The Pain of the World and the Purposes of God

Westside Church | Vancouver


The following is a lightly edited transcript.

The question that I hope to answer from the Bible is why do we have a world like the one we have, which is so permeated by pain? As I was thinking and praying about what to talk about, there were a cluster of things in my life and in the news, and in my own preparations that coalesced to bring me to this topic and this message.

One is that Noël, my wife, and I are watching a documentary based on a bestselling book that many of you have heard of, I’m sure, entitled Emperor of All Maladies. It’s a history of cancer, its horrors and the battle against it. It’s a battle we are not winning. 7.2 million people die of cancer in the world every year, and in America — it’s been steady for years — about 600,000 people die of cancer every year. It’s just behind heart disease, and sometimes vying for first place. We were watching these videos, that’s on my mind. A disease that is unique in its adaptability to evade our efforts to kill it.

Another current reality is that I was preparing to teach 1 Peter for the last two days that book is permeated with suffering, more than any other New Testament book. So, I had that on my mind. Then, as you could imagine, I had on my mind the ISIS killing last Monday of the couple dozen Ethiopian believers, and before that the Egyptian believers, and after that the twelve Christians that were thrown overboard in the Mediterranean Sea — not to mention the nine hundred people from North Africa, who were trying to get to Europe, who drowned in the last several weeks from the capsizing of their boats.

Then I didn’t anticipate that there would be an earthquake that would kill at least 2,400 people and more over the next several days. As we speak, people perhaps are lying alive under rubble wondering if anybody will reach them. That cluster of contemporary realities drew me to speak on this.

A Passion for Supremacy

In 1995, I was fifteen years into my 33-year pastorate, and entered the biggest crisis that we’d ever faced as a church. Two hundred and thirty people had walked away. They were angry at me. We had disciplined a staff member and they didn’t like the way it went down. I had opposed a $450,000 pipe organ that I didn’t think was God’s will for us and hundreds of people did, and it was the worst time in my ministry, and the worst time in the church. I was 49 years old and I thought, “I don’t know whether there’s a future here for me, or what will become of this church.”

“Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

One of the things we did was we formed a group of 23 people, about three to four staff members, and then lay people, and we met for a year and a half. We simply prayed and studied, Who are we? What’s happened? Is there a future? What will it be? What will it look like? During that time, they sent me away to a little monastery over in St. Paul’s and said, “Go away, pray, listen to God, and bring us a vision for the church. We know you’re not God, and you’re not infallible, but you’re our leader. Go hear from God as best you can, and then we will refine what he gives you.”

One of the things I believe God gave me was a vision for my life. I asked, “Could this be the vision statement of the church as well?” It became the vision statement of the church.

We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, for the joy of all peoples within us, through Jesus Christ.

When we embraced that, we did not mean that we exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things except earthquakes, the supremacy of God in all things except cancer, or the supremacy of God in all things except babies born with profound disabilities. We didn’t mean that, we meant all things — no exceptions. I come to you with that banner, flying over my life to this day.

Complex Emotional Experience

We Christians are very complex, emotional people if we have our eyes open, and our hearts are in tune with the word of God. Because the world is a complex place. The world is a beautiful place and a horrible place. You walk outside right now, it’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s beautiful. And in Nepal, somebody’s groaning under rubble, just about to die of thirst. This is a horrible place and a beautiful place.

Inside us, we who love people and are instructed by Jesus Christ, we hear the words, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. And there’s a wedding and a funeral every day, at the same time, all over the world. If you’re in a church this size, you’ll always know somebody weeping, and you always know somebody on tip-toe happiness. Which means that 2 Corinthians 10:6 is true: “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” You don’t have to be very old in the Lord to know that’s true and possible.

