The Purposes of God in the Pain of the World

Capitol Hill Baptist Church | Washington, D.C.

Because today is the 21st anniversary of 9/11, I would like to speak to you about the purposes of God in the pain of the world. We will turn to the Scriptures in a few minutes, but first, let’s put the world’s pain before us in some felt measure.

The first plane that hit the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers, Flight 11, immediately killed the 92 people on board that flight. Flight 175, which hit the second tower a few minutes later, killed the 65 people on board. In the towers themselves, it appears now that 2,595 people perished when the towers fell, including those who worked there, visited there, and those who entered to save them.

Within an hour after the first attack, Flight 77 carried 59 people (plus five hijackers) into the side of the Pentagon. Inside the Pentagon, 125 people died, in addition to those 59. A couple of weeks ago, Noël and I drove over to the Pentagon Memorial. It is laid out with 184 benches, one for each of those who lost their lives — from the youngest, who was three years old, to the oldest, who was 71.

Flight 93, with 45 people aboard, turned around over Pennsylvania and was headed — where? The White House? Congress? Todd Beamer and others wrestled control from the hijackers, it seems, and the plane crashed with no survivors near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

The total fatalities in these terrorist events were 2,986. But the numbers sound too calculating, too sterile, compared to the personal and national trauma of those days. More than three thousand children lost a parent that day. Around sixteen hundred people lost spouses.

And, of course, the calamities go on.

World of Sorrow

A million Americans have died of COVID-19 complications since March of 2020. As I speak, one-third of Pakistan is under water — thirty million people displaced, one thousand dead, ten billion dollars in damages. Sections of Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, and Afghanistan all face famine-related starvation, affecting millions.

We could keep describing the unending calamities of the world as if they were extraordinary, but behind my message today lies the fact that 9/11 happens every thirty minutes, and it continues to happen every thirty minutes every day, every year, every decade, every century, without any letup.

Conservatively, six thousand people die every hour in the world, though it’s probably closer to seven thousand. That’s sixty-one million people a year. Of those, five million are under five years old. Cancer kills seven million people every year in the world, six hundred thousand of those in America. Cancer’s death toll is right behind heart disease, which kills seven hundred thousand a year in our country.

Breathe in, breathe out — and four people have died. That’s twelve thousand during this service. And hundreds of them are not “drifting off to sleep” in peace but writhing in pain. Calamities are not exceptional; they’re the more visible breaking of the surface of the ocean of sorrow. 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?

Is the Pain on Purpose?

The word why is ambiguous in English. It doesn’t distinguish between “why” — from what cause — and “why” — for what purpose. German has warum and wozu, but we don’t.

So what I mean with my question is this: Mainly I want to know what the Bible teaches about the purpose for such a world of pain. Causes are important, but they leave you hanging. What we want to know is not mainly, “How did we get here?” But mainly, “Is there a point?” A design? A purpose? A meaning?

Which, of course, you’d never ask if you didn’t believe in God — indeed, in a certain kind of God.

In 1995, I was fifteen years into my pastorate at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. We passed through the biggest crisis I’d ever faced in the ministry. Two staff were let go. Two hundred and thirty people left the church. We didn’t recover for over three years. To move forward we formed a group of twenty-three people, including three or four staff members, who met for a year and a half to pray and study: What happened? Is there a future? What will it be? What will it look like? Who are we?

During that time, they sent me away to a little monastery over in St. Paul’s, saying, “Go away, pray, listen to God, and bring us a vision statement 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 that will give us something to interact with.”

What I believe the Lord gave me was a vision statement for what was left of my own life, and I hoped it would become the vision statement of the church. It did: We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things, for the joy of all peoples, 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 terrorist attacks, all things except pandemics, all things except famines, child mortality, cancer, heart disease, 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. And because he is supreme, I want to know, from him, in his word: What’s going on? What’s the point of such a world with so much misery?

