Why do bad things happen to good people?
The problem of pain.
If I were God, I’d end all the pain
These are just four of the truckload of Christian books written on the question of why God allows suffering.
But you don’t need to read a book to know about suffering. You’ve only got to talk to people here at church.
L and S have spent more time in hospitals in the last month than they have at home. First S’s dad, then L’s mum, and then O.
There’s J’s brother, B, suffering badly from cancer.
As well as C W, fighting breast cancer. Mother of four young girls.
J C’s husband, M, suffered tongue cancer, and still puts up with the effects of the surgery.
R and M seem to have had so many friends and family suffer cancer, they’re experts.
Then there’s A R, S G and P B who’ve all suffered quite severe depression.
Or J with two disabled boys who’ll need a lifetime of care.
And then there’s D, with her mum, J, suffering a brain aneurism a number of years ago, and now trapped inside a body that barely works.
Other things I DO know about. And, I’m sure, even more I DON’T. And that’s just among the few people we’ve got here. I’m sure you could all add DOZENS of stories from the people you talk to over the fence, and at work, or waiting to pick up the kids from school.
We hear these stories, and we just GROAN. We weep with people. Why does the world have to BE this way?
I’d rather live in a world where bad things happen to BAD people. And GOOD things happen to good people. Where justice comes QUICKLY. Where only the MONSTERS get cancer, and not the rest of us.
I’d rather live in a world where God’s transformation started with fixing up THAT stuff. And THE REST could come later. I’m happy to wait for eternity. I’m happy to be a work in progress, becoming more like Jesus each day. But can’t life just be a little EASIER while we’re waiting? A little less painful?
But that’s not the way it is.
As we’ve worked through Romans, we’ve followed God’s plan to TRANSFORM THE WORLD. How he’s taken self-centred rebels. How he’s taken a world that’s gone badly wrong. And, at last, he’s acted to PUT THINGS RIGHT. How, in the death of his Son and the gift of his Spirit, we’re in a WHOLE NEW ERA. An age of TRANSFORMED HEARTS and MINDS. Of walking in a relationship with God the way he DESIGNED IT to be.
To which comes the obvious objection. “If we’re living in a new transformed age, then WHY ARE WE STILL GROANING?”
Well, at least it SEEMS like an obvious objection. But there are some Christians you’ll meet who want to say DIFFERENT. Who’ll tell you that if you’re REALLY transformed. If you’re really living by the Spirit, then you’ll never face tragedy. You’ll never get SICK. That bad stuff will never happen. That life will just be a victorious walk in the park. As if we’re no longer living in a groaning world at all.
But according to ch 8 of Romans, we still are. We’ve got the down-payment of the Spirit. But we still groan. Have a look at what it says in v22 of Romans 8.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time
If you’ve ever been in a labour ward, you’ll know just what it’s like. I’ve been there four times. And, not just in OUR room, but up and down the corridor, you can hear groans, and screams and blood-curdling shrieks. And that’s just from the DADS.
The whole world is like a big labour ward. It’s in PAIN. It’s GROANING.
V20 says it’s subjected to FRUSTRATION. Work that doesn’t satisfy. Relationships that don’t fulfil their promise.
And then v21 says creation is in BONDAGE TO DECAY. Bodies that wear out and break down. An environment that’s being gradually destroyed. Drought, species extinction, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, global warming. Wars, genocide, terrorist attacks, murder and rape. A long, relentless, slippery slope to crumbling, corroding decomposition.
And we Christians aren’t exempt either. Look at v23.
23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, GROAN INWARDLY as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
CREATION groans, WE groan. But, more than that, down in v26, we read that GOD’S SPIRIT groans as well. When you’re right at the end of your rope, when you can’t even put two words together to pray to God, he promises that his Spirit will intercede for you. Pray on your behalf. The Spirit helps us in our weakness. HE PRAYS WITH GROANS THAT WORDS CANNOT EXPRESS.
WE groan, and THE SPIRIT groans, in a groaning WORLD. It’s a pretty grim, realistic picture. And yet, for many people, these are their favourite verses in the whole Bible. Why? Because they put all that groaning IN PERSPECTIVE.
You know, when each of our kids were born, at SOME point during the labour, Caron said, “Never again. It’s not worth it!”
Yet, EVERY TIME, within a few moments of the birth. As we looked at that brand new little life, we said, “Yep – it was worth it. It was WORTH the pain.”
THAT’S the perspective that comes from knowing something GOOD comes from the pain. Light at the end of the tunnel… Hard to imagine when you’re in the MIDST of it. But the reality is/ when the midwives are encouraging you with crazy talk of POSITIVE PAIN. PAIN WITH PURPOSE. They’re actually RIGHT!
And it’s the same perspective Paul brings when it comes to THIS GROANING WORLD. Jump back up to v18. He says the pain we’re experiencing at the moment is NOTHING compared to the good things that are coming. He says
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed IN US.
