Sunday, April 17, 2005

On Suffering, Part III

“So if God is good, why does he allow so much suffering among His people?”

As I’ve written previously, the question of suffering is among the most difficult to answer for the Christian apologist. How, indeed, can a perfectly good God allow so much injustice and suffering?

I’ve tried to point out elsewhere that the root of suffering is human sin, but it is also necessary to affirm as a child of God that our suffering is used by God to accomplish His purpose in us, and through us.

God uses suffering and tribulation to chasten His people. We should not think about the issue of suffering as an isolated phenomenon. Rather, as believers, we must ALWAYS remember that in His atoning death, Christ sanctified us, made us holy, and set us apart. We have become adopted sons and daughters of almighty God, and it is in that relationship that we are chastened. The author of Hebrews says:

Hebrews 12
6For whom the LORD loves He chastens,
And scourges every son whom He receives."
7If you endure chastening, God deals with you as with sons; for what son is there whom a father does not chasten? 8But if you are without chastening, of which all have become partakers, then you are illegitimate and not sons. 9Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them respect. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live? 10For they indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness.

Chastening means to train by correction. It is important to note that the sufferings God allows are not punitive, but corrective. They are done so that “we may be partakers of His holiness.” Like an earthly father who disciplines his children to bring out the best in them, so God wants to bring out the potential that is in us. Verse 10 says that He does it “for our profit.” Moreover, the text says that if we are without God’s chastening and correction, we are “illegitimate and not sons” of God. So, on one level, suffering is a mark that we belong to God, and are loved by God, who is bringing us into holiness.

We should also remember that there is an important difference between divine punishment and divine chastisement. The Christian is not punished for sins because that punishment was already paid. Consider Hebrews 10:10, “By that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”

Scripture tells us that as a result of Christ’s death, there is “no condemnation” and that we walk in the Spirit rather than the flesh (Rom. 8:1). The Bible also says that if we hear God’s Word and believe in Christ, we will have everlasting life, “and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24).

Though we are sanctified and set free from judgment by Christ, there is still a process of cleansing that takes place in our life. In the Old Testament, there were a panoply cleansing rituals. John speaks of the connection between confession and cleansing, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).

When I pick this up next time, it is in that light that I want to think about suffering. Not as something we endure as punishment that has no meaning, but as a tool used by an all-loving, all-knowing, perfect, holy, redeeming God to cleanse His people and work out His holy will.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, again, Darrell,

While I'm not entirely certain as to where it might be that you intend to take this very interesting exploration, I hope in intervening at this point that I'm not being overly presumptuous.

It occurs to me that the direction you seem to be taking here - and I say seem, because what you intend to cover is not known exhaustively at the moment - may very well bypass perhaps the most critical element of the question: The question of unmerited suffering. Is it sufficient to lay the cause of suffering in the lap of sin and offer the palliative that at least in one respect it can be understood as loving chastisement? Is our relation to God so proscribed that the only terms in which a question of this kind can be posed are confined to the moral order? I would not think so. One minimally would have to raise the question, why the suffering of children who are both unprotected and personally innocent. An apologetic seeking to satisfy the claims of these little ones and of the billions more mature who over the centuries have experienced oppression, persecution, rejection and the like must do so precisely on their terms or be turned aside for lack of relevance. So it is not so much to the believer or even the unbeliever that an apologetic needs to be addressed but to the sufferer. Perhaps Moltmann puts it best:

"Even the abolition of God does not explain suffering and does not assuage pain. The person who cries out in pain over suffering has his own dignity, of which no atheism can rob him."

Yours In The Holy Trinity,

John Lowell

5:55 PM  
Blogger Darrell said...

Looks like I'm busted!

It is true, John, that I am writing these posts largely for believers who struggle with the issue of suffering, and the purposes of God in allowing His children to suffer. Obviously, Christians begin with a set of presuppositions about God's love, mercy, justice, etc. that provides a framework for discussion of the issue. And to be honest, I don't feel capable to intelligently discuss the issues you raise. Sometimes tis better to keep one's mouth closed than demonstrate colossal ignorance!

In short, fashioning such an apologetic demands more than I am currently attempting and I would be greatly interested in your own thoughts on the matter.

One quibble, though. I'm uncomfortable with any discussion of "unmerited" suffering and the innocence of children.

I think Paul is quite clear in Romans and David in Psalms that we are conceived in sin, participating with Adam in the Fall. So I don't think we can discuss suffering outside of that moral framework.

Moreover, as the father of three boys, I see the outgrowth of original sin on a daily basis :)

9:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Darrell,

I'm not at all certain that we have a quibble over the question of there being a proper moral framework to this question; in all respects the question is moral. It's in the way that we approach thinking about this framework that there's a sticking point.

I'm afraid that when I used the term "moral order" in my earlier post, I had in mind an important implication of the way you've formulated your apologetic and, sadly, have succeeded only in causing us difficulty. Here's my point, perhaps better rendered: When considering man's moral relation to God, a certain, one sidedness can impose itself, limiting the perspective achieved to a kind of one-over-against-the-other and to no more. This view has the unfortunate effect of confining the full range of the question and placing it in a straight-jacket. There's God and He's sinless, there's man and he isn't, and that's as far as things ever get. The possibility that a man, albeit quite sinful himself, might be sinned against is never engaged and similarly, therefore, his suffering. We're left with a view that sees the world in grossly stark terms: There are sinners whose suffering can only be considered just and there are the elect who are being lovingly chastised. But the circumstances in the real world are quite different; they are actually quite heterogenious. All of us, most importantly children, our ontological status notwithstanding, experience undeserved suffering. So to embrace the question in its fullness, it is necessary to move beyond these confinements and I hadn't thought you'd done that.

Since you've expressed an interest, I'll offer some further thoughts in another post.

Yours In The Holy Trinity,

John Lowell

12:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Again, Darrell,

You know, the more I think of my use of the phrase, "moral order" in my initial comment, the more I realize how very much more appropriate would have been my choice of the phase "this vision of the moral order" or "this kind of moral ordering" or something similar. I was wrong to use it in the way that I did. Theology is never done well when done imprecisely. My apologies.

John Lowell

3:15 PM  
Blogger Darrell said...


I should have been more precise and careful in describing my objectives. In my first post, I wrote, "Over the course of multiple posts, I hope to discuss the issue of suffering. My goal, gentle reader, is not to cover every nuance or sprint down every rabbit-trail, but to help us gain a greater understanding of God’s purpose for us as believers. (Note—my thoughts on suffering will be most relevant to those inside the family of faith)."

However, though I intended something of a quasi-pastoral series of posts, I used an apologetic framework (i.e., comparing and contrasting different views on the subject, etc.).

Your question about unmerited suffering is a good one, and indeed central to a full-throated apologetic, but as I tried to convey before, I don't feel particularly comfortable trying to write THAT particluar piece. I'm certainly willing to bat some ideas around, however, sso please feel free to add on to your comments.

5:13 PM  

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