Treasuring Christ and the Call to Suffer

Part 3

Wheaton College | Wheaton, Illinois

The following is a lightly edited transcript

Here’s the question I like to begin with: Have more people lost their faith in Christ because of suffering, or have more people come to faith in Christ because of suffering? I wonder how you would answer that question. Have more people lost their faith in Christ because they’ve looked at suffering and said, “No way do I want to serve a God like this,” or have more people come to faith in Christ because of suffering?

Now, I don’t know the answer to that question, but I have some thoughts that lean me one way. Let me tell you what those thoughts are, and then get into more of the substance of where we’re going. You could take Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s book, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, or you could take Elie Wiesel’s book, Night, and put them beside each other.

In the book by Solzhenitsyn, you have the story of the Russian Gulag, and a man coming to faith because of horrific suffering he experienced. In the book by Wiesel, it speaks of a Jewish man who was 15-year-old in the Buchenwald concentration camp and lost his faith because of the horrors of what he saw. Which of those two experiences has been more common in the world?

Faith Awakened in Suffering

Here are my reflections. First, 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, ever. I’ve never heard of a single testimony of a person describing the depth, the power, and the wonder of the living God because they’ve never had a problem. But over and over and over again, I hear testimonies — I think I’d be willing to talk in terms of millions — of people who document their awakening to the reality of the living God through the miseries of their lives. Make of it what you will, that’s a factor that would go into answering that question.

Another factor would be that the cry that seems to come unbidden from the mouth of those in immediate calamity is, “God,” or, “Christ.” I never see a person walk in a bathing suit out of their big hotel onto the beach and say, “God,” even though it’s just as much God giving them that vacation, but they don’t know it. They don’t feel it. They don’t say anything about it. They don’t awaken to God because of the beach.

Some of you probably saw this. I was led to a video on an internet news site about a plane crash at a Polish airshow. Did you see that? I’m just a glutton for tragedies because I try to feel what’s in the world, not just know what’s in the world. I clicked on that. I went there, and it was one of these airshows where four planes are coming out in different levels and they go over over each other. Then two of the planes came together and collided.

Now, this was in Polish. This guy who was talking about what he was seeing was speaking Polish. I wasn’t understanding a word of what he was saying. When this collision happened — just like if you’ve ever heard the tape of the Hindenburg going down in flames, where the man says, “Oh God” — I kept hearing one word in Polish: “Cristo, Cristo, Cristo.” Where did that come from?

My own experience, and I think it’s probably typical, is that we feel the reality of eternity when we’re near our own death, or other people’s death. Funerals do it. Mom’s death does it. Dad’s death does it. A child’s death does it. You’re near death, and the clouds of life just seem to be blown away, and you see eternity in the clearest colors. You have to deal with what’s there.

The Facade of Relativism

One more factor that goes into a possible answer to that question is that from the little I’ve read and thought about it, it seems to me that there are illustrations of why people who are relativistic, who don’t even think about God, can not only be driven away from him by suffering, but driven to him by suffering. Let me just sketch out what has happened for some. It’s a surprise to many to know this happens, but it has happened.

Let’s say a great evil happens, like the Holocaust where there are six million murders. Or consider the Stalinist Soviet Gulag where 10 times that number happened in the 1930s and 1940s. And then let’s say you have a human soul, maybe a Wheaton student, who is just kind of coasting along, not thinking about God. He is just in love with worldly pleasures, scarcely giving any thought to spiritual reality at all. He’s not really believing that there is anything absolute in the world. It’s just him and his pleasures. He thinks, “What’s good for you is good for you, and what’s good for me is good for me.” He’s breathing in the contemporary, post-modern air and just coasting along in the dream world of relativism.

But suddenly, he is confronted with an evil so horrible and so great as to make the soul scream with ultimate moral indignation, “No! No!” Suddenly, he finds himself with a conviction coming out of his mouth. He didn’t have any convictions up until now, just doing his own thing. But now, he hears himself saying in absolute tones, “No! This is evil.”

