Category Archives: Suffering

Why? – When Life Disappoints

The problem of pain and loss and disappointment has hindered many people in their faith journeys. One writer referred to the problem of pain as “a question mark turned like a fishhook in the human heart (Strobel, Case Faith).”

Why? Three little letters and one fishhook shaped question mark.

These life fishhooks come to us in many forms. They come to distance skaters who are told to change lanes by a coach thus having him disqualified from a gold medal. They come to moms who give birth to a lifeless child, while a woman in the next room over gave birth to a perfectly healthy child that she did not want. They come to parents who prayed for the protection of their son who is killed in a car crash while those who never pray avoid crashes their entire life. They come to students who have to listen to an announcement that two of their classmates have died in car accidents on the same day in separate accidents.

You and I just keep asking the question “Why?” It’s not a bad question to ask in some cases. We need to ask it in order to rectify a situation. Someone needs to ask it so that the coach doesn’t give bad advice to his skater again and knock him out of the gold medal. We need to ask “Why?” But there are some “Why?” questions that we will never be able to answer fully, and yet we keep asking it. If only she had worn a seat-belt; if only we had prayed more; if only we had made them wait just a second or two; if only… And the “Why?” question asked repeatedly of things mysterious, gradually evolves into a “Why me?” question.

I think we ask this kind of “Why me?” question, because we like to think that we live in an orderly universe that should be fair and that has logical explanations for things that happen. If the car won’t start, we have a dead battery. If the lights go out, someone didn’t pay the bill. If someone was killed in an accident, there had to be a reason. We have to have logical explanations for things, every board nailed down. And if we don’t, an unanswered “why?” question jeopardizes all of the security we feel in the world.

Someone has suggested that one of the reasons we want to know why is because it arises from the fear that the same thing can happen to us. Fear prompts the why question. And it doesn’t help if you’ve got a society that creates a culture of fear simply to boost their circulation or increase their viewing audience. You know how this works. “The little freckle on your arm could be a time bomb – story at 10.” We are hooked in a second. We have something new to worry about. And then we fear being the one case in a thousand that has a freckle turn into something and we ask “Why?”

What if we are asking the wrong question. What if there is no answer to this kind of “Why?” question. “Why me?” is a natural question to ask, but if we live it constantly, it makes it impossible to see anything but the “unfairness” of what has happened in my life. It imprisons us. What if we are being asked to live with mystery? What should we be asking then?

Jesus seems to imply that the question we all should ask is “What now?” I’ve got trouble. I have experienced loss. I worry about the uncertainty of the world I live in. “What should I do now?” But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness…

We often want to seek pleasure or some other form of escape first. The easiest route of relief is through our bodies. We seek to gratify the senses and get relief when we stop at “Why me?” But the question “What now?” allows us to step out of the prison, not as hapless victims in an unpredictable world, but as citizens of a kingdom. When we ask “What now?” we shift our focus from ourselves to God’s Kingdom. How can God be honored in all this trouble? God may not answer our “Whys?” but He will be our “Who?” and part of our “What now?” We can trust Him with our “Whys?”

And what I have found is that the people God uses the most in the kingdom are those who have an unanswered “Why?” in his/her life.

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Filed under Atheism, Christian Worldview, Suffering, Theodicy

Every Joy on Earth is an Inkling, a Whisper of a Greater Joy

We think that our greatest problem is pain and suffering. Indeed, it can be gut-wrenching, but it’s not our biggest problem. Our problem is that we have achieved what we thought would make us happy, and yet we remain unsatisfied. G. K. Chesterton observed that weariness does not come from being weary of pain but from being weary of pleasure. We’ve tried everything we can try in life, and still we are restless.

Deep within the human heart throbs an undying hope that somebody or something will bring a way to retain the wonder of living a fully alive, multisensory life experience, even in the pain and who will not disappoint. The presence of wealth is no protection against the ravages of the soul. Emptiness still stalks the rich, loneliness still haunts the icon, and disappointment still casts its shadow amidst the cheers under the spotlight (Zacharias), and the “liberated new atheist” is no more satisfied than the least informed Christian Theist.

Oscar Wilde was a literary genius – a poet, playwright, novelist, and critic. I have a book of quotations taken from his works. He was one sharp guy. Born in 1854, he won scholarships and was educated in Britain’s best schools. He had earned lots of money and traveled around the world. Yet, at life’s end at the age of forty-six, he died bankrupt and broken with no self-respect due to poor homosexual moral choices he made.

He says “I ruined myself…” He talked about the notoriety and natural gifts that had been given him. “…But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease… Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search of a new sensation… I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me… I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop… I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.”

