Suffering & God & The Cross

Friends,

Aaron W Calhoun, MD, has a rather brilliant, if short, essay in the most recent issue of Touchstone titled “Jesus Wept.” In the short essay he touches on some of the objections that atheists and others come up with for why there almost certainly is not a god.  This part of the essay has been rehearsed a thousand times by a thousand different authors so I won’t bother again. What makes this essay, in my opinion, brilliant is that he doesn’t let the Christian off the hook. He notes that it is Christians who often have the wrong answer (at the wrong times) for why there is suffering in the world and how we can justify God or God’s existence in light of such suffering. Answers that involve repeated references to ‘God’s plan,’ or ‘his sovereignty,’ while not wrong, are not necessarily the best approach either. I agree.

Instead of a necessarily philosophical answer or a ‘tired’ theological answer, what we need is a Christological answer. “Christological answers deal with natural evil not with a defense of who God is, but with an exposition of what God did. They stress, not logic and argument, but a direct appeal to the power of Christ death and resurrection over evil”  (Calhoun, 14-15). Well that is just fantastic writing. It is too often that our apologetic for God in light of a suffering world is to neglect Christ’s work, his entrance into this world, the enfleshing of God in Christ, and his suffering. It’s almost as if Christians are afraid to talk about the cross when we are confronted with the horrors of suffering and evil in this world. Now of course, we cannot leave the cross here. The cross was not merely about God understanding our suffering or participating in it. The cross can never be about mere sympathy and we must carry it on to its ends of atonement, propitiation, and redemption. But Calhoun is surely correct in this assessment that in our quest to understand suffering and God in this world the cross is the place to start. In the cross is the renewal of all things.

The fact is, God did do something about suffering: He dealt the death blow to sin in Christ. This is the testimony of Scripture time and time again. Suffering has at its root sin and if suffering and evil are going to be dealt with then sin has to be confronted and defeated. Only in the total defeat of sin in the cross will the last enemy, death, be destroyed. “When he had disarmed the rulers and authorities, He made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through Him” (Colossians 2:15). Here is your victory: Christ Crucified. Here is your answer to suffering in the world: Christ Crucified. Here is the content of the Gospel: Christ Crucified. This means that the preacher has the responsibility to preach: Christ Crucified. It is only in this message that suffering will make any sense at all. Forsyth said it profoundly, “The Cross is at once creation’s final jar and final recovery. And there is no theodicy for the world except in a theology of the Cross. The only final theodicy is that self-justification of God which was fundamental to His justification of man. No reason of man can justify God in a world like this. He must justify Himself, and He did so in the Cross of His Son” (The Justification of God, 122).

Calhoun wrote, “We forget that the ultimate response to evil is not a theory or a doctrine, but a person…And it is in him, the Infinite God who became man and died, bearing our suffering and sin as his own, that we see the truth” (15). An absolutely brilliant essay. I am thankful that Dr Calhoun wrote it and I am hopeful that more of you who have tasted it here will discover it for yourselves. If you are wondering about suffering, about ‘where God is’ in all this mess we call the world, about the massive amount of and proliferation of evil in our culture, then there is only one answer: Jesus Christ crucified.

Soli Deo Gloria!

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  1. Do you believe that the victims of natural disasters suffer? If so, do you believe that all suffering comes from sin? If so, do you believe that only sinners suffer? If so, then when a natural disaster occurs and thousands of people die they must all be sinners and only the righteous would survive, yes?

    If sinners aren’t the only ones that suffer in natural disasters, do you believe that God causes good people to suffer also? If so, do you believe that God would cause some good people to suffer until death? If so, then God causes both sinners and righteous to suffer in natural disasters and then not all suffering comes from sin, yes?

    I always have difficulty with the belief that suffering comes from sin. Some suffering is caused by sin , yes, but all suffering? I think not.
    Suffering as result of natural disasters appears to be unrelated to sin. If it is not related to sin, then in addition to sin, what are the other factors that lead to suffering? Those items that are not related to sin, are they related to something else? Chance, perhaps? Or the will of the Devil? Does the Devil have power over the righteous during natural disasters?
    God causes the rain to fall on the just as well as the unjust. Perhaps he has the same approach with suffering in a natural disaster.
    So many questions for which we will never know the answers while we live.
    I like your post. I just have a problem attributing all suffering to sin. I understand that God is here for us but not in a self-centered way. He is just as here for us as He is here for others. We personally do not own God for ourselves. We share him with others, even those who do not believe in Him.

  2. Reasonable Citizen,

    You raise some difficult but good questions.

  3. RC,

    Thanks. That is quite a load of questions and I’m not going to make any attempt to answer them all. The logic seems a bit spurious to me (kind of like the old ‘all russians are red because fire trucks are always rushing’ thing), but I’ll grant your underlying current that in your mind ‘not all suffering comes from sin’. OK. Where does it come from then? You see, in Genesis 3 where we learn of man’s sin, God specifically cursed the ground which means he cursed the universe. Paul says in Romans 8 that the universe is ‘subjected to futility.’ In fact, read Romans 8:18-23 where the apostle is specifically dealing with the issues you bring up relating to suffering and the world. Suffering is necessarily opposed to the will of God. Suffering is necessarily NOT the way the world, universe, or people are supposed to be. Suffering is always, however directly or indirectly, a result of sin.

