Every time a hurricane hits folks ask, “Why would God allow hurricanes?” It is a question within the family of “If there is a God why do people suffer?” It is called the theodicy question. Last year after Hurricane Matthew hit I preached the following sermon to address this very question. I hope it provides insight and comfort as we deal with hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
I conclude our series with the most challenging question of all. I am sure it has been on many of our minds the last few months and weeks as we have seen the devastation of Hurricane Matthew. Out of that suffering comes the granddaddy of all questions: “If there is a God then why do people suffer?” Another way people ask this question is, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
In theological circles it is called the theodicy question. The process of the question goes like this: If God can’t stop suffering, then he is not great. If God can stop suffering and doesn’t, then he is not good. So many folks ask, “If you are telling me God is great and good, then why is there suffering in the world?” It is a great question.
It is my experience that the theodicy question is one of the biggest reasons why so many people choose not to believe in God. For many, this question is a huge roadblock to faith.
In fact, perhaps I just described you. Maybe you have experienced unspeakable pain and tragedy in your life and the suffering you have been through keeps you from believing that God exists, let alone a good, loving God. You’re here to see if someone can really tell you why bad things happen to good people.
Or perhaps those of you who believe in God have friends and relatives who have experienced great suffering and the theodicy question has kept them from faith in God. You don’t know how to help them. Or maybe you believe in God but the theodicy question has lingered within you for a long time.
I believe what I am about to share will help everyone who struggles with this challenging question.
Let me begin by saying that one of the biggest problems with this question is how some Christians have answered it. The way many Christians respond to this question is not only unhelpful but harmful. I can’t tell you how many people I come across who have rejected the church and the Christian faith because of something harmful a Christian said to them at a vulnerable time. Often these Christians are well meaning but they don’t think through what they are saying.
Shortly after my father passed away I was in a Bible study in college. We were discussing the will of God. A participant began to speak about God’s mysterious ways. Then he turned to me and said, “For example, Charley we will never understand why God took your dad.” I stood up and said, “God did not take my father. God did not kill my father. Cancer took my father!”
It is amazing how some Christians will blame suffering on God. A baby dies and someone says, “God needed another angel in heaven.” A young mother dies of breast cancer leaving a husband and two kids behind and someone says, “God works in mysterious ways.” A group of teenagers on their way to prom are killed in a car accident and someone says, “God must have had a purpose.” We get bad news. We are disappointed. Life takes a bad turn and we have a well meaning friend say to us, “Everything happens for a reason.” She received news from the doctor that she has cancer and her friend says, “God never gives you more than you can handle.” What?
Of course it doesn’t help the cause that we have particular Christian personalities say dreadful things on television. Some of you will remember that after 9/11 a well known religious figure went on TV and told the world that God orchestrated 9/11 to punish America for its sins. He said abortionists, feminists, gays and lesbians had angered God and 9/11 was the way God chose to punish us. Of course, last week I mentioned that some Christians had credited God for Hurricane Matthew as a way of punishing us.
And then we wonder why some folks are turned off by Christians and the church? Why would they when they hear Christians say that God causes great suffering and pain in the world? Why would they want to believe in a God like that? I don’t believe in a God like that!
I remember visiting a family in another church I served. The mother and kids had been coming to the church for awhile and wanted to learn more about it. The father never came with them to church. I sat in the living room with the mother and kids while the father stayed in the den watching television. It was clear he did not want to speak with me. After visiting with the mom and kids we started to wrap up our conversation. As soon as I stood up the father walked into the living room and said, “You want to know why I don’t come to your church? When I was a kid my dad died suddenly and everyone at the church I grew up in said that it was God’s will. From that moment on I never went back to church because I could never believe in a God like that.” I replied, “Well, I don’t believe in a God like that either.”
It is beyond me how some folks who read the same Bible I do and follow the same Christ that I follow can believe that God would orchestrate unspeakable tragedy. It is beyond me how some folks who believe that the same God who personified himself in Christ and put little children on his knee would kill children with cancer, kill teenagers through car accidents, and wipe out families in tornadoes, earthquakes and hurricanes.
The God I know and love would not plot and plan suffering and tragedy. Sometimes bad things happen because of the foolishness of others. Sometimes bad things happen because of our own bad choices. Sometimes bad things happen because we live in an evil and imperfect world. But let’s not blame tragedy and suffering on God. So, if you are someone who has always wondered I will tell you this: God does not cause suffering.
Why Is There Suffering?
This begs the question, “Then why is there suffering?” If God is great and good, then why is there suffering in the world?
It may come as surprise to some of you that the theodicy question can be seen throughout the Bible. The Psalms ask it. Job asks it. Lamentations is full of it. The prophet Habakkuk complains to God about it. The prophet Jeremiah questions God about it: Why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer? Look at what Jeremiah says to God in the 12th chapter: “Righteous are you, O Lord, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” Many of the biblical writers cry out with this same burning question that we ask today.
So what is the answer to Jeremiah’s complaint, to our complaint? In a word, freedom. We live a world where God has given us freedom. The same freedom that allows us to choose to love and serve God allows others to pick up weapons and kill innocent people. Freedom itself is good, like all of God’s gifts, but some choose to pervert God’s gift and use it for evil.
So why doesn’t God intervene before a gunman shoots innocent people? Why doesn’t God do something to prevent people from killing each other? Because freedom is at stake. If God took away our freedom to do evil He would also be taking away our freedom to do good! And if God did that we would just be a bunch of numb robots incapable of love or hate. God doesn’t want us to be like that anymore than you want to be like that (“Fear Itself” by Jim Somerville).
