1 -Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.
2 – But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold.
3 – For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
13 – Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence.
14 – All day long I have been plagued; I have been punished every morning.
16 – When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me
17 – till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny.
21 – When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered,
22 – I was senseless and ignorant; I was a brute beast before You.
23 – Yet I am always with You; You hold me by my right hand.
24 – You guide me with Your counsel, and afterward You will take me into glory.
25 – Whom have I in Heaven but You? And earth has nothing I desire besides You.
26 – My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
On the morning of November 1st, 1755—exactly 260 years and one week ago—the sky above Lisbon, Portugal was bright, calm, and beautiful. It was All Saints Day and because of that every church in the city was filled to overflowing. Then—at 9:40AM—in the midst of those special worship services—an incredibly horrible earthquake hit. Seismologists say it was a magnitude NINE on the ten point Richter scale. It lasted between three and a half and six minutes causing gigantic fissures in the earth to appear throughout the city—DEEP fissures that were 16 feet wide in many places. Almost all of the church buildings in Lisbon were reduced to rubble and the faithful worshipers within were killed—crushed under falling stone walls or roofs. Here’s a picture of the ruins of the chapel at the Carmon Convent, whose massive stone ceiling collapsed inward that day and was never rebuilt.
Well—when those six minutes passed and what is now known as THE GREAT LISBON EARTHQUAKE began to subside—when the ground stopped shaking enough to walk—survivors rushed to the open space of the docks for safety. They knew this was one place where there were no stone buildings to fall on them. But—once they arrived at that place of supposed sanctuary they watched as an odd thing happened. The water in the harbor actually receded revealing a sea floor littered with lost cargo and old shipwrecks. Shortly thereafter—as people were beginning to explore the sea bed—an enormous tsunami engulfed the harbor and downtown rushing up the Tagus river drowning everyone in its path.
In the areas unaffected by the Tsunami, fires broke out and flames raged for five days. The Royal Hospital of All Saints—the biggest public hospital in the world at that time—was consumed by fire and hundreds of patients burned to death in their beds. When it was all over 100,000 people had died and 85% of Lisbon’s buildings were destroyed including museums that housed some of the world’s greatest works of art.
Now—I mention this particular catastrophe because it held the record for most deaths in a natural disaster until another giant Tsunami struck the shores of India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand—eleven years ago, in December of 2004—killing a quarter million people. I could go on and on listing natural disasters that have caused untold suffering—like hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. I could read a long list of headlines about acts of terrorism. I could talk about all the children who starve to death every day. I could describe outbreaks of disease like Ebola. I could describe the flooding in South Carolina—and Texas. I could remind you of the forest fires out west this summer that destroyed so many homes. I could talk about the latest shooting on a college campus.
But that would not leave me time to deal with a FINAL question in this sermon series—a question that all this tragedy and suffering brings to mind—namely: “Why? If God is as GOOD as the Bible says He is, why is there so much BAD in this world?
And this is indeed a question that is on people’s minds. Christian researcher George Barna once conducted a national survey in which he asked a cross-section of adults: “If you could ask God only one question and you knew He would give you an answer, what would you ask?” The top response was, “Why? Why is there pain and suffering in the world.” So this IS INDEED a question that many people wrestle with—because, like the Psalmist who penned the words of our text for this morning—trying to understand all the suffering of the world is, “oppressive.” It makes many people feel that faith in the God of the Bible is a faith that is “in vain.” They think, “If God exists and if He is good—why does He allow things like this to happen?”
