Why Bad Things Happen to God’s People
June 27, 1993
About ten years ago a rabbi named Harold Kushner published a book that became a best-seller. The book sold millions of copies and is still popular today. Rabbi Kushner and his wife had suffered the loss of a child to a terrible disease. Out of the pain of that loss they began to examine the question: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? That period of intense personal reflection led Rabbi Kushner to write When Bad Things Happen To Good People. It became an instant best-seller for two reasons. Number one, it was very well-written. The Rabbi shares from his heart the loss and the pain that he experienced, and the questions he had as a result. Number two, it was a best-seller because it touched a universal chord. Everybody sooner or later wrestles with the one-word question Why? Why, Lord? Why me? Why now? Why this?
I recommend the book to you because I think Rabbi Kushner says a great many helpful things. From my standpoint as a believer in God and as a Christian, I think he does an excellent job of presenting the problem. I don’t really buy into his solution. But if you want a book that at least explores the problem from an honest point of view, I would recommend it to you. He will certainly stir your thinking.
His is not the only useful book, however. Books on the general subject of human suffering have been around for hundreds of years. Christian thinkers have certainly written their share. In fact, there are dozens of books in any Christian bookstore today exploring this issue. Perhaps you’ve read Phillip Yancy’s book Where is God When It Hurts? Some of you have read Affliction by Edith Schaeffer or God and Evil by Gordon Wenham. Others may have read Disappointment With God. Of the making of books on this subject, there is no end because the question of human suffering never leaves us for very long. No matter how many times you try to answer it, it comes back again and again. Where is God? What is He doing? Oh, God, why? Why me? Why now? Why this?
Behind the Smiling Faces
The latest issue of Moody Magazine carries an ad for Dr. James Dobson’s newest book. I was struck by the title: When God Doesn’t Make Sense. This is what the ad says:
Sooner or later, all of us will have reason to ask the question “Why me, Lord?” Dr. James Dobson knows that and says, “Every person who lives long enough will eventually encounter circumstances that are difficult to explain theologically. Cancer, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, divorce, rape, loneliness, infertility, rejection–these and a million other sources of human suffering produce inevitable questions that trouble the soul. (Moody Magazine, July/August 1993, p. 5)
Over the years I’ve learned that you can’t be fooled by the happy faces you see on Sunday morning. Everybody who comes to church has a story that includes pain and suffering. Behind each smiling face you will discover a tale of pain, difficulty, heartache, and many unanswered questions. Not that we aren’t happy–we are–or at least most of us are, but no one gets a free ride through life. Into each life some rain must fall. No one lives in the sunshine forever.
Four Ways of Dealing With Suffering
There are four ways that most people use when they’re facing suffering and difficulty.
This is where most of us begin in dealing with suffering. It’s the John Wayne mentality. Grit your teeth, smile even when you’re hurting, never let them see you sweat. When someone is in denial, they won’t admit the truth even when they know you know the truth. You’ll say, “How are you doing?” They’ll say, “Great! I’m doing great!” You know they’re not telling the truth. We’re all like that occasionally. There’s something in all of us that makes us pretend that everything is going OK even when it’s not. We pretend the problem is not there or we pretend that it’s not as bad as it really is.
B. Getting angry.
Sometimes we react to difficulty by getting bitter, by getting recriminatory, and sometimes by shaking our fists at God. When you don’t deal with your anger constructively, it affects every relationship in life–including your relationship with God. It is impossible to go through life angry at others and maintain a warm and positive relationship with God. You can’t hate your neighbor and love God at the same time. Some believers live that way for years–and then they wonder why God seems so distant and their prayers so empty and their Christian experience so lifeless. If that describes you, please take a good look inside, because you will never get better until you deal with the anger within.
C. Blaming others.
This is a very popular option. We all use it sooner or later. Not long ago I met a man who went through a bitter, bloody, difficult divorce. He told me in all seriousness, “Ray, my divorce cost me one million dollars.” He was not exaggerating. I said to him, “Whose fault was it?” “Hers!” he said–and he meant it! He went on to say, “I taught Sunday School, I studied the Bible, I studied James Dobson, I went to Bill Gothard, so when our marriage broke up, it was basically her fault.” I thought to myself, “A million dollars and he still hasn’t figured it out.”
