Monday, January 27, 2014

Suffering and The Kingdom of God

"What do we do about Suffering?" Larry asked. 

My good friend Larry had been part of our house church for over a year. During that time I'd seen him grow spiritually and take radical steps in his faith. He had recently started meeting early on Sunday mornings to disciple a co-worker and on Tuesday's he helped to lead some of his family members in weekly Bible Study. The discussions spinning outward from those meetings had sent him back to his own Bible to understand more of God's Word and to answer the hard questions being thrown at him.

As we sat at a local coffeeshop one night, Larry admitted that he really didn't have an answer to the question of suffering in the world today. "It seems to be one of the hardest things to explain to people," he said, "Because they wonder how God could be good and still allow innocent people to die."

Larry was right. The problem of suffering is one of the most difficult questions to answer for most of us who believe in and follow Jesus. For some the question is a smokescreen. They really don't want an answer to the question, it's more of a challenge to a faith they've already dismissed as irrelevant. To them the question of suffering is more like a slap from a leather glove across a believer's face, intended to end any further discussion of faith in a personal God.

For others, the question of suffering is a serious stumbling block. They want to have faith in a God who loves them and is good and who has a wonderful plan for their lives, but the suffering of innocent children due to poverty, or natural disaster or violence leaves them puzzled and full of doubt.

There have been numerous apologetics written to address this problem. Most point out that no one is truly innocent, or that God has an eternal perspective that transcends our finite, mortal existence in this physical world.

While I do acknowledge that suffering is difficult to endure, on some level I have to confess that it's always puzzled me why people get hung up on this question so often. Part of me wants to ask what world they were born into? Don't they live in the same world we all live in? Aren't we all very acquainted with the fact that people die, accidents happen, sickness is real and tragedy strikes all of us sooner or later? Why do we expect God to step in and prevent every accident, tragedy and act of violence? What has given us the idea that this is God's job function?

As Larry and I discussed this I realized that our desire to have God intervene in our suffering, and the suffering of others, is connected to the eternal Kingdom of God itself. Why? Because for us to live in a world where God prevented every accident, healed every sickness and averted every natural disaster on every continent twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, we would have to live in a world where God was the absolute ruler and King of every minute detail of our lives. 

When people genuinely cry out for a world where God prevents suffering and manages natural disasters and eliminates pain, they are revealing an inner desire to live in the Kingdom of God itself. Any world where God plays the role of cosmic policeman and perpetual rescue worker is also one where we are fully submitted to His rule and reign.

Of course, it is doubtful that most of those who complain the loudest about the problem of suffering would really want to live in a world ruled completely by God, and obey His rules and submit to His absolute authority. If they did, then they would have already submitted their lives to Him and placed their hope in God.

Yet, this is the sort of world that Jesus invites all of us to enter- a world where God is our King and His perfect will is always done in every aspect of our lives. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God and his message, his good news for all of us, was that we could enter this Kingdom immediately, on the spot.

Admittedly, the world we live in today is not a pain-free world. Suffering is part of our daily experience and reality. But this does not mean that God isn't working, even now, to bring mankind to a better reality. He really does have a plan to take us to a place free from suffering.

It has been said that all of creation is from Eden to Eden. In the beginning God created an Eden where He and mankind were co-laborers together in the creation, where He was King and there was no sin, or pain or death. At the end of the story we see that God will bring everything back again, ultimately, finally, eternally, to a place where we are co-laborers with Him in His renewed creation, and He is King and there are no tears, and there is no pain or death.

In the meantime, we are invited to step into the story and join with God in His plan. We can become co-laborers with Him in advancing His Kingdom here and now. We can submit to His rule and reign in our actual lives today. 

When Jesus announced the Kingdom of God at the beginning of his ministry he invited those who were ready to enter to follow him. He provided the blueprint for all of us who were eager to enjoy the Kingdom reality. His message, his Good News, was that this Kingdom was at hand, even near enough to reach out and touch.

Sadly, even those who call themselves after his name today are largely unaware of this message. In churches across this nation, week after week, this message of Jesus is rarely spoken. Many who consider themselves followers have yet to take up their cross daily and pattern their life after the teachings of Jesus.

If those who are most familiar with Jesus are ignorant of his message, we should hardly be surprised that no one else has heard the Gospel.

The world we live in now is one where suffering and pain and evil are continually present. As we live our lives, day by day, we wait for God to complete His plan and establish His Kingdom in every heart, and in every nation. Until then, we can take heart that God has a plan to use even the suffering we endure as a tool to shape our faith and inner character after that of His own son, who was a man of sorrows, and acquainted with suffering. We can even partner with God to comfort those who are suffering and extend to them the compassionate heart of Jesus in the midst of their pain.

My wife and I have been through a lot of suffering over the last few years. We've endured financial hardship, persecution, miscarriage, and uncertainty. Yet, even as hard as all of that was for us, I wouldn't take any of it back. God taught me things during those times that I could never have learned from a book, or a sermon, or a seminar.

Better still, God has taught me about suffering and enduring hardships so that I can help and encourage others who find themselves in similar places. 

"But if we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; or if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which is effective in the patient enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer;" - 2 Cor 1:16

So often the popular Christian message is that God wants you to be wealthy and healthy and happy all the time - but when we discover that this isn't the Gospel, and that God's Word actually teaches that God works through our suffering and pain to make us like His Son, we can more fully understand why God allows pain and realize that He is "the God who is with us" in the midst of our suffering.

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." - James 1:2-4

So, I just wanted to encourage each of you today that your pain isn't for nothing. It's meant to give you a faith that won't let go, a perserverance that will cling to God in all things. 

No matter what suffering and pain you've been through, all of it is (in some strange way) part of how God reveals His love to us. (see Hebrews 12:5-11).

During the darkest times of my own personal suffering, I have often repeated these words to Jesus in the dark, remembering the words Peter spoke when he felt the urge to abandon his faith, "Where else can we go Lord? You have the words of life."


*NOTE: This article originally appeared as part of the [Subversive Underground] e-newsletter.


the alternative1 said...

this post reminds me of a time I worked in a big church in Miami,fl some guy had lost his little baby to death and came to me wanting an answer as to why--I told him that only god could tell him why and even at that he might not give it to him--and I said to him what you going to do about it anyway-are you going to throw god up against the wall.

g. said...

Bang on! I have many people ask me the "Why suffering" question. My responses have never been convincing to others. I'm putting to memory your thoughts on wanting God to be the cosmic policeman in times of accidents, sickness & natural disasters 24/7 everywhere!

Getting them to wrestle through that plus the Kingdom has come & being part of it changes our perspective to His is really helpful!

Keep up the great work of mentoring people like myself! g.

Pete Hall said...

Interesting post. I had someone on facebook tell me that he avoided the genocide parts of the bible because its cruel and it contradicts the fact that God is love. But here's a thought...... Genocide, although being a punishment would only be cruel if this life was all there is. I personally am looking forward to losing the life in this body..... As for suffering in this life, it is only brief and momentary, although it doesn't seem like it at the time.