suffering

I originally wrote this post a year ago reflecting on hurricanes and earthquakes, but its lessons are pertinent today.

As I post today, August 30, 2021, we are facing new catastrophes. Hurricane Ida has devastated the Louisiana coast. Our world is facing an international crisis in Afghanistan with the disintegration of the Afghan government, the takeover of the Taliban, and terrorist attacks. Our nation remains politically divided, and we are experiencing the Covid delta variant.

Some of you reading this are facing exhaustion and and frustration at your situation and the circumstances around us.

Questions arise: “Are we experiencing the judgment of God? Are we living in the last days? What might take place next? How should we respond?”

Let me offer some answers that I hope are biblical, theological, and practical.

Question: Are we experiencing the judgment of God? Answer: Yes. For millennia God has judged wickedness and depravity through supernatural, natural, and geopolitical means. God sent supernatural plagues on Egypt as judgment for their enslavement of his people. God sent a storm and a great fish after Jonah when the prophet ran from God’s command to preach in Nineveh. God send a locust plague on Israel as prophesied by the prophet Joel. And God used kings and armies all throughout biblical history to bring judgment upon his people and even the wicked nations around his people as a means of judgment. I believe we are experiencing the judgment of God for our wickedness. But we need to remember something about God’s judgments. They are mean to be restorative and redemptive before they are meant to be permanent. The reason God sent the prophets to Israel and Judah in the OT to warn them of coming judgment was to encourage his people to repent. Our experiences over the last couple of years may or may not be direct judgments of God on specific people for specific things. But most certainly they represent the general judgment of God on a world full of wickedness and rebellion. The bigger question we should ask ourselves is this: “Does God have our attention?”

Question: Are we living in the last days? Answer: Yes. Jesus taught in Matthew 24 that false messiahs, earthquakes, famines, wars, tribulation, and persecution are signs of the last days. We are seeing many of these things take place around us. There is a caveat. The first disciples experienced some of these things during their days on earth as well. Every generation since the ascension of Christ has believed that Christ might return during their lifetime. Many theologians over the 2000 year history of Christianity have identified different individuals as the Antichrist (from medieval popes to Adolf Hitler). The last days are the days of the church. Does this mean Jesus will return soon? In our generation? He certainly could. We should be ready. But he might not. There might be hundreds of years before he returns. Yet we must remember we are living in the last days. God’s judgments and chastisements are meant to turn our eyes to him. They are meant to shake us from our apathy and motivate us to preach the gospel and live the love of Christ to a hurting and sinful world.

Question: What might take place next? Answer: It would be foolish to speculate on details, but we can expect more judgments, trials, difficulties, tribulations, and persecutions. Many Christians over the ages have experienced persecution for their faith. For the most part, Christians in America have been spared persecution. That might be changing. With gubernatorial overreaches that have banned churches from meeting as well as the cancel culture, Christianity is being marginalized. We now live in a culture that celebrates depravity and idolizes immorality. All this is taking place in a nation whose foundations were built on the Judeo-Christian worldview. Our national rejection of God will most certainly spurn further judgments. Writing on this subject more than forty years ago, Francis Schaeffer articulated the judgment of God:

“Unlike Zeus whom men imagined hurling down great thunderbolts, God has turned away in judgment as our generation turned away from him, and he is allowing cause and effect to take its course in history.”

Francis Schaeffer, Death in the City.

Question: How should we respond? Answer: Repent, Pray, Preach the Gospel. It is fascinating sometimes how enamored we as God’s people are with the end times, tribulation, and judgment of God. Yet what should convict us deeply is the fact that the majority of God’s judgments and chastisements in the Bible are aimed not at the depraved nations, but at his rebellious people. Church, judgment begins with the house of God (1 Peter 4:17). Our circumstances should drive us to self-examination, confession, and repentance. We must reject any idols we discover and turn to Christ fully and completely. We must also pray. Our hope can only be found in the sovereign and living Lord. We connect with God through prayer. If we are not doing so already, we must pray for revival, awakening, and the salvation of sinners. Finally, we must be unashamed to preach and share the gospel. If nothing else, natural disasters, diseases, wars, and conflicts remind us how fragile and temporary life on this earth is. The only hope for people around us (family, neighbors, co-workers, friends, the nations) is the gospel. Church, it is time to wake up, hear the messages God is shouting to us, and proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.

Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash.

I’m not an expert on suffering. My life’s suffering has been minimal. My mom died a couple of years ago, and I’ve had the flu and bronchitis, but generally I’ve had a pretty non-eventful life. This post is not written from the perspective of an expert, but rather a fellow traveler seeking to understand what God wants to teach us in our circumstances.

Now Job is an expert in suffering. Following a heavenly conversation between God and Satan (Job’s accuser), God gave permission for Satan to bring suffering into Job’s life. By the end of chapter 2, Job had lost most everything he owned, had to face the death of his children, became ridden with boils, and was encouraged by his wife to curse God and die.

Few people on earth have ever suffered as Job.

The next 35 chapters of the book are basically a dialogue between Job and his friends about the reasons for Job’s suffering. These dialogues include lament, complaint, disappointment, and argument. It is normal in times of pain and suffering to complain and wonder why. But our complaints are not always profitable. Think about the wasted days of conversations between Job and his unhelpful friends. They didn’t change Job’s mind, and Job didn’t change theirs.

So how do we respond to suffering and pain?

Dr. Donna Gibbs, in her excellent book Becoming Resilient, suggests that we draw a large circle. Inside the circle, we should imagine key words like comfort, peace, forgiveness, hope, and love that reflect our relationship with Jesus Christ. Our circle contains the deepest and most important aspects of our faith. But too often, because of fear or frustration or doubt or worry or sorrow, we leave our sufferings outside the circle representing our faith in Jesus. She writes,

“Until we muster the courage to bring our suffering into the circle, into our relationship with Christ, we will miss the opportunity to experience great relief.”

Donna Gibbs, Becoming Resilient, 165. 

What is profitable in our suffering is to bring our pains and difficulties directly to God. He alone can comfort and heal.

I love how God responds to Job and his friends at the conclusion of the book.

God’s response to Job and his three friends is poignant and powerful. It is direct and quite confrontational. For the better part of four chapters (Job 28-41), God peppers Job with question after question after question. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” And on and on. 

Do you know that God never answers Job or his friends regarding the reason for Job’s suffering? I think God’s response is instructive for two important reasons.

First, When God speaks, we need to become silent and listen. Too often all that can be heard regarding our suffering is our complaints, our opinions, and the opinions of others. Too often, we don’t pause to listen to God. We need to hear God speak by silencing our voices and reading the pages of Scripture. We need to listen for the guidance and comfort of the Holy Spirit in our situations. According to C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” We might actually learn more about God in our pains if we will be silent and listen to him.

Second, We need to see God and not merely seek answers. The book of Job is a beautiful picture of the divine authorship of the Bible. No human author would spend 37 chapters building a story around a singular question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” and leave the question unanswered. If the book of Job had only human authorship, then the author would have written a response from God into Job’s question. But when God arrives, he questions Job. He silences the complaints of Job. He critiques the false statements of Job’s friends. In essence, God’s monologues to Job say, “Job, I’m enough.”

What we need more than anything else is to remember that God is enough.

Do you believe that God is enough even when you are suffering?