Answers in Complexity

Christians are complex people, people with complex emotional lives. Conforming to the whole counsel of God in Scripture makes people complex. It teaches that the world is a horrible place and a beautiful place — which, if we open our eyes, we would see. Fall is a beautiful season. If you walk outside right now, you would smile in the cool fall air amid natural glory. And in Pakistan, someone is weeping beside a tent in mud. This is a horrible world and a beautiful place.

It is naive to think that there are good times and bad times sequentially. No, there are good times always, and there are bad times always. They happen simultaneously, all the time. 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 complex and wonderful person.

So as we focus on our original question — Why is there a world like this, a conveyor belt of corpses? — we are aware that there is real beauty in this world. Real goodness. But if we could know — if God would show us — why there is so much evil and misery, then we would be able more fully to know him and thank him and trust him and love him and join him in his purposes for the world.

So our question is, Why a world of so much pain? In turning to the Scriptures, I want to start by giving two answers that the Bible says are wrong and then four answers that I think the Bible says are right. We are biting off just about the biggest problem in the world, so I don’t claim to weave every loose end together into a fabric of perfect understanding. What I hope to do is offer you true answers (even if they may raise other questions), answers that are really there in God’s word. Answers you can live by.

Wrong Answer #1: “God is not in control.”

Here’s my first wrong answer: “We live in a world of pain and misery because 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. God has surrendered control to mindless natural forces, or demonic powers, or ultimate human self-determination, or some combination of them all.

In other words, God is looking down, and the world that he made is reeling out of his control, and there’s nothing he can do about it. (At least, not in the short run.) But that’s not a true answer. Millions of people opt for that answer. Biblically, it won’t hold.

All Atoms Obey Him

In Matthew 10:29 Jesus says, “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 at 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 from the tree branch without God deciding that it happen.

Or consider Matthew 8:27, when the disciples confess with profound truthfulness: “Even winds and sea obey him.” Every time you hear of a hurricane, or a monsoon, or a tornado, or a tsunami the day after Christmas in 2004, when two hundred and forty thousand people die in one night (including whole churches), you have a choice. Either the winds and the waves obey him, or they don’t. If the wind and the waves of the sea do not obey Jesus in 2022, then Capitol Hill Baptist Church should shut its doors and stop playing religious games.

God saw that tsunami moving across the Indian Ocean, and he could have said, “Stop,” and right there, in the middle of the Indian Ocean, it would have stopped — just like Jesus did it on the Sea of Galilee. It is not a biblical answer to why two hundred and forty thousand people died that night, to say: “God can’t stop tsunamis.” He can. He does if he wills. And he didn’t. Why?

Or consider Proverbs 16:33: “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.” Here’s my paraphrase: “In Las Vegas, all the dice are thrown, but the numbers on the top are always decided by God.” It is not a biblical answer to the question why people win or lose in the folly of gambling, to say: “It’s random.” It’s not random. It’s God. As R. C. Sproul used to say, “There are no maverick molecules.”

He Decrees by Design

Or consider Lamentations 3:37, which refers to the sack of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, with all its horrors: “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?” In other words, the Bible teaches that God governs the world with all-embracing, all-pervading, meticulous providence. Nothing lies outside the rule of God. He is not whimsical or reckless or aimless. Whatever he permits or causes, he permits and causes by design — according to plan. As he says in Isaiah 46:9–10:

I am God, and there is no other;
     I am God, and there is none like me,
declaring the end from the beginning
     and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, “My counsel shall stand,
     and I will accomplish all my purpose.”

“God governs the world with meticulous providence. He is not whimsical or reckless or aimless.”

He does all he does to establish his purposes. When you are an infinitely wise, all-knowing God and an infinitely powerful God, to use the word permit is to say “permit by plan” or “permit by design,” because you know everything that leads up to what you permit and flows from what you permit.