When I got that phone call that every 28-year-old dreads, or 15-year-old, or 40-year-old, that Mom was killed in a car accident, and I hung up and said to my wife and my two-year-old, who looked up to me and said, “Daddy sad?” I went back to the room and knelt down and cried for two hours. In those hours, I was saying, “Thank you that I had her for 28 years. Thank you that she was a Christian. Thank you that she didn’t suffer. Lord, thank you that my dad is alive. I don’t know if he’ll be alive when I get there, but thank you for what a great mom she was. You’ve been so good to me.”

I know this is possible. You may not have lived long enough to taste it, but it is possible to be simultaneously profoundly sad and profoundly happy — simultaneously, not sequentially. This is possible. We Christians are complicated people.

We should not think of all these calamities as exceptional, like occasionally, there’s a calamity. Are you kidding me? Fifty million people die in the world every year, 5,707 people die every hour, and 95 every minute. Breathe in, breathe out and four people have died. Calamities are not exceptional, they’re just a breaking of the surface of the ocean of sorrow. We notice them a little more than what’s going on right now in Vancouver, as we speak, in hospitals, in nursing homes, in hospice care.

It is utterly naïve to think that there are good times and bad times sequentially. No, there are good times and there are bad times, always, all the time, simultaneously. If you walk through the world with a heart ready to weep with those who weep, ready to rejoice with those who rejoice, you will be a very strange and wonderful person.

Postmodern, Academic Insularity

I want to ask, Why do we have a world like this? Why so much pain? Why so much conflict? Why so much suffering? Why so much death? It is a horrible place. It is a conveyor belt of corpses. Millions of people right now are weeping their eyes out over the sorrows in their lives, as we speak. Why such a world? Now, before I go to the Bible and try to give you pointers for you to think about, let me tell you something that I found very shocking when I realized it.

God has ordained in his mercy that sometimes, very unbelieving people wake up to his reality because of pain, not because of its absence. For example, suppose you’re a professor in a university, and you’ve absorbed a postmodern mindset that playfully says, “What’s right for you is right for you, and what’s right for me is right for me, and what’s wrong for you is wrong for you, and what’s wrong for me is wrong for me. And we don’t impose our morality on each other. There is no one absolute right and wrong, good and bad, beautiful and ugly that gets squashed down onto our own perceptions and preferences.”

That’s just rampant and it is playful, and it is going to come to an end when that professor walks into a real living holocaust himself. Whatever the situation is, he walks into an experience of six million Jewish people murdered, or sixty million under the Stalinist regime, starved and killed in the Gulags. Or the Armenian genocide of the Turkish people slaughtering a million and a half Armenians between Turkey and Syria in 1915.

You walk into that, as a professor who’s been playing word games on tenure with students, fitting them to be destroyed by the world in which they live, with this absolute nonsense, that what’s right for you is right for you and what’s wrong for me is wrong for me, and suddenly, he is so confronted by evil, he finds welling up out of his heart a statement he thought would never come: “That is evil.” And suddenly, he realizes what he just said. He does not mean, “Well, if you don’t think it’s evil, you don’t have to think it’s evil, you can think it’s good.” He has just woken up from a dream world, an academic dream world. He knows he has made a pronouncement of absolute significance. “That’s evil, that’s evil.”

God or Nowhere

As a professor he knows what he has done. “I have just broken every rule in my philosophy, and I cannot deny what I am saying. That’s evil, and I don’t mean it’s the result of chemicals synapses popping in my evolutionary primate brain. I mean it’s real. I mean it has significance. I mean it is a moral reality. It holds for everybody. This is not part of what I was thinking. This is evil.” He knows pronouncements like that are meaningless, unless there’s an absolute.

“God planned a history of redemption before the world existed.”

And where do they come from? They come from God or nowhere. You live a life of meaninglessness, you’re a bag of chemicals and electrical impulses, just moving in a kind of evolutionary movement of time and chance, with no significance to your moral judgements whatsoever, unless God is.