He’s so stunned by his own conviction that he don’t know what to do with it. It totally takes him off guard. He’s moved into another world from the academic gamesmanship of relativity and post-modern epistemology. He suddenly moves from the game-playing of life into thinking, “No, an absolute moral evil has happened! Nothing you say is going to change my mind. That’s evil.”

I think it happened for some on 9/11. It happened on the airwaves. People who didn’t believe in evil were talking about evil. That’s an amazing phenomenon. They found themselves facing an evil that was so great, they knew it had objective moral reality outside themselves. This was not a creation of their brain. This was not an echo. This was not a projection into reality from their desires. This was something absolutely wrong. They’ve moved from one world to another.

And then they’re faced with the question: “How does one account for that? How does one account for absolute wrong? What’s the meaning of absolute wrong? What’s the root and basis of absolute wrong?” And not all, but many, conclude that it must be God. If there’s no God, if there’s no personal moral being defining objective reality, which I have just recognized, then everything that I call evil is simply an alternative, electrical, chemical working of this evolutionary thing called Homo sapiens, but deep down, there is a cry that says, “No!” Is it not amazing that even the worst calamities can turn people to God?

I’m not sure what the statistical probabilities are or what the analysis is to that question of suffering producing more believers in Christ, or producing more rebels against Christ. I don’t know. I just know that everywhere I look I see evidence in history, in my life, and in others, that suffering is an amazingly powerful, redemptive thing in people’s lives.

I have seen people walk away from the faith. In my own church, we had an experience 15 years ago, which caused 230 people to leave and disillusioned hundreds. I remember one man in particular, a young man in his 30s, who just said to me about a month or two later, “I just can’t even believe it anymore, the gospel. If this kind of thing can happen in a church, then I’m done.” I’m not naïve that it works the other way.

I’ll tell you another little story that just came to my mind. There was a woman and her 13-year-old daughter who showed up the night we did mega church discipline. We told the whole church the horror of what had happened, this immoral thing. I mean, you could’ve heard a pin drop. Everybody was trembling. It was just awful. She came to me several months later and she said, “Our first day at this church with my 13-year-old daughter was when you exposed the evil, did the discipline, and everybody was awestruck at the horror of it all. We knew this is where we wanted to be.” People are different, and life is complex.

Why Does Evil Exist?

What I want to do in the minutes we have together here is ask the question, why does a world of terrorism and pain exist? I want to try to answer that, or give what feels to me the ultimate answer that I can find in this book to the question: Why this terrorized and troubled world? I have four answers, and when we’re done in a few minutes I’ll let you go to the microphones and ask anything you want about anything under the sun. I’ll answer whatever I can, which won’t be everything.

I have four reasons why I think this world exists the way it is. But first, let me give you two reasons that are not the answer for why there is evil in the world. I just need to rule out two answers. First, I don’t think this world exists with evil because God just doesn’t have control over it. I said that this morning, but let me underline it again. Matthew 10:29 says:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

Matthew 8:27 says:

…What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?

Tsunamis, hurricane Felix, etc. — even the winds and the sea obey him. If he says to a wave, “Go flat,” it goes flat. It does not argue. He can walk on water. He stands up in a boat and says, “Peace,” and peace happens.

The lot is cast in the lap, but every decision is from the Lord (Proverbs 16:33).

I’m not impressed with Las Vegas. With every roll of the dice, God decides the points that come up. There’s no doubt about it. It’s as clear as a bell. This is clear in the Bible. The lot, the dice, are cast in the lap. Every decision is from the Lord. People ask me, “Now you believe God’s sovereignty goes down to the details?” And I say, “Do you mean like one hair turning white or black? Or one bird in Uganda just falling from the sky? Yes, I do. That’s what the Bible says.” Consider these other texts:

  • The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he wills (Proverbs 21:1).

  • Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? (Lamentations 3:37).

  • Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it? (Amos 3:6).

  • He commands the unclean spirits and they obey him (Mark 1:27).

  • 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,’ (Isaiah 46:9–10).

The answer that the world is in the mess it’s in because God doesn’t have control over it won’t work for me. And this would be the second wrong answer: The reason this terrorized, troubled world exists is because God is evil, or unrighteous, or unjust. That’s the wrong answer. Here are some texts:

  • This is the message that we have heard from him and we proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).

  • Good and upright is the Lord (Psalm 25:8).

  • Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory! (Isaiah 6:3).

He’s not evil. He’s holy. He’s good. He’s light. As a banner over every evil that has ever happened, God speaks these words:

As for you, you meant evil…but God meant it for good (Genesis 50:20).

So those are wrong answers: First, he doesn’t have control; and second, he’s bad. I reject both of those answers. I’m looking for another one. If I don’t find one in the Bible, I’ll just live with that. That’s okay with me. I don’t have to know everything. I’ll see through a glass darkly. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known (1 Corinthians 13:12). I don’t expect to have all the answers in this life. I just want to ask the Bible, “Do you have an answer for me? How far will you take me?”

Biblical Reasons for the Existence of Evil

Here are my four answers to the question of why this terrorized and awful world exists as it does, even as we’re a part of the problem.

1. This world exists because God planned a history of redemption, culminating in Christ, and then permitted Adam and Eve to fall in order to put in place the necessary prerequisites for that history.

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 (2 Timothy 1:9).

God gave us grace. Grace is his kindness and favor towards undeserving people, and this was in Christ, meaning, Christ purchased it, bought it, and God gave it to sinners before the ages began. He’s planning redemption before the fall. Therefore, I’m arguing the fall was ordained for the sake of that history of redemption. Here’s another verse in that regard:

All who dwell upon the earth will worship the beast, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of the life of the Lamb that was slain (Revelation 13:8).

So there was a book before creation. It’s called, “The book of the life of the Lamb that was slain.” Before Adam fell, there was a book with the blood of Jesus all over it, in the mind of God. This doesn’t feel like any big exegetical jump to me. I conclude, God has in his mind the history of redemption. He’s going to do amazing, saving works through history culminating in the sending of his Son to die for sinners.

If you ask, why is he planning that? I think it would be fair to say he has done it to reveal certain things about himself. If you just read your Bible, and say, “What are you revealing about yourself in redemptive history that we wouldn’t know if there were no redemptive history?” There would be things like mercy, grace, justice, wrath, patience, saving wisdom, and on and on, that we wouldn't know. These things would be totally unrevealed about God if there were no dealing with sin.

Knowing God most fully is what it means to be loved. Therefore, for God to put in place a world in which he could be most fully known is a very loving thing to do, even if it includes sin and evil because there are things about him we would not know, cherish, love, admire, delight in, and praise him for. They would be concealed. They wouldn’t be revealed. Therefore, we wouldn’t know him fully. Therefore, we couldn’t delight in him, and enjoy him, and love him fully. Therefore, his love for us would be small. That’s answer number one.

2. This world exists the way it does because, having planned a history of redemption and ordaining that Adam and Eve sin, God now brings the consequences of that sin justly upon them and the whole world.

I’ll read a little more of the text I read this morning. Romans 8:18–21 says:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with 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 the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

What that is saying is that when Adam fell, God subjected the whole world to futility — bondage to decay, misery, and death. He disordered the natural world. That’s why there are hurricanes. That’s why there are little animals that eat each other. That’s why there’s all kinds of misery in the world. God subjected the world to futility, not by its will, but by his will, in hope that one day it would be set free. Because, evidently, in the process of subjecting it and then bringing it out, more of what he is like is revealed than would have been revealed otherwise, which causes me to ask, “Okay, if that’s the plan, what am I to make of why there is so much horrible physical pain in the world?”

