41. What about Suffering?

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 41. Q.3. What about Suffering?

Rom 8:20,21 (JBP)   The world of creation cannot as yet see reality, not because it chooses to be blind, but because in God’s purpose it has been so limited—yet it has been given hope. And the hope is that in the end the whole of created life will be rescued from the tyranny of change and decay, and have its share in

Concerns & Questions:  A regular question or series of questions that arise include: Why is there suffering? Why did God make a world with so much suffering? Why doesn’t He step in to remove it? If He is good and loving and all powerful why doesn’t He step in and act on our behalf? But what is ‘suffering’? A dictionary definition is ‘undergoing pain, distress or hardship’.

Sources of Suffering: The first step is to identify the causes of ‘suffering’ as we have defined it.  Let’s try and pin down the main causes:

  1. Inflicted by others: Pain caused by others may have at least three sources. First, the list of violent acts that the human race shows it is capable of, is long and distressing and runs from individual violence (verbal or physical) that can include beating, abuse, rape, torture, to corporate violence that can include war, genocide, oppression, and terrorism. View the whole world and these things constitute the vast majority of the world’s suffering. Second, perhaps to this we should add the things that we don’t do for one another that we should do, such as caring for the weak, providing for the needy, and that covers not only the large number of refugees from war zones, but also simply the plight of individuals who have not been coping with life generally. Third, there are the hurts, pains etc. imposed on us by the negligence of other people, i.e. accidents causes by lack of care.
  2. Self-Inflicted: this is an area where we are even less comfortable. This is where, living contrary to the design of God for His world, we take on lifestyles that are harmful – over-eating, excessive alcohol or drug use, unrestrained sexual lifestyles that are accompanied by diseases, unwanted pregnancies, abortions, criminal acts, and stress and anxiety from too much self-effort. Choice of attitude, approach to life, and inability to cope with the pressures that the modern world sometimes brings, are maybe the primary ways we cause harm and suffering to ourselves. As above, we should perhaps add pain caused by accidents which are in turn caused by our carelessness or negligence, and maybe we should even include our misuse of the world that causes environmental problems with global warming etc.

These first two are the suffering caused by humanity itself in individual or corporate recognizable acts.

  1. The Breakdown of the World: The fact is that we suffer a variety of other things that cause pain, suffering, even death, things that can be identified as the world mis-functioning, or not functioning as it was originally designed to function (which we’ll consider shortly). This list includes

– illnesses and that may be viral, genetic misfunction or cell breakdown. (look up ‘disease’ in Wikipedia)

– climatic causes – hurricanes, tornadoes, floods from excessive rainfall,

– earth upheavals – volcanoes, moving tectonic plate movement causing earthquakes and tsunamis.

(Note in passing that the Sin of mankind, according to one doctor, causes diseases and releases spiritual forces that cause harm. See more in the next study.)

Where is God? The questions that we suggested above might be rationalised to a) Why did God make the world like this? and b) Why doesn’t He step in to help us?

God’s Design & the Fall: Without the Bible, without God, the atheist is just left with a horrible world and indeed various atheists have described it as such. You can only blame God if you believe there is a God, but the atheist will say to us, “This God that you say you believe in, why….?” and so it is legitimate to ask what does the Bible say about all this?

From the beginning, if you are going to blame a God who exists, we are told that this God created this world – by fiat in a split second or over seven periods of time or by long-period evolution is irrelevant; it is down to Him! But here is the most important thing: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Gen 1:31) There is no room there for saying that any of the things in the three groups above existed. It was a perfect world. So how come the difference between that and the descriptions in the three groups above? The answer is found in Gen 3 in what we refer to as ‘the Fall’ that might be summarized as mankind choosing to ignore or disregard God and live how they decide to live. The consequence of that is ALL the things listed in those three groups above. Do you see why identifying those three groups are so important.

I so often define ‘Sin’ as “self-centred, godlessness that results in unrighteous self-destructive acts” Unrighteous simply means actions that are contrary to God’s design. The Adam and Eve picture of Gen 3 shows them acting in an entirely self-centred way that excluded God from the equation and resulted in them doing something that opened the door to a whole way of living that was godless, hard, and self-harming. They typify what the whole of mankind is like. They and the world (and us) were not as it had been, no longer perfect, but broken, dysfunctional.

