The story’s told of a boy who was in church for the first time with his Dad. And he noticed a list of names on the wall. And he whispered, ‘Dad, what are those names?’ And Dad whispered back, ‘Those are all the people who died in the services.’ And wide-eyed, the boy said, ‘The morning services or the evening services?’ Well can I say: we have a 100% rate of people surviving our services. And these invitation services are specially geared for people still thinking through what they believe. And tonight’s is on a question that many find the biggest barrier between them and believing in God: ‘How can you believe in a God who allows suffering?’ Because many would say, ‘I see all the suffering in the world and my conclusion is: there can’t be a God.’
But the way we react to suffering actually points to the opposite conclusion. Because what is your reaction, for example, to the story of those women in America held hostage and abused for nine or ten years? Or to what’s happening in Syria? Or to hearing that a friend’s child has leukemia? Or to seeing a disabled person in a wheelchair? Isn’t our deep-seated reaction to feel, ‘This is not the way things ought to be’? And the question is: where does that ‘ought’ come from?
The point is: if you believe there’s no God and that we’re just here by chance, then you have no reason to think things ‘ought’ to be any different – after all, evolution is the random and nasty business of natural selection and the survival of the fittest. And you have no reason to say that some things ‘ought’ to happen and others ‘ought’ not to. Because only if there’s a good God behind this universe do we have any reason to expect it to be good, or to say some things are good and others evil.
So if you’re looking at suffering and saying, ‘There can’t be a God’, you’re still left with a big intellectual problem, which is that you can’t call anything ‘evil’ – whether it’s terrorism or a fatal earthquake, or the way people have hurt you, or cancer in your family. But I guess you do think those things are ‘evils’ and that they’re things that ‘ought’ not to happen. Which actually points to the opposite conclusion – that there is a good God who stands behind that word ‘ought’.
But how do Christians answer this question? Well I want to let tonight’s readings from John’s Gospel answer it. So would you turn with me in the Bible to John chapter 11.
Now if you’ve ever been along to a Carol Service here, you’ll have heard John chapter 1 – that classic Christmas reading where John says that ‘The Word became flesh’ (John 1.14). By which he means, ‘The Son of God became human in this person Jesus.’ And he basically says in his Gospel, ‘I’ve seen the evidence for that and written it down for you’ (see John 20.30-31) And one piece of that evidence is this incident in chapter 11 where Jesus brought a dead man, Lazarus, back to life.
The background is that Lazarus had fallen ill, so his sisters, Mary and Martha, had sent for Jesus (see John 11.1-16). But by the time he arrived, Lazarus had died. So look down to John chapter 11 and v17:
Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (John 11.17-21)
The previous vicar I worked with, Mark Ashton, died fairly early of cancer three years ago. And in his final months he wrote a booklet called On my way to heaven: facing death with Christ.’ Here’s one thing he said:
It will be leaving people that will hurt most at death. There is no question about the savagery of death in this regard. There is no more devastating a barrier in all of human experience than that between the living and the dead. The soft soap and wishful thinking peddled by false prophets in the face of death (that the loved one is ‘just in the next room’, that he’s ‘looking down on us all the time’, that she’ll be ‘invisibly present at every family gathering’) are iniquitous because they fly in the face of all human experience of death…
So here in chapter 11, John’s claim is that we’re looking at the Son of God become human as he steps into the most devastating situation of suffering. And I want to say four quick things from this about how Christians believe in God in the face of suffering.
Firstly, WE BELIEVE IN GOD BECAUSE OF JESUS – NOT BECAUSE EVERYTHING IS GOOD
I find that some people think we believe in God because look our experience has led us to conclude that he must be there. And many things do point to his existence – eg, someone I know came to faith through the birth of her first child: she was so overwhelmed by this gift of new life, it started her thinking, ‘Gift from whom?’ But many things seem equally to point against God’s existence – eg, other friends were heartbroken by their first child being stillborn. If we just look at the world around us, the evidence for God is too ambiguous.
