Last week I ministered to the family of a teenager who is very close to me, my “Little Brother,” in fact, whose father suffered a long, debilitating illness leading to his death. This was a relatively young man who suffered a lot over the years, in need of an organ transplant he was never able to receive. But in his suffering and dying he showed enormous amounts of strength, grace and dignity, all the same qualities he was known for throughout his life.
Jesus said the rain falls on the good and the evil alike, but even Christians struggle with the age-old question of suffering and pain, especially the kind we witness in such good people.
Here’s one take on suffering from Justin W. Tull, a retired United Methodist minister and acquaintance of mine, whose sermons on “the problem of pain” were published in his book, which I recommend, Why God Why? Justin manages to tackle the problem of pain in this book with good humor, and yet in all seriousness.
Most of us, if we were given God’s absolute power for a day, would do things differently. Many of us would ensure quick justice. Thieves would have their loot snatched from their hands. Criminals would not have trials but instant punishment, because with divine powers we could determine unmistakably who was guilty and who was innocent. We might even give some reward to those who were nice–perhaps better health, a bonus of some sort. . . Goodness would be instantly rewarded and evil would be readily and firmly punished. And it would be a better world.
Several years ago I would have especially enjoyed having supernatural powers. A young man liked to ride his motorcycle with no muffler through the apartment complex where we lived–especially in the middle of the night! . . . He avoided the speed bumps by ridiing through the small gap in the middle that was just wide enough for his small tires.
I must confess to fantasizing about putting tacks in that gap or a wire or rope across the road. . . What a thrill it would have been to possess the divine power to yank him off his bike and drop him in the countryside where he would be forced to walk home.
If we could be God, we would probably reward goodness and punish evil. But under that system, how could one ever be truly good? If being good were always to our advantage, could we ever really act unselfishly? Could we ever really sacrifice for the good of others?
Today, God is still in charge. Yet there is still suffering, even undeserved suffering. How then do we understand God’s role? Is God the instrument of pain or the instrument of comfort? Paul gives us a partial answer to this question in his letter to the church at Corinth: ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God’ (2 Cor. 1: 3-4).
I suggest along with Paul that God is not the cause of suffering, but its healer. God is not the creator of pain, but rather the one who hears our cries and offers the presence of the Holy Spirit. God is not constantly slapping our hands, but lovingly offering to walk with us. God is not forever giving out rewards, but instead offers us his guidance through the Spirit and the Word.
By now, surely we have realized that life is not fair. It does not ensure equality. There is no exact justice. Good is neither always immediately rewarded nor evil always conquered.
Our God comes not to give us pain but to be with us in our pain. God comes as our comforter and invites us to be a part of the healing process. We can comfort others as God comforts them. We can offer our prayers, our cards, our food, our presence. We cannot take pain away, but we can help others to bear it.
Christians are not ones who are protected from all pain. Rather, Christians are given an antidote. we are given the presence of God, a presence that can offer us power, spiritual healing, and peace.
In my ministry, I have witnessed people in the midst of pain and suffering who have received God’s healing presence even in the face of death. I know that these spiritual healings happen.”
Me too, Justin. I know this too.