Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Question of Suffering

I love apologetics.  There, I said it.  I'm a big nerd, and reading defenses of my faith gives me a bit of a high.  Mere Christianity and The Case for Christ still rank as some of my favorite "Whatsoever" books.  I like to read debate transcripts between creationists and evolutionists.  However, the one "big question" that apologetics has a hard time answering is the problem of pain and suffering.  Oh, they take a stab at it, but all too frequently their treatises are so deeply philosophical as to be almost useless. Perhaps it is because the problem of pain is not one that apologetics should address. 

People who ask "Why do bad things happen to good people" often ask for one of two reasons. They are either atheists who have no intention of ever believing in Christ, or they are people who are suffering a deep loss who are asking in anguish of soul.  Philosophical answers will be unheard or torn apart by the first group and be unhelpful and painful to the second.

Alistair Begg is no apologist, but when I read his book Made for His Pleasure: Ten Benchmarks of a Vital Faith, I found his treatment of suffering to be one of the most honest I've ever seen.  Instead of answering the philosophical question of why suffering happens, he simply takes a look at the benefits of suffering, for the believer and nonbeliever alike.

Suffering helps believers when it changes us for the better. When Peter told us to rejoice in suffering, his own experience testified to the truth.  Can you imagine the pain he suffered during the time Jesus was in the tomb?  After having boasted that he would never leave Jesus, the last thing his master saw of him was a cursing denial.  His beloved teacher was not only dead, but he had died after seeing Peter's failure.  Begg argues that Peter's time of suffering helped to make him into the useful apostle that he was.  Not only does suffering help to mold us, but it is in our trials that we are often the most acutely aware of the presence of God.  As believers, we often study more, pray harder, and stick closer to our church family when we are suffering than at any other time.

Nonbelievers also benefit from suffering.  Begg tells a heart-wrenching story of a family he ministered to early in his career.  The wife was a Christian, but her husband was a nuclear physicist who believed science held all the answers.  Over time, the preacher and the atheist communicated in an amicable way.  Meanwhile, the couple gave birth to a long awaited son.  They soon found out that their baby boy had a congenital heart defect.  Mr. Begg asked his congregation to pray for the child to survive his wait for surgery so that his friend could see the power of God.  When the baby died, the preacher believed his hopes for the father to be saved would be buried with the boy.  Instead, the young man said, "Alistair, I have been thinking about things.  Linda and my daughters have professed faith in Christ. Philip [the baby] has been taken into the presence of Christ.  I remain outside the circle.  Do you think God has allowed Philip's death in order to bring me to my senses?" Whether God allowed death or simply used it, the man soon came to a saving faith in Jesus.

So if there are benefits to suffering, why can we not point that out to those who are in pain?  For the one who asks in anguish of heart, such answers, as true as they are, are unhelpful. Begg says "Many times the immediate sense of failure and disappointment  is so overwhelming that we are unable to grasp the benefit package.  We need to remember this when talking with our friends who are in the eye of the storm.  At that moment, our presence is more important than our pronouncements and our silences more eloquent than our speech."  We are much more likely to see the benefits of suffering in hindsight.

The hardened cynic may never see the benefits.  Not everyone who suffers enjoys a closer relationship with God.  Some people learn the lessons that suffering brings, but many will become cold and rebellious.  The difference is in the attitude of the sufferer.  The one who trusts God throughout their pain will reap the fruit of perseverance, maturity, humility, and faith in the struggle.  Those who don't trust God will only experience the pain with none of the rewards.

It seems that the answer to the problem of suffering is one we can only understand if we have been through the trials and come out with our faith intact.  Once that happens, we have no reason to ask why bad things happen.  The best answer may simply be the one Habakkuk gave:

Though the fig tree should not blossom And there be no fruit on the vines, Though the yield of the olive should fail And the fields produce no food, Though the flock should be cut off from the fold And there be no cattle in the stalls, Yet I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.


Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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