This is part one of a three-part series on God and our suffering.
I hate scary movies. Actually, let me rephrase: my friends hate scary movies. Well, not quite; more accurately: my friends hate scary movies when they sit next to me. Anyone who has been to a thriller at a local movie theater and sat next to me knows just how traumatic of an experience it can be. During the most intense parts, my seat mysteriously empties as I crawl into my neighbor’s lap – despite their best efforts to push me away. I confess I might be a little bit of a scared-y-cat when it comes to movies. Perhaps the most intense thriller I remember was in the early 2000’s – M. Night Shyamalan’s classic Signs starring Mel Gibson. The movie centers around Graham Hess (Gibson), an Episcopal priest who appears to “lose” his faith before regaining it.
In the beginning, Hess seems like an awfully conflicted man without reason – that is, until a flashback reveals the source of his conflict. Before their eyes, the moviegoer watches a scene six months earlier as a car struck Hess’s wife during a pre-dinner walk, pinning her to a tree. The injury kept her alive long enough for him to drive to the accident and say goodbye. I can still picture the emotional scene to this day, as Hess says farewell to his wife for the last time.
Though Signs took many unexpected plot turns, it ultimately focused on the theme of how people grapple with faith in one hand and suffering/devastation on the other hand; hence the deliberate portrayal of Hess as an Episcopal priest. The movie is meant to provoke thought in the movie-goer about how they wrestle with their own suffering.
Saying Nothing While Saying Something
Reflecting on the movie and the suffering of those around me, I’ve noticed some particularly alarming trends. One such trend is how many of my fellow Christians have a thin view of suffering in its relationship to God. You can see it because their suffering usually leaves them spiritually traumatized. I find this particularly true with those who have been raised going to church. Don’t get me wrong – this is not me criticizing them. I don’t think they are the ones to blame. For the first 30 years of my life, I had a poor understanding of suffering and God’s intentions for it. I think we’ve all been taught poorly in this area.
The Bible has a ton to say about God and suffering. For the most part, many pastors and teachers either gloss over it – or worse – they focus on one aspect of suffering while they miss others. Now think about this – if all of us have little to no understanding about suffering, how do you think that will impact us when we actually do suffer? I’ll tell you the results – we will be the kind of people who rely on trite sayings that sound somewhat profound, but honestly don’t heal our wounds at all. You’ve probably heard some of these: “God is just getting your attention,” or “You’re going through this for a reason.” However, like a wedding speech given by a drunk groomsman, these popular phrases seem to say a lot, but think about it – do they really say anything at all?
“God’s getting my attention” – okay. Why? Am I dying? Am I sinning? Does he hate me? Is he happy with me? Is he angry at me? Is something coming that I need to know about?
“You’re going through this for a reason” – uhhh…that’s helpful…kinda…ish? But you know what would be way more helpful? Hmmm…how about a hint at the actual reason. Or how about at least a layout of the options? Is it a good reason? Is it a bad reason? Is the reason because of my spouse? Child? Friend? Cat?
I’m curious: can you begin to see the problem with these? By reflecting on some of our thin beliefs about suffering, a question emerges: how can we grow in our understanding and see the Lord in our suffering? I mean, wouldn’t you want to know how to handle your own suffering better? I sure would. Three things will really help us here: 1) we need to examine what we believe deep down about God and suffering, 2) look at what the Bible says about suffering and how that is way better news for us than what we believe in our gut, and, 3) look at the kaleidoscope of reasons the Bible says suffering exists. Then we can compare that list to our own suffering (this will be the subject of the second article).
Earth Mirrors Heaven
What do we really believe about suffering? I think the vast majority of Americans believe the same thing about God’s relationship to suffering, even if they are not a follower of Jesus. I call it the “Earth Mirrors Heaven” view of suffering. Here’s the gist of it: earth is the mirror of heaven in the sense that however my relationship with God is doing (how pleased he is with me), that will be reflected for the most part on earth (what my life is like here). If God is pleased with me, my life will generally be good. If he is not pleased, my life will be taking a turn for the worst. Here’s what this would look like if I drew it:
Now before I go any further, let me say this: 1) I do not believe this is what the Bible says about suffering, and, 2) I don’t think most people (me included) realize how much we believe this. Let me give some examples and you will see how you might unknowingly default to this belief. Most people will not fall into the first two categories, but everyone will fall into the third.
- Hard Core Fans in Earth Mirrors Heaven – Prosperity Teachers. If you tune into the television station TBN, you will find the hardcore fans in the Earth Mirrors Heaven belief. These TV preachers will say something to the tune of how God shows his pleasure with someone by making them healthy and wealthy. “Do you want to see a Christian who God is pleased with? Just look at their success on earth. Look at the ones with successful businesses, excellent financial portfolios, beautiful wives, and multiple cars.” These are your run-of-the-mill false teachers that even those who don’t follow Jesus look at like, “Are you kidding me?” Examples: Joel Osteen – Lakeview Church, Bill Johnson – Bethel Church, Joyce Meyer – Joyce Meyer Ministries.