    The premise to your assertion that ‘not all suffering comes from sin’ is flawed at the point where you assume that ‘God is the cause of’ any suffering. What makes you think that it is God’s fault that there is suffering on this planet? Did you read Job where God gave permission and it was Satan that caused suffering? But that hardly means that God is the cause or even the agent. It means it is not outside of his control, it means he sets boundaries for it, but it does not mean he is the cause. God is not tempted by evil, nor does he tempt. But how can we blame God for what we have created, what we have done, with the manner in which we have treated this planet where he placed us to be caretakers?

    Your quote from Jesus that “God causes rain to fall on the just and unjust” is good and should answer your question. In fact, the Scripture does NOT say “God causes suffering to fall on the just and unjust.” This verse, then, affirms God’s goodness and his righteousness and his compassion on all alike. In fact, it is quite the opposite, “While were were yet powerless, Christ died for us.” He doesn’t cause suffering. He redeems it in Christ. This is why Christ died FOR SIN, not for suffering. If it was only suffering he meant to redeem us from, then I suppose the Bible would say it that way. As it is, the testimony of Scripture is that Christ died for our sin and as a result suffering has been redeemed and someday will be cast down altogether.

    So, if you would not attribute all suffering to sin, to what or whom would you attribute it to? At the root of all human suffering, whether natural disasters or cancer or murder is sin. The world is under a veil of darkness that will not be dealt with by man because while it MAY be true that not all suffer (although we can debate this because I think all DO suffer even indirectly from sin), it is CERTAINLY true that all have sinned. In my estimation and my undertanding of Scripture: Even the very sin we sin is suffering. The very fact of our unrighteousness is suffering. The very fact that there are people who will not acknowledge Christ as Lord is suffering.

    I hope this helps clarify my position.
    thanks for stopping by.

    jerry

  4. Thanks for your reply. Perhaps I use the word suffering to mean a physical, mental, or emotional burden that an average/ordinary person would not bear and this may not be what is meant by others. Others may use the word ‘suffering’ to mean a separation from God or opposition to Him or failing to accept what Life has given to a person. But to answer your specific question: sin must come from God, directly or indirectly, as the Creator, yes?
    Accidents happen. Weather happens. These may leave a person with less (or a loss) than others. This would be a burden that one suffers in my definition.
    If suffering is only defined as the loss and burden borne as a result of personal sin, then I am understanding you clearer.
    Or perhaps I am hearing from you there is both personal sin and a ‘natural’ sin that could result in suffering. That ‘natural’ sin could come from natural evil and impose a suffering upon a person whether or not a personal sin was involved. However, I do not know how personal redemption would prevent a natural sin from occurring and this then leads to many other questions about why God would test man with both personal sins with redemption and natural sins for which man had no control or defense.

    In any event, thank you for the kindness of your reply.
    I come away with more knowledge than I started.

  5. RC,

    Your line “But to answer your specific question: sin must come from God, directly or indirectly, as the Creator, yes?”

    Did you mean ‘suffering’ must come from God? Or did you mean ‘sin’? Either way, no. I don’t believe that in either case. There is a peculiar theological system called Calvinism that understands God’s sovereignty in such ways, but I don’t believe it to be biblical at all.

    You also wrote: ” However, I do not know how personal redemption would prevent a natural sin from occurring…” Well, frankly, it doesn’t. But I never said it did. I said the cross work of Christ has redeemed suffering and that God participated in our suffering. But I also do not believe in only ‘personal redemption’ as such. The Scripture says that Christ died for the sins of the entire world, “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not only ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2). (I do accept personal redemption or else I wouldn’t believe I was saved. Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying about 1 John 2. As such, the world does relatively ‘get better’ each time a person comes to faith in Christ and accepts his work on the cross. Perhaps it’s not that simple, but this is a start and I would need more space to fully unpack what I’m saying.)

    However, just because the world has been redeemed it does not necessarily stand that this means all enemies of Christ have been defeated. Even Scripture says that the last enemy, death, has yet to be put under his feet. But someday, all suffering will come to an end. At that time, when the new heavens and new earth (Revelation & Isaiah) are forged in fire, the creation will return to its intended purposes which they cannot now perform because of the curse.

    As for your last comment about man having no control or defense–you assume that such things are under God’s direct control as such. The story of Job demonstrates (and I think it can be demonstrated elsewhere too) that God has placed such ‘natural’ things under the control of the enemy who is the devil. It is Satan who kills and destroys.

    Thank you for the conversation. I enjoy your thoughful questions.

    jerry

    ps–I don’t have all the answers that you are perhaps looking for. What I am hoping to establish for you is a basis where things can make sense when the cross is properly understood. My answer is always the Cross of Christ.




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