So the first thing to say is: we believe in God because of Jesus. So if you’d like to believe in God, but currently find you can’t, the place to look is the four Gospel records of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection from the dead. Which is why we’re looking at one of them tonight. Because John is saying, ‘This man really lived; and if you’d been there 2,000 years ago you could have seen for yourself that what he said and did unmistakably pointed to him being the Son of God become human.’
Now it was only after Jesus died and rose again from the dead that his first followers fully understood and believed that (see, eg, John 20.24-28). But even here they were well on their way. Eg, look down to v27:
[Martha] said to [Jesus], “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” (11.27)
She’s clearly a believer – so how does she handle the fact that her brother has just died? Well, look back to v21:
Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” (11.21-22)
Ie, ‘I still believe you’re powerful enough and good enough to have stopped him dying. Which leaves me with the mystery of why you didn’t. It leaves me asking, ‘Why did he get sick in the first place? Why didn’t you come sooner? Why didn’t you just heal him at a distance like you’ve done with others? I don’t understand why.’ And that’s what Christians often have to say in the face of suffering. Because we don’t have all the answers. But we do still believe in God because of Jesus. We believe he’s loving because he came to die on the cross for our forgiveness. And we believe he’s powerful because he rose from the dead back into heaven, to be in control of everything. And the fact of suffering doesn’t change those truths that we know about God because of Jesus. It sits alongside them, and we often feel the tension of that. We’re often left saying, ‘I still believe you’re loving and powerful – but I don’t understand why…?’
So that’s the first thing to say: we believe in God because of Jesus – not because everything is good.
Second, WE BELIEVE SUFFERING IS LINKED TO HUMAN WRONGDOING
Look down again to v23:
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (John 11.23-24)
And I need to explain what she means by ‘resurrection’. Martha was a Jew so she believed in what we call the Old Testament (OT) – that was her Bible. And the OT says that God created this universe and created us to live in relationship with him (see Genesis 1-2). But the OT then says that the original human pair rejected relationship with God (see Genesis 3). They basically said to him, ‘We want to run our lives our own way – we can live without you.’ And as a result that, by nature, is the attitude we all have to God.
And that in itself is the cause of much of the suffering we experience. Because if I’m saying, ‘I want to run my life my own way,’ and you’re saying, ‘I want to run my life my own way,’ what’s going to happen when we meet? Who’s going to get their own way? It’s a recipe for conflict and for the use and abuse of others and for people getting hurt. And we’ve all been on the receiving end of that. But we’ve also all been on the giving end, as well – we’ve all contributed to the problem of suffering – and almost certainly more than we realise. And, yes, God is responsible for allowing us the freedom to do that. But we are responsible for the exercise of our freedom and for the suffering it causes – we are to blame for that kind of suffering.
But then what about the suffering which isn’t inflicted by human on human? What about the child with leukemia? Or the disabled person in a wheelchair? Or the fatal earthquake? Or the cancer in your family? Or the stillbirth? Or the decline and indignities of old age? What about everything that’s part of our mortality?
Well the OT says those things happen because God has imposed mortality on us as a judgement on our rejection of him. And I know that may sound appallingly hard at first hearing. But when we say to God, ‘We can live without you,’ it is the biggest and most offensive lie there is. Because we depend on God for every breath we take. And every good thing we enjoy comes from him. So when we say, ‘We can live without you’, we’re denying the reality that we actually owe him everything – our thanks, our trust, our obedience, everything. And the Bible says that mortality is the judgement God has imposed on us for saying we can live without him. Because the brute fact of death gives the lie to that – it shows we can’t even keep ourselves going physically.
So the Bible is saying that some suffering is inflicted by human on human, but that our mortality is imposed on us by God. And because that may sound to you such a hard thing to say, let me add three quick things:
• First of all, the offence of accepting God’s gifts but rejecting him, the Giver, is so big that it shouldn’t surprise us that the judgement is also so big, and that it reminds us in such a humbling way that we are, in reality, just dependent creatures.
• Secondly, mortality is a mercy as well as a judgement because it limits the time we have to go about doing wrong against God and against others. So if President Assad of Syria can’t be got rid of – if he manages to go on and on like Mugabe and others – there’s mercy in the fact that he can’t go on forever. Death will intervene, even if no-one else can, and he’ll then face God’s justice. But it has to be added, ‘As will we all.’