In other words, it happens that in the midst of evil, evil becomes the very moment and means by which a person can awaken to the fact that we’re not playing games. We’re not just stuff. It is a wonderful thing that God has mercy like that in the midst of such great evils. Here we are at my question: Why such a world? What I’d like to do is give from the Bible two answers that the Bible says are wrong, and four answers that I think the Bible says are right.

We are biting off the biggest problem in the world in the next twenty minutes or so. So, I just don’t mean to claim to have the last answer with every strand neatly woven into a fabric of perfect knowledge. I don’t mean that. I want to offer you glimpses of answers that are really here I believe. You can live by these. Consider whether these things are so, like good Bereans in chapter 17 of Acts.

Two Wrong Solutions to the Problem of Evil

Here’s my first wrong answer:

1. God is not in control.

The reason this world exists, with its calamities and conflicts and suffering and death is because God is not in control. I’ve already rejected that there’s no God, and now I’m saying he’s not in control. He’s looking down and the world is wheeling out of control, and there’s nothing he can do about it.

That’s not a true answer. Some people opt for that answer. Biblically, it won’t hold. Mathew 10:29, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny, and not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” That’s a first-century way of looking for the most random and insignificant event in the world, and claiming God governs it. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny, and not one of those sparrows in the darkest forest of Papua New Guinea falls dead without God deciding that that happened.

Or Mathew 8:27: “Even the winds and the sea obey him.” Every time you hear of a hurricane or a tsunami, and you know it’s been wind plus sea plus 240,000 people dead, you have a choice. Either that statement is false or God is in control. The wind and the sea obey him.

He sees that tsunami coming and he could say, “Stop,” right there in the middle of the Indian Ocean, and it will stop. He’s either God or not. That’s not an answer that will work: “God can’t stop tsunamis.” That’s not God. Or Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast in the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Paraphrase: “In Las Vegas, every dice is thrown, the numbers on the top are always decided by God.” I believe that, totally, because that’s what it says.

Lamentations 3:37: “Who has spoken, and it came to pass unless the Lord has commanded it.” In other words, the Bible teaches that God is in meticulous, total, governing control of the world. Nothing lies outside the rule of God. Whatever he permits or causes, he permits and causes by design. When you’re an infinitely wise God, and an infinitely powerful God, to use the word permit is to say permit by plan, permit by design, because you could stop it, you can add to it, you know everything that led to it, you know everything that will come from it. So, answer number one, “God is not in control,” is a false answer, or you must reject this Book.

2. God is evil.

The second false answer: God is evil. There is a malevolent deity in the world. The Bible says,

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you that God is light and in him, is no darkness at all.

I was reading in my devotions yesterday morning, and I read Psalm 92, which ends with an a word to old people, and I am one of those now. So, I love these words. I love it when the Bible talks to me as an old man. It said,

They still bear fruit in old age;
   they are ever full of sap and green,
to declare that the LORD is upright;
   he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

I thought, okay, I’ll do that. So here you are, young people — most of you. And here I am — old John Piper. Do you know what I have to say to you? God is upright and never sins, never has the slightest dark inclination in his mind whatsoever. Holy, holy, holy is the Lord, God Almighty. The answer to why the world is the way it is, is not because God is evil. I rule that one out because of what the Bible says about God. Those are the two wrong answers.

Four Right Solutions to the Problem of Evil

Here are four answers that I think are true. They go together. I ask you to consider them as a whole. They’re weighty, and some of you have never heard anything like this before in your life. Some of you have. Take a deep breath, take them home, test all things, hold fast to what is good.

1. God planned redemption.

The reasons these calamities, this world, exists is because God planned a history of redemption before the world existed, and then according to that plan, permitted sin to enter the world through our first parents Adam and Eve, so that then there could be a history of merciful redemption from sin. Second Timothy 1:9:

God saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.

God gave us grace in Christ Jesus — in other words, this is blood-bought grace, undeserved, planned before the foundation of the world, through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In order to have a world in which that comes true, there had to be sin. So, God ordained that there be sin. It is not sin to will that sin be. That’s a heavy statement. It is not sin for God to will that sin happen.

