When Katrina devastated this part of the world, two-thirds of the preachers in this land climbed into the pulpits the following Sunday to address the question on everyone’s mind: “Why suffering?”
It’s variously stated as “Why does God allow suffering?” and “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why doesn’t He end suffering?”
With the earthquake that wrought unbelievable death and suffering in Haiti, all those old questions have resurfaced.
What amazes Bible students and pastors is that the theology of Job’s friends, which the Word goes to such lengths to discredit, is still alive and well and being spread by many who claim to be Christians.
It’s what’s called in the logic classroom a “syllogism” and it looks like this:
The righteous do not suffer.
You are suffering.
Therefore, you are not righteous.
I did not hear Pat Robertson’s inflammatory comment last week in which he is said to have suggested (or actually made, I’m not sure) that Haiti’s constant poverty and suffering and now this earthquake which has taken the lives of 100,000 people is the result of an old voodoo pact the Haitians made with the devil.
If he said it and believes it, he believes in voodoo more than he should.
Anyone who believes that God is judging that sad little nation in this way ought to be ashamed of themselves. The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and God picks on them! What kind of tyrant do people think we worship?!
The Apostle Peter was writing to some people who were puzzled about their own suffering. Scholars are confident, to my knowledge, that the epistle was penned in the decade of the 60’s A.D. This would put it smack-dab in the middle of Nero’s time, that despot who burned Rome and blamed it on Christians.
We actually have a date for that event: July 19, A.D. 64. The fire burned for 3 days and 3 nights, was stopped, and then it broke out again. We’re told that Nero had a passion for building and needed to clear off space for his next projects. Since the buildings of much of Rome were wooden and the streets were narrow, a fire could take out much of the city, as it did.
Historians do not have a smoking gun, so to speak, identifying Nero as the culprit, but even at the time, everyone knew the name of the arsonist. We’re told that people trying to put out the fires were hindered. The historian Tacitus, who was 9 when all this happened, names names and fingers Nero.
The citizens were in an uproar. Nero quickly saw he was going to need a scapegoat, someone to pin the blame on.
He chose the Christians.
Tacitus wrote: “He falsely diverted the charge on to a set of people to whom the vulgar gave the name of Chrestians, and who were detested for the abominations they perpetrated.”
Abominations? Outsiders thought they were cannibalistic from their rituals of “eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Jesus.”
Antisemitism was already rampant in those days, and since Christians were associated with Judaism, this made them doubly apt as targets.
So, a period of intense harassment, persecution, and torture was begun. We’re told a large number of Christians were rolled in pitch (that would be tar), hoisted onto posts, and set afire to light the city. Untold numbers of disciples of the Lord Jesus were martyred in this manner.
Peter writes to people for whom suffering is no abstraction. They encounter hostility and rejection, brutality and persecution, everywhere they go.
The First Epistle of Peter covers a number of subjects and is clearly not a single-issue letter. But the apostle prominently addresses the subject which is uppermost in the minds of his people: the suffering they are called upon to undergo because they chose to follow Jesus.
–they are having to suffer all kinds of trials. (1:6)
–they will be accused as evil-doers. (3:16)
–they should not be surprised when called on to walk through a fiery trial. (4:12)
–in so doing, they are participating in the sufferings of Christ. (4:13)
–your suffering should be as a result of Jesus, not for wrong-doing on your part. (4:15-16)
–your brethren throughout the world are going through the same kind of suffering as you. (5:9)
Throughout the letter, Peter counsels his congregations on how they are to live in light of this rejection and hostility from the world. We’ll be getting to that as we work our way through the epistle.
But let’s try to enumerate some of the reasons God’s people are called on to suffer in this world.
One day last week, when some Facebook friend raised the question of suffering, a pastor wrote back, “The rain falls on the just and it falls on the unjust. And sometimes it just falls.”
A church member told me one day she was forever trying to give up cigarettes. The addiction had such a stranglehold on her, she was powerless in its grip. Among other things, I told her, “I have an assignment for you. There are 25 reasons not to smoke. I want you to find out what they are and get back to me.”
Twenty-five reasons not to smoke? After she left, I wondered where that number had come from and why I had pulled it out of the air.
A few nights later, sitting with a group of church members, I told them I had put myself on the line with someone by telling her there were 25 reasons not to smoke. “Help me. I don’t have a clue what they are.”
We gave them slips of paper to write their reasons for my list.
I ended up with more than 30. (I’m confident the list had nothing to do with my friend’s quitting smoking, which she did. After several years of ‘sobriety,’ Hurricane Katrina drove our region into such a stressful period that she resumed smoking, sad to say.)
So, how many reasons are there for suffering in this world? I don’t know. Here is my list for the moment.
1. This is a fallen world. Suffering is the lot of all of creation. “The whole creation groans as in the pains of childbirth up to the present time.” (Romans 8:22) “The rain falls on the just and the unjust.” (Matthew 5:45)
There are germs and cliffs and crazy people in this world. Tornadoes and hurricanes and lightning happen. If you fall off the roof of the house, do not expect God to suddenly catch you.
