made it that way. But actually what Jesus says is that God didn’t make the world this way sin did. The Bible shows us God creating a perfect world, a world without suffering, without natural disasters, without acts of evil, until man decided to oust God and rule the world according to our version of right and wrong.
And from that moment on everything unravels. The chaos, destruction, evil, suffering and natural disasters are all the result of a world where we try to rule the world in our wisdom rather than God’s.
But God is not done with the world yet. If you read through the gospels you see Jesus calming a raging out of control creation, you see him free a demon possessed man, then he heals a sick woman liberating her from her years of suffering, and finally he brings an end to mourning as he undoes death itself. Jesus is not indifferent to suffering nor is he incapable in the face of it. Jesus gives us a glimpse of the world we all want. A world with no death, no mourning, no pain, no illness, no conflict, no natural disasters. A world with none of the consequences of sin because there is no sin, a world which is perfect because it is ruled by God.
Jesus gives us glimpses of the world we all want and he comes to prepare us for it. Our world is dislocated because it is out of relationship with God because we reject God and want to decide right and wrong for ourselves. One day God will deal justly with all the sin that has caused suffering, but that means he must deal justly with us – with our rejection of him and the suffering we have caused others.
The Silent Plain.
At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before Gods throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame but with belligerence. “Can God judge us?”
“How can he know about suffering?” snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror … beating … torture … death!”
In another group a black man lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched for no crime but being black!”
In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. “Why should I suffer?” She murmured. “It wasn’t my fault.”
Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he had permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred! What did God know of all that men had been forced to endure in the world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of the groups sent forth their leader, chosen because they had suffered the most. A Jew, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly disabled arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other.
At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever. Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their verdict was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man! Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. And last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die in agony. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a whole host of witnesses to verify it.
As each leader announced the portion of his sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. When the last finished pronouncing sentence there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. No one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.
Jesus comes and shares our suffering, in fact at the cross he goes beyond our suffering because God is not indifferent, God is not in attentive.
A loving God will deal with suffering but for now he waits because in love he is warning us that one day he will deal with all the suffering in the world, but that means he must deal with us. Jesus is God’s warning but he is also the solution, he gives us a glimpse of the world we all want and he is the way there by trusting in him.
In Luke 13 in response to the warning the suffering gives Jesus urges the crowd to repent. To change, to say sorry and stop living life our way with our version of right and wrong and instead live life God’s way, to say thank you for sending Jesus to warn and provide a way we can be forgiven, and lastly ask Jesus to be your king.