Why Suffering?
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Why Suffering?

Job 16:7–17  (ID: 2163)

The Christian is not immune to the human experience of pain, suffering, and evil. In this study of Job 16:7–17, Alistair Begg examines the various reasons why God allows suffering, the human responses to life’s difficulties, and the provisions God makes for His people in the midst of such trials.

Series Containing This Sermon

My Times Are in Your Hands

A Study in God’s Faithfulness in Affliction Selected Scriptures Series ID: 22301

Encore 2011

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 25902

Sermon Transcript: Print

Well, let me invite you to turn to the book of Job. I’ll make reference to it from time to time, although I confess that our study this morning is more topical than is our normal pattern. But as happens to me from time to time, I felt a sense of constraint this week to address an issue that will already have become apparent to you, I think, just in the tenor of the Scripture reading, and that is this whole matter of the Christian in the experience of suffering and pain and evil.

Obviously, this is a vast subject, one into which we can only dip hopefully significantly enough to be able to at least address some of the questions that are on our minds and in our hearts. But it really isn’t possible for us to walk through our lives; to live in the company of one another; to read, if you like, nothing other than the prayer list here at Parkside and see the significant number of individuals whose lives are ravished by pain and by discomfort; to think of the wider circle of those whom we know, represented at least in some of our minds by the closing down of the life of Jim Boice at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia; to acknowledge that it would seem to us that it would have been a far better idea for him to continue living, since he’s such an effective leader, a wonderful preacher, a terrific writer, and someone who apparently is at the very forefront of God’s design for the church as we go into the twenty-first century, and yet here we find ourselves on the receiving end of bulletins which begin to suggest that his life is ebbing away and that we’re talking now about days and certainly not about weeks.

And then we read books. And in the course of my life, I read a number of books, and some were given to me for my birthday, and one that I’ve been particularly enjoying is entitled The Beatles, the Bible, and Bodega Bay, written by a man called Ken Mansfield, who was the former United States manager of Apple Records and executive with Capitol Records here in the States. And in the ’60s he was at the very forefront of everything that was happening in the rock and roll world as it relates to the Beatles. Wonderful pictures in here of places that he found himself, places that many of us could only imagine and wish that we might have been. Along the journey of his life he found that he washed up against the rocks that refused to roll and finally discovered that he needed to take his stand on the Rock of the Lord Jesus Christ. And now, living with his wife in Bodega Bay, he has put all of this together in a book which has come out this year, and some friends from Truth For Life gave it to me.

And in the course of reading this book, and not looking for illustrative material on the matter of suffering in the life of the Christian, but finding myself drawn in that direction even in apparently happenstance reading, I read last evening this entry, which was an entry in his journal in September of 1993. And he’s writing from somewhere on the coastline in Bodega Bay, California:

I know a man is not supposed to cry, but today I felt like Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. I wept in the wind as I walked before the waves—wondering why Matt died. I gazed out at the sea, knowing beneath its surface that the sharks and the dolphins swim in the same water. Just once, though, I wish that Flipper could give Jaws a whale of a beating!

Matt was a Christian brother and the young father of three small children. A fourth child was due in a few weeks. He had lost his job recently, and things were tough on all fronts. He was killed instantly in a tragic motorcycle accident. I honestly believe that some of the tears I shed were for those last days that his family had with him. I wish things could have been better before he went away, for the sake of their memories.

I never cried when my dad passed away. I kept thinking I would but … now I can’t stop crying for Matt. Maybe I[’m] shedding the tears for this father as a symbol of all fathers when I think about these young children what they have lost. I fall to my knees at the water’s edge and lift my swollen eyes to the heavens above and [I] pray.

And then there’s his prayer, and then he writes,

I came to the water’s edge for answers after I heard the tragic news today. I’ve been staring at it for hours—and waiting. As the ripples wash up on the sand, I want to rush in and have this whole thing healed, to have everyone’s pain go away, but I stand transfixed, unable to move in any direction—mentally, physically, or spiritually. I refuse to ask God why these things happen. He is God—we got that straight a long time ago—so I[’ve] learned to ask him what and how instead. What am I to learn from this experience? What can I do that would be in line with his wishes and purposes? How can I bear a godly witness in a situation like this, especially when all the unbelievers have a field day as we “crazy Christians” try to explain this one away? How can I minister to those in need? How can I glorify God in this and in every situation in my life?[1]

Now, that is not a circumstance that is remote to us as we make our journey through our days. To one degree or another, each of us has or will have occasion at least to feel the feelings that man had, if not to be able to express them so cogently as he’s done in that section.

