4. God Does Not Cause Our Suffering
with Rev. Alex Lang
January 9, 2022
So many Christians believe that God is responsible for human suffering. This week in our Top 5 series, we tackle the question of how a God of unconditional love can allow us to suffer.
16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”
18 “Which ones?” he inquired.
Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.”
20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”
21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”
26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”
27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
2 Samuel 21:1-6, 14
During the reign of David, there was a famine for three successive years; so David sought the face of the Lord. The Lord said, “It is on account of Saul and his blood-stained house; it is because he put the Gibeonites to death.”
2 The king summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. (Now the Gibeonites were not a part of Israel but were survivors of the Amorites; the Israelites had sworn to spare them, but Saul in his zeal for Israel and Judah had tried to annihilate them.) 3 David asked the Gibeonites, “What shall I do for you? How shall I make atonement so that you will bless the Lord’s inheritance?”
4 The Gibeonites answered him, “We have no right to demand silver or gold from Saul or his family, nor do we have the right to put anyone in Israel to death.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” David asked.
5 They answered the king, “As for the man who destroyed us and plotted against us so that we have been decimated and have no place anywhere in Israel, 6 let seven of his male descendants be given to us to be killed and their bodies exposed before the Lord at Gibeah of Saul—the Lord’s chosen one.”
So the king said, “I will give them to you.”
14 They buried the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan in the tomb of Saul’s father Kish, at Zela in Benjamin, and did everything the king commanded. After that, God answered prayer in behalf of the land.
Read the Full Text
As we begin the New Year, we’re doing a series called Top 5. The question this series is designed to answer are what are the top 5 things you should know about a certain topic in the Christian faith? The topic we are focusing on in January are the top 5 things that every Christian should know about God. Last week we talked about the idea that God is Love, which is foundational to our understanding of the Christian faith. This week we are going to talk about the relationship between God and suffering.
The reason why our next step in the top 5 is to discuss suffering is because, if you subscribe to the idea that God is unconditionally loving, then you quickly run into a problem: if God loves us so much, as Christians claim, then why is there so much suffering in the world? This is a contradiction, one that most Christians don’t know how to answer and that’s the reason I want to take the time to discuss it today.
One of the problems we face with suffering is that the Bible most definitely associates our suffering with God’s will. We read a passage today from 2Samuel. This particular passage describes a famine that lasted in the land for three years. Living in a country where we never experience food shortages, we have to be reminded that when crops didn’t grow, people starved to death.
It’s a little bit like what’s happening right now in certain parts of the Middle East and Africa. There are massive food shortages because their rain cycles have been thrown off by climate change, so millions of people are on the verge of dying from starvation. We don’t have the same problem because we utilize modern irrigation techniques to bring water to our crops regardless of how much it rains.
But those modern techniques didn’t exist thousands of years ago, so if it didn’t rain or their crops were eaten by insects or were destroyed by a fungus, life could quickly become precarious. And because they lacked a scientific understanding of the world, life felt very much out of their control. When their crops failed year after year, the only explanation they could fathom was that God was punishing them and God was causing their suffering.
So in the story we read from 2Samuel, David inquires of God as to why the famine has persisted for three years. What David discovers is that God is causing the famine because King Saul, David’s predecessor, tried to exterminate the Gibeonites. David then approaches the Gibeonites and asks them how he can make things right. The Gibeonites ask David to hand over seven of Saul’s sons so they can be executed for the crimes of their father, since Saul is no longer alive. David agrees and hands over seven of Saul’s sons. Once they are executed, God removes the famine and everyone is able to eat again.
Let’s just do a quick recap of this story so we’re all on the same page: because of King Saul, because of one man’s actions, God makes everyone suffer by starving them to death. However, once seven of Saul’s sons are murdered, God is satisfied and stops the suffering. Now I think that any reasonable person reading this today would come to one of two conclusions.
The first conclusion, if we take this at face value, is that God is awful, petty and vengeful. God is willing to make an entire population of people suffer who had nothing to do with Saul’s decision simply because God was angry at one person. The second conclusion is that the people who wrote this story were trying to make a sense of a world they didn’t understand.