D. Accept it and learn from it.
Our final option regarding suffering is to accept it and to learn from it. You can deny it, you can get angry, you can blame someone else, or you can accept what happens to you and begin to learn from it. Of those four ways, only the last one is a truly Christian way of dealing with the difficulties of life. When trouble comes, you really only have two choices. Either you can become a victim or you can become a student. How much better it is to be a student than a victim. Being a student means asking yourself, “What have I learned from this? What is God trying to say to me? How can I grow from this painful experience?”
Having said that, I have to admit that there are many questions I can’t answer about why bad things happen to God’s people. Sometimes the reasons are obvious; more often they are obscure. If I had all the time in the world, I still couldn’t answer all the questions about suffering because some of them simply defy any human explanation. However, what I do want to do is call your attention to one of the central passages in the New Testament on the issue of the believer and his suffering. The New Testament contains a number of helpful passages on this subject, but this one is one of the most important. We find in our text a liberating perspective. It will lift you up if you are in the throes of despair. All of us need to learn what God is saying in this passage of Scripture–Romans 8:18-27.
Suffering and Glory
The theme of the passage is given to us in verse 18, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” Underline the word “sufferings” and the word “glory.” Paul invites us to make a comparison of those two things. Most of us see only our sufferings. We’re acutely aware of the bad things that happen to us. As I said, we all have a story. All of us know what difficulty is all about. But there is a another side–the glory side. There are sufferings and then there is glory.
If you could put all the difficulties of your life on one side of the scale, and the glory that will someday be revealed to you on the other side of the scale, the glory would be so much heavier than your present sufferings that they would be blown away like a feather. The sufferings of this life, although they are terrible, are not even worth comparing with the greatness of the glory that will be revealed to us. That is a revolutionary perspective on life. If you ever let that thought grip you–that what God has for you is incomparably greater than what you are going through right now–it will revolutionize the way you look at your problems.
Three Unchanging Truths
With that as background, we turn to consider three unchanging truths regarding suffering. These truths are axioms that form the Christian attitude toward sufferings.
Truth # 1: Our Suffering is Temporary. 19-22
“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”
We live in a frustrating world, don’t we? Nothing works the way it is supposed to. You buy something, it breaks, you fix it, it works for awhile, and then breaks again. Eventually it wears out completely and you have to replace it. That’s what Paul means when he says the creation was subjected to frustration. Nothing lasts forever, nothing works right. We live in a Murphy’s Law universe.
But it’s not just creation, it’s also you and me. We don’t work right either. Children are born with horrible defects, we get cancer or Alzheimer’s or AIDS or some other wasting disease. If you live long enough, you’ll have a stroke or a heart attack or grow senile and end up in a nursing home. That’s ahead for all of us, and there is no escape for any of us. Unless you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get shot at a freeway rest stop in Florida–or on the streets of Chicago.
Verse 21 speaks of the “bondage to decay.” Every Thursday morning two trucks come by my house. One picks up the newspaper and glass bottles for recycling; the other picks up our garbage. The trucks come every Thursday. Why? Because the flow of garbage never ceases. The more we make, the more we spend. The more we spend, the more we use. The more we use, the more we waste. The more we waste, the more garbage we produce. If you doubt that, just let the garbage truck drivers go on strike for a week or two. Just see how fast the mountains of garbage pile up all around you. We live in a decaying, frustrating world.
Open the newspaper and you read about the Mississippi River flooding. You read about storms, tornadoes, famines and earthquakes. You read about children that are being shot at Cabrini Green. You read about famine and starvation in Haiti and Somalia and Bosnia. You open the newspaper and you see where we sent 23 cruise missiles into the intelligence center in Baghdad yesterday.
Something has gone wrong with the world. This is not the world as God meant it to be. This is a world full of pain, suffering and death. This is the world as it has been messed up and knocked out of kilter by the entrance of sin.
