Summary: It is a question that many people ask. This sermon helps us to explore the issues.
Why is there so much suffering in the world? It’s a question that many people have asked, and as I’ve gone door to door visiting in various places it has been a question that people would want to ask God.
Some people say to me, “Everything happens for a reason”; and whilst I agree that there are of course reasons and events behind everything thing that happens, I don’t agree with what often lies behind that belief. Usually when people say that “everything happens for a reason” they basically mean that what has happened was meant to be. It was God’s will; but I don’t agree. Muslims would agree because they say that everything that happens is Allah’s will.
When a Tsunami hit Japan in March 2011 killing 15000 was that God’s will? No! When a coal waste tip slid down the mountainside in Aberfan in 1966, killing 144 including 116 children, was that God’s will? No!
Does everything happen for a reason? No. But I do believe that in everything that happens, God works for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28). When life is hard God is at work. When suffering comes, as it will come to us all, God is at work. When there seem to be no answers to our questions God is always at work for the good of those who love him.
The author and Church Minister Ray Ortlund says this: ‘Sometimes there is no way to get out of suffering; but there is a way to get through suffering, because God is the ally of sufferers.’ He also says that ‘trust in God, not [an explanation] from God, is the pathway through suffering.’
Why is there so much suffering? Tsunamis, earthquakes, floods, the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the brutal killings in Syria, bereavement, sickness, depression, loneliness and severe temptation remind us that suffering is global, and local and personal.
Philosophers and theologians have grappled with this question through the centuries without ever really discovering a completely satisfactory answer; but it is a stumbling block to belief in God for some people; so we need to try to understand the issue better; and as always, as the scriptures encourage us, to be ready to give a reason for the hope we have - to others (1 Peter 3:15).
Before we go any further it’s important to draw a distinction between suffering for Christ, suffering for the sake of Christ, and all other kinds of sickness, disaster, illness and suffering. To suffer for Christ is to be persecuted, perhaps even martyred for professing and living out faith in Jesus. It is to suffer for the way of Christ, the way of the cross (Philippians 1:29). Today’s Bible reading began like this: ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us’ (Rom 1:18). St. Paul was referring primarily to persecution.
Next Sunday evening our study of the beatitudes arrives at Matthew 5:10 where Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
When the New Testament refers to suffering it is nearly always on account of persecution as a result of living a life of faithful discipleship, following Christ; and that kind of suffering demands its own talk or even a series of talks; but that’s not my main purpose today. I am primarily, but not exclusively, referring to other kinds of sickness, pain, bereavement, loneliness, and human disasters. The type of suffering that leads some people to say, “Surely if there was a God he would not allow these things to happen.”
Having made that distinction, I think it is helpful to say something about two false teachings that exist in parts of the worldwide Church. One says sickness is due to personal sin, the other says suffering is a gift.
The so-called prosperity gospel, which is especially prevalent in some parts of the USA and some parts of Africa, says that God wants to bless you, to make you rich, and to bless you always with good health and old age. Nothing too shocking about that, perhaps, but it is a false gospel because it teaches or encourages that sickness, poverty and poor health are a sign that God is not blessing you. It is a false gospel and a return to a teaching that existed in parts of Judaism during the ministry of Jesus and in the Old Testament. On one occasion Jesus healed a man who had been born blind and his disciples wanted to know whose sin had been the cause of the man’s blindness. Whose wrong-doings were to blame? And it is a trap that sometimes we fall into, blaming ourselves or blaming others or trying to work out a black and white reason behind sickness or disappointment or poverty. Jesus said neither the man’s Father nor Mother had sinned but it was a case where God could be glorified through the man’s healing (John 9:2).