Why is there famine? We don’t know, but we believe God is in control of everything and, therefore, God is clearly angry at us, causing this famine for some reason. So, if we want to get out of the famine, we have to get back in God’s good graces. Will executing seven guys make it rain? No, but that connection made sense to them 3000 years ago.
Which leads me to a broader point that we need to discuss in this sermon: how much does God control our lives? If you want to answer the question of why there’s suffering in the world, it is imperative that you first answer the question of how much control you believe God exerts over your life. Now, clearly, when it comes to some of the Old Testament authors, they believed God controlled quite a bit of what happened to us. But does the same line of thinking continue once you get to the New Testament?
Well, to explore this I want to turn to the story we read from Matthew where a rich man approaches Jesus and asks a question, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells the rich man, if you want eternal life, keep the commandments: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie, honor your father and mother. The rich man says, I’ve done all those things. Is there anything else that I’m missing?
Jesus isn’t going to let him off the hook quite so easily. Jesus left one commandment out of the mix – he forgets to mention the commandment not to covet. To covet means that you see what someone else has and you desire to have that thing for yourself. Jesus looks at the rich man with love and says, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.” The rich man was stunned by this statement and walked away quite distressed because he had many possessions and, presumably, he did not want to part with them.
Jesus then turns to his disciples and utters an incredibly damaging statement: “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” Now if you think that statement is difficult to digest in our present world given how much wealth all of us sitting in this room possess, you need to understand that it was even harder to digest for Jesus’ disciples.
If you read Matthew’s text closely, you will notice that the disciples don’t really understand what Jesus is talking about, so Jesus uses an analogy to help them understand: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” After hearing this, Jesus’ disciples say to one another, “Then who can be saved?”
Why do they say this? I’ve always found it to be very odd. You would think that given all the injustice these men have witnessed, watching the wealthy oppress the poor, they would be happy to hear that the wealthy are not given an easy entrance into God’s kingdom. But they’re not happy. They’re confused. It’s as if they’re saying, “If the wealthy can’t be saved, then who can?” The reason why they ask this question is because of how first century Jews understood God and wealth.
In first century Judaism, there was a belief that your life circumstances were a reflection of how much God loved or hated your family. For instance, if you had a child with a physical or mental handicap, the Jews believed that such maladies were the result of God punishing your family for their sins. Another example of this type of thinking is when a person is born into poverty. The financial status of your family was a reflection of how much God loved or hated your family.
Those who struggled to feed their families were thought to be suffering the consequences of the sins their parents or grandparents committed against God. By contrast, those who were wealthy were considered to be loved by God. Their blessing of wealth showed that their family had done well in God’s eyes and, thus, they were favored by God. And this brings us back to Jesus and the rich man.
So now you understand that when the rich man approaches Jesus, the disciples consider the rich man to be a person who is very much favored by God. He has all those riches because his family has done all the right things. Therefore, when the rich man asks Jesus the question of how to inherit eternal life, he’s going into that question with the assumption that he has a leg up on everyone else because he’s wealthy. Furthermore, when Jesus names all the various commandments, the rich man is able to say that he has followed all of those commandments since his youth.
So this rich man, in the eyes of the disciples, is essentially perfect. If anyone’s going to get into God’s kingdom, it’s him. He’s wealthy, so God clearly loves him; he’s followed all of God’s laws the way he’s supposed to, so he’s lived up to God’s expectations flawlessly. There’s nothing holding this guy back. And then Jesus just shatters their entire understanding of the world.
When Jesus says that it is very hard for those who have wealth to be granted entrance into God’s kingdom, the disciples are thinking to themselves, “Well, if this guy can’t get in (and he’s basically perfect) then what chance do we have? We’re just poor fisherman.” Peter even says to Jesus, “Dude, I left everything to follow you and now you’re telling me I’ve got no shot at getting into God’s kingdom.”
These guys believe that God determines your lot in life. Again, if you have money and good health, God is rewarding you for good behavior. If you are poor and in bad health, then God is punishing you in real time. So Jesus’ disciples believe God controls your life and determines your level of suffering. But this is where Jesus steps in to correct the fallacies of this way of thinking.