I’m reminded of the words of a newsman who was reporting on Hurricane Katrina and said, “If this world is the product of intelligent design, then the designer has some explaining to do.” In fact, this particular issue prevents seekers from embracing a faith in Christ more than anything else. And even Christians struggle with this one, especially when we see that so many times it is the INNOCENT who seem to suffer the most. Sheldon Vanauken writes, “If only villains got broken backs or cancers, if only cheaters and crooks got Parkinson’s disease, we should see a sort of celestial justice in the universe. But as it is a sweet-tempered child lies dying of a brain tumor, a happy young wife sees her husband and child killed before her eyes by a drunken driver—and we soundlessly scream at the stars: ‘Why? Why?’” Well—can you relate to Vanauken’s perspective? I mean be honest—are there times when, like the Psalmist your feet “almost slip when you see the prosperity of the wicked?” Now—I’ve decided I won’t make you sit through an entire sermon to wait for the answer to this morning’s QUESTION. No—that would be cruel and unusual punishment and as we have seen there’s already enough suffering in this world—so I’ll get to the reply right off. Here it is: The suffering that is so prevalent in our world does NOT prove that God is not good. Nor do acts of evil and devastating natural disasters validate the opinions of atheists who say, “See? The God of the Bible is a fable.” In fact, the reality of evil and suffering is very clear evidence that our good and loving God DOES exist. As Ravi Zacharias once put it, “One cannot disprove the existence of God by introducing the reality of evil. Evil exists only if an absolute moral law exits—an objective moral law exists only if God does. [So] to raise the question to disprove God is self-defeating.”
Do you understand this rationale? Zacharias and others are saying that our JUDGEMENT that it is BAD for children to starve and for people to die in earthquakes pre-supposes that there is a GOOD—a STANDARD that determines what is evil and what is good. It’s like giving a student an 85 on a test. Giving that grade presumes that 100 is the standard on which that grade is based.
In other words, a test grade that is less than perfect infers that there is such a thing as a perfect score. And a WORLD that is less than perfect assumes that perfection does exist. C. S. Lewis wrote, “If the universe is so bad—how on earth did human beings ever come to attribute it to the activity of a wise and good Creator? The very presence of these ideas in our minds—that is, the idea of evil, thus of goodness and of God as the origin and standard of goodness—needs to be accounted for.” So–the existence of evil and suffering actually goes a long way toward proving that God exists and that He is completely good.
But—that only answers part of our question—because if the all-powerful and loving God described in the Bible DOES exist, then why does He allow so much suffering in the world?
And—I don’t want to presume to have a complete answer. You see, it is impossible for us to understand all that God does or does not do. As He has told us in Isaiah 55, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” The fact is, ultimately only God knows all the whys and wherefores of life. Finite beings like you and me—we cannot judge the infinite. With our little minds we cannot grasp God’s limitless perspective.
As Paul says in Roman 9:21—God is the Potter and we are just the clay so we can’t always understand His plans and purposes. Do you remember the familiar words of William Cowper’s poem?
“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform.
He plants His footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.
Deep in unfathomable mines, of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs, and works His sovereign will.
Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take! The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break, in blessing on your head.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace
Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face.
His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.
Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan His work in vain;
God is His own interpreter, and He will make it plain.”
Well, Cowper’s words are true—since God is infinitely superior to us in every possible way, we should not presume to judge Him with our “feeble sense.” As Deuteronomy 29:29 says, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God.” And they do! But this verse from Deuteronomy goes on to say, “The things REVEALED belong TO US and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
Now—to me this verse from Deuteronomy says, “Sure—we can’t know EVERYTHING. As Cowper says, our minds aren’t big enough! Our sense is too FEEBLE to understand all the answers—BUT there are some things that ARE revealed to us.” God has given us enough knowledge in His written Word to embolden us such that we can walk in faithful obedience.
So—what DO we know? What has been revealed in the Scripture when it comes to answering this particular God question? Well, I think if we study the Bible we can see at least three reasons there is suffering in our world and the first is this:
(1) Suffering exists—at least indirectly—because of the nature of GOD.
Now—I know what you’re thinking. That sounds like a contradiction, doesn’t it? I mean, how does a GOOD God and all this BAD suffering go together? Well, listen closely and let me explain. The Bible tells us that the nature of God is love. It is His essence. As 1st John 4:16 says, “God IS love.” And because of this aspect of His nature, God VALUES love above all things—which is why He created us such that we could enjoy a love RELATIONSHIP with Him. But this kind of relationship would only be possible if we were made in such a way that we were CAPABLE of loving God of our own FREE WILL. In his book, Disappointment With God, Philip Yancey says that our Creator, “desires not the clinging, helpless love of a child who has no choice—but the mature, freely given love” of an adult. So, “God’s problem is not that He is un-ABLE to do certain things”— like stopping all suffering. He could certainly do that. No, God’s problem is that HE LOVES. “And love complicates the life of God as it complicates every life.” You see, a world without free will and the EVIL that people choose because of it—would also be a world without LOVE. Sure—there would be no hate and the suffering that comes with it—but neither would there be love—which, as I said, is the highest value in God’s universe.