I think we have learned to deal with pain and suffering. What has mastered us though, are these long periods of “senseless and sensual ease” and yet we are not satisfied. Questions of pain and suffering will always plague mankind until the New Creation. But an even greater question is “Why do we remain unsatisfied among blessing and plenty?”

The reason we remain unsatisfied is because we have made a mistake in what we thought would satisfy. Every joy on earth is an inkling, a whisper of a greater joy, but they are not ends in themselves. All of our pleasures point to a Pleasure-Giver. Our life-long nostalgia is a longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we feel cut off. And that something is actually a Someone. Until He becomes our greatest pleasure, pain and suffering will still perplex and long periods of sensual ease will be our psuedo-joy. We are far too easily pleased when infinite joy is offered.

C.S. Lewis said, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not mean the universe is a fraud…earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing (The Quotable Lewis).”

The Hedonistic Paradox states that true pleasure is a by-product of a greater pleasure. Until God is our greatest pleasure, unsatisfied senseless and sensual ease will be the lines along which our story moves. All those who refuse or deny God His existence relegate themselves to only the whispers or echoes of a Voice of the One who eventually provides the ultimate fulfillment of all sensory delight.

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Filed under Atheism, Christian Worldview, Hedonistic Paradox, Pleasure, Suffering, Theism, Theodicy, Uncategorized

Atheists and Theists Together and Equally Blessed

God, in common grace, has given us three institutions to hold back the flood-tide of evil that would otherwise overwhelm creation.

The state restrains evil so we can all live in a civilized world. The state makes laws and enforces them. Both atheists and theists can do this together and reap the beneifts of good laws.

The family is where we learn values, shape character, and we are lovingly cared for in a personal way. Both theists and atheists can work to make their families better.

The church is where we become restored in order to make our world better, where we learn how to do life better, and provide a new beginning for people who want to live for something bigger than themselves. Both, the atheist and theist can benefit from the church: the atheist should be able to find churches who would free them up to discuss their non-belief and the theist, to learn in helpful dialog, as well to offer a compelling worldview; and both of them together, organzing to change our world into a better planet.

All people benefit from these institutions; they are gifts from God. Common grace is God’s provision for the welfare of everybody on planet earth.

As grace agents, we are called to help sustain and renew His creation, to uphold the created institutions of family and church and government because these are the tools that God uses to hold back the floodtide of evil. We are to pursue science and scholarship, to create works of art and beauty, and to heal and help those suffering from the results of the Fall (Colson, How Now… xii).

Because we (atheists and theists alike) are made in God’s image, we are capable of some great things in the area of mathematics, science, technology, philosophy, the arts, sports, medicine, construction, and serving causes that change people’s lives, and so on and so forth.

And we don’t have to be an atheist nor a theist to do this; it’s simply an expression of who He made us to be!

Commenting over on another blog where the “suffering” question is being considered, I write:

“Of course, God has done something about suffering; He created you and I. In The Fall, a flood-tide of evil was released on the human race. Without God-ordained institutions (the family, the government, and the church), this flood-tide of evil would overwhelm the Creation. Granted, all of these institutions have their flaws, but imagine living in a world where lives could be taken (and the government was not there to intervene), where children were abandoned (and the family would not nurture), and where no one stewarded the larger story (and the church failed in its primary mission – to orient the world to this story). You see, God has done something about suffering.”

And now, it’s time for us to do something about it too. Don’t just hold a belief or adhere to a worldview. Be a belief. Be a worldview. Don’t just go to a church. Be the church. Change a world – together. Debate suffering a little less and alleviate some of it – a little more.

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Filed under Atheism, Common Grace, God, Suffering, Theism

Suffering – God Played By His Own Rules

When it comes to human suffering, some have noted that it’s like God is playing this cosmic game and they don’t want to play. But whatever game God is playing, if you want to phrase it that way, He Himself has played by His own rules. Because when Jesus, God’s Son, came into the world, he knew loneliness, pain, and suffering. He is not above the quandary of unanswered questions and life’s deepest hurts. God played by His own rules.

John Stott says that one of the reasons he’s a Christian is the cross of Christ… “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? (Why I Am a Christian).” The Cross represents our broken and pain-filled world and a God who has chosen to meet us there.

The problem of pain has hindered many people in their faith journeys. One writer referred to the problem of pain as “a question mark turned like a fishhook in the human heart (Strobel, The Case for Faith).”

But whatever else you may say about suffering and evil, one has to admit that “God played by his own rules.”