He’s talking about the joy that comes after the labour pains. Down in v23 it says we
groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, THE REDEMPTION OF OUR BODIES
He’s talking about the NEW CREATION. The new life that’s born after the labour. About new bodies that never get cancer, or heart attacks, or brain aneurisms. Bodies that don’t struggle to follow God. Where there’s no constant battle to do, and to think, and to speak what pleases God.
The days are coming when we can put behind us the birth pains, when the labour will be over, and we can be revealed for what we really are, CHILDREN OF GOD.
Life at the moment is no bed of roses. Even as Christians. Perhaps even ESPECIALLY as Christians. But Paul says, one day … it WILL be. That’s the perspective to have.
But perhaps you want to say, and it’s a question people have been asking since the time of Job, “It’s all very well having PERSPECTIVE. But WHY? WHY does there have to be the labour before the delivery, the pain before the gain? Why not just have a spiritual caesarean? Jump straight to the new life?
And this passage gives us a number of reasons.
First, because it’s GOD’S WILL. There in v20.
20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, BUT BY THE WILL OF THE ONE WHO SUBJECTED IT,
It’s all part of God’s plan. Which doesn’t sound like much of a reason. Except when you consider the alternative. That it’s NOT his will. That the world’s spinning out of control. That there IS no plan. That your suffering, the WORLD’S suffering, is just RANDOM. Bad luck.
That’s hopeless! That’s what the ATHEIST has to say. And it just leads to DESPAIR. To FUTILITY.
But God’s plan is that there’s PURPOSE in our present groaning.
Hope looks forward
God’s plan is that, in the midst of our groaning, we’d learn to LOOK FORWARD. That we’d learn to HOPE for what’s coming.
Because the Christian life is a FORWARD LOOKING life. It’s about hoping for the life we don’t have yet. It’s about PROMISE, and TRUSTING that promise. That’s what it says in v24.
24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is SEEN is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already HAS? 25 But if we hope for what we do NOT yet have, we wait for it patiently.
The TRUE Christian life is the one that’s still coming. We get a TASTE of it now, but we have to WAIT for the rest. And if it wasn’t for THE GROANING, then there’d be no reason to hope for SOMETHING ELSE. And we’d all be quite happy in our self-reliant comfort.
So if you’re a Christian who’s suffered. Who’s been banged up a bit. Some chips in the paintwork, and some grinding in the gears. Then hang in there. Because they’re not signs of your LACK of faith. They’re signs of MATURITY. Because it’s those knocks and chips and clunks that keep your eyes fixed on the ultimate repair job God’s promised. It’s those battle scars that God USES to increase your hope.
And if it wasn’t for the knocks, then we wouldn’t be looking to God. Because we’d have everything in control. We wouldn’t NEED him. We wouldn’t NEED a new creation, because we’d already HAVE everything.
Instead, God wants us TO HOPE.
But hope isn’t just FOR THE FUTURE. Hope has benefits TODAY. Because what hope LOOKS LIKE as you live your life this week is that IT TRUSTS GOD. It waits PATIENTLY, knowing God’s got it worked out. Hope looks to God for the answers to TODAY’S problems. For the strength and the patience and the deliverance and the guidance.
A purpose and a plan
Hope expressed TODAY/ looks like what Paul says in v28. Confident TRUST in the God who’s got A PURPOSE and A PLAN. Here’s what he says. V28.
28 And we know that in ALL things God works for the GOOD of those who love him, who have been called according to his PURPOSE. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
From the beginning of time to the end. God’s got everything mapped out. He doesn’t just KNOW what’s going to happen, but he’s IN CONTROL of it happening too. Your suffering fits right into the middle of God’s plans. God planned EVERYTHING that happened to you.
If you’re a Christian, then God foreknew you, he predestined you (set his plans in place). Then he CALLED you – engineered people and circumstances, softened your heart, opened your eyes, and led you to himself. Then he JUSTIFIED you, and, in his perfect timing he’ll GLORIFY you.
But in the MIDDLE of all that – today, tomorrow, and next week – he’s predestined you to be conformed to the likeness of his Son. That’s the purpose of your life.
His ultimate destiny for you is NOT your comfort, or your health, or your rest, or your enjoyment. It’s not that you’ll live in a nice house, have a lovely family, or that you’ll get a good job with lots of influence. You may GET those things. But his destiny for you, the most important thing… is that YOU’LL BE CONFORMED TO THE LIKENESS OF HIS SON. That’s the ULTIMATE GOOD he’s working all things for.
Conformed to the likeness of his Son. In obedience, in godliness, in servant-hearted love for others, in humility, in patience, in total dependence on God, in confident, quiet HOPE of glory.
And the way he’s going to DO that. In his perfect, loving, compassionate wisdom. Is through the DELAY OF GLORY. Through the groaning NOW. Through testing, and discipline, and trials, and refining fire, and struggle and tears.
