First published 7 September 2012
This post is now incorporated with 22 other similar ‘reflections’ in my book, Facing Cancer with Faith.
If we are created by God – and not the other way around – why do we feel like we can challenge, and take exception to, aspects of His character and His work?
What made me think about this was the way some people have reacted to my getting ill again. One or two people who care a lot about me have reacted really angrily. How can God allow this? Surely we don’t deserve this? How can anyone dare suggest that God allows these things for our own good? How can any good come from this situation? I’m sometimes not sure whether they are suggesting that my serious illness is evidence that there is no God, or whether they are saying that they just don’t like God if He lets ‘good’ people suffer.
But it triggered a thought (which means I am not directing any of what follows to those people I mentioned above) that the suffering of the world sometimes washes over us, without bothering us too much, until it directly affects us. Why suddenly get upset with God or lose faith because bad things are happening to us? Bad things are happening the world over to millions of people.
And we can’t dissociate God from any of this suffering, as if He only does things we like and the bad things are outside His control.
This is the God who decreed that death should be experienced by every single human being, because of the sin of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:19). This the God who destroyed every single man, woman and child – in fact every living thing – on the face of the earth, except for 8 people and a big boat full of creatures (Noah et al), with a cataclysmic flood (Genesis 7:4). This is the God who decreed painful toil for mankind because of Adam’s sin (Genesis 3:17), and the one who decreed pain in childbearing for women because of Eve’s sin (Genesis 3:16).
This is the God who killed all the firstborn of the Egyptians when they would not let the Israelites free (Exodus 12:29).
This is the God who punished the evil of the Canaanites with annihilation (Deuteronomy 9:4-5).
I could go on. Ultimately this is the God who will send unrepentant sinners to Hell, showing His wrath upon them for their rejection of His Word (John 3:36).
But someone might point out, rightly, that these are examples of bad people suffering at God’s hand. What about good people? Leaving aside the Bible’s assertion that ‘there is no-one righteous, not even one’ (Romans 3:10), have we also ignored the fact that good people suffer, and that the Bible does not flinch from this?
There’s always been the example of Job to turn to. He was an upright and righteous man (Job 1:1). And God allowed Satan to afflict him with bereavement, financial ruin and painful sickness. In fact, in Job’s mind his affliction is under the direct supervision of God (Job 1:21-22).
And it’s not just Old Testament stuff. In John 21:18-19 Jesus tells Peter that he is going to suffer a death sentence similar to his own ‘to glorify God’. Paul was given ‘a thorn in the flesh’ by the Lord (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).
And of course, we believe in a God who sent His own Son to suffer injustice, betrayal and an excruciating death on a roman cross.
Suffering and pain have been part of God’s universe, and part of His plan, since Adam and Eve fell into sin all those years ago. So isn’t it a bit selfish to expect God to keep us healthy and happy, but direct the suffering and pain to people we don’t know?
But the answer may come back, ‘why would you want to believe in a God who can act in this way?’ There are many different ways of responding to that. One starting point is to say that since there is only one God, then this is the only one worth believing in, because He’s the only real God. The fact of His existence is, in my view, inescapable.
And He is who He is, no matter what I think. I can’t really pick and choose aspects of God’s character to be true, and forget the rest. God has revealed Himself, His character and purpose – as comprehensively as we are able to take on board. It’s all or nothing. The Bible portrays God as perfectly good, righteous and holy, and as just, judging and punishing; full of love but showing wrath to those who rebel against Him. Unless we accept the truth of all of these aspects, we will have an absolutely false view of God, and we will not be able to say that we believe in the God of the Bible – the only real God.
But there is also a very great difference between believing in God, in the sense of believing He exists, and loving Him. James says that, ‘even the demons believe’ in God, ‘and shudder!’ (James 2:19).
To those who reject the very idea of God, I say, try to come up with a consistent account of how you know anything, the nature of reality, the meaning of moral statements. Try to work out a meaningful explanation for why you care so much about me or anyone else, why suffering and hardship upsets you so much. Without God it’s impossible, and you finish in absurdity.
To those who believe God is there, but just don’t like the way He runs the world, I say, He is your creator and you owe it to yourself to fairly listen to what He has to say about how hardship and suffering fit into the order of His universe. If you assume that what you desire is always what you should get, and that this life should always give you fortune, happiness and good health, then you will get a shock, because the real God does not promise that. But if you are prepared to submit to Him and faithfully wait for Him to bring you into an eternal world full of happiness, good health and joy – in the presence of the real God Himself – you will be prepared to face anything. Jesus Christ – through His suffering and death – enables you to have that hope if you trust Him. If Christ’s road to eternal joy involved pain and suffering, why should I expect any less? As C.S.Lewis is portrayed as saying in the film Shadowlands, “Why love, if losing hurts so much? I have no answers anymore: only the life I have lived. Twice in that life I’ve been given the choice: as a boy and as a man. The boy chose safety, the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then. That’s the deal.”