Monday, June 14, 2010

Living in a Suffering World

Reading a number of prayer requests this morning reminded me of the true nature of this fallen world. I tried to address that a few years ago in the following sermon about suffering. I hope it's helpful to you in some way.

The story of Job is one of the oldest in the Bible. Most scholars think the man Job pre-dated Abraham. This means there is biblical support that one of the oldest issues plaguing humanity is the one of faith in God in the face of suffering.

A couple of decades ago Harold Kushner wrote his book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. Philip Yancey wrote Where Is God When It Hurts? and eleven years later followed it with Disappointment With God. He interacts with three questions most people struggle with, but are seldom brave enough to ask: Is God unfair? Is God silent? Is God hidden? People who suffer ask those questions.

With the release of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, critics have been pushing the question, “Who killed Jesus?” Many who are unacquainted with Christian teaching have asked, “Why did he have to suffer so much?”

We live in a suffering world. We live in a world where death ends every life. We live in world where nature does horrible things — storms, fires, earthquakes. We live in a world where accidents and illness cut lives short. We live in a world where some people intentionally mistreat other people in brutal ways. We live in a world where husbands and wives who pledged to love each other until death have to deal with betrayal. We live in a world where children are abused. In those situations and more, people hurt. People cry and curse and try to find some way to numb the pain. Some people try to retaliate. Some people shrivel up and live empty lives. Some people truly quit living. Some people are able to see past the pain and believe that God is working — loving — even though it doesn’t look or feel like it.

Few people seem to give a lot of thought to what we might call invisibilities. By that I mean the unseen world of demons and angels that the Bible says are active all around us. And not only are they around us, they are fighting over us. C.S. Lewis once wrote, "There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan" (Christian Reflections, p33).

Most people, though, are too concerned about this world to give much (if any) thought to a world they cannot see. And even though they are constantly bombarded by things that are rooted in the unseen world, they call it "bad luck" (or occasionally "good luck"), and keep their focus on their immediate circumstances in the world around them. This is basically what the Bible would describe as living without faith.

The Bible tells us that God did not intend life in this world to be that way. Long ago humanity made the choice to live life without God — to be our own boss and choose for ourselves what is right and wrong. That is sin, and that is why something is wrong with this world. The Bible also tells us that God did not abandon us. He could have responded immediately with judgment, or he could have left us to self-destruct. Instead, he chose to do something to save us. He became one of us in the person of Jesus Christ. And when people killed Jesus in anger because his life revealed the evil of their own lives, God let it happen. Jesus took the evil, and even death itself, and absorbed it. Then he rose from the dead to show that God is bigger than evil and death, and God invites everyone to believe it.

But this is not merely something to be understood and believed with our minds. There is a spiritual dimension at work. There are powers and influences that we cannot see. It is an issue of spiritual ownership and control. Every human being on earth gives spiritual allegiance either to God or to powers that are opposed to God. Because of sin's power in our lives, the only way to belong to God is to invite Jesus to come into our lives and exercise in us the power that he displayed when he rose from the dead and triumphed over evil and death. When that happens, people who belong to God are able to break the awful cycle of sin's destruction and pain — at least in their own lives. People who intentionally and continually live in ways that go against God and hurt others do not belong to God. Conversely, God's people are people who let the life of Jesus come into and flow out of their lives.

Now it might seem that God's people would have it easier in this world. With Jesus having defeated death and hell and with the Spirit of Jesus living in those who belong to him, shouldn't life be happy and convenient for Christians? Well, it is almost just the opposite. Until God brings this present world to its end, Satan is still "the prince of this world," and Satan's hatred of God has not lessened. Satan hates everything God loves, and that means God's people. We still live in a world under the power of the evil one. As much as we want to avoid it, suffering is an inescapable fact of life.

The question, then, is how to understand this. I want to consider three questions: Why is there such cruelty in this world? What does the suffering of Jesus mean? What can Christians expect from God in the context of suffering?

First there is the nature of life in this world. Why is there such cruelty in this world? This world is not as God intended it. A Christian word for this is fallen. The world is broken because of sin. God created people to love him, but love requires choice — “forced love” is an oxymoron. Humanity chose to go its own way rather than love (and submit) to God. Disobedience to God always brings a curse. God’s first curse on disobedience is found in the third chapter of Genesis — early in the biblical story. That opened the door for all kinds of things to go wrong. When things go wrong in this world, the result is suffering — all kinds of suffering. Paul told the Romans: the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice. . . we know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time (Rom 8:20,22). The natural order is in turmoil. People are twisted. Evil powers exacerbate and inflame it. Every act of injustice and every cry of pain is a witness to an existence cut off from God. Cut off from God, people live for themselves. They want to be secure and comfortable, regardless of what it does to others. Once they find something pleasurable, they want more and more of it. If others get in their way, they are prepared to over-power and even kill.

