FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About The Christian Life - Chapter 8
Of all the questions that trouble the people of God, none is greater than the question posed in the title of this chapter. Sometimes it is asked in other ways: Why is there so much suffering in the world? Or why do bad things happen to good people? Or why do the wicked prosper while the righteous take such a beating? Or if God really has the power to stop human suffering, why doesn’t he use it?
Eventually these questions become very personal: Why did my husband leave me after fifteen years? Why did God allow my daughter to die in a car wreck? If God is good, how could he let my closest friend suddenly have a heart attack? There is no end to the questions, and there is an alarming shortage of satisfying answers. No question for a pastor is harder to answer than, “Why did this happen?” Twenty-seven years ago my father died after a short illness. Two years ago one of my best friends died while exercising. Those two events are the most traumatic experiences of my life. As I ponder the question “Why did this happen?” I realize that I don’t really know anything more today about why my father died than I knew twenty-seven years ago. God has his reasons, but they are far beyond my meager understanding. The same is true of the death of my dear friend two years ago. Looking around, I can see many lives that have been touched because of his untimely death. Undoubtedly there will be people in heaven who came to Christ as a result of the way he lived and died. But is that the full explanation for why things happened the way they did?
The answer almost certainly is no. I rest content that at best I can grasp a tiny sliver of God’s eternal purposes as they work themselves out in a fallen world where death still reigns.
Some people have trouble dealing with unanswerable questions. But as I grow a bit older, I find myself taking comfort in how little I know about how the universe works. In the sad, sorrow-filled days after my friend died, I had a long conversation with the Lord. “So you think I made a mistake by taking Gary home to heaven?” the Lord seemed to say to me. “Yes, I think you made a mistake,” I replied. The Lord didn’t seem offended by that. He already knew how I felt about it. “So you think I should have asked your opinion before I made my decision?” “Yes, Lord, that’s exactly how I feel, and frankly, I wouldn’t have made that decision at all. I would have told you to go find someone else to take home to heaven.”
Again the Lord didn’t seem bothered by my comments. “Ray, just keep this in mind: I did what I did for my own reasons. But I did it without consulting you so you would know that I take full responsibility for when and how Gary died.” That conversation, which was all in my mind yet seemed very real to me, was a great comfort to my soul. I find it easy to worship a God who can suddenly and without warning take home a mighty Christian like Gary Olson. I felt then and feel now that only an Almighty God would do something like that and feel no need to explain himself before or after.
In a sense, the mystery of it all ended up building my faith. After all, why would I want to worship a God I could fully understand? “How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!” (Rom. 11:33).
And why am I alive while someone else suddenly dies? I faced that question several years ago when the pastor of a large church in Chicago died suddenly. I pastor Calvary Memorial Church; he was the pastor of Calvary Church in another Chicago suburb. I had met him several times and respected him as a man of God. When I heard that he had died, I recalled those words of Scripture, “You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning—though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered” (Ps. 90:5-6).
The next day someone told me that he had heard the pastor’s death announced on a local radio station, but he only heard the part where the announcer said that the pastor of Calvary Church had died suddenly. He assumed they were talking about me. And the thought comes—It could have been me. Why the other pastor and not me? I don’t know the answer to that question.
The question before us focuses on the connection between God’s goodness and our pain. In thinking about where to turn in the Bible to find help on this topic, my mind was drawn to a simple statement in the Book of Job where the afflicted saint declares his faith in God. His words have endured across the centuries because they speak for everyone who has spent some time in the furnace of suffering. Some people are in the furnace right now, others have just come out, and the rest of us will be there sooner or later.
Five Truths for Those in the Furnace
Here is Job’s simple statement that sums up an enormous amount of spiritual truth: “He knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). From this verse (and the three following verses) I would call your attention to five important truths that if properly understood will help you hang on to your faith while living in the furnace.
Truth #1: God Sees You Even Though You May Not Be Able to See Him
Job begins by affirming his confidence that God sees him in his pain: “He knows the way that I take.” It is not an uncommon experience for believers to lose the conscious sense of God’s presence during the darkest moments of life. We wonder where God is when we are walking through the pain of divorce, or the crushing burden of having our friends turn on us, or the heartbreak of watching a loved one die. Even the Lord Jesus cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
It’s not wrong to feel that way, and you have not sinned just because you have lost the sense of God’s presence. Job said, “I’ve got a case to present to the Lord if only I could find him. I’ve looked high and low for God but I can’t find him anywhere. I’ve searched in every direction but he is nowhere to be found.” Then he rose to a higher level of faith and declared, “I can’t see him, but it doesn’t matter because I know he sees me.”
