Wednesday, March 20, 2013

God Suffers with Us

I don't make any claim to be an expert on the topic of suffering. It's just a topic that I've thought about quite a bit lately. I feel a bit inadequate to even address this. Though I've experienced some suffering, I am really blessed beyond description. I have had a very easy life. Honestly, that bothers me some. I don't know what Paul meant when he said, "I know how to abound and I know how to be abased." I only have proof that I don't know very well how to abound. But, here go some of my thoughts on suffering, especially how that the presence of suffering does not imply that God is not good.

You probably remember the story of the young boy in Alabama who was held hostage in a bunker for 5 days. That story was bizarre to say the least. The boy was rescued and returned to his parents safely, but I wouldn't call anything about that story happy, not even the ending. The innocent bus driver was shot and killed when the boy was kidnapped. The angry and violent kidnapper was shot and killed when the boy was rescued. (No, I do not think that is happy.) The young boy had to suffer indescribable fear and anxiety for 5 days and saw too much death and violence. And the parents... I can't imagine their agony and worry. No, there is nothing happy here.

The day the boy was rescued, February 4, 2013, an atheist friend of mine posted something similar to this on Facebook.
I'm a little curious seeing all the posts about this rescue being an answer to prayers... Did god not see fit to protect the bus driver or prevent the child from suffering 5 days as a hostage?
Okay, Christians, we have to admit that he has a point. How do we know that his rescue was an answer to prayer? Yes, we know that prayers were offered on behalf of the boy. Yes, we know that God did not want the boy to suffer. But how do we know that God intervened in any supernatural or providential way to rescue the boy? Do we know that? No, we don't know the answers to those questions. Yes, prayer works and is helpful. But why did God not answer sooner? Why did God not prevent the murder of the bus driver as he valiantly tried to protect the children? Why did God not make a way for the boy to be rescued without witnessing the killing of the kidnapper?
I don't know. I don't know why that boy suffered. I don't know why his parents had to endure hell on earth for 5 days. I don't know why the bus driver was murdered.

Also, I don't know why my grandfather suffered from Alzheimer's disease until he couldn't recognize his own children when he died. I don't know why my best friend lost his amazing dad when we were 12 years old. I. Don't. Know. I do know that prayers were offered in all of those cases. And I do know that God is good and He hears and cares and He is able to do anything that is possible. But apparently, eliminating suffering from this cosmos without re-creating it is not possible. (On a side note, re-creating it is something that God has promised He will do.)

Back to my atheist friend. I am always slow to think of what to say. I missed an opportunity because I'm slow. I didn't say anything because I was looking for the right words. If I had said something, this is what I would have said.
There have been times that I have looked at the beauty and the expanse of the universe we live in and said, "There must be a god." At other times, I've looked at the immeasurable suffering and said, "There can't be a god, at least not a good one." I confess, I don't have the answers for the suffering and evil I see. I don't understand why some prayers seem to be answered and some are not. And I even confess that I don't know whether the young boy's rescue was an answer to prayer or not. But I know that his rescue was good. And his capture and the bus driver's murder was bad. Even the kidnappers death was bad. The world is full of both good and bad. So, I can't believe in a God whose goodness is defined by the absence of suffering. That's contrary to mounds of evidence that I see. Some may accuse me of making God in my own image, but the only God I can believe in is one who knows what it's like to suffer. That's precisely the God that the gospel reveals, One who suffered immensely and unjustly and chose not to protect Himself from it. Even His own prayer for relief from suffering went unanswered. Yet He loved and did good for others and helped bring relief and comfort in their suffering. I want to love and follow a God like that.
I'm sorry that I missed an opportunity to share God's love with my atheist friend. I'd love for him to see and understand that God isn't really like many people say that He is. God is not a cosmic vending machine. Many portray Him that way, and it is an illogical turn off for skeptics.

A couple of weeks after this story, I was asked to choose my favorite passage from the Bible and read it to the congregation and make a short comment about it. This is what I chose and roughly what I said.
Mark 15:34. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?"
With all the suffering that I see and have experienced in the world, you can say I'm making God in my own image if you want, but I can't worship a God who keeps Himself above all the suffering. I can't worship a God who blames others for suffering and gives pat answers about what is good and takes no responsibility for suffering. No, I worship a God who knows exactly what it's like to feel God forsaken and completely overwhelmed with emotional and physical pain, and to even have His prayer for relief from suffering go unanswered (Mark 14:36). I worship a God who joins us in our suffering.
I don't have answers. I'm a miserable comforter to those who are suffering. All I know to do is weep with those who weep. Even what I've said here probably seems like platitudes and pat answers. But what I do when I'm suffering is trust. I trust Him who suffered not only for me, but so He can relate to me. I pray that I can learn to face suffering courageously and to gently and lovingly comfort those who are suffering, more like Him.

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