These notes were taken during the message; they are not a manuscript.
Does Suffering Make More Apostates or More Converts?
Have more people lost their faith in Christ because of suffering or have more people come to faith in Christ because of suffering?
Take Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Eli Wiesel’s book Night. In one, one comes to faith; in the other, one loses faith. Which of the two experiences is more common in the world? I don’t know the answer to that question. But I have some thoughts that make me lean one way. I take three factors into account.
- First factor: I have never heard of anyone speaking of coming to a serious awakening to the reality of God because everything has gone well in their lives. But over and over again, I hear testimonies of those who document their awakening to the reality of the living God through the miseries of their lives.
- Another factor would be: The cry that seems to come unbidden from the mouth of those in calamity seems to be, “God!” Or: “Christ!” Never do I see someone walk on the beach in a bathing suit and say, “God!” We feel the reality of eternity when we’re near our own death or someone else’s.
- One more factor: From the little I’ve read and thought about it, it seems to me there are illustrations as to why people who are relativistic can be not only driven away from God by suffering but to him by suffering. A great evil happens—say the Holocaust—and a human soul, coasting along, not thinking about God but pursuing world pleasures, suddenly is confronted with an evil so great as to make the soul scream with moral indignation. And suddenly he finds themselves with a conviction. He hears himself say, “No! This is evil!” And he’s so stunned by his own conviction that he doesn’t know what to do with it. He’s caught off guard. He’s moved into another world. It happened for some at 9/11. It happened on airwaves—people who didn’t believe in evil calling something evil. Now they’re faced with the question, “How do you account for that? How do you account for absolute wrong? What’s the root and basis?” Not all—but many—conclude: God. If there’s no God, no personal moral being, then everything I call evil is without grounding. Even the worst calamities turn people to God.
I don’t know the answer as to whether suffering makes more converts or more atheists. But everywhere I look I see that suffering is an amazingly powerful redemptive reality in people’s lives.
Why This World of Suffering?
What I want to do in the minutes we have here is ask: Why does a world of terrorism and pain exist? I want to try to give the ultimate answer in the Bible to the question Why this terrorized and troubled world?
I have four reasons, but first let me rule out two reasons.
Two Wrong Answers
- I don’t think it’s because God doesn’t have control (Matt. 10:29; 8:27). Even the winds and seas obey him. Waves go flat. God turns hearts wherever he wills (Prov. 21:1). (See also Prov. 16:33; Lam. 3:37; Amos 3:6; Mark 1:27; Isa. 46:9-10.) The answer that God doesn’t have control won’t work.
- I don’t think it’s because God is evil. In him is no darkness at all. God is upright in all his ways. Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty. He’s not evil. He’s holy; he’s good. He’s light. As a banner over every evil, God speaks: “You meant it for evil; I meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).
Four Right Answers
- This world exists because God planned a history of redemption culminating in Christ and permitted Adam and Eve to fall to put in the place the necessary prerequisites for that history. Second Timothy 1:9: God gave us grace before the ages began. He planned redemption before the Fall. The Fall was ordained for the sake of the history of redemption. Revelation 13:8: Before Adam fell there was a book with blood all over it—Christ’s blood.
- This world exists because, having planned a history of redemption and ordaining sin, God now brings the consequences of that sin justly on them and the whole world. Romans 8:18ff.: The creation was subjected to futility by God when Adam fell. God has disordered the natural world. That’s why there are hurricanes and animals that eat each other. God subjected the world to futility by his will in hope that one day it will be set free. And more of who he is has been revealed this way than any other.
Why so much horrible physical pain? God has ordained physical pain as a trumpet blast to describe in a parable what moral evil is really like. How many people wake up outraged at how little attention we give to God? Nobody. Not any one person on the planet has the proper emotional reaction to the amount of evil in the world. None of us has the emotional capacity to see sin for what it is. The seriousness of a sin is measured by the dignity of the one you’ve sinned against.
God is infinitely worthy of infinite allegiance. So God has put in the world parables of the horror of sin—cancer, war, horrible accidents. The point of all the physical reality in the world—the positive and negative—is something beyond itself. C. S. Lewis said God whispers to us in our pleasure and shouts at us in our pain. The evil of the physical world is all pointing to the evil of the moral world.
- This world of evil exists to provide an occasion whereby the lovers of the Son of God could display his infinite worth over everything they lose. Why is there so much privation in the world? One of the reasons: The worth of Christ is magnified when Christians lose everything and only have Christ and say, “Gain.” This makes Christ shine. Christ’s glory shines when he meets our needs. But when we suffer, Christ’s glory really shines.
- The most important one: The reason this world of evil exists is so that Jesus Christ would have a place to suffer and die. The reason there is terror is so that Jesus Christ could be terrorized. There is pain so that Jesus Christ could be pained. There is trouble so that Jesus Christ could be troubled. The apex of God’s plan is that his Son be tortured and killed for us.
God shows his love for you through the death of Jesus (Rom. 5:8). In a world with no sin and no pain and no suffering, that love doesn’t come to us. Roman 8:32: God didn’t spare his own Son—how will he not also with him freely give us all things?
The Cross: Planned and Predestined by God
One last text: Acts 4:27. It’s about Jesus and his death—the center of the universe. The whole universe exists to display the beauty and worth of Jesus Christ. The cross is what God’s hand planned and predestined to take place. The greatest sin ever committed—the killing of the Son of God.
One of the most crucial mysteries is here: In ordaining that sin happen, God does not sin. This principle I don’t bring to the Bible but I came to it kicking and screaming by wrestling with biblical texts. And in ordaining that there be sinners, God does not take away their full accountability. Some Reformed folks are criticized as being logic driven. But I’ve never met an Arminian that doesn’t use logic against me.
The greatest sin that ever happened in the history of the world was planned by God—the death of his Son. The world—with all its suffering and evil—exists under his sovereign and good rule.