But Why? But why did God make us like this? Hold on, what was the alternative? It all hinges on this thing called free-will. Most people don’t realize how much we exercise ‘free-will’, the will to choose at any moment what we will do: when to get up in the morning, what to eat for breakfast, when to leave for work, how to travel to work, how to perform our work, how to respond to people or circumstances, when to enter into or break off a relationship, how to respond when we see a person in need, how to respond to a rebuff, when and how to write a song, a novel or some poetry, or paint a picture, or create a sculpture. Literally everything we do involves us exercising this ability to choose. We each have tremendous potential for being amazing people, in caring or in courage, in creativity and in construction, the potential of being self-less, godly, beautiful people who can be a blessing to the rest of mankind and to God. However, on the other side we can, as we saw above, be utterly self-centred and godless, harming ourselves, harming others and harming the earth, and we grieve God.

But where is God in all this? More questions. If God allowed us to be this sort of creature – capable of incredible good and incredible bad (evil)  – has He created it like this and then walked away? Definitely not! There are three things we should note about God in this:

  1. He feels: It is clear from the picture of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus (Jn 11) that he feels for us. It is clear when God was speaking to Moses at the burning bush that He felt for His people (Ex 3:7). God does not hold Himself aloof from people, He feels for the young parents who have just lost their new-born baby, He feels for the woman who cannot conceive, He feels for all of us who anguish. Jesus allowed his compassion to motivate him (see Mt 9:36, 14:14, 15:32, 20:34) and told of his Father’s compassion in one of the best known parables (see Lk 15:20).
  2. He involves Himself: The Bible is full of God who intervenes on behalf of mankind. After the exclusion from the Garden at the end of Gen 3, God did not just leave mankind to it; there are instances again and again and again of God who was interacting with people (Gen 5:24, Gen 12:1, Gen 3 etc. etc.) to reveal Himself and be revealed through them. Jesus is the peak of God’s intervention in the affairs of mankind, described by John as God (Jn 1:1), Creator with the Father (Jn 1:3), yet who came from heaven (Jn 6:38) to dwell in flesh (Jn 1:14) to reveal the Father and die as a sacrifice for our sin. In his ministry, through Jesus we see, The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor,” (Mt 11;5) or, as Peter summarised it, he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil.” (Acts 10:38) This was God NOT accepting the status quo of the fallen world but intervening in it to change it – as He still does today. (For His sovereign will see the next study) Today, by the presence and work of His Holy Spirit, the Lord provides all the grace we need to handle this world.
  3. He has a new end goal: The present world is not the end goal of God. Yes, He has given us free will, yes He gives us space to exercise it, yes He works to bring redemption here on earth, but none of these are the end goal. There will come a time, the Bible declares, when He will bring an end to this present existence and establish for the redeemed, who throughout history have responded to Him, a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 3:12, 21:1,2). Not only will there be a new place in which the redeemed may live and enjoy their God, but there will also be a Final Judgement where all will stand before God to account for their lives and those who have rejected Him will be rejected for the new heaven and new earth (Rev 20:12-15) and destroyed. Justice will be seen to be done for every wrong and every injustice seen in history.

Recap:   

– there are clear and obvious causes of suffering.

– most of it is down to the effects of the sinfulness of mankind, resulting from wrong use of free will.

– God doesn’t stand outside our suffering but feels with us and often intervenes to alleviate it.

– all wrongs and injustices involving suffering will be held to account at the end.

– this world of suffering is not the end but a world without “death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev 21:4)  is the ultimate destiny of all who will respond to His call.

May that be the ultimate experience of each of us.

31. Avoid Evil

Meditations in 1 Thessalonians

Part 3 :  31. Avoid Evil

1 Thess 5:21,22   Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.

Now this third and final instruction may sound so obvious that we might be tempted not to consider it, but it is the other side of the coin. You may have heard the expression, “The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing.” The implication behind these two verses almost seems to say, hold firmly onto good or evil may creep in.  To say avoid something means to steer clear of it . Now that can mean that we need to keep away from evil when we see it before us, or be careful that evil doesn’t make its way into your life.