2. Likewise, there are laws of nature which the Creator established to cause the universe to run orderly. The law of gravity is one. Drive too close to the edge of a cliff and when your car tumbles down the embankment, no one can blame it on God. Well, they will, but they’re wrong.
God’s people who know their Bibles remember that in Revelation 12, Satan is called “the accuser of the brethren” before God. We see him doing just that in Job 1-2. However, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden, we know Satan is first and foremost, the accuser of God to the brethren. In that garden, the serpent tells Eve God is holding out on them and does not want them to be wise and to live forever. He twists God’s goodness into an attack on His love.
He’s been doing it ever since. None of us have to think very long to come up with instances of someone telling the distraught parents that God took the life of their small child by leukemia (or SIDs or a thousand other things) because of some sin in their past.
3. As the result of sin.
Having said God does not send suffering because of someone’s sin, we need to qualify that and point out that a lot of suffering in this life is the direct result of sin.
If I smoke and get cancer, if I drink heavily and get cirrhosis of the liver, if I use drugs and ruin my health, if I get drunk and pick a fight and get cut up, if I rob a store and am shot by the police, if I break the law and am thrown into prison, my suffering is not an arbitrary act of a vengeful God. I did it to myself.
Drunk and speeding and going around a curve on a country road, Edward slammed his car into a tree. Doctors told me he was lucky to be alive, that he had broken almost every bone in his body. The woman in the car with him was killed.
When he recovered to the point where he could speak, Edward said to me, “Brother Joe, why did God do this?” I said, “He didn’t, my friend. You did this all by yourself without any help from Him.”
4. In some cases, we share the suffering of Christ.
I don’t explain it–this may be one of the mysteries of the Christian life–but in some way and to some degree, when we are called upon to suffer in this life for the sake of Jesus, we experience “the fellowship of His sufferings.” That’s Philippians 3:10.
5. Our suffering may be in order to gain an audience with people who would never otherwise hear the gospel.
Jesus told the disciples in Matthew 10 that they would be arrested and tried before kings and governors “as a testimony to them.” That’s another way of saying: “Now, Caesar is not coming to your revival. So, if we’re going to get the gospel to him, we’ll have to do it on his terms. And the way to do that is to get some of you arrested for preaching the gospel. When the case is appealed to him, he will want to hear what you have been telling people. And that is your chance. Tell the story of Jesus.”
That’s exactly what Paul did before the governors in the last few chapters of Acts.
6. As a witness to the rest of the world.
“These Christians die well,” an early spectator said of the followers of Christ.
When Paul and Silas were thrown into Philippi’s jail after a severe beating, they sang hymns and prayed. Luke says, “And the other prisoners were listening to them.” (Acts 16:25)
Sometimes the Lord lets His people go through suffering and trials to demonstrate to the rest of the world the difference He makes in lives.
7. To refine and purify believers. This is what Peter had in mind in our text:
“That the trial of your faith, being more precious than gold which perishes, even though tried by fire, may be proven genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” (I Peter 1:7)
Here is the same test from The Message: “Pure gold put in the fire comes out of it ‘proved’ pure; genuine faith put through this suffering comes out of it ‘proved’ genuine.”
8. To separate the wheat from the chaff, the true from the fake, the faithful from the fair-weather.
C. S. Lewis said, “If only my toothache would stop, I could write another chapter about Pain.”
The point being, it’s easier to write about it than deal with it.
Lewis claimed to be a coward when it came to dealing with suffering. He said, “If I knew any way of escape, I would crawl through sewers to find it.”
The first book which Lewis wrote to defend and explain the Christian faith came in 1940 (the year I came also) and dealt with “The Problem of Pain.” This, he felt, was the primary accusation against God. Before, as an atheist, he would have cited suffering in the world as the number one reason for his unbelief.
Lewis made several points about pain and suffering:
1. It hurts.
2. Suffering is not good in itself.
3. It will never be removed from this world by social and scientific progress.
4. The security and happiness which we crave cannot be found in this life except in moments; it would keep us from God.
5. Pain is a unique kind of evil in that it does not spread or reproduce itself. In fact, it may be cleansing, it may destroy our pride, and it may turn us away from evil.
Pastors should never forget that among the people in the pews are those going through great pain. When a pastor preaches on the sanctity of human life and calls for the end of abortions, he must not forget that sitting before him will be women who have committed abortions and carry untold amounts of guilt. They do not need judgment, but redemption and love and forgiveness.
When a pastor calls on wives to submit to their husbands, he needs to be reminded of the women in the congregation whose husbands are drunken louts who beat them. Submission to such brutes is the last thing these women need to do.
“Lord, help us to show mercy to all, but particularly to those who suffer. And rather than sit around holding debates and symposiums on the theology of suffering, let us go forth to do something about it: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, heal the sick. And thus we shall be like Jesus.”