Luke 13:1-9; Hebrews 11:17b-12:2
There was a farmer who had three sons: Jim, John, and Sam. No one in the family ever attended church or had time for God. The pastor and the others in the church tried for years to interest the family in the things of God to no avail. Then one day, Sam was bitten by a rattlesnake. The doctor was called and he did all he could to help Sam, but the outlook for Sam’s recovery was very grim indeed. So the pastor was called and appraised of the situation. The pastor arrived, and began to pray as follows:
“Oh wise and righteous Father, we thank Thee that in Thine wisdom Thou didst send this rattlesnake to bite Sam. He has never been inside the church and it is doubtful that he has, in all this time, ever prayed or even acknowledged Thine existence. Now we trust that this experience will be a valuable lesson to him and will lead to his genuine repentance. And now, Oh Father, wilt Thou send another rattlesnake to bite Jim, and another to bite John, and another really big one to bite the old man. For years we have done everything we know to get them to turn to Thee, but all in vain. It seems, therefore, that what all our combined efforts could not do, this rattlesnake has done. We thus conclude that the only thing that will do this family any real good is rattlesnakes; so, Lord, send us bigger and better rattlesnakes. Amen.”
Do you think God operates that way? Is He really in the business of sending snakes? Does God cause people to get sick? Is God responsible for pain and suffering?
To keep the question in context was God responsible for the ill, sometimes barbaric, treatment that the “Hall of Faith” people listed in Hebrews chapter 11 endured? Was it God’s will that some of His best people go naked, homeless, hungry, imprisoned, tortured and even murdered?
What does the Bible say about it?
To be sure, there are a few verses in the OT where God causes something negative to occur: Prior to the great flood, God says, ‘I will cause it to rain upon the ground’ (Gen 7:14). In the Book of Exodus, God is said to have caused the plagues. And the prophet Jeremiah says God causes the destruction of northern Israel by the Assyrians and later southern Israel (Judah) by the Babylonians. However; I note that in each of these three instances of causality God brings judgment but it was not capricious or unjust, and always came with much warning. Nowhere in the OT does it say that God causes good or bad things to happen to individual people.
Even so, there are those Christians who have a high view of God’s sovereignty who choose take comfort in the idea that God is a puppet-master manipulating the strings that control both people and events, orchestrating everything to His divine plan. So just sit back, enjoy the ride, and trust that God has everything under control.
Chuck Swindoll gives an example of this in his book Tale of the Tardy Oxcart, which tells the story of a young New Yorker, Glenn Chambers, who on February 15, 1947, was about to achieve a life-long dream of becoming a missionary in South America. Until the Avianca Airline flight bound for Quito, Ecuador crashed clumsily into a 14,000-foot high peak in the Andes Mountains and dropped, a flaming mass of metal, into a ravine far below. None of the passengers aboard the DC-4 ever knew what happened. Before leaving the Miami airport earlier that day, Chambers hurriedly dashed off a note to his mother on a piece of scrap paper. That scrap of paper was once a printed piece of advertisement with the single word WHY sprawled across the center of one side. When the note arrived, there staring up at his mom was the haunting question: “Why?” Swindoll writes, “Of all the questions, it is the most searching, the most tormenting. No single truth removes the need to ask why like this one. Here it is: God is too kind to do anything cruel, too wise to make a mistake, to deep to explain Himself. Mrs. Chambers stopped asking why when she saw the Who behind the scenes.”
And then Swindoll notes, “Acceptance is taking from God’s hand absolutely anything He chooses to give us, looking up into His face with love and trust, even in thanksgiving and knowing that the confines of the hedge within which He has placed us are good, even perfect, however painful they may be, simply because He Himself has given them. 1
A high view of God’s sovereignty brings peace to some. . . but not all.
In the NT, the word ‘cause’ is never linked with God.
In fact, Jesus refers to two tragedies that took place in His time. One in which the Roman procurator, Pilate, issues orders for the execution of a certain number of Israelis from Galilee. And the other in which some sort of tower accidentally falls and kills 18 people in the village of Siloam. In both cases, Jesus will not allow the people in His audience to blame God for causing these tragedies.
So although I do not believe that God causes bad things to happen to good people, because we believe in an all-powerful and all-knowing God, we must infer that God allows bad things to happen to good people and bad.
And the question remains the same: Why?
First of all we must admit that we are not God, nor will we ever comprehend God’s will and ways. . . in this life anyway. Isaiah speaking for God says,
My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth so are My ways higher than yours, My thoughts than your thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).
And Paul in his letter to the Romans: Oh, the depth of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (11:33).
So when attempting to ask why does God allow bad things to happen to good people we must ultimately confess our ignorance. Even so, I would like to offer two explanations.
The Bible traces the entrance pf pain and suffering into the world to a wonderful, and yet at the same time, woeful characteristic of human beings: freedom.
Of all the animals that God created, God gave the species we call human the freedom to choose. It is what makes us different from all other species. We alone have been released from living purely instinctual lives that characterize the animal kingdom. We have been given the freedom of choice; a bane as well as a blessing. Given our freedom, we introduced a new element to the planet. . . rebellion.