Here we are in the twenty-first century, receiving by faith, grace through Jesus Christ, and his work on the cross, because God, billions of years ago, in eternity, before there was a universe, gave it to us in Christ — willed that we have it in Christ. That’s the first reason why this world exists as it exists.

2. God subjected creation to futility.

Second, the reason the calamities and conflicts of the world exist is because God subjected the natural world to futility. God put the natural world under a curse, so that the physical horrors of that curse, of that futility, of that corruption, the physical horrors, disease and death, would become a vivid picture — parable — of the horrors of moral evil, sin. In other words, natural evil exists in the world as a signpost, a parable of the horrors of moral evil.

I want you to picture what I’m saying in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, perfect, sinless. The world, perfect, no death. Everything is perfect. They eat fruit forbidden, and God strikes the world with a curse, in the natural world. Now, in his sin, Adam didn’t hit Eve. There’s no domestic abuse in the Garden of Eden. No, Adam hit God, and he hit him not with his fist, he hit him with his heart. “I don’t trust you anymore to provide the best life, God. I think I know the best life. I reject your love. I reject your wisdom, I reject you, and I vote for me. I will do it my way.” That was a blow to the face of God, which merited thousands of years of horrible, physical misery in the world.

“All loss is meant to show in the heart of believers that Christ is more precious than what is lost.”

Now, most people who don’t have any sense of the majesty and the infinite worth of the holiness of God would say, “That was an overreaction.” It was not an overreaction. You can either live with your smarts, that it was an overreaction, or you can spend the rest of your life trying to bring your soul into sync with a God that majestic, that holy, that great, that one insult to that God of infinite proportions is worthy of this world’s punishment. Romans 8:18–21:

The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope.

That’s what we’re seeing in Nepal. That’s what we’re seeing in the loss of eyesight, in the loss of hearing, or cancer. The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly. Now, Satan didn’t do the subjecting and neither did Adam. The next phrase says, “Because of him who subjected it in hope.” Satan didn’t subject this world in hope. Adam didn’t subject this world in hope. God subjected it in hope.

For 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.

That’s coming and we say, “Hasten the day, O God.” When Adam and Eve sinned morally, the world was touched physically. It’s remarkable, isn’t it, that we punish moral wrongs with physical punishments. We do. If my child, one of my sons sassed his mother, his behind would get a swat. “You will not talk to your mother that way.” His behind didn’t do it. His heart did it. That’s the way God has handled the world.

Adam insulted God in a way of infinite proportions because he’s an infinite God. God subjected the physical world to futility. That’s the second answer for why the world is the way it is.

3. Christ is more precious than anything we lose.

Third, the reason this world of calamity, conflict, misery, suffering and death exists is so that followers of Jesus Christ, or in the Old Testament, the followers of Yahweh, God of Israel, would be able to experience and display the profound, God-honoring truth, that Christ is more precious to us than everything we could lose in this world.

A world of loss exists so that you and I, by not murmuring or complaining, or getting angry at God, but rather resting in him and trusting in him, could show the world and testify to our own consciousness that God is more precious to us than everything that we just lost. That’s why the loss exists. Philippians 3:8:

I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

All loss is meant to show in the heart of believers that Christ is more precious than what is lost. You have two options every time you experience a loss: you can hate God or you can hate sin. Because all loss entered the world through sin, and is intended to portray the horrors of sin.

My wife and I were married in December 1968. I was 22 and already, the Lord was showing me, as I was making the transition from college to seminary, the pain of the world. I was just so burdened and sensitive. I felt the horrors of disease and the Vietnam War fiasco — 50,000 of my friends dead. In our wedding, the text that I asked my dad, who did our wedding, to read, was Habakkuk 3:17–

Though the fig tree should not blossom,
   nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail,
   and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
   and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
   I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

We’ve been married 46 years, and it’s been very hard and still is. I’m so thankful that the Lord put that foundation under us. I don’t believe in walking away from a spouse for any reason. Habakkuk is talking about a dire season. There’s nothing to eat. That means you’re dead. “Yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” That’s why famine exists, among other reasons: so that Christians who are swept away in the famine will bear witness, “God is better than food. God is all-satisfying to my soul as I die of starvation. Yes, he is.” And what a tribute you pay to him when that happens. Murmuring is a great sin. Philippians 2:15 says,

Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.