My answer is that God has ordained physical pain as a trumpet blast to describe in a parable what moral evil is really like. It goes like this: How many people in the world wake up in the morning and scream with indignation that they are so dishonoring to God? How many people that you know, and how many of you, go to bed at night or wake up in the morning just outraged that humanity, including Wheaton students and pastors, give God less attention than the carpet on their living room floor? How many people are just emotionally bent out of shape over that? Nobody. That’s not many. Not one person on the planet has an emotional response to sin anywhere near as serious as it should be.

If you’ve been crying over your sins, I’ll tell you what’s been happening. A huge portion of your grief is over the consequences of sin and not the sin. You’re in pain. Things aren’t going well in your life, and you’re miserable, and you know sin’s the reason. You’re weeping your eyes out, but a lot of that is over how bad things are going. Otherwise, you would have been weeping way earlier because you were just as sinful before.

None of us has the emotional capacity to see sin for what it is. When anybody blackballs God, distrusts God, says no to God, ignores God, they deserve a thousand hells because the seriousness of a sin is measured by the dignity of the one you sin against, not by the length of the sin, and not by our presumed definitions of worse or better sins. God is infinitely worthy of infinite allegiance and how far we fall short of perfect allegiance is untold. And nobody cares anywhere near the level that they should care. Now what would you do about that if you were God?

You would put in the world parables of the horror of sin; namely, cancer, war, horrible accidents, etc. When you see something horrible and you get so mad, you should pause at that moment and just transfer that anger over onto sin. That’s the point of all the physical reality in the world, both the positive (which should cause you to put it over onto praise) and the negative (which should cause you to put it over onto the indignation against the sin that brought it into the world). That’s why there’s so much physical horror in the world. It doesn’t have any end in itself. It’s pointing. C. S. Lewis said:

God whispers to us in our pleasures and shouts at us in our pains.

And he was right. Oh, that we would all see how repugnant, and offensive, and abominable it is to ignore, distrust, and demean God, which is what this world does almost all the time. The fact that this world experiences the rising of the sun every morning made Jesus wonder, didn’t it? Matthew 5:44 says:

He makes the sun to rise on the evil and the good.

I think when Jesus said that, he thought, “He makes the sun to rise on Pharisees — whitewashed tombs who make disciples that are sons of hell even worse than themselves — and they’re alive, having sex with their wife and healthy in their body.” It blew Jesus away that so much good comes to this world. But the evil of the physical world, I think, is all pointing toward the evil of the moral world. Thus, God is shouting at us, if we have ears to hear.

3. This world is the way it is to provide an occasion whereby the lovers of the Son of God could display his superior worth over everything that they’re suffering causes them to lose.

I made this point this morning, and I’ll just make it again briefly here. If you were to ask, “Why is there so much privation in the world — people not having what they need?” One of the reasons, though it’s not simple, is that the worth of Christ is magnified and glorified when Christians lose everything and only have Christ, and say, “Gain. He’s enough.”

Across the world, there are millions of people who, in the name of Christ, are content with trouble. That makes Christ shine. Now I said this morning, and I’ll say it again. Christ’s glory shines when he meets our needs, and we should thank him. The crescendo of thanksgiving in this college should blow the roof off of every classroom. But when you get mono, like I did in the fall of 1966, it changes things. That was the beginning of my junior year. I spent three weeks in the health center. I don’t know what it is now. That’s the building that’s just across from the library on this side.

Here I am, flat on my back for three weeks, big yellow tonsils. What is this little thing above the liver called? Pancreas. My pancreas swelled up, and the doctors put their hand there and they said, “Take a deep breath.” I was very sick and very miserable, listening to Harold John Ockenga on the WETN radio station, and my whole life was changed.

I will never cease to thank God for mononucleosis. I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I had taken summer school to catch up. Took chemistry so I could get on track with pre-med. Then I was registered for organic chemistry. If you miss three weeks of organic chemistry, it’s over unless you want to take another year to go to Wheaton.