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Suffering – More About a “Who” than a “Why”

The question – Why”?” The question mark is turned like a fishhook and is pulled up into the human heart when we talk about suffering. So I speak tenderly here. All creation has been sabotaged; it longs (we long) for restoration. That’s what resurrection is a foretaste of – the renewal of all things, the reversal of the Fall.

Evil and suffering is somewhat of a mystery though; we humans can see only one side of the tapestry – our side. The closest we get to a direct treatment of it in the Bible is the Old Testament book of Job.

Simply put, we have to trust God – that He knows what He’s doing in allowing suffering. That’s where Job eventually landed.

I’m going to explain what happened when Job got an opportunity to ask God about suffering. It plays out like this. Job loses everything – family, property, servants, crops, livestock and even his own health. Job is surrounded by his friends who try to figure out why God has allowed this to happen to him. It was so bad that when his friends came to see him sitting in an ash heap, they couldn’t speak a word for seven days.

Virtually all of the things said by Job’s friends reduce down to this basic argument: Job, you must have sinned. And throughout the book, Job maintains his innocence and we question, “Why would God allow this to such a godly man?”

If He is all powerful, then He must not be good. Because He had the power to stop it, but didn’t. Or, maybe God is good, but not all powerful.

Like theological kryptonite, these questions render us powerless to answer; we along with Job’s friends are rendered powerless in the face pain. Job seems trapped in a cosmic battle between God and Satan, where God stacks the odds against himself, yet still believes his servant will be loyal to Him. Satan suggests that you take away all of Jobs blessings and his faith and loyalty to God will crumble.

As the plot unfolds, we keep watching for cracks in Jobs integrity. The best man on earth is suffering the worst calamites, and yet Job continues to believe somehow that God still loves him, though all evidence points against it.

Job goes through a cycle of speeches, loses his temper with God and accuses Him of injustice (I would too!), but later repents of it. Finally in desperation Job reduces his demands to one request: he asks for a personal explanation from God himself (13:3; 31:35). He wants God to explain to him the gross injustice of life and pain. He wanted to sue God (Job 10).

Job’s friends get angry at him: “Who are you to demand a private audience with God?” God stunned everybody by showing up. He gives this five chapter speech (38-42) where instead of being cross-examined by Job, God is the one cross-examining Job, asking him about 70 unanswereable questions (Storms, Pleasures Evermore, 260).

For over 30 chapters, Job cried out “God put yourself in my place for a while!” God finally replied: “No Job, you put yourself in my place.”

In the last five chapters, God begins to ask questions of Job – scientific questions. “Do you know how God controls the clouds and makes his lightening flash (37:15)?” “Where were you when I laid the earths foundations (38:4, see verse 21 for sarcasm)?” “Does the eagle soar at your command and build his nest on high (39:27)?”

Instead of Job questioning God, it was God who questioned. Who put the stars in place Job? Who created the world with its resources? Who created the gigantic whales and elephants, and tiny spiders and ants? Who created you? Who watches over you in such a way that not a hair can fall from your head without his knowing about it? Job 38:4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. 35 Do you send the lightning bolts on their way? Do they report to you, ‘Here we are’? 39:1 “Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you watch when the doe bears her fawn?” And on and on God questions.

God’s message, expressed in gorgeous poetry, can be summarized something like this: Job, until you know a little more about running the physical universe, don’t tell me how to run the moral universe (with help from Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read). The implication is this: “Job, how do you expect to understand the complexities of My dealings with mankind when you can’t even understand the simplicity of My dealings with nature?”

One is tempted to think, “What does all of this have to do with suffering?” Job didn’t have answers for God. The implication is that if God is this completely in control of seemingly insignificant aspects of nature – aspects about which Job knows almost nothing – He can surely be trusted to care for humans. Job ends up in total silence.

Job finally says in 42:5: “My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.”

Frederich Buechner suggests that what Job was really after was not God’s answer, but God’s presence (Secrets, 167). That’s what Job needed and what we need above all else – not so much an explanation for our pain, but even more the revelation that even in the midst of suffering, we are not alone. It’s not so much answers that we need as it is the One who is the answer to all our quandaries. We want answers, but God says, “I am the Answer.” In the words of C. S. Lewis, Job speaks: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away.”

All of us will wrestle at some point with the absence of God. Usually that time is characterized by some kind of pain. In those times, we realize that we are not running the world after all. We get very clear that we are not God. And God gets very clear: “I am here. You are not alone.”

You have to trust what the Bible tells you about God, even when He doesn’t answer your questions or make the story come out like you wanted it too. He who has the “Who” of life settled, can tolerate almost any “Why?”

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