Oh, how many times have I failed, even in the last 24 hours. I’m a born murmurer. Murmur, murmur, murmur. I hate myself when I murmur because it’s a statement that God is not better than what you’re murmuring about. That’s the third reason.

4. Christ needed to suffer and die.

This is the most important, I think. The one that the world knows nothing about, except right now, I’m going to tell them. This world exists — with its pain, with its sorrow, with its death — to make a place for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to suffer and die. If a world like this didn’t exist, Jesus would have no place to suffer and die. If there were no suffering, Jesus couldn’t suffer. If there were no death, Jesus couldn’t die.

To put it another way, the reason there’s terror is so that Christ could be terrorized. The reason there is trouble is so that Christ could be troubled. The reason there is pain is so that Christ could feel pain. This world became what it is, so that the Son of God could enter it and feel all of it. Therefore, you should never feel that God is somehow out there, distant, far away, toying with this creation. He made the horrors to enter the horrors.

“The reason there’s terror is so that Christ could be terrorized. ”

Romans 5:8: “God shows his love for us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” He showed his love through the death of his Son. Do you believe that that love could be shown another way? It couldn’t. And God meant for it to be shown. Listen to these words from Acts 4:27–28. This is being prayed by the saints after the death and resurrection of Jesus,

Truly in this city, Jerusalem, they were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles, and the peoples of Israel to do whatever your hand and your plan predestined to take place

Do you know what that says? Herod, who mocked him, put a purple robe on him, scorned him; Pilate, who expeditiously washed his hands and said, “I find no fault in him, but my job’s at stake and so I’ll kill him, crucify him, put him through the worst tortures imaginable; the Gentiles, that’s the soldiers, they were driving the nails, pushing the sword in the side; the Jewish people shouting, “Crucify him, crucify him”; those four things, this text says, God had predestined to take place.

Christ did not die by accident. This is not just a fluke of history, just a turning of Roman affairs, just mob violence. This had been planned since before the foundation of the world. This is the climax of the reason for existence. The Son of God, bearing all the suffering of the world in order to lift sin from all who would trust him and bring them into everlasting reward and joy — exquisitely on a new heavens and a new earth, glorifying God for his wisdom and grace and love. That’s the reason this world exists the way it exists.

Embrace Jesus Christ

When you have a lot of young people together, like at my church, they tend to fall in love, and they get married, and they have babies. And those babies die more than you would like. Some of them are born with profound disabilities. So, we have moms who’ve just lost their babies. Their whole life is changed.

One woman at our church lost her baby when he was only one year old. And then I buried her, about fifteen years later because cancer got the best of her. She had four kids, young kids, and she died. It was a horrible death, in fact, but this woman was a rock. She believed every word of what I said. With her bald head and her cap, she made a video that we showed at her service, telling the people to trust God before she died.

I’m inviting you, work through this. God could shake this city, not just Nepal. Half these buildings could go down at 10 am on Monday morning, and a hundred thousand people would be dead. Do you have a vision of God that would be able to handle that? That’s my question. But of course, that might be easier to handle than if one of your children died, or if you had a child with a profound disability.

I am inviting you to embrace Jesus Christ as the one for whom, through whom, and to whom all things exist. He came to share this suffering, he came to bear this pain, he came to taste every test and every temptation that we have known. He came to take it to the cross, die in our place, so that by faith alone, we could have all our sins forgiven, have eternal life, and have a destiny on a new heavens and a new earth, where that curse will finally be lifted.