And at any time, if you see something coming from what you permit that you regret, you can stop it or change it. The permission of an all-knowing, all-wise, all-governing God is always a permission that is owing to a purpose. So the answer that says, “God is not in control,” is a false answer. It is not what the Bible teaches.

Wrong Answer #2: “God is evil.”

The second false answer to the question of why there is a world with such pain, is: “God is evil.” There is a malevolent deity over the universe. That is not true. The Bible teaches, “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” (1 John 1:5). Psalm 92 tells me as an old man what I should say to a young Capitol Hill Baptist congregation:

The righteous flourish like the palm tree
     and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
     they flourish in the courts of our God.
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. (Psalm 92:12–15)

That’s God’s response and my response to this suggestion that God’s injustice explains the world. No: “The Lord is upright; he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.” He never has the slightest dark inclination in his mind whatsoever. “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,” to paraphrase the hymn. The answer to why the world is the way it is, is not because God is evil.

So we turn now to four answers from the Bible, true answers. The answers go together, building into a biblical vision of why God does what he does, so I ask you to consider them as a whole. They’re weighty. Some of you may have never heard anything like this before in your life. Others have. So listen carefully, be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11, and test all things by Scripture, holding fast to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

True Answer #1: “God planned redemption.”

First, the reason this kind of world exists is because God planned a history of redemption before the world existed — a history of redemption. And then according to that plan, he permitted (by plan) that sin enter the world through our first parents Adam and Eve. The permission of sin was according to plan, and that plan was so that there could be a history of merciful redemption from sin.

Here is 2 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, ill-deserved, planned before the foundation of the world, through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

In order to have a world in which that comes true, God planned to permit 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 in eternity past — not just billions of years ago, but even before time existed, even before there was a universe — God gave grace to us in Christ. He willed that we have it in Christ. That’s the first reason why this world exists as it exists. God intended for lost sinners to taste the glory of his blood-bought grace in Christ.

True Answer #2: “God subjected creation to futility.”

Second, the reason this world of pain and misery exists is because God subjected the natural world to futility in hope. God put the natural world under a curse, so that the physical horrors of that curse would become a vivid picture — a parable, a drama — of the horrors of moral evil, or sin. In other words, natural evil — physical suffering — exists in the world as a signpost, a parable of the horrors of moral evil. Physical suffering exists to show how outrageous sin against God is.

It is worth asking, Why does God make physical suffering the consequence of moral evil? The essence of sin is not physical; it’s not the movement of muscles or the touching of flesh. The essence of sin is when Adam and Eve said to God in their hearts, “I don’t trust you anymore to provide the best life for us. I think I know the best life. I reject your kind of limiting love. I reject your wisdom. I reject you, and I vote for me. I will decide right and wrong.” That was the beginning, crude essence of sin, and it was not physical.

Rather, it was a moral blow to the face of God, and as such it merited thousands of years of horrible, physical misery in the world. Romans 8:18–21 says, “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 . . . ” So it wasn’t Adam or Satan who subjected the world to futility “in hope.” God is the one who designed hope in the sufferings of the world.

Then the passage continues by saying that God “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 what’s coming, and we say, “Hasten the day, O God.”

When Adam and Eve sinned morally, the world was touched physically. (See Genesis 3.) Why would that be? One reason is this: Sin by its very nature blinds us to the seriousness of sin. Sin does not see the infinite outrage of slapping infinite holiness in the face. Sin can’t feel that outrage. What can sin feel? It can feel hunger, cancer, lacerations, broken bones, disability, death. People don’t lie awake at night wrestling with the outrage of their indifference to God. But they do lie awake at night when their bodies are touched with pain — which is the siren, the trumpet, of the outrage of the evil of sin.

And don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying that every pain in a person corresponds to a specific sin in that person. That’s not true. Remember how they asked Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” And Jesus said, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:2–3). Physical suffering is a global trumpet blast of the outrage of sin against God.