If the path was smooth and flat, we’d never need God’s help. We’d run off ahead. Think everything was easy, and we could do it on our own.
But when it’s rough and steep, when there are dangerous drops on either side, when we slip and stumble. THAT’S when we reach out to hold his hand. When we walk WITH him, hand in hand. Which is what God wants all along. That’s the way it was back in the Garden with Adam and Eve. That’s what it will be like in the new creation. And that’s how he wants us to walking TODAY.
Is that how it is with YOU? Walking hand-in-hand with God? Or are you the over-confident, foolish child, running off ahead.
Hope that’s more than wishful thinking
But how can Paul be so confident? How can you and I be sure it’s not all just wishful thinking?
Is Christian hope like the old hardened prisoner in the movie, the Shawshank Redemption? Serving life. Talking to the new prisoner. “Let me tell you something my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. ‘Cause in here, there’s nothing to hope for.”
Hope when there’s NO BASIS for hope is called foolishness. Futility. It’s fiddling while Rome burns, dancing while the Titanic sinks.
Is THAT all the Christian hope is?
Well, Paul gives the answer. And he says you can be SURE of what you hope in, sure of what God’s promising, because of what’s ALREADY HAPPENED. Jump down to v31. Notice the logic in the TIMING.
31 What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is FOR us, who can be AGAINST us? 32 HE WHO DID NOT SPARE HIS OWN SON, but gave him up for us all-how will he not also, along with HIM, graciously GIVE US ALL THINGS?
Do you get it? How can you be sure of THE FUTURE? Because of what God’s done in THE PAST. The cross is the sign that God’s already given us THE GREATEST GIFT, so there’s no doubting he’ll bring us to the new creation.
And the same logic continues. V33.
33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is GOD who justifies. 34 Who is he that CONDEMNS? Christ Jesus, who died-more than that, who was raised to life-is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
How can we be sure that earthly charges or prosecution won’t bring us down? How can we be sure that God won’t suddenly find some hidden accusation on judgment day? Because Jesus DIED FOR IT ALL. Once. But even MORE than that, he’s right there next to God, pleading on our behalf, “That one’s mine. Don’t forget that one’s mine. Keep an eye on him. Look out for him. That one’s mine.”
If the cross and the empty tomb are proof that all that’s true. Then that means it doesn’t matter WHAT happens to me in THIS LIFE. V35.
35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” 37 NO, IN ALL THESE THINGS WE ARE MORE THAN CONQUERORS through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Whatever happens, whatever God brings our way, even DEATH, can’t separate us from God’s love. Whatever tries to conquer us, we OVER –conquer. We hyper-conquer.
It’s a weird expression. What’s MORE than conquering? You either conquer, or you’re conquered.
I don’t know whether I’m reading too much into the word, but what if it means you don’t conquer, but you do BETTER than conquering. You REMAIN DESPITE being conquered.
The book of Revelation was written to a group of churches suffering Roman persecution. The author introduces himself in Ch 1 v9.
9 I, John, YOUR BROTHER AND COMPANION IN THE SUFFERING AND KINGDOM AND PATIENT ENDURANCE that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.
And he has a message from Jesus for them all. Ch 2 v10.
10 Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and YOU WILL SUFFER PERSECUTION FOR TEN DAYS. BE FAITHFUL, EVEN TO THE POINT OF DEATH, and I will give you the crown of life. 11 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who OVERCOMES will not be hurt at all by the second death.
Overcoming doesn’t mean SURVIVING death. Death may conquer, illness may conquer, or divorce, or suffering. But a “MORE THAN conqueror” keeps his eyes on Jesus, keeps walking, holding his hand, keeps HOPING for the new creation. CERTAIN of it because of what God’s ALREADY done in Jesus.
The Cambodian Christian teacher, Haim, and his family, are “more than conquerors.” During the rule of Pol Pot in Cambodia, it’s estimated 90% of Cambodian Christians died.
The book Killing Fields, Living Fields tells the story of Haim, who lived in a small village on the edge of the jungle. He and his family were arrested by Pol Pot’s soldiers, but were able to spend the night together, praying and comforting each other.
The next morning they dug their own grave and were granted a moment to prepare for their death. They knelt down and cried out to God, encouraging the soldiers to repent and believe the gospel.
Then Haim’s young son lost his nerve. He ran off into the forest in a last-ditch escape attempt. Haim convinced the soldiers not to go after him and instead, kneeling by his grave, called out to his son, “What comparison, my son, stealing a few more days of life in the wilderness, a fugitive, wretched and alone/ to joining your family here, momentarily around this grave, but soon around the throne of God, free forever in Paradise?” (repeat)
After a few minutes, the son returned, walked past the soldiers, dried his eyes, knelt down next to his family. And, together, they met their Saviour.
That’s trusting the God who’s working all things for good. That’s considering present sufferings not worth comparing with the glory to be revealed in us. That’s hoping in the new creation that comes after the birth pains.
That’s someone who’s convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.