By all accounts Pat Nixon–Former First Lady and wife of President Richard Nixon–was a wonderful, gracious lady. She died a few days ago after a lengthy illness. At her funeral yesterday Billy Graham said, “In all my life, and I’ve known the Nixons for 40 years, I never heard a single person say a single negative thing about Pat Nixon.” That’s a great thing to have said about you. Many national leaders were there, including former Presidents Ford and Reagan. The Nixon family sat in the front row. Billy Graham gave a wonderful message. At the end of the service an honor guard carried the casket away while the choir sang America The Beautiful. At that moment the camera zoomed in on President Nixon, who, whatever else you can say about him, has been a towering political figure in post-World War II America. He’s been on the top and the bottom, and he has known public humiliation above and beyond what most of us will ever experience. At one time he was the most powerful man in the world. As they took his wife’s casket away, he reached up with his hand and brushed his tears away.
What a lesson there is for us. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the most powerful man in the world. It doesn’t matter if you are President of the United States. If you live long enough, you will know pain. You will know heartache. If you live long enough, you will brush the tears away as death comes to your door. We live in a frustrating world. A world filled with pain and suffering and death.
Why You Have to Mow Your Grass
Do you know what entropy is? Entropy is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. That’s the law that says in any closed system, energy always moves from complexity to randomness. The Second Law tells us that our universe is moving from order to disorder, from harmony to disharmony. Everything in the universe, left to itself, will just run down. If you wind your watch and then leave it alone, what happens? Eventually it runs down and stops. That same principle is why the beds in your house don’t stay made. That’s why your daughter’s bedroom doesn’t stay clean. That’s why the plates in your kitchen don’t clean themselves. That’s why you have to re-paint your house every few years. That’s why you have to mow your grass. If you leave the grass alone, it will become a jungle. Why? Because we’re living in a universe where things run down.
No More Cavities
As I tried to think of a way to explain this, a strange incident came into my mind. It happened when I visited the dentist about six or seven weeks ago. Dr. Jacobs was having a good time. He was trolling with his metal fishhook looking for trouble. He was fishing for something inside my mouth. Eventually he found something and he went, “Aha!” I hate it when a dentist goes “Aha!” It can only mean two things, neither of them good. Number one, it’s going to hurt, and number two, it’s going to cost some money. But then he laughed and that made it worse. He said, “You’ve got a cavity in a filling.” I said, “I didn’t think that could happen. I thought you got fillings so you wouldn’t get cavities.” “That’s right,” he said. “But you’ve got one.” So I came back a couple of weeks later and let him dig around in my tooth. Do you remember the old slogan of Crest toothpaste: Look, Ma! No cavities! Remember that? I thought about that when I read this text. We have tooth decay now because we live in a decaying world. But there’s coming a time when the dentists will go out of business. There will be no more tooth decay because that which causes decay will itself be removed from the universe. I have even better news. That which causes heart decay and body decay and mind decay and spiritual decay–all that will be removed once and for all.
The Christian viewpoint on suffering is to say, “Yes, it’s bad. But it’s not going to last forever. Yes, it’s terrible, but this isn’t the final story. This isn’t the last chapter. Yes, we suffer, but God has ordained that our suffering is temporary. Something better for us is on the way.” That’s the first axiom. Our suffering is temporary.
II. Our Suffering is Educational 23-25
“Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.”
We groan inwardly, Paul says. We groan because of a job we hate. Yesterday a man told me he was going to make a move after 15 years in the same job. “I can’t take it anymore.” We groan because of unfulfilled dreams. We groan because our bodies break down. We groan because our marriages break up. We groan because our children go astray. We groan because our friends disappoint us.
Why does God allow such groaning among his children? Why doesn’t he do something about it? Doesn’t he know what we’re going through? Doesn’t he care?
Sometimes we begin to question God’s character–as if he somehow enjoys seeing his children suffer. We imagine him laughing in heaven as we weep. But it is not so. He knows what we are going through. He cares about our suffering. He feels our pain.
The Bible says God allows our pain for a purpose. Verses 24-25 tell us that through our suffering God wants to develop two qualities in us:
Hope is that settled confidence that looks to the future, knowing that God will someday keep all his promises. Patience is the ability to endure present hardship because you have hope in the future.