Think of it like this: A world without human FREEDOM by definition would have been a world without HUMANS. So—the source of evil and suffering is not God’s UNWILLINGNESS to use His power. It is mankind’s ABUSE of its God-given freedom. Peter Kreeft writes, “Even an all-powerful God could not have created a world in which people had genuine freedom and yet there was no potentiality for sin—because our freedom includes the possibility of sin.”
This leads to the second reason there is suffering in the world.
(2) There is suffering because of the nature of MAN.
You see, the Bible affirms the fact that all of us do indeed USE our God-given freedom to do evil. Do you remember the words of Isaiah? “All we, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6) And we ALL have! As Paul wrote in Romans 3:23 “All [mankind] has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Well—when we go astray—when we use our freedom to sin, we face painful consequences. Let me put it this way: Since we live in a moral universe a person cannot continually go against the “grain” without getting “splinters” along the way. I mean, the truth is much of the suffering we endure in life is because of our own foolish, sinful disobedience of God’s loving commands. When we ignore His wise counsel, it hurts! For example: when an individual has sex outside of marriage and gets a sexually transmitted disease, they suffer—but it’s not God’s fault. They have no one to blame but themselves because they chose to ignore God’s moral law. In the same way that there are painful consequences to breaking the law of gravity there are painful consequences to breaking God’s commands. Peter Kreeft says, “The overwhelming majority of the pain and suffering in the world is caused by our choices to kill, to slander, to be selfish, to stray sexually, to break our promises, to be reckless.”
Let me stop and ask—have you ever gotten any “splinters” in your hands? Have you ever suffered because you disobeyed God? Could I see a show of hands? Sin hurts doesn’t it? It does! And unfortunately, our sinful choices not only hurt us. They often hurt others as well. Our children—our spouses—our friends—they all can get hurt by our sin.
(3) And this leads to a third answer to our question. The Bible tells us that there is suffering and heartache because of the nature of the WORLD.
Romans 8:20-22 says that because of the sin of Adam and Eve all, “creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice—but by its bondage to decay.” Irwin Lutzer writes, “Mankind, now tainted with sin, could not live in a perfect sinless environment. So Creation became an impersonal victim of Adam’s personal choice to rebel. There is a vast difference between the world God originally created and the one that erupts with earthquakes, mud slides, and floods. We are living on a once perfect but now flawed planet. Sin has changed everything.”
Do you understand what Lutzer is saying? Much of the suffering in the world is due to the fact that when sin entered the world, a terrible thing took place. Not only did sin touch the CREATURES but also the CREATION. And because it did, we have diseases like EBOLA and AIDS and cancers in almost limitless forms. This why there are floods and earthquakes and droughts and hurricanes and tornados. Insurance companies refer to these natural disasters as, “acts of God” but that is not really true because these calamities are the end result of the actions of man at the dawn of time. Sin has tainted our world just as it has tainted our lives and because it has, this is a dangerous, fallen world in which to live.
You probably remember my telling you that in his book Disappointment With God Philip Yancey interviews a man named Douglas who had endured a great deal of personal suffering. His wife had recurring breast cancer plus he had been in an automobile accident that had taken most of his vision. But when asked how he felt about all this he said, “We tend to think that life should be fair because God is fair. But God is not life and if I confuse God with the physical reality of life by expecting constant good health, for example—then I set myself up for a crashing disappointment.” In the midst of his own suffering Douglas had grasped a very important fact. God is fair—but life in a FALLEN world is not.
In the first few verses of the thirteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was asked about some Galileans who were apparently murdered while they were innocently worshiping in the temple—and about eighteen people who were killed when a tower in the village of Siloam fell on them.
In His response our Lord inferred that these disasters happened not because of the sin of those who were killed but simply because bad things happen in a fallen world. He was saying that thanks to the sin of Adam and Eve this is not a safe place in which to live—and we should not be surprised to hear this because Jesus told us this repeatedly. In Matthew 24 He said, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen. Nations will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places.” (Matthew 24:6-8) And in John 16:33 Jesus said, “In this world you WILL have trouble!”