Certainly, this was something akin to the experience of Job who, as the most upright and blameless man, one who feared God and turned away from evil,[2] he found himself subjected to the most dreadful circumstances. I encourage you to read Job for your homework, and when you do, you will discover that his life was such that once the devil had asked God if he could put him through a time of testing, everything fell apart. The Sabeans invaded his territory, they killed his servants, they stole all of his cattle. The following day, lightning struck all of his sheep and the shepherds that were looking after him. He lost all of his flocks and those who were caring for him. In the middle of the next night, the Chaldeans came and rustled his camels. And then the news reached him that the previous night’s storm had brought down his house where all of his sons and daughters were feasting and each one of them had been killed; all of them were dead. And just to add to the dreadful predicament, he himself became the recipient of this most dreadful plague of boils from which he could get no relief at all. And all of this, the experience of a God-fearing man, reminding us that suffering is no respecter of persons.

So, we take life and live it, we take the Bible and we read it, and it becomes immediately apparent to us that suffering is a fact of our human existence.

Inadequate Solutions to Suffering

Now, some people will try to alleviate the problem in a variety of ways. For example, Christian Science, the work of Mary Baker Eddy, has labored long and hard to try and convince us to see pain as something of an illusion—to believe that somehow or another we can, in a mind-over-matter approach, isolate ourselves from these dreadful experiences of pain and suffering. Certainly, I haven’t found that the proponents of this are holding to that line very vociferously when it comes to most obvious things like broken limbs and ruptured spleens and so on. Nevertheless, that is offered up to us as a way of trying to deal with the problem of pain: you know, kind of ignore it and it’ll go away; deny it and it won’t really be there. Which gives rise to the little doggerel that goes, “There once was a Christian Scientist called Deal, who said that pain isn’t real. But if you sit on a pin and the point enters in, you’ll dislike what you fancy you feel.”

No one solves the problem of pain and evil and suffering by rejecting God.

Others attempt to deal with it not by removing pain from our mindset but by rejecting God. So they say, “If this is how things are to be, then I will simply reject God. And by rejecting God, then somehow or another I’ve dealt with the problem.” Some of you may be here this morning, and that’s the line that you’ve taken. You’re angry, you’re disgruntled, and you’re confused. Can I say to you, as graciously as I can, that no one solves the problem of pain and evil and suffering by rejecting God? All that they do is remove the possibility of providing a meaningful answer to the predicament. If there is no God who is wise and in control, then the events of life are purely happenstance. They take place as a result of blind chance, and we then live on our own, unable to make any sense of suffering at all. Indeed, without the presence of a personal creator God who has fashioned all of his creatures and who loves them, even through their experiences, dark and difficult as they might be—without a belief in such a God, we can never be sure that anything has any ultimate purpose or meaning, not least of all our suffering. And therefore, we add to the issue of pain, total meaninglessness.

And this, of course, is aptly summarized in all kinds of ways. It is the emptiness or the nihilism that is expressed in Sartre’s writings, embodied in the work of Hemingway and others. You hear me quote it with great frequency, but it is such a striking quote: Hemingway says, “Life is a dirty trick, a short journey from nothingness to nothingness.” In The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, the play written by Wagner and performed by Lily Tomlin and, according to the New York Times this past week, about to make its journey back onto the Broadway stage, Lily Tomlin as the bag lady Trudy expresses all the things that she worries about, and she says, “I worry about my place in the Cosmic Scheme of things,” and then she pauses and she says, “I worry that there is no Cosmic Scheme of things.”[3] And the great dilemma—the great moral dilemma of pain and evil and suffering—is not rectified by rejecting God; it is exacerbated by rejecting God. Because with God we at least have a point of reference. Absent God, the whole thing is a mess. We are without form and void, we are purposeless, and we are totally chaotic.

