Some guy in Alabama ticked me off.
I was driving back to New Orleans from two weeks of ministry in Tennessee and Kentucky when I bought a Birmingham (AL) News in Tuscaloosa. At a rest stop in Mississippi, I scanned it and was snagged by a letter to the editor written by an outspoken agnostic.
After reading it and steaming 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 the tornadoes Alabama had just experienced proves 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. Betcha he clipped it and is displaying it somewhere prominently in his house.
I’m wondering now if anyone responded to the editor and answered the letter. Probably not. The Bible cautions against answering fools, and this guy surely belongs in 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’s not saying everyone who says that is a fool. Only that fools do this. There is a difference.
Many an agnostic or atheist is an honest seeker, and if he/she perseveres will emerge into the light. They are not fools.
But I feel safe in saying this guy was one.
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.
(Hey, I took a course in logic in college. I don’t claim to remember everything about it, but I do know the syllogism.)
Imagine someone looking you in the eye and saying this: “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–in churches all across the land, and ensconced in seats of criticism where they sound forth on their ridiculous philosophy.
You might 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 to be easy and go down smooth, otherwise they reject all notions of God.
So, what is the correct answer? Why the devastating tornadoes? Why the floods? Why the pandemic the world is experiencing at this moment?
Why do good people go through suffering and Heaven seems deaf to their pleas?
No one has all the answers. But that is not to say there are no answers…
First, let’s state categorically that there are indeed times when God’s people suffer along with everyone else. Wars, plagues, epidemics, crimes–the saved have endured their share.
And, when believers are persecuted, God’s children suffer far more than others around them.
So, why? Why does it happen? And why doesn’t God answer their prayers for help?
We keep falling back on Paul’s statement that we see through a glass darkly (I Corinthians 13:12), as true regarding our own limitations. If he didn’t know it all, how much more we? Therefore, what follows will be partial and incomplete. But it’s a start.
1. God has His own purposes for everything He does.
Some of those purposes we know, but many we do not. Job did not have a clue what God was up to. Yet, he trusted the Lord 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).
In any discussion of suffering, we start with the sovereignty of God. And probably end there also. Simply stated, 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.
2. Suffering achieves effects in believers’ lives which prosperity cannot.
Suffering acts as an abrasive; prosperity acts as a snuggie. Suffering makes us examine everything; prosperity tells us we’re doing just fine the way we are now.
Novelists tell how their early failures–even receiving rejection slips numbering in the hundreds–motivated and drove them to study harder, work more diligently, and 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 says, “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 us obedience.
When we want to build a muscle, we put stress on it. When God wants to build us, He allows us to go through difficulties.This is evidence of His love and His plan for us, and not the contrary as the superficial mind wants to believe.
The Bible even says this 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. It would be nice.
4. Suffering provides a platform, a stage, from which the child of God can show the watching world the difference Jesus makes.
For want of a better way to put it, God wants the world to see what His presence does in the life of someone who trusts Him implicitly, so He may let His children go through life’s fire for this very purpose. It’s a small price to pay to reach a lost world.
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.
Ask yourself: If following Jesus meant never having a problem, never having to suffer, always having life easy, wouldn’t Christianity be the cheapest insurance available? and wouldn’t everyone rush to get in on it for all the wrong reasons? and how would God be glorified by such selfishness? This would merely further confirm us in our self-glory and self-centeredness. “If God loved me that much, I must be really precious and wonderful.” There’s a lot of that going around.
5. When believers suffer, it often captures 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, remain faithful in terrible times– 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.
Your faithfulness in hard times proves to be golden.
6. Our suffering may create an opportunity for witness we would never have had otherwise.
After they were arrested, beaten with rods, and locked into stocks in the deepest part of the Philippian jail, we read 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. Then, after a few days, you are brought out and 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.
This is your big opportunity, says our Lord.
That judge or that official is not coming to your revival meeting to hear the gospel. So, you have to go 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.”
Far from abandoning His children in their suffering, God is more active in the midst of our suffering than He ever was during the time of sunshine and flowers. He will use your suffering in a hundred ways He could never have used your success. But you 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. That’s why we read: 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)
You are called to suffer for Jesus’ sake? Wow. Lucky dog.
After the Twin Towers fell on 9-11, I began hearing stories about Al Braca who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, a brokerage firm, with offices on the 104th floor of One World Trade Center. Al Braca was a brother in Christ who endured a lot of slings and arrows over the years he worked for 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 young 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 the One World Trade Center at the 90th floor. Everyone above that had no more than an hour or two to come to terms with their fate.
Al Braca and his fellow employees at Cantor Fitzgerald died when the tower fell.
According to Michael Chance, who first told me the story (Michael and Lisa Chilson-Rose were both employees of the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association in Manhattan), over the next few days, Al Braca’s family received 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 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.
The only way Al could have had the kind of credibility that caused everyone to turn to him in this moment of crisis was that he bore 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.
You never know what God is doing or going to do with the trouble you are experiencing. Trust Him.
We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).