Well, as Christians we must let texts like this remind us that it is hazardous to our health to live in THIS world—but we must also remember that this world of ours is a TEMPORARY world.
The real world—the permanent world—the fair world—the safe world—the world where there is no suffering or death—THAT world is yet to come. As 2nd Peter 3:13 says, “In keeping with [Jesus’] promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”
Mother Theresa—someone who was very familiar with suffering all her life once reminded us that, “In light of Heaven, the worst suffering on earth, a life full of the most atrocious tortures, will be seen to be no more serious than one night in an inconvenient hotel.” So—suffering happens indirectly because of the nature of God—and also because of the nature of man—and the nature of our fallen world. But one other very important thing that I think we should note in all this is that often God allows suffering because He knows that it can actually be GOOD for us. This realization is what led James to write, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4) This is why Paul wrote in Romans 5, “We rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character, and character hope.” Now–let’s take a closer look at this principle. How exactly does suffering benefit us?
(1) Well for one thing, many times it motivates us to do our best.
You see, we are inclined to take it easy and to be very satisfied with ourselves. For many of us—AVERAGE is a satisfactory standard of achievement. But when tough time’s come, we are roused from our complacency and put forth our best efforts. Bad times can be the catalyst in our lives that enable us to both attempt and achieve things we would never have done in good times.
As I’ve told you in the past, in my High School days our cross country team was good but it NEVER beat the schools from upstate Delaware. Do you know why? It’s because NORTHERN DELAWARE has hills and SOUTHERN Delaware doesn’t. It’s flat as a pancake. Upper state athletes may have complained—but they benefited from all those uphill practice runs. Those miles of suffering made them stronger. It made down state meets a cake walk. The principle we can learn here is that tough times make tougher people. Our response to bad things—painful things—can make us better and stronger.
It can even make us WISER people! And I say “WISER” because one side effect of tragedy is that it has a way of opening our eyes so that we can see what is truly important. Tough times show us what is really valuable. Max Lucado wrote about the wake of Hurricane Katrina and said, “No one laments a lost plasma television or a submerged SUV. No one runs through the streets yelling, ‘My cordless drill is missing!’ or ‘My golf clubs have washed away!’ No—if they mourn it is for PEOPLE lost. If they rejoice it is for PEOPLE found.” Lucado is right. Tough times remind us that as Jesus said, “a man’s life does not consist of the abundance of his possessions.” (Luke 12:15)
So good—amazing good—can come from bad—when we allow bad things to spur us on to doing our very best and when we let them open our eyes to what is truly important. As I said a moment ago, God is the “potter” and we are His clay–and often He uses our bad experiences to break us and remold us into better vessels–capable of doing greater things.
Let’s face it. Moral character is formed through hardship—through overcoming obstacles, through enduring in spite of difficulties. If we are mature enough we can LEARN from the times of suffering that come our way.
(2) And then, another benefit of suffering is that many times it compels us to pray.
In fact, often the only thing that brings people to their knees in prayer is crisis. Pushed to the brink, back to the wall, right up to the wire, all escape routes closed—only then do people go to God for His help. Only then do they seek a personal, intimate relationship with our Heavenly Father.
When things in life are good—when our bank accounts and our pantries are full—when we drive nice cars and live in beautiful homes—when we are healthy—in the GOOD times of life we are tempted to think that WE are in control. We assume we don’t NEED any help from above. But then tough times come and we realize WE are not running things after all. Someone once said, that the biggest difference between you and God is that God doesn’t think He’s you. Well, pain and suffering and tragedy remind us that we are not God—that we need Someone other than ourselves. John Ortberg once conducted a survey of thousands of people and asked what had most contributed to their spiritual growth. Their number one answer was PAIN. That reluctant Old Testament prophet Jonah would have given the same answer to Ortberg’s poll. Remember? Jonah said that it was from “the deep” —almost as deep as you can get—that he cried for help choking on salt water in his distress. And—King David learned this lesson as well. When he was up to his chin in the quicksand of crisis, he wrote in Psalm 40 that God had, “lifted him out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; and set his feet on a rock.” Suffering deepened Job’s walk with God. Yancey writes, “Job’s suffering hollowed out a big space in him so that God and joy could fill it.”
