Some guy in Alabama ticked me off.
I was driving back home from two weeks of ministry in Tennessee and Kentucky when I bought a Birmingham News in Tuscaloosa. At a rest stop in Mississippi, I scanned it and was snagged by a letter to the editor from an outspoken agnostic.
After reading it and fuming a little, I tossed the paper in the trash. Later, wished I’d kept it just for reference here. So I’m going by memory.
The writer wanted the world to know that recent tornadoes in Alabama proved beyond doubt either that there is no God or if there is, He is a tyrant who delights in doing cruel things.
He was clearly proud of his great letter. I’m betting he clipped it and displayed it somewhere prominent in his house.
I have no idea whether anyone responded to his letter. Probably not. The Bible cautions against answering fools, and this guy surely fits that category.
Now, I am not saying all atheists or all agnostics are shallow, non-thinking, or even fools. When Scripture says The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God’ (Psalm 14:1), it does not mean everyone saying that is a fool. Only that fools will say such a thing. There is a difference.
Many an agnostic or atheist is an honest seeker, and–we trust–if he/she perseveres will emerge into the light. We would not call them fools.
But I feel safe in saying that this guy was a bonafide fool.
Think of it. His reasoning process goes like this: If there were a good God, He would only do those things that please us. Since there is much in this world that displeases us, there must not be a loving God.
Now, I studied logic in college. I don’t claim to remember everything about it, but I do know when something is illogical. And this certainly qualifies.
Imagine someone saying: “There cannot possibly be a loving God because there are things that take place in the world we don’t like.”
That’s what that bird is saying.
But he’s not alone. He has his friends–birds of the same feather–all across the land, and ensconced in seats of criticism where they sound forth on their ridiculous philosophy.
Remember the J. B. Phillips book from a generation ago? Your God is Too Small answered this foolishness back then. Trouble is, it keeps popping up with each new crop of critics, people too lazy to think matters through, people who want their theology easy and smooth, otherwise they will reject all notions of God.
So, what is the correct answer? Why the tornadoes? Why the flooding in the Mississippi River Valley? Drought out west? Fires in California? Why the worldwide pandemic?
Why do people suffer while Heaven seems deaf to their pleas?
No one has all the answers. But here are some clues–
Oh, and let’s keep in mind Paul’s statement that we see through a glass darkly (I Corinthians 13:12), regarding our own limitations. Our understanding is necessarily partial and incomplete. So, this is in no way the last word on anything.
1. God has His own purposes for everything He does.
Job did not have a clue what God was up to. Yet, he trusted the Lord the best he could and went forward. The 42nd chapter of Job shows God vindicating him and affirming his faith.
Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases. (Psalm 115:3) And He does not ask my permission either!
In any discussion of suffering, we start with the sovereignty of God. And probably end there also. Simply stated, that means God is in charge and has His own reasons for everything He does, most of which He has not seen fit to share with us. While the Bible makes it clear that God’s Word contains everything we need to know about His workings, it surely does not contain all there is to know. The Lord wants us to walk by faith. That means trusting Him for what we do not know, but doing it because of what we do know.
2. Suffering achieves effects in believers’ lives which prosperity cannot.
Suffering acts as an abrasive; prosperity acts as a warm blanket. Suffering makes us examine everything; prosperity tells us we’re doing just fine the way we are now.
Successful novelists often tell how their early failures–even receiving rejection slips numbering in the hundreds–motivated and drove them to study harder, work more diligently, and strive to write better. Many have said, “Had I been given early success and great acclaim, I would have stopped growing. As it was, I kept trying harder and harder.”
It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I may learn your statutes. (Ps. 119:71).
3. Suffering purifies, refines, hones us for future service.
Warren Wiersbe said, “The Spirit of God teaches us from the Word, and then He directs our lives into circumstances that call for us to trust the Word and act upon it.” The Lord is teaching obedience.
To build a muscle, we put stress on it. When God wants to build us, He allows us to go through difficulties. The hardships are evidence of His love and His plan for us, even if the superficial mind resists it.
Scripture says this even about Jesus. Though He was a Son, yet He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. (Hebrews 5:8) One wonders if we think we are better than Jesus and that we can be shaped and honed for service without having to go through suffering.
4. Suffering erects a platform from which the child of God can show the watching world the reality of Christ.
God wants the world to see the difference He makes in the life of someone who trusts Him implicitly. One way is by letting His children go through life’s fire. Think of…
…Daniel in the lion’s den….the three Hebrew lads in the fiery furnace….Joseph in Egypt’s prison….Moses on the back side of the desert for 40 years…Paul in various prisons….Stephen being stoned to death…Silas and Paul in the Philippian jail.