What about those tragic events that human beings don’t cause like natural disasters? Well, not only is humanity broken but creation itself is broken too. The truth is that we live in a sinful world that runs amok and bad things happen to both the innocent and the guilty. Sin permeates biology, humanity, and geography and everyone, good and bad, experiences the consequences of it.
As Christians we have the assurance that one day Christ will come in glory and all of our questions will be answered, all of the great mysteries will be solved, all of our confusion will turn into clarity, and every tear will be wiped away.
Until that great day comes we have to cope with suffering in life. So the questions are: If God does not cause tragedy and suffering, what role does God play in suffering? Where is God when it hurts? Where is God when planes crash and earthquakes come and people die in car accidents? Where is God and is He involved at all? You may be suffering today and want to know the answer to that question. How do we make sense of suffering if we follow a loving and powerful God?
I want to offer some things that have helped me as I have struggled with the question of why bad things happen to good people. My prayer is that they will help you too.
We Never Suffer Alone
I want to lift up a passage of scripture that tells us exactly where God is when we suffer. It comes from the Old Testament, from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah was prophesying about Jesus and he said something that I think all of us need to remember when it comes to our own suffering. In fact, what I am about to read may bring healing to you today. Isaiah 53:3-4 reads: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows.” Did you see that? He carried our sorrows. He carries our sorrows.
I want you to hear that today. Wherever you are, whatever you are going through, whatever pain you are in God carries your sorrows. He shares it with you. He cries with you. He aches with you. He loves you too much for you to deal with it alone. You see, Jesus’ death tells us that when we suffer, God suffers with us. The cross and resurrection reveal that God suffers when we suffer and He has the power to redeem our suffering.
Another thing that is helped me is a quote by Harry Emerson Fosdick. He said, “Goodness is a far greater problem for the atheist than evil is for the believer.” Instead of focusing on the evil and suffering in the world, look at all the goodness that abounds! Where does all this goodness come from? It can only come from a loving God who cares for us. Allow the goodness in the world to lead you back to the goodness of God. And may the goodness of God lead you to help heal the suffering in the world. Because God wants to heal suffering in this world, and you know how He is going to do it? Through you and through me! When God wants something done in this world, he counts on his church to do it!
You want to see God at work in the midst of suffering, just open your eyes. He works through people all the time. And he wants to work through you!
He worked through a Wisconsin police officer this week. This is Officer Trimberger. He was called out to a convenient store because a teen had shoplifted a packet of crackers. The teenager was a 19 year old student, trying to work his way through school, and he didn’t even have money to buy crackers. But he was hungry.
However, his guilt was just as strong as his hunger. He returned to the store to report his crime. The store manager called police and that is when Officer Trimberger showed up. So what did the officer do? He didn’t arrest him; he bought him a bag of groceries. The event would’ve gone unnoticed but someone was watching the whole thing and posted it on Facebook. It went viral.
Trimberger said he became a police officer in order to make a difference in the lives of others. “I just thought I could hopefully make a difference in his life, help him get a leg up.”
What if Christians approached life with the attitude of Officer Trimberger? Helping people get a leg up, instead of tearing people down. A lot of suffering in this world would be alleviated.
What is our job as Christians? To help God alleviate suffering in the world. So often we complain to God and wonder why He is not doing something about the suffering in the world and I’m sure His reply is, “I am trying to do something, through YOU! You are my hands and feet in this world!”
What Happens to Good People When Bad Things Happen to Them?
I believe the best help I can give as we grapple with the question of why bad things happen to good people is to offer a better question: What happens to good people when bad things happen to them? This is a question the Bible clearly answers.
In the eighth chapter of Romans Paul uses several words to describe the assumed pain and suffering of life: hardship, persecution, distress, nakedness, peril, the sword. Paul and the early Christians were very much in touch with unfair suffering. But what did Paul say happens to us when we experience bad things? Not only did he say that we will never be separated from God’s love, but in Romans 8:28 Paul says something truly remarkable: “All things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
This remarkable verse expresses that evil and pain is never the will of God, but God can take evil and pain and use it for good. Over and over again in life we see this. When evil attacks with pain, God uses it to build character. When evil shows resistance, God uses it to build strength. When evil cripples with tragedy, God finds a way to victory. When evil destroys with death, God restores life. God is in the transformation business. Message: God can turn our trouble into triumph! God can redeem our suffering. The worst thing is never the last thing. Paul puts it this way: “We are more than conquerors through Christ who loves us.”
The ultimate example of this is Jesus’ work on the cross. Before Jesus the cross represented suffering, shame, punishment, and death. But he came and transformed it into a symbol of victory, forgiveness, love and life. So whenever we gaze upon the cross we are reminded that God can take what is ugly and make it beautiful.
Like you I have been through my fair share of suffering. 8 years ago Brandy and I were told we could never have children. Over the last eight years we have done our best to accept it, but there was always a deep part of us that wanted to have children, to be parents. That has caused us to suffer greatly.
But you know what? God has taken our eight years of suffering and done something beautiful with it. Brandy is pregnant! It was a surprise. It is a beautiful miracle from God. All of our suffering and pain has been transformed into the strongest joy you could ever imagine. The truth is our joy is even stronger because of it. The sense of God’s presence is stronger because of it. You could not find two happier people on earth than me and Brandy. God took something painful in our lives and has done something beautiful with it. I feel like more than a conqueror!
God can do the same for you. God can take what is ugly in your life and make it beautiful. Just give to God what is painful in your life and He will transform it into something incredible. The worst thing is never the last thing. God will turn your trouble into triumph. Give to God what is ugly in your life. Just hand it over to Him. And He will do something beautiful with it.