So some have tried to deal with it by saying, “Well, it’s an illusion,” others have tried to deal with it by rejecting God, and others try and deal with it by redefining God. This is the work that has been made famous by Rabbi Kushner. It wasn’t an original idea for him—he never suggested that it was—but he has popularized it in his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. And what does he say in that book? Well, he doesn’t deny the existence of God. He wouldn’t; he’s Jewish. But he solves the problem, he says, of pain and evil and suffering by denying God’s omnipotence. There is a God, he says, but he is not all-powerful. And so on page 148 of the book he says, “We advise you to love God and to forgive Him despite His limitations.”[4] So, we have a problem here, because it seems inconceivable that an all-powerful, all-good God would allow these difficulties to exist in our lives.

So what shall we do? “Well,” says somebody, “deny their existence. It’s an illusion.” That’s a silly idea. “Reject God.” That doesn’t help; that makes it worse. “Redefine God.” Who are you to redefine God? God has made himself known. God is not the work of our imagination. We do not fashion God the way a potter fashions clay. Rather, the Bible says that God is the potter and we are the clay.[5]

The Ultimate Question

Well, all we’re doing is saying that’s not a good answer. Is there a good answer? Well, what’s the question? The question, I think, is essentially this; at least this is the ultimate question to which I get: Why did God, who in his sovereignty knows everything, plans everything, and controls everything, create a world in which he knew things would go wrong? Create a world in which he knew things would go wrong and a world in which so much suffering would result? Why did he not simply prevent Adam and Eve from sinning?

Now, we’re not asking that question in a defiant way. We’re asking that question in an intelligent way. We’re asking it, if you like, in a philosophical way. We’re not asking it in a sense of “putting God in the block.” But I’m suggesting to you that the ultimate question is, if you have this God as he has revealed himself, why then, knowing the eventualities, would he choose to do this?

Now, clearly, we could stay up all night discussing this, and it is not within my frame of reference to be able to give a totally comprehensive response to it. But I want to say two things in answering my own question.

The first reason, I think, is simply because he wanted men and women to serve him freely and lovingly and not just because he gave them no choice. He wanted his creation to serve him freely and lovingly and not because he had made them automatons, not because he had programmed them in a certain way. It’s clear that God could have stopped Eve’s disobedience. He could have removed the fruit from her hand. He could have annihilated the devil before the world was made. But God chose to teach men and women the meaning of willing love and genuine obedience. It is our very freedom that makes that a reality.

Secondly, and really correlatively, God knew that men and women would learn more about their Creator and bring more honor to his name if he allowed them first the freedom to go their own way. God knew that his creation would learn more about the Creator, would bring more honor to his name, if he allowed them first of all the freedom to go their own way. So God allowed sin to come into the world with all of its horrible results because that way we would learn to love God freely and because somehow God would show his love in a world of evil.

Now, I know that that is a tough explanation. It is not an explanation before which the mind of man immediately bows. But it is an explanation which does not have God wiggling out of responsibility—which allows us as Christians, with a biblical worldview, to say to our friends and neighbors, “No, we’re not trying to apologize for God in relationship to the problem of pain.” We recognize that God himself takes ultimate responsibility. God could stop all evil tomorrow if he chose. God could stop all evil at midnight tonight. How many of us would be still around at one minute past midnight? None of us. Because we are all evil! And God has said that there is a day when he will bring all evil to a conclusion. Meanwhile, he determines to leave things exactly as they are in order that men might be brought to a discovery of the fact that he has revealed himself supremely in his suffering, dying Son.

Now, for me, that is very, very important. Because it leaves God as sovereign over all things without making him the author of evil. Because God himself is not the author of evil. He cannot be, in absolute goodness, be the author of evil. But we have to acknowledge that God is absolutely sovereign. Therefore, ultimate responsibility comes to God. For example, in Isaiah 45, he says through the prophet, “I bring prosperity and [I] create disaster.”[6]

Job’s Unhelpful Friends

Now, when you learn to think along these lines, hopefully you will then be able to be of help to others—the kind of help that Job was not getting from his friends. Because his friends were full of hot air. That’s what he said there in chapter 16. He says, basically, “You’re blowing a lot of air out and your long-winded speeches never seem to come to an end. You’re a bunch of miserable comforters.”[7]

Now, again, for your homework you can look and see what these fellows were saying. What do you say when a friend is diagnosed with cancer? What do you say when someone loses their son in a dreadful motorcycle accident? What do you say when somebody’s life begins to unravel before them, and they lose the sense of their mind, and they’re reduced just to dreadful circumstances in some ward of a psychiatric unit? Well, the kind of things that these fellows had to say were as follows; I’ll just detail them for you, and you can read the chapters on your own.