Let’s turn this around and ask: If following Jesus meant never having a problem and never having to suffer, wouldn’t it be the cheapest insurance available? and wouldn’t everyone come for all the wrong reasons? and wouldn’t that encourage laziness in us? and how would God be glorified by such selfishness?
5. Our suffering gains the attention of the world. When we handle it well, we earn credibility with spectators and critics alike.
When God’s children do the hard thing in obedience to Him–when we love the unlovely, forgive the undeserving, rejoice in persecution, show love to our enemies–twelve powerful things happen:
—God is glorified, Jesus is pleased, and the Holy Spirit is liberated to do whatever He wanted to accomplish in that situation.
—The devil is infuriated, the enemies of the Lord are puzzled–you are not behaving as planned–and the critics of the church are silenced.
—The church itself is edified, believers going through hard times are encouraged and instructed, and the unsaved world watches and wants what they see in you.
—You yourself are blessed, and according to Luke 6:35, your reward in Heaven will be great and your reputation now goes through the roof.
6. Our suffering may create an opportunity for witness we would never have had without it.
After they were arrested, beaten with rods, and locked into stocks in the deepest part of the Philippian jail, we are told that at midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:25) God did some amazing things that evening as a result of two men who suffered well for Jesus’ sake.
7. God may allow us to suffer in order to create a situation where we can preach the gospel.
Our Lord prepared His disciples for this very eventuality: (Men) will deliver you up to councils and scourge you in their synagogues. You will be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles. (Matthew 10:17-18)
Think of it. You’re out there preaching and blessing people. Suddenly, you are arrested and beaten and thrown into prison. After a few days, you are hauled into court for preaching without permission or a license or a hundred other pretexts. The judge looks at you and says, “All right. Tell us what you’ve been preaching on the streets of this city.” And there you have it.
That’s your big opportunity, says our Lord. That’s why God let this happen. That judge will not be attending your revival meeting. So, you have to bring the gospel to him. And this is how God is pulling it off.
Jesus said, “When that happens, do not plan in advance what your response will be. When this moment occurs, the Holy Spirit will take over and do the preaching.” (Matthew 10:19).
Far from abandoning His children in their suffering, God is more active in the midst of our suffering than He ever was during the blessed time of sunshine and flowers. He will use our suffering in a hundred ways He could never have used success. But we have to be faithful and trust and look to Him and believe that He is still present and still working.
The early disciples understood this and got it right. So they departed from the presence of the council (which had just threatened them and ordered them not to preach Jesus), rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. (Acts 5:41)
We are called to suffer for Jesus’ sake.
Wow. Lucky dog.
After the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001, I heard about Al Braca who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, a brokerage firm, with offices on the 104th floor of One World Trade Center. Braca was a brother in Christ who endured a lot of slings and arrows over the years he labored in that firm. According to Lisa Chilson-Rose, who tells the story in As The Towers Fell, Al and his wife Jeannie had come to know Christ 23 years earlier when the Lord healed their small daughter of a rare blood disease.
Lisa writes that Al was extremely open with his colleagues about his faith. Some coworkers harassed him about his morality, but they were usually the ones who went to him privately to talk about marriage, work, or some other personal problem. They often asked him to pray for them. Many of his coworkers called Braca “The Rev.” Lisa notes, Half out of affection, half making fun of him.
On September 11, 2001, the plane hit that building at the 90th floor. Most of those above had no more than an hour or two to come to terms with their fate.
According to Michael Chance, who first told me the story, (Michael and Lisa were both employees of the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association in Manhattan), in the days after the towers fell, Al Braca’s family began receiving phone calls from family members of his co-workers. They said things like, “I spoke with my husband before the towers fell. He said Al was leading them in prayer.” Again and again, others told the same tale. “The Rev is leading us in prayer.”
Lisa Chilson-Rose writes, After the plane hit his tower…’The Rev’ got everyone in a circle, holding hands and praying. Some received the Lord for the first time…. He stepped into eternity, ready to meet his Lord face to face, bringing with him some of those he had prayed about for so long.
Don’t miss this: The only way Al Braca could have had the kind of credibility that caused everyone to turn to him in this moment of crisis was that he had borne up well under the harassment and teasing inflicted upon him because of his faith in Christ.
God help us to bear up under hardship and mistreatment and suffering so that outsiders may see our faith and know our genuineness in Christ and so be drawn to Him.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared to the glory that is to be revealed. (Romans 8:18).