We open the week with a pretty raw email from a hurting man — a hurting dad. He’s sad over the brokenness of the world. And that brokenness hits home for him. Here’s his story, sent in as an anonymous email.
“Dear Pastor John, to be totally truthful and honest with you, I struggle to believe the Lord is completely ruling his world today. It’s impossible to believe simply because of the state of the world today — or, I should say, his world today. Not only has our nation gone down a slippery road of immoral self-destruction, but our economy is faltering. National debt is skyrocketing. The unborn are massacred daily. Murder rates in America are swelling. In Chicago the crime rate has escalated to such a high degree that I’m beginning to believe it is safer in Iraq or Afghanistan than it is in the South Side. Most children sleep under their beds in fear they may become victims of gun violence.
“The struggles hit home for us, too, a family of four. We have a son born with ADHD, and this has created a life of pure frustration, pain, sorrow, and sometimes even despair. One night while attempting to do his school homework across the kitchen table, he told me, ‘Dad, I hate going to school. Even the teachers make fun of me. I hate ADHD and this medication that makes me sick to my stomach.’ Pastor John, if God is in charge, why is there so much suffering all around?”
Well, the most grievous thing this dear man says is “It is impossible to believe.” And so I’ve been praying — I pray now — that God might perhaps use something I say to make it possible again. We’ve tried to address this question many times at Desiring God and in Ask Pastor John. But when I saw the question, I thought, I really do want to address this again.
World of Pain
I feel the gut-wrenching pressure of the problem, not just because of the way this man so effectively articulated it, but also because a while back, Noël and I watched a three-part documentary called Pain, Pus, and Poison. And in the second episode, about the history leading up to the discovery of penicillin and the emergence of antibiotics in the twentieth century, I was almost overwhelmed with the thought of how many thousands of years the world languished horribly under the most horrific diseases with no medical defense whatsoever — and in fact, with medical procedures that often made matters worse.
For example, the night before George Washington died, they bled four pints of blood from his body. Four pints. That’s almost 40 percent of his blood. That second episode showed pictures of people dying of horrible open infections and little children covered with smallpox sores as I watched their mothers fanning the flies off of them just waiting for their children to die. When I saw them, my wife looked away. She couldn’t look. And I just felt myself gasping, saying, “No! What if I were there? What if I were the parent fanning this horribly deformed child, hideously covered with smallpox sores, and just waiting for a miserable death?” And that happened millions of times in the history of the world.
Most of us in the West have been spared any immediate contact with the most gruesome, ghastly, repugnant forms of infection and disfigurement and writhing pain. And I felt the force of the question, “God, what does this mean about you? What are you doing? What are you saying?”
And I’m aware from this man’s question, and from thousands of others, that such experiences of unimaginable suffering and hideous disfigurement have confirmed countless people in unbelief. They would say, as he does, “It’s impossible, Piper. It’s just impossible to believe anymore, simply because of the state of the world today.” That’s his quote — only I’m saying the problem is worse. It’s horribly worse, because between 1900 and 1977, 300 million people died of smallpox. Then, with a massive global vaccination effort in 1977, it was gone — and today, nobody. Think of it: from 300 million to nobody. Nobody gets smallpox. Nobody gets polio.
The problem with suffering is not that the world has gotten worse. Oh yes, it’s plenty bad, and he documented its badness. It’s plenty bad. But the worst problem is that for thousands of years, the world had it so much worse than it is today in terms of horrific suffering. So how do I, John Piper, stay a believer when the little suffering that I have been exposed to, directly and indirectly, takes my breath away? Here’s my witness. I think I’ve got three thoughts here.
Scripture Is Not Naive
One, the first thing that grips me is the absolute realism of the Bible. I spent several years writing a book on providence, and month after month I was stunned at how candid and open and blunt and even gory the Bible is in presenting God’s judgments upon the world, especially his own people. Just a taste from Deuteronomy 28:
The Lord will strike you with wasting disease and with fever, inflammation and fiery heat, and with drought and with blight and with mildew. . . . And you shall be a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth. And your dead body shall be food for all birds of the air and for the beasts of the earth. . . . The Lord will strike you with the boils of Egypt, and with tumors and scabs and itch, of which you cannot be healed. The Lord will strike you with madness and blindness and confusion of mind . . . because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God . . . because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things. (Deuteronomy 28:22, 25–28, 45, 47)
“The Bible doesn’t shrink back from any horror or injustice in this world.”
Now, my point here is simply that our objections to God’s ways are not because we have seen things more clearly or honestly than the Bible sees them. The Bible doesn’t shrink back from any horror or injustice in this world. That’s my first step. I can’t throw away the Bible because it’s naive or deceptive or a whitewash of the miseries that God himself ordains.
Suffering Witnesses to Sin
Here’s my second step: I would say that the physical horrors in the world can make sense to us and have meaning and eventual righteous resolution only if we come to embrace the biblical reality that sin against an infinitely wise and just and good God is a moral outrage greater than the physical outrage of centuries of global suffering. Let me say that again, because it is the heart of the matter, and it is very difficult for people without the Holy Spirit’s massive work to embrace: the physical horrors of suffering in this world can make sense to us and have meaning and eventual righteous resolution only if we come to embrace the biblical reality that sin against an infinitely wise and just and good God is a moral outrage greater than the physical outrage of centuries of global suffering.
I’m not saying that each experience of suffering corresponds to each person’s particular sins. If that were true, we’d all be in hell. As far as I can tell, and as far as the Bible reveals, there is no clear correlation between the extent of an individual’s suffering in this world and the extent of their guilt. What I’m referring to is what Paul means in Romans 8:20–23, when he says,
The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. [It’s like the earth is pregnant and screaming with birth pains.] And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
The universal groaning of creation, the agonizing of all creation in suffering, is owing to what verse 20 calls “subjection,” the creation’s subjection, and what verse 21 calls “bondage to corruption.” And this subjection and corruption is owing to the one who is subjected it “in hope” — namely, God.
This is what I’m referring to when I say that the sin that came into the world through Adam and spread to all people is a moral outrage greater than the physical outrage of suffering, which means that seeing and believing the goodness and justice of God assumes a Copernican revolution of our mind and heart. If we’re going to see God as good and just and wise, we have to undergo such a profound mental and spiritual Copernican revolution of mind and heart so that God ceases to be a planet circling the sun of humanity and becomes the massive, blazing, glorious sun at the center of the solar system of all things. God becomes supreme reality. His being becomes the supreme worth and treasure of the universe.
“All human suffering is a screaming witness to the greater horror of human sin.”
Only in this way will the moral outrage of sin be seen as worse than the physical outrage of suffering, which means very practically that when I gasp at the hideous pictures in the documentary and find myself inevitably saying, “Oh God, oh God, what does this mean?” the answer I hear is “All human suffering is a screaming witness to the greater horror of human sin.”
Christ Died for Sinners
Finally, the third thing that keeps me believing is that God sent his Son into this world, sent his very self, to suffer a moral outrage greater than the outrage against his Father by all his people in their sin. For the infinitely pure and good and wise and strong and holy Son of God to descend to the degradation and torture of a Roman crucifixion is enough suffering, enough indignity, to cover all the outrage of all the sins of all who believe.
Therefore, all who believe will have eternal life; all who believe will have eternal joy. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). So I don’t claim that such faith is simple or easy. It is a gift, and I am simply bearing witness to how it is that I am still a Christian.