Beware of applying principles at arm’s length to a problem that is too deep for your arm’s reach.

But Eliphaz, he took the high ground, and he came to Job and he said, “Job, I can see you’re in a dreadful mess. You look disgusting, frankly, and I’m amazed at all of the things that have happened to you, and my advice to you is that you should seek God.”[8] You can just imagine his voice, can’t you? “I suggest that you seek God.” The implication being that you haven’t been seeking God. Job’s response would have been, “What do you think I’m doing? Why do you think I’m in the predicament? Why do you think I am as I am?” One commentator refers to Eliphaz as “a theologian chilled by his creed.”[9] “A theologian chilled by his creed.” Let us each make a mental note of bewaring of becoming such theologians. So when we confront evil, when we confront pain and suffering in the lives of our friends and loved ones, that we don’t immediately come to them and say, “My, my, my, I think what you really need to do now is start seeking God.” Of course, we always need to seek God at all times, but this is no answer to Job in his predicament. Beware of applying principles at arm’s length to a problem that is too deep for your arm’s reach.

Bildad, he was a friendly soul: he accuses Job of being a windbag. You can read that in chapter 8. Can you imagine that? Covered in boils, lost everything that you own, all your sons and daughters burned up in a fire and a torrent, and the fellow comes in and says, “You know, you’re just full of wind, Job.” So he must have said, “Thank you very much. Could you get me a tissue? And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

The third fellow, Zophar—you can read of him in chapter 11. Zophar. He issues a call to repentance. He’s narrow, he’s dogmatic, and he shows that he doesn’t understand for a moment the problem of Job’s sufferings.

So each of these characters exacerbates the problem. Here is Job, facing all of this dreadful eventuality, and each of these fellows shows up. Elihu is the all-answers man. He tells Job it’s simply a matter of discipline. Don’t you love those people? “You know, if you just tried a little harder, you just pulled your socks up, you wouldn’t be in this mess. Now, just come along now. Are you reading your Bible every day? And are you saying your prayers? How many prayers are you saying? How long do they last? Clearly not long enough. I think you should double it up on both counts, and let’s just see if we can’t deal with this.” What a load of nonsense! What a load of unhelpful claptrap! What a lot of high-sounding, regimented, cliché-ridden religiosity spewing out of the mouths of individuals who perhaps themselves have never faced the dark night of the soul! These fellows were useless!

And his own wife, his helpmeet, what does she tell him? “Curse God and die!”[10] “Hey, thank you very much. Could I have a little more cereal, please, and thank you for that. No, just rub the Calamine lotion just here, honey, and thank you, thank you very much. No, the bed sores are lovely, and thanks. Why don’t you go shopping? For the rest of your life.”

So he responds to them. He describes them in 13:4; he says, “You’re worthless physicians. You’re absolutely useless. Oh, that you would keep silent and it would be your wisdom. If you said nothing,” he says, “it would be profound in its eloquence.”[11]

Actually, they passed their best at the very beginning. In chapter 2, when they see Job coming and they realize his extremity, they do the best that they were ever going to do. And in 2:12 it says, “[And] when they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and they sprinkled dust on their heads. [And] then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. [And] no one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”[12] And those of us who have known the darkness and emptiness and fearfulness of these circumstances will be able to testify to the eloquent wisdom of those who’ve been prepared to sit in the darkness with us and simply hold our hands or put an arm around our shoulders and say, “There, there. There, there. There, there.”

For when you read the Bible, you discover that the explanations in relationship to suffering and in relationship to pain are not provided in terms of cause and effect. The explanations in relationship to the dilemma are not there in taking it in terms of its origins but understanding it in terms of its goals. And when the Bible addresses the issue of pain and suffering, it does so within the framework of the fact that God, who is good and who is all-powerful, from all of eternity has a plan to create a people who are his very own, to conform them to the image of his Son, and to bring them safely to glory. And he will, if you like—if we might say so reverently—do just whatever it takes in order to achieve that objective. And in the course of our lives, pain and suffering will be part of that.

