When disaster strikes… Questions of every sort are asked. Emotions of every sort are expressed. Explanations are almost as plentiful as the amateur philosophers who are attempting to make sense of things.
The “why” questions are the most troubling… People ask, “Why did this happen?” Others want to know, “Why didn’t God prevent this from happening?” Still others chime in, “Why does God allow people to or cause people to suffer?”
We should bear in mind that… suffering, pain or distress, is one of the most persistent of all human problems. Even those who experience relatively minor suffering in their own lives are constantly confronted with the suffering of others—within their own families, among their acquaintances, or even in distant lands.
Suffering takes many forms: physical pain, frustrated hopes, depression, isolation, loneliness, grief, anxiety, spiritual crisis, and more. Such unpleasantness comes to good religious people, too. Certainly, the biblical peoples struggled with the presence of suffering in their lives. Just like people today, they sought ways to understand it and cope with it that could include their belief in both God’s power and God’s goodness.
Three ideas about the source of suffering:
1. Suffering as the result of human sin… One example of this category of suffering is the Covenant of Blessing and Cursing (Reward for Fidelity – Punishment for Idolatry) God made with Israel. In light of this we read:
a) Regarding God’s judgment of Israel—Amos 3:6, “When a trumpet sounds in a city, do not the people tremble? When disaster comes to a city, has not the Lord caused it?”
b) Regarding God’s relationship with His chosen people—Isaiah 45:5-7, “5I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, 6so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting men may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other. 7I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.”
c) Thus, there is suffering which comes about as a result of sin. Examples in our own lives are not difficult to list. This reality notwithstanding, it cannot be correctly asserted that all suffering is the result of sin. Indeed, in light of the fact that the following passages reveal that other purposes are involved, we conclude that this principle cannot be universally applied…
…Luke 13:1-5, “1Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 2Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? 3I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. 4Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
…John 9:1-5, “1As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
…John 11:4, “When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.”
2. Suffering leading to some greater good… There are a number of examples that could be marshaled in support of this idea. Three of them are:
a) Joseph’s manifold suffering which led to the preservation of his entire family. He said told his brothers, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (Genesis 50:20)
b) Peter’s counsel to the Christians of the dispersion, whom he was preparing for imminent persecutions, brings this into focus. He wrote the following to them: “6 In this [salvation] you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (1 Peter 1:6-7)
c) Paul’s inspired instruction makes it clear that we can rejoice in sufferings because they are leading to something glorious. He wrote the following to the Christians in Rome: “1Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. 3Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:1-5)
3. Sometimes suffering is said to be caused by cosmic evil forces… Consider these examples:
b) Satan’s successful efforts to incite David to take a census of Israel, cf. 1 Chronicles 21:1.
c) The crippled woman whom Satan kept bound for eighteen years, cf. Luke 13:16.
d) The direct, inspired statement of the Apostle Paul who stated: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)
Two observations regarding suffering:
1. There will always be mystery regarding suffering…
…Human efforts to explain with satisfaction all experiences of suffering are doomed to frustration.
…The Book of Job addresses the mystery of unmerited misery, showing that in adversity God may have purposes besides retribution for wrongdoing.
…Throughout Job’s suffering, as Job’s friends offer inept counsel and Job often laments his condition, God makes no response.
…Job’s reactions to suffering, along with his interactions with his friends and his questions of God, teach us that it’s not wrong to ask “WHY?” But, it is wrong to demand that God answer “WHY?”.
…Many sufferers, especially those who have read and dwell only on the texts that see suffering as punishment, need to know that other biblical passages argue against a simple-minded and heavy-handed universalizing of the retribution doctrine.
2. The Scriptures make it clear we are given permission to lament…
… In our culture, there is enormous pressure to suppress lament. However, the Bible makes it clear that lament is a means of expressing negative emotion without fear of reprisal. Examples of this are many and varied, especially in the book of Job and the Psalms.
…Biblical laments provide some help, not with the “why” questions, but with the “how” questions. Such as: How can I survive this? How can I get through the long nights of pain, the months of loneliness, without the loved one I’ve lost? How can I survive the weeks and months when despair hangs like a heavy weight around one’s neck?
How, then, should we respond to disaster and suffering…
1. Continue to trust God…
a) Job’s testimony: Job 1:21, “[Job] said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” –and– Job 19:25-26, “25I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. 26And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God…”
b) Jesus’ encouragement: John 16:33, “33I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
c) John’s counsel: 1 John 5:3-4, “3This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome, 4for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.
d) Exhortation from the Sons of Korah: Psalm 46:1-3, “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”
e) Thus, we need “even if” faith like that of Daniel’s friends: Daniel 3:16-18, “16Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. 18But EVEN IF he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”
2. Continue to pray…
a) People facing personal disasters should pray—Hannah, Esther, Ruth, and a Widow from Nain…
b) People facing the disastrous consequences of sin—Simon the Sorcerer, Acts 8:22, “Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.”
c) Believers should pray for spiritual revival and personal renewal—2 Chronicles 7:14, “13When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
d) For all people, 1 Timothy 2:1-4, “1I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— 2for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.”
e) For the peace that passes understanding, Philippians 4:6-7, “6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
3. Continue to serve those who are in need…
a) Proverbs 3:17, “27Whenever you possibly can, do good to those who need it.” (TEV)
b) Matthew 25:40, “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
c) Galatians 6:10, “So then, as often as we have the chance, we should do good to everyone, and especially to those who belong to our family in the faith.”
When disasters strike we can have confidence that God is at work in all things for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose. In the midst of the storms, we may not be able to see it—we probably won’t even want anyone to speak of this truth. This is why we must impress it on our hearts in times when disasters seem far removed from us. This is why we should start each day with the reminder of the confidence we can have in Christ, as emphasized in Romans 8. This chapter, which grows out of the idea of life through the Spirit of God, begins with no condemnation; ends with no separation; and, affirms there is no defeat in between. In fact, verse 18 declares:
…our present sufferings are not are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us!