• And thirdly, mortality is a mercy because God means it to bring us to our senses and ask, ‘Why isn’t life how we feel it ought to be?’ – and to realise it’s because we’ve rejected him, the Giver of life. So God means our mortality to turn us back to him in this life – and ultimately to enjoy life as he meant it to be, beyond death. And that’s the ‘resurrection’ life that Martha is on about in v24
[She] said to [Jesus], “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (John11.23-24)
Which leads on to the next thing to say:
Third, WE BELIEVE JESUS DIED AND ROSE AGAIN SO THAT WE CAN BE FINALLY FREED FROM SUFFERING
Just look down to v23 again:
Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” (11.23)
By which he meant, ‘I’m about to go to his tomb and pull him out from death back into this life, today.’ Whereas Martha thought he was just reassuring her that Lazarus would ultimately enjoy resurrection life beyond death. So, v24,
Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” [Because that’s’ what the OT had taught her to believe.] Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (11.24-26)
So Martha was right to believe that there’s a life beyond death to enjoy, for all who turn back to God in this life. But Jesus is saying to her here, ‘Now, you need to understand that I’m the key to that life beyond death – I’ve come to open the door for you to get back into relationship with my Father now –and, ultimately, to be with him in heaven.
My brother and I used to play that trick where you balance something on top of a door and then lure your victim (ie, your brother) through so that it falls on him. He once got me with a bucket of water, but I once got him with our Junior Encyclopedia – which didn’t leave so much wet carpet to explain. But the thing about that is that once someone has been through the door, and whatever it is has fallen on them, it’s perfectly safe for others to come through. Well imagine life is like a room in which we’re all heading towards the ‘door’ of death at the far end of it. And imagine that on top of that door is the record book of everything we’ve done wrong against God and against others – so, that book stands for the judgement that should fall on us at the end of he day of our lives. Well, the way Jesus explained it was that when he died on the cross, he was going through the door of death before us, on our behalf, taking the judgement we deserve. So it’s as if all the books of judgement that should have fallen on us fell on him – so that we can be forgiven back into relationship with God now – and ultimately be welcomed by him into heaven, where there’ll be no more suffering.
So that’s why the third thing to say is: we believe Jesus died and rose again so that we who trust in him can be finally freed from suffering. So we don’t have an ‘answer’ to suffering in the sense of a full explanation of why God allowed it in the first place. But we do have an ‘answer’ in the sense that we know that in heaven he’ll ultimately bring all suffering to an end, for those who turn to him. Which makes all the difference to how you face it now. So let me read something else from Mark Ashton’s booklet On my way to heaven:
In the spring of 2007… I first had pains… in the area of the gallbladder, which led eventually to going into… hospital… to have the gallbladder removed. But… the surgeon found cancer which had invaded the liver… It was past surgical solution and radiotherapy, and… chemotherapy. The oncologist estimated I might have six to nine months to live…. I said to the surgeon when he broke the news that what he had just told me was, for a Christian believer, not bad news but good; it was not the end of the story, but the beginning. (And I saw an imaginary speech bubble appear above his head, saying, ‘This man is in total denial’!).
But that is what a Christian can say – that death is not the end of the story but the beginning of an eternal life when we’ll finally be free of suffering.