Our suffering is educational in that it teaches us hope and patience–two qualities that can’t be gained any other way. You only hope for that which you do not have. If you have it, you don’t have to hope for it. But if you don’t have it, then hope teaches you to wait patiently for it.
What is it that we are waiting for? Paul calls it “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” We’re waiting for the day when our bodies will be redeemed, when we can turn in the old model and get a brand new one from the Lord. In that day we will be adopted as sons–that is, we will enter into our full legal standing as the children of God. Right now–in this age–we are children of God living in decaying bodies. You can’t tell by the outside who we are on the inside. We look like everyone else. We get sick, our bodies decay, we eventually die. But because we are related to Jesus Christ, we will someday be given a body like his–incorruptible, immortal, undying. We don’t have it yet, but we’re eagerly waiting for that day to come.
If You Could Change Your Body
Let me illustrate that. If you had the power to change your body, would you use it? Suppose you could instantly change the way you look, would you do it? That may be the dumbest question I’ve ever asked. The question is not–would you use that power, but would it be a simple repair or a complete make-over? Would you say, “Lord, let’s just start all over again.” Would we even recognize you?
Our bodies wear out, they sag, they expand, they wrinkle, the joints get creaky, the arteries harden, the heart slows down, the eyes grow dim, the teeth fall out, the back is stooped, the arms grow weary. Our bones break, our muscles weaken. The body bulges in the wrong places. It happens to all of us sooner or later.
There is coming a day when your body won’t need changing. You won’t grow old and you won’t get cancer. Jesus Christ will give you a brand new body. Until then we live in hope, waiting patiently for that day to come.
That perspective explains so much that happens to us. God is weaning you away from putting your hope in the things of this world so that your hope will be in him alone. The only way he can wean you away from the things of this world is through suffering and difficulty. He brings you to the place where you must say, “Lord, it’s you and you alone.” He’s teaching you to wait on God. Right now you’re trying to scheme your way into a better situation. But eventually you’ll say, “Lord, if it takes forever, go ahead. Take your time. My hope is in you.”
III. Our Suffering is Beneficial 26-27
“In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.”
It sounds strange to say that our suffering can somehow be beneficial to us. Some would say it even sounds un-Christian. How can cancer be beneficial? How can the loss of a job be beneficial? How can a broken marriage be beneficial? How can public humiliation be beneficial? How can tears at midnight be beneficial?
Our text explains it this way. Our suffering reveals our weakness. It strips away the mask of self-sufficiency and reveals our utter helplessness. It forces us to confront our own inabilities. It makes us say, “I’m not as strong as I thought I was. I’m not invincible.” Verse 26 says the Spirit “helps” us in our weakness. The word translated “help” means “to come to the aid of someone in desperate need.” You are in the stands watching a race and you see a runner faltering in the final turn. He stumbles and is about to fall. Seeing that he is not going to make it, you rush from the stands, come to his side, put your arm around him, and say, “Brother, I see that you aren’t going to make it. Let me help you to the finish line.” That’s what the Holy Spirit does for us. He sees when we are in trouble and he comes to our aid.
How does he do it? Paul tells us that the Spirit “intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” The Holy Spirit prays for us. The Spirit who is himself the third member of the Trinity prays to the Father (the first member of the Trinity) in the name of the Son (the second member of the Trinity) for us in our moment of weakness. It is God praying to God on behalf of God’s children! What an amazing thought this is.
Have you beenever in a situation so desperate that you couldn’t pray? Have you ever been so emotionally exhausted that you tried to pray but the words wouldn’t come out? Have you ever been so frightened that all you could do was cry out, “Oh God”?
It’s happened to me a few times. It happened when my father was dying. I stood outside the intensive care unit at the Baptist Hospital in Birmingham when the doctors told us they had done all they could do. I leaned against the wall and starting weeping. I tried to pray, but I couldn’t. I was going to seminary to learn to be a pastor, but I couldn’t pray that day. No words came out. I didn’t know what to say. All I could do was cry out, “Oh God.”