Five Reasons the Righteous Suffer

Now, let me just work this out for you a little bit, tease it out just a little. Why do the righteous suffer? Why do good people suffer? Why do those who embrace God and say they follow his Son, why do they suffer? Well, let me tell you. Let me tell you five reasons why.

Number one, because suffering is the common human condition. The first reason why Christians suffer, the same as non-Christians, is because we live in an imperfect world. And because we live in an imperfect world, the impact of sin means that there is suffering, that there are eventualities, we get hurt, we get sick, and we also die. Therefore, in light of that, we do not need to read into all of our sufferings some great cosmic meaning—you know, “Oh, I have such a sore head. I wonder what the eternal scheme is in relationship to this.” Your wife says, “Oh, take an Advil and dry out, would you?” I mean, it’s just the fact that we live in a fallen world. “Oh, you know, I stood on the rake, and it belted me right on the side of the head. Oh God, what are you teaching me in this great circumstance?” Look where you’re going, clown!

In other words, we don’t have to immediately theologize into some great cosmic plan the eventualities of human existence. The righteous and the unrighteous see the sun. The righteous and the unrighteous feel the rain.[13] The righteous and the unrighteous live with the implications of suffering.

So that’s the first thing: we experience suffering because you can’t be human without experiencing suffering. Secondly, we experience suffering sometimes because God plans for it to be corrective. Corrective.

This is the expression of the psalmist where he says in Psalm 119, “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word.”[14] “When everything seemed to be fine, when the ball was at my feet, when the sun was out, the sky was blue, when I just had life in front of me, I frankly was going my own way. I was doing my own thing. But now that you have afflicted me, I obey your word.” And this, of course, is iterated there in the book of Hebrews when God the Father is described as a gracious father who would discipline his children and correct them by means of his discipline in order that it may be that they get back on the path of God’s Word.[15] And each of us, if we’ve lived life at all with any sense of sensitivity to what’s happening to us, will recognize at least the possibility that some of our experiences of pain and suffering have been as a result of God’s gracious, wonderful, corrective plan. So in other words, this pain, as painful as it was, this emptiness, as real as it was, has been a means of blessing to us, for God has used it to correct.

Thirdly, God uses suffering not simply as a corrective but in order to be constructive. Constructive. Romans chapter 5, Paul writes and he says, “Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.”[16] How does this person become so hopeful? How does this lady have such wonderfully tender eyes? How is it that this gentleman seems so empathetic with my pain, with my brokenness, with my wanderings, with my stupidity? How did this guy get like this? God used suffering in his life to construct him! He wouldn’t be the man he is had God not chosen to employ pain in this way—not punitively, not even correctively, but constructively.

Fourthly, we experience some suffering simply in order that God might be glorified. Isn’t that the lesson of John chapter 9, when the disciples come to Jesus with a man born blind, and they say, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” And Jesus says, “Neither the parents nor the man. This man is the way he is in order that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”[17] Do you realize what Jesus is saying there? Let me tell you what he’s saying: he’s saying this man endured blindness all through his life in order that, at this point in history, Jesus might heal him and so bring glory to God.

And there are circumstances in each of our lives through which we come, and we say to ourselves in the experience of them, “I don’t know what in the world this is about. I would run from this if I could,” and understandably so. But then all of a sudden, somewhere along the journey of our days, in a great denouement it becomes apparent: “Oh, that’s why I went through that. It is for this exact moment that God may be glorified.”

If I may use a personal illustration—and I don’t know how good or bad it is—when my mother died a year younger than I am now and left us behind—me twenty, my sisters eleven and fifteen—I couldn’t find a redeeming feature in the event at all. I couldn’t make sense of it. I stood at her open grave and tried to theologize it as best I could in relationship to 1 Corinthians 15, and yet, still laying hold of God and saying, “I believe you and I trust you,” still it seemed to me like a bad idea, you know?

