If God is Good, Why Do I Hurt?
February 9, 2019
Of all the questions that trouble the people of God, none is greater than the question posed in the title of this message. 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 a beating? Or if God really has the power to stop human suffering, why doesn’t he use it?
There is no end to the questions, and there is an alarming shortage of satisfying answers.
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?” 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.
The Keyhole Principle
We rarely grasp all that God is doing in any particular situation. As John Piper puts it, God is doing 10,000 things in your life right now. You understand maybe 3 of those things. Said another way, we can’t even imagine all the different ways God is working all things for our own good and his glory. Or we can put it this way: We don’t know what we don’t know.
We are like little children peering through a keyhole. We see a tiny bit, but the rest is hidden from our view. The danger comes in assuming that our “keyhole view” equals the totality of God’s purposes.
We don’t know what we don’t know
What can we learn from this?
1. We won’t understand most things that happen to us or to our loved ones.
2. The understanding we do have will be partial and limited.
3. Some things will baffle us completely.
4. If we get stuck on “understanding” everything, we are bound to be extremely frustrated.
5. Every now and then things will make perfect sense to us. When that happens, we ought to be grateful and even then remember that when we think we know the big picture, we’re still looking through the keyhole of life.
This truth ought to build our faith (“God is at work in my life in 10,000 different ways right now”) and it ought to humble us (“I’m not smart enough to figure out all that God is doing in any particular situation”) and it ought to give us hope (“God knows what he is doing, even when my current situation makes no sense to me”).
Why am I alive?
Let me make this personal. Why am I alive while someone else suddenly dies? I faced that question when the pastor of a large church in Chicago died suddenly. At the time I served as pastor of Calvary Memorial Church; he was the pastor of Calvary Church in another Chicago suburb. 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 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? Only God knows the answer.
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.
Three Truths for Those in the Furnace
Here is Job’s simple statement that sums up an enormous spiritual truth: “He knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). Let’s focus on three important truths that if properly understood will help you hang on to your faith while living in the furnace.
Truth #1: God Knows What You Are Going Through
Job begins by affirming his confidence that God sees him in his pain: “He knows the way that I take.” Nothing matters more than this when life throws us a curveball. Not long ago I managed to mangle my ankle in a biking accident. It happened when I hit an ice patch, and my bicycle slid out from under me. I ended up with three broken bones and a dislocated left ankle. That led to three surgeries and many months of recovery and rehab. While I was awaiting my first surgery, I was thinking about that congregational response that goes “God is good, all the time, and all the time, God is good.” A few years ago, I mentioned in a sermon that it started in the churches of Nigeria. A woman in Nigeria wrote to say it’s true that they say that in their churches. Then she said that the congregation adds a line at the end: “I am a witness.” I heard about a church that added two other phrases to that antiphonal chant: “In every situation” and “no matter what.” You could combine it all this way:
“I am a witness”
“God is good.”
“All the time.”
“In every situation.”
“No matter what.”
“I am a witness.”
If you want to remember it, hold up your hand and say those phrases, touching a different finger each time. It’s a good way to tattoo the truth on your soul.
While waiting for surgery, I found my emotions going in all directions at once. So I kept reminding myself of the first phrase of Job 23:10, “He knows the way that I take.”
He knew all about the ice.
He knew the path I would ride.
He knew that I would fall.
Nothing was hidden from him. As I kept repeating that truth, it steadied my heart. I can join with believers around the world and say not only that “God is good” but “I am a witness.”
Let’s make this personal to your situation. Whatever you are going through right now, God knows all about it. He knows about your divorce, he knows about your cancer, he knows how your kids are struggling, he knows you are running out of money, he knows how you struggle with discouragement. Our God knows the path you take. Nothing is hidden from him.
He knows what will happen around the next corner because he is already there. He knows what’s going to happen next week because he is already there. He knows! Aren’t you glad God knows every detail of your life, including the parts that seem to be spinning out of control and make no sense at all?
Truth #2: Spiritual Growth Is a Journey, Not a Destination
Notice how Job puts it—“When he has tested me.” I’ve underlined 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.