One of the worst effects of our brokenness is being cut off from God and not knowing it. We cannot see wrongs for what they are. We cannot easily sense God’s presence; we cannot understand his ways. So when suffering comes, a first impulse is that God doesn’t care. We instinctively blame him. The effect of sin in us is that we do not want to be responsible. That only multiplies sin and suffering.

What is God to do when we cannot easily perceive him and his ways? What is God to do when we blame him for the suffering instead of seeing (and grieving) what is only judgment for our own choices? What is God to do when we cannot fathom the depth and seriousness of sin?

What God did was send his Son. When Jesus came he was God in human flesh. He told one of his disciples: Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father (Jn 14:9). One might think that a God-man would dazzle everyone in a way that would compel belief; that is what many asked for (and still do today). But on another occasion Jesus told his disciples explicitly: the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mk 9:45). One way to understand everything Jesus taught is to comprehend the implication when he said, the man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (Jn 12:25). One cannot understand the suffering of Jesus apart from this.

What does the suffering of Jesus mean? When Jesus Christ went to the cross he was modeling his teaching. The suffering and death of Jesus was a picture of how God sees sin and what sin really does to us and all of creation. Sin causes pain and death. When we disobey God, thinking we are choosing something that will make us happy, we are actually choosing to embrace the kind of suffering that took Jesus to the cross.

Why did Jesus have to suffer so much? Who killed Jesus? Those questions that have been so prominent recently can be answered in two words: my sin. Every time we hear of an atrocity. . . every time we find ourselves in emotional or physical pain. . . each and every situation that brings human suffering. . . it all says one thing: the rebellion of sin. That is why we live in a suffering world.

But where is the hope? First, there is the incredible assurance that Jesus took upon himself the curse of our disobedience — he suffered and died — and then came back to show that sin does not have the last word with God.

Hear the Scriptures:

For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God (1Pet 4:18a).

In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. . . Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him (Heb 2:10; 5:8,9).

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (1Cor 5:21).

But this does not answer all our questions. If Jesus took the suffering of sin upon himself and saved us, then why do people — especially Christians — still suffer? And why is obedience to God still important if Jesus “paid it all”? Paul anticipated the question in his Romans letter: Shall we sin because we are not under law but under grace? (Rom 6:15).

What are Christians to expect from God in the context of suffering? First, we can expect God to have the same attitude toward sin that we see when sin is judged in the suffering and death of Jesus. Sin will always cause suffering because sin is in conflict with God. As long as people have the freedom to disobey God, sin will exact its price of suffering — and people will have the freedom to disobey God until Jesus returns to finalize God’s forever kingdom. And at that point, people who are choosing sin will be lost forever. In the meantime, the whole creation — and everyone in it — continues to “groan.”

How do Christians respond to this fact of suffering? Human nature says “run from it. . . avoid it at all costs.” Here are a few things the Scriptures say:

They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name (Acts 5:40,41).

if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps (1Pet 2:20b,21).

we rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance. . . (Rom 5:3).

. . .we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Rom 8:17).

But no one can respond this way apart from faith. Christian faith sees suffering as a result of sin; even worse than the pain suffering causes us is the affront sin is to God. Christian faith takes its greatest hope in the belief that Jesus submitted to suffering — to the point of death itself, but then came back from the dead proving that God is greater than the worst sin can do. Christian faith then faces suffering believing that as we follow Jesus, God will do in those who follow the same thing he did in his Son — raise him up, victorious over sin and death, and alive forever. And so the Scripture continues: our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Rom 8:18).

This still doesn’t mean it will be easy. It wasn’t “easy” for Jesus. We live in a suffering world. But if we do not know God’s diagnosis. . . if we do not know what God has actually done through his Son. . . if we do not know what it means to follow Jesus, then how can we truly believe — and follow — as we live in a suffering world?

Father Jerzy Popieluszko was a Catholic priest in Poland in the early 1980s. The pale, gaunt priest had a two-fold message: Defend the truth, and overcome evil with good. People responded and overflowed his church. The secret police followed him everywhere. He began to receive threats and, finally, one night after celebrating Mass and preaching, Father Jerzy disappeared. About ten days later, as 50,000 people came to Mass and to listen to a tape of his last sermon, they heard that his body had been found in the Vistula River — badly mutilated by torture. The secret police braced for an uprising. But on the day of Father Jerzy's funeral, the huge crowd that walked past their headquarters bore a banner and shouted what it said — "We forgive." Father Jerzy had taught them well.

Only Christians, men and women who are touched by and understand the suffering of the Cross, can possibly respond to suffering today, regardless of how it comes, by trusting God. If we don't, no one else will. As Christians our calling is to follow Jesus, first in his sufferings and then to his resurrection glory. We live in a suffering world. . . we follow a suffering Savior.

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