When I was invited to be the assistant minister at Charlotte Chapel in 1975, and I was twenty-three, I looked really mature; I looked like I was about sixteen. And the great fear on the part of the elders was, “How can this cream-faced loon ever be any use in the context of a variegated congregation, many of whom are old?” A justifiable concern. “How will this kid, green around his ears, ever be able to walk into suffering and into pain and into bereavement?” And I found, the first time I had to go to the home where someone had lost a loved one, and I walked in the door, and I sat down, and I took the person’s hand—this is not the whole answer, but it’s part of the answer—I said, “Thank you, Lord. This is part of the reason. ’Cause you couldn’t give me empathy. You couldn’t give me sympathy. I couldn’t know what this… I couldn’t even get close to thinking what it feels like in this home right now—for a mother to be grabbed away in the middle of the years, for a dad to be lost in a car accident, for somebody to be unrecoverable from a tragic accident—were it not for the fact that somehow or another you determined that you would be glorified as a result of pain which you allowed as a result of suffering which you brought into my experience.” You see, the question is, are you prepared to trust God? That’s the question! Will you believe God? Will I bring my mind beneath him? Will I submit to him?

And fifthly, the purpose of suffering is, in certain cases, cosmic. Having said that every experience of pain should not be regarded as a cosmic event, I need at the other end to say that the purpose of suffering is cosmic. And Job is the most profound and detailed exploration of it. Because the experience of suffering in the life of Job is to demonstrate before Satan and the angels that a person can love and trust God for who he is in himself and not merely for what he gets out of him—can love and trust God for who he is in himself and not simply for what he gets out of him. This is very, very important. God doesn’t want people to become Christians just as an insurance policy against trouble. And he doesn’t want us to live our lives free from suffering, because he wants to show the world that his people are sufficiently tough to suffer with the world’s suffering and still trust God.

The same God who chooses to bless us with a lovely sunset may choose to bless us with the experience of suffering.

You see, this is why we have a very poor theology of suffering at the commencement of the twenty-first century—certainly in terms of the public persona that is represented in television evangelists and teachers, who are all the time hyping the idea of a Christianity that is all about health, it’s all about wealth, and it’s all about prosperity. Now, the fact of the matter is, God blesses when we apply his principles. There is an attendant blessing that accompanies it. But he does not have his hand up his back in relationship to this, and we cannot manipulate a sovereign God. And the same God who chooses to bless us with a lovely sunset may choose to bless us with the experience of suffering.

Again, this fellow on Bodega Bay—as it just comes to me now—he talks about sitting watching the sunset there at the bay. And he says,

I look at his majesty before me, and I ask him what have I done to deserve being in this beautiful setting. He gently replies:

“Absolutely nothing!”

[And] then I ask what I have done that makes me totally undeserving of being here. [And] he says:

“Absolutely everything!”

[And] once again my fear and doubt sail off into the Sonrise on the winds of morning grace. [And] the sea of forgiveness beckons mercifully to another sailor lost at land.[18]

“What have I done to deserve this beauty and your goodness to me, Jesus?” “Absolutely nothing.” “What have I done that I shouldn’t know it?” “Absolutely everything.”

How Christians Face Suffering

Now, loved ones, if we do not know how to suffer, then how in the world will anybody know how to suffer? If we do not know how to face pain, how will the godless know how to face pain? If we cannot, in light of the realities of eternity, face the issue head-on, then what are our friends or our neighbors going to do? You see, because Christianity is not about how to escape from the difficulties of life, but it is how to face the difficulties of life. This is what we need to be saying to our friends and neighbors. No, it’s not, “Come and follow Jesus Christ and escape everything.” It is, “Come, follow Jesus Christ—and live! And as you live, you will experience all of these things.” And the difference that Jesus makes is not that he removes us from the circumstances but that he grants us grace in the midst of the circumstances.

People say, “Well, you know, why is it that when the 747, the TWA flight, goes down there over the New England coast, why did the Christians go down?” Well, what is that supposed to mean? Is the inference being that God should only allow those who do not know him to go down? I mean, let’s face it, the people who don’t know him, they go down to the ultimate “down.”

You see, people have got this idea that somehow or another we’re going to be floating to the ground while everyone else hurls to destruction. No. Christianity is not an insurance policy against suffering and pain. And God uses it—pain, illness, crashed and crushed hopes, stupid choices, bereavement—to test the faith of Christians to make them stronger, better, and wiser.

Now, loved ones, when you begin to grapple with this, when you read the story of Job and think it out, then you will realize that the Bible is eminently wise in relationship to these things. And you need to be able—we need to be able—to dialogue with our friends in relationship to a worldview that is cogent. They may not accept it, but we ought to still at least be able to make the case.