Some of those who suffer most are the most godly people you know. Last Monday night at the Sing! Conference in Nashville, Joni Erickson Tada — who has been a paraplegic for fifty-five years and lives with almost unremitting pain — said, “I’m not going to cash in my IRA and retire and move to Florida to play pickleball. And you better not either! I’m going to squeeze every ounce out of this body for kingdom work.” Her suffering is not a punishment for her sin. Her sins are forgiven because of Jesus. Her suffering, and yours, is a God-appointed reminder of the seriousness of the moral outrage of sin.

True Answer #3: “Christ is more precious than anything we lose.”

Third, the reason this world of calamity and misery exists is so that today’s followers of Jesus would be able to experience and display the profound, God-honoring reality that Christ is more precious than everything we can lose in this world.

A world of suffering and 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 and treasuring him — can show the world that God is more precious than anything we could lose: “Your steadfast love is better than life” (Psalm 63:3). Or as Paul says it in 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.”

The point of all loss in the lives of Christians is to show by our response that Christ is more precious than what is lost. You have two options every time you experience pain and loss: you can hate God, or you can hate sin. All pain and loss came into the world through sin, all intended to portray the horrors of sin, and few things glorify God more amazingly than when his people endure suffering and loss on the path of love without losing their joy in him.

My wife and I were married in December 1968. Already we were seeing the world through the eyes of God’s infinite worth and greatness and beauty in the midst of a world of carnage, as 58,000 of our contemporaries died in Vietnam. We chose for our wedding text Habakkuk 3:17–18:

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.

“Living through loss without grumbling sings out the greatness and beauty and worth of God.”

It has served us well. In the face of famine (of every kind), God is better. God is enough. Not that we have lived up to this standard as we ought. But oh, what a vision to keep before your eyes: “When all around my soul gives way, he then is all my hope and stay.” Living through loss without grumbling sings out the greatness and beauty and worth of God. That is another reason why loss and misery exist.

True Answer #4: “Christ was appointed to suffer and die.”

Finally, this world of pain and misery exists so that the greatest act of love in the history of the world could happen — that is, so that Christ could suffer and die. This is a reason for suffering and death that the world knows nothing about, that this world exists — with its pain, with its sorrow, with its death — to make it possible 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 in Gethsemane. The reason there is pain is so that Christ could feel pain. The reason there is death is so that Christ could die.

“This world exists with its pain, sorrow, and death to make it possible for Jesus Christ to suffer and die.”

According to Revelation 13:8, there was a book before the creation of the world with the names of the redeemed, and that book was called “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.” In the mind of God Christ was slain before the foundation of the world. This was the plan: the slaughter of the incarnate Son of God.

And what did it reveal? Romans 5:8: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” God showed his love through the suffering and death of his Son. Do you believe that the love of God for you could have been shown more fully another way? God has not wasted the sufferings of this world. He planned it to fall on his Son.

Listen to this prayer in Acts 4:27–28: “Truly in this city [Jerusalem] there 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.” Herod, who mocked him; Pilate, who saved his political skin and sentenced him; the Gentile soldiers, who drove the nails; the Jewish mob, who shouted, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Those four sinful acts, 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 central to the reason for all existence. The Son of God bore the suffering of the world in order to lift sin from all who would trust him and bring them into everlasting joy — exquisite joy in the new heavens and a new earth, glorifying God for his power and wisdom and grace and love. That’s the reason this kind of world exists.

Embrace the Suffering Savior

I’m inviting you to believe this, to be made strong in this. You know that tomorrow morning at ten o’clock, by the flick of God’s finger, half the buildings in this city could go down, and a hundred thousand people would be dead. And God would have done nobody any wrong.

Do you have a vision of God and sin and suffering and redemption that will be able to handle that calamity when it comes? 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 from whom, through whom, and to whom all things exist (1 Corinthians 8:6). 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 and die in our place, so that by faith in him, we could have all our sins forgiven, have eternal life, and have an everlasting destiny on a new heavens and a new earth, where that curse will finally be lifted.

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:4)