Terry L. Johnson
Romans 8:26-39; Genesis 50:15-21
In 1858, a gifted young Presbyterian missionary named John G. Paton sailed with his wife and infant son to the New Hebrides in the South Pacific to begin missionary work among the islanders. Within a few months of arrival, both his infant son and his wife had died, leaving him to labor alone.
In August 1876, a gifted young theologian names Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield and his bride were honeymooning in Germany. While sightseeing in the Black Forest region, they were suddenly caught in a severe storm, and something that was never quite explained happened to his bride, rendering her an invalid for the rest of their lives together.
In the 1950s the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savannah congregation called a young preacher to take the reigns of a very divided church. He came with his wife and their five children, the youngest only three years old. Within a year and a half, Anton Van Puffelen developed a brain tumor, and in just over two years after he started his work in Savannah the Rev. Van Puffelen was dead.
How do you explain these things? Perhaps just as baffling, how do you explain the responses of these individuals? John G. Patton stayed on the field and reaped a great harvest, later saying:
I built the grave round and round with coral blocks, and covered the top with beautiful white coral, broken small gravel; and that spot became my sacred and much frequented shrine, during all the following months and years when I labored on for the salvation of these savage Islanders amidst difficulties, dangers and deaths. Whensoever Tanna turns to the Lord, and is won for Christ, man in after-days will find the memory of that spot still green – where with ceaseless prayers and tears I claimed that the land for God in which I hand ‘buried my dead’ with faith and hope.
Warfield cared for his wife the remaining forty years of their adult life together, humbly, submissively, without complaint, without self-pity, without justifying a need for his own fulfillment, fulfilling his marital vows, doing his duty toward his wife.
‘Mrs. Van,’ as she was known in Savannah, gentle and meek on the surface, touch as nails underneath, began to teach in the Independent Presbyterian Day School and reared her five children at tremendous self-sacrifice, again without complaint.
What was the key in each of these situations? The key is that each believed in the sovereignty of God. Each understood God’s justice, His mercy, His absolute rule, and each received their circumstances as from his hand for their good and submitted to it.
Still, how do you explain adversity? How do you deal with the suffering that is in the world? Granted that it takes time for our emotions to catch up with our minds, that there are no ‘easy’ answers, and that when we answer the ‘why’ question we must do so not simplistically or matter of factly; yet we do have an explanation for suffering that works and makes room for comfort in the world of pain.
The Problem of Pleasure
From our point of view, much of the discussion of the ‘problem of pain’ and suffering gets started on the wrong foot. As we saw in our consideration of predestination, there is a tendency to begin with the assumption of human innocence. Adversity then is viewed as an unfair or unjust intrusion into the life of one who is undeserving. This is implicit in almost all of the popular discussions of the subject. Thus we regularly question, ‘Why would God have allowed this to happen to such a fine (and undeserving) family?’
The Biblical place to begin any consideration of suffering is not with innocence but guilt. At the beginning of the Bible is an account of what is called the ‘Fall of Man’. It is there to remind us that we live in a ‘fallen’ world, a world in disarray and under God’s curse. The response to God to the sin of Adam and the sins of his progeny is judgment. God promised death ‘in the day that you shall eat of it’. ‘Death’ in a final sense, however, was postponed. In the meantime, life consists of multiple mini-judgments which are visited upon us because of the sin of Adam and our own sins, as previews of the final judgment. These mini-judgments, because they fall short of eternal death in hell, and, in effect, gracious stays of execution.
What we are saying is that each moment that each of us exists on this side of hell is a problem. How is it that a just and true God can tolerate evil and let it go on existing? How can he delay his warning that ‘the soul that sins, it shall die’ (Ezek. 18:4)? The problem is not a problem of pain but of pleasure. Strict justice lands each of us in hell. Anything less than that – sickness, injury, poverty, hunger, or heartbreak – is mercy.
Consider Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question about the helpless Galileans who had been butchered by Pilate (Luke 13:2). They wanted to know if ‘these Galileans we greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate’. The question is an old one. Do those who suffer suffer because they are more sinful than other people? Can we say that suffering is directly proportionate to sin? The popular answer is to say, ‘No,’ and this answer is correct. We can accurately cite job as an example of a man who was not suffering for his personal sin. Jesus, indeed, says, ‘I tell you, no…’ Jesus agrees with the popular answer in saying that these folks were not necessarily more deserving of suffering than others. They did not die because they were greater sinners than the rest. We expect Him to go on as we might and talk about how the undeserving suffer. Many times, we would say, the innocent are made to suffer in the world. Often, we say, it is the good who are injured and hurt. But, surprise, this is not what He says at all. Instead of saying that some are innocent sufferers, he says that everyone deserves to suffer in this way. He warns that ‘unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’. In other words, it is not that they were worse than others, but this is what every sinner deserves and will get unless he repents. Jesus focuses not on the tragedy that has befallen the few, but on the grace by which the majority are spared.
Similarly, Jesus went on to speak of the eighteen on whom the ‘ tower of Siloam fell and killed’. He asks, ‘were (they) worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem?’ Can we deduce from the amount of suffering people endure, who is righteous and who is sinful? No, He says. But again, does this mean that they might be undeserving? No. They got what everyone deserves but some are spared.
“I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (Luke 13:5)Thus, the problem of suffering as Jesus interprets it is not a problem of pain at all. Pain can be explained easily. We live in a fallen world that is under judgment. All of life’s picnics have ants. On our honeymoon, Emily and I set aside a day for the beach. About the time we arrived, it started to rain. Not being the theologian of the family, she asked, ‘Why would God do this to us?’ My sensitive response was, ‘Why hasn’t it rained everyday? Why would he allow us to come here at all?’ She was not amused. Of course there is suffering. The remarkable thing is not that there is pain but there is pleasure. Once one understands the doctrine of the Fall and of the depravity of man the philosophical problem is not that of explaining why God allows suffering but why He shows mercy and grace. As Jeremiah adds, ‘Why should any living moral, or any man, offer complaint in view of sins’ (Lam. 3:29). Any paid and suffering less than the flames of eternal fire in hell is a merciful reprieve from God. I can understand why we suffer. I can’t understand why we don’t suffer more. (Please click here to continue reading, "Adversity")