- Big Fans in Earth Mirrors Heaven – The Moral (But Unbelieving) Church Member. There is a more subtle version of the belief that Earth Mirrors Heaven. Surprisingly, it infects those who sometimes appear to be the most faithful church members, however as Jesus warned, many of these probably do not know Him. Their relationship with God is not about a day to day walk of enjoying him. Rather, they are content to keep the outward form of religion. Their life mostly revolves around looking godly. They might give money, but they give so they can have the feeling that God is pleased so that they may hoard (or blow) the rest. They keep all kinds of commandments, but they do so to feel better about themselves. If tragedy strikes those in this group, they are often confused. “Why?” After all, they have kept the rules! They have attended church gatherings! They have an expectation that their deeds should have been seen in the heavens, therefore the result should be a better life. They do not say this out loud like the above group of Hard Core Fans of Earth Mirrors Heaven, but you can see the root of the belief there.
- Fans-Who-Don’t-Know-They’re-Fans in Earth Mirrors Heaven – Most Christians (Including Me at Times). I was counseling a young Christian leader in 2011. He was broken-hearted, but more than that he was concerned. We sat there in a room on a late July afternoon. His girlfriend just broke up with him and he wanted to be married so badly, but he was concerned God would no longer bring him a wife. Why? Because years earlier, he had slept with a previous girlfriend. Though this guy truly did love the Lord, he thought this was God’s way of giving him what he deserved for past disobedience. But notice his first response to trial – I think we will all find it familiar. His first instinct is to say, “what did I do wrong?” He flips through his past sins like they’re the Yellow Pages, finds the most egregious one he can think of, and says, “Oh God, have mercy because you must be punishing me for that! I’m sorry!” Here’s what this young leader didn’t know at the time: it was his underlying belief that Earth Mirrors Heaven that drove him to deep anguish. You would never put this guy in groups 1 or 2, but can’t you see how, at his core, his belief was somewhat similar?
Isn’t that interesting? There is something almost hardwired in us to think of suffering in this way. But is that the way the Bible describes our suffering? As you read, you begin to discover that is not the case. Just think of those the Bible highlights as those who were particularly faithful:
- Noah was mocked for 120 years. Not only that, he probably had to listen to friends and relatives drown as the floodwaters started rising.
- Sarah had to suffer through 30 years of uncertainty and emotional turmoil before God kept his promise.
- Joseph rotted in a jail cell for the better part of a decade because of a false accusation.
- Moses wanted the Lord to kill him because he was so sick of the Israelites attacking his motives and leadership.
- Anna lost her husband while they were both still young and spent the rest of her days single.
- Paul and Peter were beaten their whole ministries and were eventually executed.
Am I forgetting someone?!? Oh yeah, Jesus Christ. He’s kinda important in the Bible, since all of the Bible is about him.
In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone who loved the Lord with all they had that didn’t go through a life of intense suffering and/or persecution. Godliness, for the vast majority of those in the Bible, turns what we believe in our gut on its head. It often times (though not 100% of the time) looks like this:
Notice what this diagram is not saying. It’s not saying, “God is pleased because my life sucks.” No, it is instead saying, “Despite how bad things look, God is inherently pleased with you because of Christ.”
Yet the Bible goes beyond this — it shows how others lived comfortable and good lives — yet those people should have zero confidence that God is pleased. They might have a good life now, but judgment is coming if they do not repent from their sins and trust in Christ’s death. But how could God do this? How could he show such injustice by treating those who know and love him with suffering while treating those who hate him with kindness?
The Day Injustice Was On Our Side
Where do all these questions lead us? It seems like a dark road, doesn’t it? That is…unless you see where that dark road leads. That is…unless you see who has walked that dark road before. One of the great comforts of Christianity is the fact that God knows injustice and suffering differently. The gods of Islam, Buddhism, and any other religion might know about suffering, but never do they humbly enter into suffering themselves. Right at the moment we have our questions about God’s injustice, we see something curious about him: he is the God who knows injustice firsthand. The greatest day of injustice the world has ever known is when Jesus Christ, the maker of everything, perfect and spotless, was treated like the most vile murderer, self-righteous fool, rapist, and thief. And why did he willingly do this? So the real murderers, self-righteous fools, rapists, and thieves could go free.
There was a day injustice reigned. And what did God bring about on that day? The forgiveness of many and the greatest good the world will ever know. This sheds light on that dark path we walk on as Christians. It shows us that oftentimes, we can’t trust what we can see with our own two eyes. It shows that each of these can be true in this life, and we can’t say one is universally true:
However, as we’ll examine on the next blog, the Bible shows that God uses suffering as the gateway to glory. It shows that suffering does not have the last word. In fact, suffering has the ability to do something beautiful to us and in us — not just in the next life, but rather in this life as well.
To be continued…