G. K. Chesterton was fond of saying that we like to talk of wild animals but he said, humans are really the only wild animals. All other animals are tame. That is, they follow the bounds of their God-given design. We are the real wild animals because we alone of all creatures stand up to God, shake our fist in His face and dare to say, “I’ll do what I want to do, and You’d better leave me alone.” 2
Most remarkable of all, God listens carefully and then He says, “Okay, okay; if that’s the way you want it, okay.” And He allows us the freedom to do as we please; but not without consequences. . . those pesky consequences. “You will bear children in intense pain and suffering and you will sweat to put food on the table until your dying day.”
God allows pain and suffering to occur as a result of human sinfulness. Sometimes our pain and suffering is caused by our own bad choices. If I become inebriated and run my car into a ditch and break a leg or worse, then obviously I caused my own pain and suffering. And sometimes our pain and suffering is caused by the bad choices of others, as when someone murders my loved one. Certainly, any discussion of pain and suffering must begin with human rebellion, for the Bible teaches that pain and suffering were unleashed as necessary companions to misused human freedom.
The Bible does not pretend that a Christian should expect life to be easier than for a non-Christian. Which leads to a second explanation of why God chooses to allow bad things to happen to good people.
Sometimes allowing bad to happen is the only way God can get our attention.
God’s purposes are always redemptive in nature. What good can God get out of our suffering?
C. S. Lewis introduced the idea that pain and suffering is the megaphone of God. What can God use to speak loudly enough so we’ll pay attention? What can convince us that this earth is not running the way God’s creation is supposed to run? As C. S. Lewis said, “God’s megaphone. . . pain and suffering.” 3
If I stub my toe or twist my ankle, pain shouts to my brain that something is wrong and that I need help. Similarly, the existence of pain and suffering on this earth is a scream to all of us that something is wrong and we all need help.
All you have to do to experience a microcosm of what C. S. is talking about is visit an ICU in a big city hospital. For the intensive care ward is the one place in the world where all things that usually make a difference no longer make a difference. No racial tension there; no economic differences, even religious differences fade away as all the people are united by a single, awful thread: their love for a suffering and/or dying friend or relative. Many of them call for a pastor or priest for the first time ever. C. S. Lewis would say that only the megaphone of pain and suffering is strong enough to bring these people to their knees.
God uses pain and suffering to encourage us to trust Him as a father. Sometimes it is hard for us to be His children. We think we are big enough to run our world without messy things like pain and suffering to remind us of our dependence. We are wrong. The Garden of Eden proves it. For even in a world without suffering, we chose against God.
Even so, we who come after Adam and Eve have another choice. We can blame Him for the way it is, or we can trust God.
In the summer of 2012, Pastor Saeed Abedini, an Iranian-born US citizen residing in Idaho, traveled to his native Iran to visit family and work on building an orphanage.
On July 28, 2012, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard detained Abedini and ordered him to face criminal charges for his Christian faith. On Sept. 26, he was arrested and taken to the notorious Evin Prison, where he was placed in solitary confinement and subjected to regular beatings. Through all the pain and trial, however, he never wavered in his faith in Jesus. In fact, he repeatedly affirmed that his “chains are in Christ” and that God is using his imprisonment for the furtherance of the Gospel. Nevertheless, his great desire is to return to his wife, daughter and son Jacob. March 7th is Jacob’s birthday. Like lots of little boys, he sent out invitations to his birthday party, including to his father who was still in prison in Iran. Pastor Saeed sent this letter in reply:
‘To my dear beloved son Jacob, I got your beautiful birthday invitation and I know how much you want me to be there. Daddy loves you so much. I long to be there for your birthday, but my chains are keeping me from you. I want you to know that although I might not be there, there is One who always IS. One who is always there with you and who can meet all of your needs under any condition. I might not be there on your birthday and that breaks my heart as your father. But I know the One who is there on your birthday who is there for you and cares for you more than anyone could imagine. He is there with you and His name is ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ It means that God is there with you in every situation that you are going through. This is the name that God introduced Himself with when meeting with Moses in the burning bush when God’s people were crying out to Him and were feeling His absence. Today there are many people around the world who are experiencing the same things that the people of God were experiencing and that you are experiencing. They are crying out to God and might not be feeling His Presence. They are wondering where is God in all of this. But I want you to remember that despite what you feel, He is always there with you. Even though I am not there with you, the great I AM is there with you. God came in human flesh in Jesus Christ all the way from heaven to the earth to give us the gift of salvation by being crucified on the cross for the punishment of our sin. So on this special day, I want you to accept this gift of salvation. Invite Jesus into your heart as you have invited me to your birthday. So happy birthday to my big boy and my hero, Jacob Abedini. Thank you for standing strong with me in this battle for the glory of our Lord and Savior Jesus. Your proud Dad, Saeed.’
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
1 Chuck Swindoll, The Tale of the Tardy Oxcart, (Nashville: Word Publishing, 1998) pages 245-246.