For example, when they’re pressing us into a corner about all the suffering in the world, ask them this question: “By how much do you think suffering would be reduced in the world if everybody obeyed the Ten Commandments?” The Ten Commandments that our culture is so keen to remove from school walls, office walls, walls of justice: “Get rid of all of this nonsense! We don’t want this up here. The church needs to be over here, the state needs to be over here,” and so on—all of that nonsense. But just ask them: “How do you think we’d do without lust? Do you think that would make a difference to suffering? How do you think we’d do without greed? Without lying, without stealing, without murder? How much do you think we would make an impact on suffering if a society were to obey the Ten Commandments?” And the answer is unavoidable: it would radically change things. Push them back a little bit. Shove them into the corner, kindly. Kindly into the corner. We don’t want to win the argument and lose the war, but we want to be able to push them back just a little bit: “Hey!”

And then also, understand this so that you can convey it: pain and growing old are blessings, not curses. Pain is one of God’s great blessings. Children understand this. “Ah! Ah!” they say, as they jam their fingers or whatever it is, and then what do they do? “Mom! Ah! Mom!” Why does God use pain? The exact same reason: that confronting this, facing this suffering, men and women might say, “Ah! God!” So if we were to take away pain, we remove one of the great potential levers by which God reaches into the soul of a man or a woman and he says, “Hey! I wanted to talk to you.”

And the same is true of old age. Old age is great. You heard it here! Write it down. Gray hairs and wrinkles. Look in the mirror and say, “Yes!” Why? Why gray hair and wrinkles? Because God has given us a personal visual aid—some of us a little more graphic than others, admittedly—but he has given us a visual aid, and so that every time you look in the mirror, it says this to you: “You’re on your way out!” “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” “Not you!” You look in the mirror, and you see it coming back at you: your sell-by date is closer than yesterday. That’s one of the reasons that God gives us gray hairs and wrinkles. If you think about it, the process of creation could have been that people were made, they look like something out of Star Trek or one of those weird things with those horrendous heads and faces so that you were unable to distinguish age at all, and then you lived a kind of ageless existence, and all of a sudden you fell down a trap hole in the ground and you were gone. It could have been that way. God in his grace produces suffering, allows pain, and allows the degenerative processes of our lives in order that, seeing the fact that we are not going to last forever, we say to ourselves, “My, my! I better prepare for the final journey.”

So I look at my gray hair, and I look at my wrinkled face, and I look at the fact that when you used to be able to just… when you jumped off the two-foot wall, you used to just do it, and now you’re like, “Mm-hmm, wai…” Just like that. Where does that come from? Every time that happens, God says, “Aha! See, Alistair? You’ve got less in front of you than you’ve got behind you. Are you ready to meet me?” Why do you think they’re flogging all these pills to make you look young for the rest of your life? Because nobody wants to face the fact of death.

I bought a CD the other day, it had that old song from Fame on it, remember? Fame sings? I can’t remember what that was, but, you know, “I’m gonna live forever, I’m gonna learn how to fly.”[19] Just look at the picture on the front of the cover, and look at the person now, and, you know, hey, they’re not! And neither are we!

How God Works through Suffering

Well, our time is gone. Let me just make a couple of summary statements. In fact, let me try and summarize the whole thing for you. Listen carefully.

What’s the biblical worldview in relationship to this? It is this: In the beginning God made everything perfect. He gave Adam and Eve some rules destined for their best welfare; they broke those rules, went their own way. As a result of this sin, disease and suffering of all kinds, and finally death itself, came into the experience of mankind, because all of us have followed their bad example of trying to go it alone. There are implications of going alone. When we refuse to obey God’s counsel found in the Bible, he stands aside and he leaves us to it, and much of the suffering in our world today is as a direct result of this. That’s the significance of Romans chapter 1: “And choosing to worship the creature rather than the Creator, they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and God gave them over to their choice.”[20]

Now, in the midst of all of that, God is doing three things.

One, he is holding back sin and suffering to a degree we can never fully know. If God were to take his hand off our culture completely, it would be hell, totally. And that’s why we need to pray that God would place his hand upon us, that we do not go the way of the Roman and the Greek empire, and like every other proud empire that has crumbled to the dust. I was just coming back from Greece and walking amongst ruins that are 1700 BC, and thinking, “You see the people walking now on an excavated Manhattan, in the year 5006? And saying, ‘Who were these crazy Americans? Look at all the things they did! Why did they turn their back on God? They had such wonderful churches. We see the ruins of some of them.’” In the midst of all of it, God, still in his grace, holds back sin and suffering.