Someone said it this way: “God’s hand is invisible but he has an all-seeing eye.” Do you recall the story of Hagar, who fled from the household of Abraham and Sarah? Pregnant and alone, she wandered in the barren desert. The Lord found her near a spring and told her to go back to Abraham and Sarah. He also told her to name her son Ishmael, which means “God hears,” because the Lord had heard of her misery. She replied with one of the wonderful statements of the Old Testament, “You are the God who sees me” (Gen. 16:13). She actually gave God a name—El Roi—which means in Hebrew, “the God who sees.”
Here is a name of God for those going through trials—El Roi— the God who sees. You may not see him but he sees you. He knows what you are going through.
Truth #2: Spiritual Growth Is a Journey, Not a Destination
Notice how Job puts it—"When he has tested me.” I’ve italicized the word he to emphasize that Job understood that God was behind his sufferings. You may say that it was all Satan’s doing, but that’s not the whole truth. It was God who brought up Job’s name in the first place when he asked, “Have you considered my servant Job?” (Job 1:8). And it was God who set the limits on how far Satan could go in tormenting Job. That’s why Job kept saying, “I want to talk to God face to face about all this.” Satan may have started it, but God set the rules of the game.
“When he has tested me.” This speaks to the fact that suffering is part of God’s process to bring us to spiritual maturity. Write it down in big letters: We all have to do some furnace time sooner or later. You say, “But it’s hot in there.” You’re right about that. “It hurts.” It sure does. “It seems to last forever.” That’s definitely how it feels inside the furnace. “I don’t like it in there.” Neither do I. But none of those objections matter in the end.
What is God trying to do when he allows his children to go through hard trials and deep suffering? There are several answers to that question. First, God is purging us of sin and purifying us of iniquity. Second, God uses suffering to test our faith. Will you still obey God in the darkness? Will you serve God when things aren’t going your way? Will you hold on to the truth when you feel like giving up? Third, God uses times of difficulty to humble us. When things are going well, we tend to get puffed up about our accomplishments. But let the darkness fall and we are on our knees crying out to God. Fourth, God definitely uses hard times to prepare us to minister to others. He comforts us so that we may comfort others. I know many Christians whose greatest ministry has come from sharing with others how God helped them through a time of crisis. Fifth, I believe God uses hard times to prepare us for a new understanding of his character. In the furnace we discover God’s goodness in a way we never experienced it before.
Someone wrote me a note and described several traumatic events of the last two years—including the death of a parent and a very painful divorce. He said that he was glad to see a new year begin because the last one had been filled with so much pain. The whole year he had been living on the brink. But that’s not bad, he said, because out on the brink of life he discovered the grace of God. “I have learned I am a person desperately in need of grace,” he added. Hard times are a gift from God to help him see how much he needs the Lord. His pain has taught him that he is like a helpless baby, totally dependent on the Lord.
On one level we all know that’s true. It’s just that we forget it until life falls apart.
Truth #3: Your Trials Will Not Last Forever
The text says, “I will come forth as gold.” Looking back from our position, we may not see how great a statement of faith this really is. Job had lost everything—his property, his prosperity, his position in the community, his children, and his health. His wife turned against him when she encouraged him to curse God and die. Here is this man sitting on an ash heap, scraping his sores with pieces of broken pottery. He is a broken and ruined man. Yet in the midst of his pain he declares, “I will come forth as gold.”
How can this be? He saw something his three friends didn’t see. He understood with the eyes of faith that what God was doing had a purpose. All these terrible things were not meant to destroy him, but in the end to improve him.
We may rightly wonder how tragedy can improve a person. This week I read a book of Puritan prayers. There I found the statement that our trials are sent by God for our spiritual improvement. For some reason that struck me with great force. When God wants to improve a person spiritually, he puts him through great trials.
Job compared it to the process of refining gold. Even though this took place thousands of years ago, the basic process has hardly changed. You take raw chunks of gold ore—pieces of stone flecked with tiny bits of gold—and put them in a hot furnace. The heat causes the stone and dirt to melt and rise to the surface where they are skimmed off so the only thing left is pure gold. It takes enormous heat to do this, but it’s worth it because in the end you have pure gold, unmixed with any impurities.
Something like that is at work in your life through the trials you endure. The hotter the fire, the more the pain, but the quicker the gold comes forth. In the end you will be both approved and improved by God. Your trials are not wasted nor are they random acts of fate.
• You will be approved—found to be good.
• You will be improved—made to be better.