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 must go through the furnace sooner or later. “But it’s hot.” You’re right about that. “It hurts.” It sure does. “It seems to last forever.” That’s how it feels in the furnace. “I don’t like it in there.” Neither do I. But none of those objections matter in the end.
Warren Wiersbe offers this encouraging word:
“When God puts his own people into the furnace, he keeps his eye on the clock and his hand on the thermostat. He knows how long and how much.”
Someone wrote me a note describing 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 jagged edge 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 Have a Divine Benefit
The text says, “I will come forth as gold.” When you are “in the furnace,” it is hard to believe that any good could result from the fiery trial, but God says, “Wait for a while, and you will see pure gold.” During the worst moments, we take this by faith and hang on to God, believing that better days must eventually come. Thus it is that Job lost everything, Joseph was cast into prison on a phony rape charge, and Jonah ended up in the belly of a great fish. Jonah was a very reluctant prophet whose final words are both angry and accusing. But still he was God’s man for Nineveh. God said, “I’m going to send you into the belly of a fish so you can think about things for a while.” He did, and eventually he was puked out on the beach (not a very pleasant experience). Job lost everything and gained back more than he lost. Joseph ended up the second most powerful man in Egypt. Sometimes our trials lead to a promotion; other times we feel like we’ve been puked up on the beach. God does it both ways, and we’ll probably experience both if we live long enough. But God had bigger things in mind in all three cases. He wasn’t through with Job or Joseph or Jonah. Nor is he through with us just because we go through hard times.
There are no accidents for the people of God, only incidents
After my bike mishap that sent me to the hospital, Harry Bollback told me not to call it an accident. “It’s not an accident,” he said. “It’s an incident.” There are no accidents for the people of God, only incidents. He’s right, and I believe God was in control of every detail that day. Frankly, I’m not very good at sitting and stopping and waiting. But the Lord knew this was what I needed. He blew the whistle and called a timeout just as I crossed that patch of ice.
While reading a book of Puritan prayers, I ran across a statement that said 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 in the furnace.
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.
You will be approved and improved
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 in the furnace. Even to promise that it won’t last forever may seem empty when you feel alone with your troubles. 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, you will come out of the furnace, 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 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.”
Death ends all suffering for the believer
Here’s another piece of good news. For those who know Jesus Christ, death is the end of all suffering. 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 (Romans 8:18). Whether you live or die, if you are a Christian, your trials will not last forever.
Faith = A Moment-by-Moment Choice
So how will we survive the furnace? Very simply, we must consciously choose to believe God in spite of our circumstances. That’s what Job did. 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? 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 powerful 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.
We must say what Job said
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.
I have a friend who has been battling cancer for several years. Right now the cancer is in remission, but the doctors have said it could return again. Many people have prayed for his complete healing. When I chatted with him on the phone, he said 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?
“God has an eternity to set right what has gone wrong.”
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.
“Lord, I give you the right to change my agenda”
Several years ago I read the biography of Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, the Christian relief organization that has helped millions of people around the world. 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.
Don’t fight against God!
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.
Let’s sum up the application of this message with three simple statements:
Your struggles are necessary – fight on!
Your Father has not forgotten you – hang on!
Your future is assured – walk on!
Here are three good mottoes for life in the furnace: Fight on! Hang on! Walk on!
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.
Is God Good?
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 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.
Sometimes we believe in spite of what we see
If you are hurting as you read these words, you may feel you have come to the end of your endurance. But don’t let your feelings determine your faith. God is always at work whether we see him or not. I may not “feel” God’s presence during some difficult trial. But he’s at work in my life with or without my conscious understanding.
He’s at work when I see his hand clearly.
He’s at work when all is gray and mysterious.
Remember the Keyhole Principle.
You only see a tiny part of the big picture.
You don’t understand because you don’t need to understand.
When you need to know, you’ll know.
Right now we see through a glass darkly.
Better days are coming when all will be made plain.
God knows what he’s doing even when we don’t.
He’s never clueless even when we don’t have a clue.
If your way is dark, hang on to Jesus. When your furnace time is over, you will come forth as gold.