I always remember an illustration of going too close to evil given by a preacher. He said that some people are like a cow he saw grazing in a field and it had its head under the bottom strand of an electric fence. It was just seeing how far it could go without getting electrocuted! The wise Christian doesn’t do that but steers well clear of the fence. Now I am not one who usually says you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that but where there are places or situations in life where you could be led astray, my advice is stay away! Samson was a man who thought he could stretch his boundaries with God and look where he ended up (Jud 16:30)   Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, had the opportunity to capitalise out of his master’s work and ended up with leprosy (see 2 Kings 5:20-27). He allowed himself to be led into evil.

Perhaps we should pause and consider, ‘what is evil’ and what does ‘evil’ mean? A dictionary definition includes, “anything morally bad or wrong; wickedness; depravity; sin; anything that causes harm, pain, misery, disaster.” So we then have to ask what is ‘wrong’ and we have to say anything that is contrary to God’s character and His design for Creation i.e. anything that is contrary to His perfect will. Good is that which conforms to His character and His perfect will. Now because there is freedom of will in angels and humans, behaviour is possible that is contrary to His character and to His perfect will, and THAT is evil. So murder is evil, theft is evil, adultery is evil, lying is evil. Anything that is Sin is evil.

Evil is expanded upon a little in the Law: “if you then become corrupt and make any kind of idol, doing evil in the eyes of the LORD your God…..” (Deut 4:25) ‘Corrupt’ here means being changed from a good thing into a bad thing, being changed from a faithful people to an unfaithful people. That is evil. Making idols to replace God is evil. Moses, referring to this same thing, later put it slightly differently: “all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the LORD’s sight,” (Deut 9:18) where sin and evil are seen as the same thing. Turning away from God is shown as evil (e.g. Deut 13:6-11): Moses made that abundantly clear again and again: “For I know that after my death you are sure to become utterly corrupt and to turn from the way I have commanded you. In days to come, disaster will fall upon you because you will do evil in the sight of the LORD.” (Deut 31:29)

Solomon, despite having started so well, ended up badly: As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done.” (1 Kings 11:4-6) In those verses we see the steady decline and growth in evil: a heart not fully devoted to the Lord, took many foreign wives, allowed them to turn his heart even further, tolerated and then followed their idols and gods thus fully turning away from God. All of these things were examples of evil.

So many times in the Old Testament  the condemnation of a king was that he did evil in the eyes of the Lord and when you look at what he did it is summed up by, he turned away from God and turned to the ways of the world and worshipped idols.  Do you see why the meditation  ‘10. Facing Idolatry’ was so important?

When that happens we find specific behaviour in respect of others also becomes corrupt and described as evil. Consider: “You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit. You speak continually against your brother and slander your own mother’s son.” (Psa 50:19,20) Speech there is considered evil, because it involves deceit and slander. This absence of truth is emphasised even more in another psalm: “Why do you boast of evil, you mighty man? Why do you boast all day long, you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God? Your tongue plots destruction; it is like a sharpened razor, you who practice deceit. You love evil rather than good, falsehood rather than speaking the truth.” (Psa 52:1-3)  But is it not only wrong speaking: “Rescue me, O LORD, from evil men; protect me from men of violence, who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day.” (Psa 140:1,2) No, acts of violence, anything done physically against another is evil. Words and actions that follow ungodliness, are all evil.

So maybe now we see the importance of this instruction to “Avoid every kind of evil.” We have seen evil starts by turning away or rejecting God and turning to place reliance on other things. That is godlessness which always leads to idolatry.  But that is soon expressed in unrighteousness which may be words and/or deeds that are self-centred and godless and harmful to others. This call by Paul in the last of these instructions we are going to consider screams out to us – “Stay away from any thought or word or behaviour that is turning way from God and leads into destructive and harmful behaviour. You were not saved for that!”  It is a strong call, far stronger than we might have thought at first sight. May we hold on to these things and let them remain as warning to us as we finish with this letter in this particular series of meditations.