Also, he allows manmade suffering to show us how desperately we need God. And thirdly, he uses natural disasters to blow a big trumpet, to remind men and women that they’re not the masters of the universe or of their own fate. I’m tempted to say he uses natural disasters to blow a big trumpet particularly for scientists—chemistry teachers in the main. Physics teachers as well. Those people that made my life so miserable. But no, there are wonderful chemistry and physics teachers, and some are here this morning. But the scientist has to get on his knees sometimes, does he not? And look at the lightning come across the sky and its mega-zillion voltage and say, “We can’t come close to reproducing that.” Watch the most phenomenal storm unfold, watch a volcanic eruption, watch St. Helens repair itself in a matter of years, despite all of their fossil testing said it takes zillions and zillions of years before you can have vegetation like that; St. Helens erupts, spews out all of the stuff, and the people are now back twenty-five and thirty years later and say, “Look, how did all this vegetation get like this?” God is blowing the trumpet. He’s saying, “Scientist! Scientist! Listen up.”

The Christian believes in a God who hanged bloodied and beaten on a Roman cross, answering the proud, defiant questions of man.

And to take the sting out of suffering, he’s given us the Bible so that we might have a blueprint and know how to live, he’s given us the prospect of heaven so that we needn’t be without God and without hope in the world, he’s given us the gift of the Lord Jesus that we might trust in him, and he’s given us the Holy Spirit that we might be made absolutely new.

Think about it—and this is my final thought. You travel the world, and you go into all kinds of temples as they relate to all kinds of religions. You’re struck by a variety of things, not least of all the sincerity of some who are there paying their vows and respects. And every so often I’ve found myself, for example, in the context of Buddhism, saying, “This is very interesting.” But eventually I just have to walk away and shake my head, because I look at that little man, that little Buddha, and you see him sitting there, like this, grinning. You’re supposed to buy one and rub its tummy.

No, I don’t believe in a God who folds his arms and grins and asks me to rub his tummy. I don’t even believe in a God who came to earth to lie in a deck chair. The Christian believes in a God who hanged bloodied and beaten on a Roman cross, answering the proud, defiant questions of man: “God, do you know about suffering?” And the cry from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”[21] He was forsaken that you and I might be forgiven, not that we would have the answer to all of our questions. He doesn’t ask us to answer all the questions; he asks us to trust him. Do you trust him today? And if not, do you trust in yourself? Wow. Wow! That’s incredible.

Father, look upon us in your grace, we pray, as we wrestle with these great issues. Thank you that you have come to us. Thank you that you have died for us. Thank you that you ever live to intercede for us. And thank you that through the pain of our own individual suffering, through the reality of sorrow that comes as a result of decisions that we’ve made, still we see your hand in it all, constructing us, correcting us, using us. Lord, we do pray you will help us, then, to know how to live and how to die, how to rejoice and how to suffer. And to this end we commend ourselves to you.

May the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one of us, now and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Ken Mansfield, The Beatles, the Bible, and Bodega Bay: My Long and Winding Road (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2000), 65–67.

[2] See Job 1:1.

[3] Jane Wagner, The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe (New York: Harper Collins, 1987), 26. Paraphrased.

[4] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (New York: Random House, 1981), 162. Paraphrased. This edition differs from the one from which Alistair quotes.

[5] See Isaiah 64:8.

[6] Isaiah 45:7 (NIV 1984).

[7] Job 16:2–3 (paraphrased).

[8] Job 5:8 (paraphrased).

[9] James Strahan, The Book of Job Interpreted (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1914), 59.

[10] Job 2:9 (NIV 1984).

[11] Job 13:4–5 (paraphrased).

[12] Job 2:12–13 (NIV 1984).

[13] See Matthew 5:45.

[14] Psalm 119:67 (NIV 1984).

[15] See Hebrews 12:5–11.

[16] Romans 5:3–4 (NIV 1984).

[17] John 9:2–3 (paraphrased).

[18] Mansfield, Bodega Bay, 142.

[19] Dean Pitchford and Michael Gore, “Fame” (1980).

[20] Romans 1:24–25 (paraphrased).

[21] Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.