So bad times are actually PRECIOUS if our temporary pain leads to the eternal gain that comes from walking closer with God. Psalm 119:67, 71 says, “Before I was afflicted, I went astray—but now I obey Your Word. It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn Your decrees.”
So, suffering is good for us because it drives us to our best efforts—and because it drives us to our knees…
(3) But it is also good for us in that if we respond correctly as Christians it compels the people around us to be open to the GOSPEL.
Do you remember when Paul and Silas were in that dungeon in Philippi? Instead of whining about their troubles—instead of questioning God’s sovereignty—they sang hymns half the night! They trusted God even in the midst of their suffering—trusted Him so much that when an earthquake opened their doors they didn’t run for the hills. No—they stayed—and their Godly response to inequity and suffering softened the heart of their jailer. He watched their response to unfairness and decided he had to have what they had! You see, when people who don’t know our Jesus encounter suffering—when their world caves in—they realize they have no one to lean on. So your faithful response to your own trials and tribulations can be the most powerful witness you ever give. You can show them WHO to lean on! Listen! Do you want to make your neighbors and co-workers BELIEVE you know Jesus? Then LIVE for Christ when things are good AND bad. Live for Jesus when you lose your job. Live for Jesus when the doctor gives you a terrifying diagnosis. Live for Jesus when your kids do stupid things that break your heart. Live for Jesus even if it sets you up for scorn or ridicule. Live for Jesus in the midst of the unfairness of life. Live for Jesus for the long haul! I promise—that kind of consistency will give you a POWERFUL testimony. It packs a punch. It wears people down over time.
Well, are you doing that? I mean, how are you responding to the inequities of life? Listen. If you want to make some heads turn. If you want to be a powerful evangelist—then show the people in your little world that you follow Christ no matter what! Commit to live in such a way that you can say with the Psalmist, “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
You know, the very WORST thing that has ever happened in the history of the world—the greatest amount of SUFFERING ever endured—was when Jesus—God’s only Son—was crucified. At the time His disciples thought their world had ended for good. They thought BAD had won. But when Easter Sunday dawned our Risen Lord helped them to see that because of that infinite amount of BAD, God has made possible an infinite amount of GOOD. The worst tragedy in history brought about the most glorious event in history. Kreeft writes, “Just imagine every single pain in the history of the world, all rolled together into a ball, eaten by God, digested, fully tasted, eternally. In the act of creating the world, God not only said, let there be pretty little bunny rabbits and flowers and sunsets—but also let there be blood and guts and the buzzing flies around the cross.” As I said earlier, many people question how a loving God could bear all the suffering of the world—but the Bible tells us that is exactly what He has done. Even Christians often try to get God off the hook when it comes to suffering but God put Himself on the hook so to speak when He allowed His only Son to be nailed to the tree. So—then next time you endure a time of suffering—the next time your back is against the wall—remember, Jesus’ back was against the cross—for YOU.
During a SUPERBOWL breakfast years ago, Tony Dungy, coach of the Indianapolis COLTS spoke candidly about how his son, James’ tragic death in 2005. Dungy said, “I know in my heart that James’ death has benefitted many people, and that makes me feel better, but I also know this: If God had had a conversation with me and said, ‘I can heal some relationships. I can save some people’s lives. I can give some people eternal life, but I have to take your son to do it.’ I’d say, ‘No, I’m sorry. As great as all that is, I don’t want to do that.’ And that’s the awesome thing about God. He had that choice and He said, ‘YES! I’m gonna do it.’ 2000 years ago on the cross. And because He said YES, because He made the choice I wouldn’t make as a parent, that paved the way for us to come back into relationship with Him.”
If you are here today and are facing the trials and tribulations of life without Christ, then I invite you to put your faith in Him today. I invite you to come into relationship with Him. Ask Him to forgive you of your sin and to come into your life as Lord. Trust Him with your life. Others of you who are Christians may feel God leading you to trust His leading you to join this church and become a part of our ministry to the hurting people around us. Whatever decision you have to make, I encourage you to do so now…as we stand and sing.