This may not seem very comforting when you are inside the furnace. If that’s where you are right now, little that I can say will help you. Even to promise that it won’t last forever may seem empty when the flames are leaping around you. I can’t tell you when your trials will end, but I do know this much: He’s an on-time God. You can’t rush him, but he’s never late either. When the appointed time has come, the fierce heat will dissipate and the gold of tested character will come forth in your life.
But what about those people whose trials never end in this life? I must admit that I have known some very fine people whose lives have seemed to be one heartbreak after another. When I see such a person, I never think, “They must be very sinful.” Instead I think to myself, “There must be a lot of gold there.”
Here’s another piece of good news. For those who know Jesus Christ, death is the end of all suffering. This week I ran across a marvelous statement of this truth: “God has an eternity to set right what has gone wrong.” That’s why the apostle Paul could say that our trials aren’t worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom. 8:18). Whether you live or die, if you are a Christian, your trials will not last forever.
Truth #4: Faith Is a Conscious Choice to Obey God in Spite of Your Circumstances
Job states his case: “My feet have closely followed his steps; I have kept to his way without turning aside. I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread” (Job 23:11-12).
Here is a man in dire straits—in worse shape than most of us will ever be—and in the midst of his pain he makes a bold declaration: “I’m still serving the Lord. As bad as it’s been, nothing can cause me to turn away from God.” I ask one simple question: Where does that kind of faith come from? To me that’s a crucial question because as I study my own heart, I’m not so sure that I would be as strong as Job under those circumstances. How does a person stay strong when life tumbles in around him? After some years of thinking about this, I have concluded that the people who survive great trials understand that faith is a conscious moment-by-moment choice. More specifically, they also understand that faith is not based on how you feel at any given moment.
For years I tended to view faith as an emotion—if I felt good, if things were going well, if I found myself in a great worship service, then faith was easy for me. There’s only one problem with that concept—it won’t work when you don’t feel good or things aren’t going well or your friends have turned against you or the preacher is boring. Feeling-based faith won’t cut it when life crashes in on every side.
In those moments of desperation you’ve got a choice to make. It’s exactly the same one Job made. He said, “My feet have followed his steps” and “I have not turned aside.” I’m sure Job didn’t feel like following God after all the tragedies he had endured. But he did it anyway. That’s why he survived—and that’s why we still talk about him today.
While doing a radio interview I was asked how I could be so positive and confident when I spoke about God’s will. The man asking the question seemed burdened with many cares and difficulties. My answer went this way: “When my father died many years ago, I came face to face with the ultimate unanswerable question of life. I didn’t know then why such a good man would have to die at the age of fifty-six or why he would leave my mother and her four sons without a husband and a father. I had no clue about what God was doing. In the years since then I have learned many things about life, but I confess that I still don’t understand why my father died. It doesn’t make any more sense to me now than it did then. I am older and wiser, but in the one question that really matters I have no answers.
“But I have learned since then that faith is a choice you make. Sometimes you choose to believe because of what you see; often you believe in spite of what you can see. As I look to the world around me, many things remain mysterious and unanswerable. But if there is no God, or if he is not good, then nothing at all makes sense. I have chosen to believe because I must believe. I truly have no other choice. If I sound confident, it is only because I have learned through my tears that my only confidence is in God and God alone.”
My older brother Andy is a urologist who lost a twenty-year-old patient to a rare form of kidney cancer. When he asked me in all seriousness, “Why did he die?” I had no answer. But I felt no shame in saying that. I have decided to believe that God is good and can be trusted no matter what happens. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t have the strength to get out of bed every day.
I received an E-mail from one of the senior adults in my congregation who has been battling cancer for several years. The doctors told her they have done all they could, which means that every day from here on out is what you might call bonus time. More than once she has been on the brink of death only to pull back from the edge. Through all of it her faith has been strong and even radiant. This is how she put it in her message to me: “Not sure how many more treatments there will be, but whatever the Lord has in store, so be it. He is in control at all times and has always been. God is indeed a loving God.” That’s not the testimony of a person dying of cancer. It’s the testimony of a child of God living by faith.
I have a lifelong friend in Alabama who has been battling cancer for several years. Right now the cancer is in remission, but the doctors have said that the cancer could return again. Many people have prayed for his complete healing. When I chatted with him on the phone, he said that he’d been pondering his own situation from a new perspective. Which is the greater miracle, he wondered, to be healed from cancer or to be given the grace to stay faithful even if he isn’t healed completely?
Faith comes in many different varieties, but the faith that wins in the end is faith that chooses to obey God in spite of the outward circumstances.