The night when Joshua was born Marlene had been in labor for many hours. Nothing much was happening. The baby didn’t want to come out. The night had started well but the labor went on and on and on. The doctor said, “Something is wrong on the inside. We’ve got to get that baby out now.” After so many hours, and seeing the doctor’s concern and the fear on Marlene’s face, I tried to pray but I couldn’t. I was more frightened at that moment than at any time in my life. All I could say was, “Have mercy. O Lord, have mercy.”
That leads me to make this observation: The more you care about something, the harder it is to pray for it. The reason we can pray so easily for others is that we’re not that deeply invested in them. It’s easy to pray for people you don’t know because it doesn’t matter that much whether or not your prayers are answered. The more you care, the harder it is to pray. When it comes to those things in your life that really matter–your husband, your wife, your children–those things are hard to pray for because they are close to your heart.
Paul is telling us that in your weakness, when you feel desperate about the things that truly matter to you, and you don’t know what to say, and all you can do is cry out “Oh God!” the message is, “Don’t worry. That’s enough because there is someone inside you who is praying for you.”
We know that Jesus is in heaven praying for us. But Paul goes a step beyond that. When you come to the moment of complete exhaustion and can no longer frame the words, you don’t have to worry. The Holy Spirit will pray for you. In your weakness he is strong. When you cannot speak, he speaks for you.
When we lean against the wall of desperation, crying out to God, when we whisper, “God, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to pray about this,” the Holy Spirit comes alongside and says, “Don’t worry. I’ll pray for you.” And he does.
Martin Luther’s Comment
As I studied this text, I got some help from dear old Martin Luther. Writing some 450 years ago, he said, “It’s a good thing if we occasionally receive the opposite of what we pray for because that’s a sign the Holy Spirit is at work in your life.” We may be praying, “Lord, do this and this and this.” Meanwhile the Holy Spirit inside is saying, “Lord, what he means is this. Don’t pay any attention to that. He said thus-and-so. If he saw the bigger picture, he’d really ask for such-and-such.” As we pray from our weak and limited perspective, the Holy Spirit “corrects” our prayers, so to speak, so that God’s will is always done even in our most wrong-headed prayers. Since the Holy Spirit knows what God’s will is, and since he searches our hearts (see verse 27), he is able to pray for us in ways that always correspond with God’s will. One sign that this is actually happening is that we pray for one thing and God does the opposite.
Does that mean our prayers are in vain? Not at all. Does it mean we shouldn’t pray? Not at all. It simply reveals our inherent human weakness and the limitation of our perspective on life. We see the part, the Holy Spirit sees the whole. We see one little piece, the Holy Spirit sees the big picture. We pray according to the little bit that we see, the Holy Spirit prays according to his perfect knowledge.
Three Final Thoughts
1. Suffering is a necessary part of the Christian life.
You may think that you’d like to live in the Land of Cush where there are no problems at all. But you wouldn’t enjoy it. Your life would be much worse than it is now. Suffering is part of the Christian experience as we journey from earth to heaven.
2. God uses our present suffering to prepare us for future glory.
That’s the theme of this passage. This life is Basic Training for eternity. God is using everything that happens in your life–including those things that seem utterly senseless–to prepare you for future glory. In this life we won’t know the answer to the question Why? But in the life to come we will either know the answer or it won’t matter because the glory will be so great that we will simply forget the pain of the past. Either way we will end up completely satisfied.
3. In the meantime we know that our suffering can never separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
If in all that I have said you can’t find any comfort, hang on to this: God still loves you. He loves you as much in the darkness as he does in the light. Nothing you are going through can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
With that thought, let us keep on going for the Lord. Be encouraged, Child of God. He loves you even in the midst of your pain. He loves you even when you don’t love him. He loves you when you feel utterly alone. He loves you with an everlasting love. Your suffering can take many things away from you–your health, your happiness, your prosperity, your popularity. But there’s one thing suffering can’t do. It can’t take away the love of God.
When we finally reach heaven, we will discover that God himself was with us every step along the way. We will stand in his presence redeemed and glorified. Every trace of this decaying world will be left far behind. The sufferings of this life will be but a dim memory, fading into the mists of a forgotten yesterday. Until then, since we cannot see the face of our God, let us trust under the shadow of his almighty wings.