Jesus is like, “No, you don’t get it. This guy is not perfect and God is not rewarding him because he’s so great. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. In our world, he’s first and you’re last. But from God’s perspective, this guy is at the end of the line.” This is why Jesus says, “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” This particular saying is Jesus’ way of shattering the notion that God determines your lot in life and is the cause of your suffering.
This is consistent with Jesus’ belief that God is love. If you’re going to believe in a God of unconditional love, then you have to back away from the belief that God controls your life. These two beliefs simply cannot coexist together. If God determines the outcome of our lives and is choosing the suffering you endure, you cannot make the claim that God is loving. It just doesn’t work because there’s so much suffering in the world: poverty, starvation, cancer, illness, abuse, violence, war and genocide.
If you’re going to claim that God is loving, the only way you can make sense of the problem of suffering is to remove God’s control of the world, which a lot of Christians don’t like because that means much of what happens to us is the result of two things: random chance and freedom of choice. Why were you born into the family you were born into? Was it because God wanted you there? Was it because God planned for it? No, it was the result of random chance.
We’re going to get more into this issue next week when we talk about the concept of God’s plan, but for now I think we have to appreciate that God created the universe as a place where random chance propagates life. Think about it. There are 200 billion galaxies in the universe, and each individual galaxy has anywhere from hundreds of millions to billions of stars. Spinning around all of those stars are planets and some of those planets are like ours, floating in the habitable zone of the star. With a little bit of luck and lot of time, some of those planets will possess the right ingredients for life to evolve.
All this to say, we are not the only intelligent life in the universe, not by a long shot. If you think life on earth is the only life in the universe, you need to look up. If chance can produce us, then chance can produce lots of other life elsewhere in the universe. However, if chance is part of what allows us to exist, then chance is also part of our daily lives. Sometimes it works in our favor, sometimes it doesn’t.
I knew a guy at one of my churches who was at end stage liver failure. He was on his deathbed and needed a liver transplant. It looked like he was not going to find a donor. Then a teenage boy happened to be crossing the street and was hit by a drunk driver. Being an organ donor, this church member got this teenager’s liver and is still alive to this day. Did God make that drunk driver hit that kid so this church member could get a liver? No, the kid was in the wrong place at the wrong time and this church member was in the right place at the right time.
Which leads to the other reason why we suffer—freedom of choice. Rather than control our decisions, God has given us the ability to make our own choices. Again, many Christians do not like this idea because it means God is very hands off from our world. But I want you to consider something—a God that lets us make our own choices is consistent with a God of love. God says, “I love you so much that I’m not going to interfere with your lives. I have created this universe for you to figure out your own way through it.”
This is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because we can choose our own path. It is a curse because, by letting us live our own lives and make our own choices, God opens the door to suffering. Why? Because every decision we make has consequences in the world. Sometimes our decisions only impact us. Other times, those decisions ripple out and impact other people. However, by letting us make our own decisions, that is the primary root of suffering.
I’m sure you can think of all kinds of decisions you have made throughout your life that have caused suffering for yourself and others. When you say something you shouldn’t say or do something you shouldn’t do that is what causes suffering. Add on top of this the random chance of accidents or getting sick from illnesses and cancer and you can see that a lot of our lives are defined by suffering.
So much so, that suffering is a big part of how humans learn. When you go through a really hard experience, your suffering has the potential to teach you a lot about life. As an example, one of the reasons why I became a pastor is because of the suffering I have endured. I wish somebody had been there for me when I was suffering, so I made a decision that I wanted to dedicate my life to walking alongside people through the challenges they face.
Which raises the most important question of this entire sermon: if good can come out of suffering, then does God want us to suffer? My answer to that question has always been no. I don’t think a loving God would ever want you to suffer. However, by giving us freedom of choice, suffering becomes part of the equation and, if you have to suffer, the hope is that you will learn and grow in positive ways from your suffering.
Therefore, what I believe is that God had to make a choice: Give you a perfect life where you have no freedom or give you an imperfect life with total autonomy. God chose to give you a life where you can make your own decisions. That is a precious gift and my hope and prayer for you today is that you would never take that freedom for granted. May you use every choice you have to create positive, loving ripples in your life and the lives of others. Amen.