Truth #5: God Is God and He Has the Absolute Right to Do Whatever He Wishes
There is one final secret of Job’s steadfast faith. In Job 23:13 he declares concerning the Lord, “But he stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases.” That brings us once again to the First Rule of the Spiritual Life: He’s God and we’re not. Until we understand that, we’re going to be unhappy because we’ll end up fighting against God.
Several years ago I read the biography of Bob Pierce, who founded World Vision, the Christian relief organization that has helped millions of people around the world.12 As I read his story, it struck me that he was an unlikely man to found and lead such a large organization. He didn’t have much education, he butchered the “King’s English,” and he lacked many social graces. In fact, he called himself a second-rater. When asked the secret of his life, he said that in his early years as a Christian he had prayed, “O God, I give you the right to set the agenda for my life. From here on out, you’re going to run the show. And you can change that agenda any time you want. But I pray that you will be pleased to use me for your glory in any way you see fit. Amen.”
That’s the kind of prayer God can answer because it’s based on the truth that God is God and he has the absolute right to do whatever he wants. Many of us are unhappy because we’re fighting God at the point of his sovereignty. We’ve never surrendered our agenda to his control.
To borrow a common phrase, we must “let God be God.” On one level that statement is nonsense because God is God whether we like it or not. But on another level it points to a great truth. We can either live in submission to the sovereignty of a God whose ways are far beyond all human understanding or we can attempt to fight against his plan. But as the wise man said: Your arms are too short to box with God.
What should you do when you find yourself in the furnace?
• Seek a quiet heart.
• Listen for God’s voice.
• Look for God’s fingerprints.
• Stay faithful to God no matter what.
Above all, don’t take matters into your own hands. That only makes things worse. God has wonderful things to teach you in the furnace if only you will listen and learn. We’ll all do some furnace time because that’s part of God’s plan for our spiritual growth. You can’t escape the furnace, but you can use it for your own spiritual improvement.
Back to the Original Question
And that brings me back to the original question: If God is good, why do I hurt? I think the first part of that question is the key. Is God really good? More and more I am convinced that this is the fundamental question of life: “Is God good and can he be trusted to do what is right?” If the answer is yes, then we can face the worst that life has to offer. If the answer is no, then we’re no better off than the people who have no faith at all. In fact, if the answer is no or if we’re not sure, then we really don’t have any faith at all.
Sometimes you choose to believe because of what you see; often you believe in spite of what you can see. As I look at the world around me, many things remain mysterious and unanswerable. But if there is no God, or if he is not good, then nothing at all makes sense.
When we hurt, we really have only two choices:
• we can hurt with God, or
• we can hurt without him.
If you are hurting as you read these words, you may feel as if you have come to the end of your endurance. I pray that you will hang on to the Lord. If you turn away from him, things can only get worse.
Pioneer missionary J. Hudson Taylor founded the China Inland Mission one hundred years ago. During the terrible days of the Boxer Rebellion, when missionaries were being captured and killed, he went through such an agony of soul that he could not pray. Writing in his journal, he summarized his spiritual condition this way: “I can’t read. I can’t think. I can’t pray. But I can trust.”
There will be times when we can’t read the Bible. Sometimes we won’t be able to focus our thoughts on God at all. Often we will not even be able to pray. But in those moments when we can’t do anything else, we can still trust in the loving purposes of our heavenly Father.
Fear not, child of God. No one knows what a day may bring. Who knows if we will make it through this week? But our God is faithful to keep every one of his promises. Nothing can happen to us that does not first pass through the hands of a loving God. If your way is dark, hang on to Jesus. When your furnace time is over, you will come forth as gold.
A Truth to Remember:
God has wonderful things to teach you in the furnace if only you will listen and learn.
1. Do you agree that every Christian has to do some “furnace time” sooner or later? Why does God allow hard times to come to his children?
2. Think back to a time when you did some “furnace time.” How long were you in the furnace? What did you learn from it? What “gold” was produced in your life?
3. As you look back on your “furnace time” experiences, how were you helped (or hurt) by what other Christians did or said? Name some things we can do when we see a brother or sister in Christ going through a hard time.
4. What difference does it make to someone dying of cancer to know that “our suffering is temporary"? Is it a cop-out to say such a thing since suffering for some people wont end until they get to heaven? How can this truth give hope in a situation that humanly speaking seems hopeless?
5. How do our sufferings “qualify” us to minister to others?
6. In what area of your life do you need to “let God be God"? What do you need to do (or stop doing) to make sure that happens?