As I lay there, I listened to this man handle the Bible, and everything in me said, “I want to know this book the way John Harold Ockenga knows this book. I want to handle this book the way he does. I don’t know whether I want to be a preacher, a teacher, a writer, or a missionary. I just know I am being moved to the depths of my being by this exposition.” So I dropped organic chemistry, and I shifted my whole next six years of my life, no, eight years of my life, to Bible study. All of that because of mononucleosis. It’s amazing. God has his ways. I said enough about that this morning. Let me go to the last reason here, and then we’ll take some questions.

4. The reason this world exists the way it is is so that Jesus Christ would have a place to suffer and die.

The reason there is terror in the world is so that Jesus Christ would be terrorized. The reason there’s trouble in the world is so that Jesus Christ could be troubled. The reason there’s pain in the world is so that Jesus Christ could experience pain. This is the world that God prepared for the suffering and the death of his Son. That was the apex of his plan; that the Son of God be killed and tortured. Romans 5:8 says:

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

God shows his love for you through the death of Jesus. Had there been no world where there’s death, no world where there’s torture, no world where there’s sin, that love would not have come to you. The love of God is supremely manifest in the death of his Son.

He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not with him freely give us all things? He would have spared him had there been no pain for him to experience, no death for him to die, and no torture for him to walk through.

Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility

Let me close with a text. If you come to terms with this text, the tentacles it will send out into your mental framework about God and your practical framework in dealing with people, are untold. Let me read this text and then close with just a comment or two about it. This is Acts 4:27, and it’s about Jesus and his death, which I think is the center of the universe. I think the whole universe exists to display the supremacy of the grace of Jesus Christ, and the apex of that revelation is in his death and resurrection.

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

In this city were gathered together Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the peoples of Israel to do what your hand planned and predestined to take place. Now what did Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the peoples of Israel do?

The answer is they committed the greatest sin that has ever been committed in the history of the world, or ever will be committed. They killed the Son of God. They killed him in the most horrible fashion. They lied about him. They scorned him. They pulled on his beard. They spit in his face. They buffeted him around. They hit him with rods. They hit him with lashes, who knows how many times. Then they nailed his hands and his feet to the cross, stuck a spear in his side, put a crown of thorns on his head, and said, “If you’re the Son of God, come down.” That’s what this is talking about. Let me read it again:

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

Now the reason I say that the tentacles of that will go out into all of your theology and all of your practical life is because one of the most crucial mysteries of life is contained there. Let me state it. I won’t explain it. You can ask me to explain it later if you want, but I won’t be able to, so don’t bother.

The mystery is this: In ordaining that sin happens, God does not sin. That principle, which I don’t bring to the Bible, as if I learned it from a philosophy book and I’m going to use it to solve Bible problems. I didn’t learn that anywhere. I came to that absolutely kicking and screaming between 1968 and 1971. God, in ordaining that sin be, is not himself sinning. He is holy, and light, and good. I’m simply willing to live with that mystery. And also, in ordaining that there be sinners, he does not remove their absolute accountability and responsibility, so that at the last day there will be no legitimate objections raised against his sentences. That’s a mystery I’m willing to live with.

Sometimes Reformed folks like me are criticized, like in those days as I was struggling through these things as a student, for being logic-driven. I’ve never met an Arminian who doesn’t use logic against me. I’m just kind of saying, “The Bible says this, and it says this. I don’t know. I’m going to believe him.” I don’t get that accusation. If you want to ask about that, I’d be happy for you to ask about it.

I see a text like this, telling that the greatest sin that was ever committed in the history of the world was planned by God; namely, the death of his Son. And I say, “All right.” If you can manage that, you can manage Adam and everything else. So I’m going to say this world exists under, not alongside, but under God’s sovereign rule. I’m just spending my life trying to discern the good things God is doing, and then pour my life out to rescue as many people as possible from rebelling against him.