1 Peter 4:12-19 (NIV)
12 Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? 18 And,
“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”[a]
19 So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.
Some years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In it he tells of a beautiful young girl in her first year at University who, one morning, collapsed at her class and was rushed to hospital, where she died of a brain haemorrhage.
Her parents sent for him and when he arrived the first thing they said was "This is because we didn't fast last Yom Kippur.” Now what kind of God would kill an only child just because her parents missed out on one religious ritual! Certainly not the loving God we see reflected in Jesus!
Yet despite that, for many of us the automatic response when tragedy strikes is to assume that God had some direct hand in this and we ask: why is God doing this? Or Why is God allowing this to happen? Looking at things rationally we know that tragedies happen randomly and often have nothing to do with things we may or may not have done. No matter how hard we pray we are all going to die eventually.
There are of course situations in which we do suffer the consequences of our own actions – like when we have an accident after drinking and driving or get sick because we’ve abused our bodies. There are also times when we suffer because of the actions of others, – such as when a nation suffers because of the misdeeds of its leaders, or a family through the misdeeds of its father.
There was, and sometimes still is a common belief that the victims of tragic events are being punished for their sins. This was evident in the story of the man Jesus healed who was born blind. The disciples wanted to know if this was because of his own sin or that of his parents. Jesus’ response was that much human suffering is simply the result of factors over which we have no control and therefore we should stop attributing things automatically to God.
Jesus actually brought a radically new concept of God to the world. He taught that human suffering often has nothing to do with God’s displeasure, but rather that God is right there in the midst of it, suffering along with us and giving us strength to endure and to grow through it. The Bible says this about Jesus, "Because he himself suffered when he was tested, he is able to help those who are being tested.” It teaches that in Jesus, God took human form and nature, and experienced the full range of human suffering, culminating in the unimaginable horrors of crucifixion.
And the Cross eventually became the universal symbol of Christianity, even though it took several centuries for that to happen, because what it symbolized was so horrible. But it speaks to us of a God who suffers, just as we do.
There’s one book of the Bible that addresses this troublesome question of why God allows bad things to happen. It’s the book of Job – a part of the Bible few people ever read because it’s full of long-winded speeches that tend to bore all but the most serious readers. The story begins with a description of Job as a wealthy and righteous man, blessed by God in all sorts of ways.
The scene then shifts to Heaven where Satan tells God that the only reason Job is righteous is because he knows God blesses him for being that way. So, God allows Satan to afflict Job terribly - to the extent that he loses all his wealth and children, and finally suffers some loathsome disease that causes his wife to drive him away.
Then he’s joined by his three best friends who try to comfort him by trotting out all the usual cliches about why bad things happen, that God only punishes the wicked and if he’s innocent all will be well.
Job has the same reaction that I see in sufferers today who have to listen to the tripe that gets served up by well-meaning people who have all the answers even though they don’t know the question.
His friends becoming increasingly shocked by Job's attitude and lay into him even more; while Job admits he’s not perfect but can’t understand why he suffers so terribly when others get off scot free.
The whole thing comes to a climax when God finally answers out of a gathering windstorm. In it, God doesn’t give Job a clear answer about why a relatively good person like him should be suffering so badly.
Instead God says, in effect; 'Job, what do you know about running the Universe? There are some things I just can't explain to you because I am God and you are a man. You just wouldn't understand.’
In this poetic story we see, what is for us also, the only response we can make to this greatest of all theological problems, short of unbelief or bitterness - the response of faith. And in one of Scripture’s greatest statements Job says: ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.’
There’s no easy answer to the problem of tragedies that cause such suffering to ordinary people just getting on with their lives - many of them innocent children. Why doesn’t God intervene? I don't know. But what I do believe is that God knows and suffers with his people.
But there is one thing we need to remember. Times of trouble remind us of our mortality. They remind us that one day we shall all die; and even ninety years of life is less than a drop in the ocean of Eternity.
Though this life is all we know, and we naturally feel that to lose it is to lose everything, Jesus teaches us that it is not everything. Our real life is beyond it. And nothing can separate people of faith from that.
One of the most profound books on human suffering was written by C.S. Lewis and entitled The Problem of Pain. In it he says that what most of us want is not so much a "father in heaven as a grandfather in heaven,” who makes sure that the world runs in such a way that, at the end of the day, it might be said "a good time was had by all.”
As a father I’ve often agonized over my inability to protect my kids from the hard knocks of life. But I also realize that shielding them from pain won't ultimately make them better people; it would be more likely to keep them emotionally and spiritually immature.
The Bible says that Jesus was made perfect - or mature – through suffering. The fact is, it’s in times of suffering that we grow emotionally and spiritually. C.S. Lewis called suffering "God’s megaphone;” or to put it in more modern terms, God’s loudspeaker.
What he means is that for most of us, pain is the only thing that makes us stop and think long enough to realize that there’s infinitely more to life than being comfortable. Pain shouts at us and tells us that our simplistic expectations for how life should be are actually deficient.
It’s in times of pain that we learn that our true treasures are not in the material things we have but in the sort of people we are. Pain reminds us of our own mortality and that our ultimate destiny is a realm beyond this life where the only thing that matters is what we are.
Let me finish by telling you an old Chinese story about a woman whose only son had died. In her grief she went to a holy man and asked him for some prayer that would bring her son back to her.
But instead, the wise old man told her to go and bring him a mustard seed from a home that had never known sorrow. He told her that he would use it to drive the sorrow out of her life. So, she set off in search for that magical mustard seed.
She came first to a splendid mansion and told them that she was looking for a place that had never known sorrow. They told her she’d come to the wrong place, and then went on to relate all the tragic things that had recently befallen them.
The old woman thought to herself, who is better able to help these unfortunate people than I, who have had misfortune of my own? So, she stayed on to comfort them, and then went on with her search for a home that had never known sorrow.
But wherever she turned, she found one tale after another of sadness and misfortune. Eventually, she became so engrossed in ministering to other people's grief that she forgot about the magical mustard seed, never realizing that it had, in fact, driven the sorrow out of her life.
Even though sorrow may not be evenly distributed throughout the world, we are all brothers and sisters in suffering. The real question is not why is God letting this happen to me? butrather: Now that it has happened, what am I going to do about it?