But what about the meantime, when Christian believers are no more immune from suffering than anyone else? Well, the final thing to say is:
Fourth, WE BELIEVE JESUS CAN BE TRUSTED EVEN IN SUFFERING
Let me read a bit more from Mark Ashton’s booklet:
I have lived 62 years of very happy life on the earth, and for over 40 of them Jesus has been my Lord and my Saviour… My main reaction was then, and remains now, one of gratitude. God has done all things well, and I believe he is doing this thing well too [as] he is taking me back to himself…
Now how can you say that when your life is being cut short by cancer at 62? Because many people take suffering to mean that God has turned against them – eg, someone told me their experience recently and then said, ‘So what’s the man upstairs got against me – if he’s there?’ Why didn’t Mark Ashton ask that? The answer is: because he was convinced that Jesus was the Son of God become human – and that by looking at what Jesus was like on earth, we can see what he’s still like today – because he doesn’t change. So look down to v32 for a last glance at this incident:
Now when Mary [Lazarus’s other sister] came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” [So she says exactly what Martha had already said – they’d probably said it to one another countless times before Jesus arrived: ‘If only Jesus had been here… why wasn’t he…?’] When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. (John.32-33)
Now John originally wrote this in Greek. And the bit translated ‘was deeply moved’ literally says, ‘was angry’ (only none of the translations have the guts to put that). And the only way to make sense of that is that Jesus was angry not with the people here (whom he loved and who trusted in him), but with the situation of death and all the grief it causes.
I was in the park the other day with my daughters, and one of them was on a climbing frame with another little girl, when this pretty rough boy started up it as well and began blatantly knocking and kicking them. And before I could collect my thoughts about what to do, the other little girl’s Dad waded in, in a frank and Geordie manner and gave this boy a piece of his mind that he’ll probably be able to remember and tell his grandchildren, word for word. And I don’t think that Dad did anything out of order – he kept himself in check. But he was shaking with anger. Which of course was the flipside of his love for his daughter.
And Jesus’ anger here is the flipside of his love for us. And here’s the paradox: as the Son of God, he stands with his Father as the one who imposed the ‘blanket judgement’ of mortality on us in the first place. But does that mean he takes any pleasure in it? No. And does that mean he’s against us? No. He’s against us rejecting him, but still loves us – which explains his anger at the situation of us rejecting him and bringing ourselves under his judgement – a situation he wants to get us out of, just like that Dad wanted to get his daughter out of that situation in the park.
And Mark Ashton knew that. He knew that although we live under this ‘blanket judgement’ of mortality, it doesn’t mean God is against us. Jesus has shown, by ‘coming under the blanket’ with us and dying for us, that he’s not against us. He’s for us. And he’s also shown that he feels for us in what whatever we go through. Look on to v34:
And [Jesus] said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. (11.34-35)
We really do believe that God became fully human in Jesus – so we believe he can sympathise with suffering from having been inside it. And that also makes all the difference to how we face it. Because, for example, the person whose parent or spouse has walked out on them knows that Jesus knows what it’s like to be betrayed. The person on the receiving end of some thoroughly unjust treatment knows that Jesus knows all about innocent suffering. The person in pain knows that Jesus knows all about pain. And the person dying knows that Jesus knows all about dying. Which helps us trust Jesus even in suffering. That’s not an ‘intellectual solution’ to the problem. But it makes all the difference to facing suffering. It helps us trust in Jesus in our suffering – not that we ever trust him as much as we should; but to the extent that we do, it brings comfort that no other person or belief can. At least, if you know of something better, come and tell me on the door afterwards.
So that’s something of an answer to the question, ‘How can you believe in a God who allows suffering?’ But of course it’s all empty comfort unless the Christian Gospel is really true. And if you’re still thinking through what you believe, that’s what you’ve got to make your mind up about. So let me read from v38 to close:
Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odour, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” (11.38-44)
If that really happened, along with all the other things in the Gospels – if Jesus really said these things and did these things and ultimately rose from the dead – then you not only have the best answers to suffering that you’ll ever find, but the best answers to everything else, as well.
SUGGESTIONS FOR READING
On my way to heaven: facing death with Christ,Mark Ashton, 10ofthose Publishing
A short booklet available on the church bookstall; the text can also be found online – just Google ‘On my way to heaven’.
The Problem of Pain, C.S.Lewis, Collins
A short book written primarily for the person who wouldn’t yet say they were a Christian. It aims to deal with the intellectual problem of believing in the God of the Bible when there is so much suffering.
How long, O Lord?, Don Carson, IVP
A longer book written primarily for those who are already Christians. It aims to introduce the Bible’s teaching on: the different kinds of suffering we face, on what God’s purposes are in suffering, and on living by faith with what we don’t understand]