Is God trying to tell me something?
What The Bible Says
Much of the mental turmoil about pain and suffering hinges, I think, on the important issue of cause. If God is truly in charge, somehow connected to all the world’s suffering, why is he so capricious, unfair? Is he the cosmic Sadist who delights in watching us squirm, who stamps out human beings like cigarette butts?
If you scour the Bible for an answer to the question, “Who did it?” you will come away with mixed answers. To illustrate this, I have sometimes handed out Bibles to individuals within a group, asking them to read a passage and comment on what answer it gives to the cause question.
Genesis 38:7. Quite clearly, God is portrayed as the direct cause of Er’s suffering. He “was wicked in the Lord’s sight; so the Lord put him to death.”
Luke 13:1-16. Satan, or at least “a spirit” was the direct cause of this woman’s infirmity, a condition that had crippled her for eighteen years. The apostle Paul also called his affliction, the thorn in his flesh, “a messenger of Satan.”
Job 2:7. Job offers a combination of the two causes: Satan inflicts the pain, but only after obtaining God’s permission.
Proverbs 26:27. This verse, typical of Proverbs, stresses the natural consequences of a person’s actions: follow an evil pattern and you will one day suffer because of it.
In view of these Bible passages, is there any wonder people have such confused words of advice? I could list dozens of passages that offer various explanations for the cause of specific suffering, but I have yet to find in the Bible any grand unifying theory of causation.
The Old Testament, in particular, presents many situations–the ten plagues on Egypt, for example–in which God supernaturally intervened in human history in order to punish evil. I have studied each of these instances in detail, and though I cannot propose a grand unifying theory, I can offer two overall observations.
(1) Many Old Testament passages warn against painful consequences that will follow specific actions. The German biblical scholar Klaus Kloch persuasively shows that Psalms, Proverbs, and most other Old Testament books present this notion of “wrong choices lead to painful consequences.” Proverbs is full of such advice: “Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man goes hungry” (19:15). As those authors saw it, God set up human beings and human society to operate according to fixed principles. Honesty, truthfulness, and compassion yield good results; cheating, lying, and greed yield just the opposite.
(2) Some Old Testament passages show God causing human suffering as punishment for wrong behavior. The prophetic books bristle with dire warnings of judgment to come. But look closer. Their predictions of doom usually follow a long, explicit forewarning. Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Hosea, and Ezekiel all spell out impressive lists of sin and wickedness that will provoke the punishment.
In almost every case, the prophets also hold out the hope that God will restrain himself if Israel repents and turns back to God. If she continues in rebellion, she will be crushed. Thus the judgment clearly comes from God, but is in no way capricious or unjust. Old Testament punishment was consistent with God’s “covenant,” or contract, with Israel, and came after much warning.
I agree that the Old Testament is replete with reward/punishment type of thinking, and presents life in terms of this principle: “Do good, get rewarded; do bad, get punished.” However, I do not believe the principle applies in precisely the same way today. In the book Disappointment with God, I argue that the “rules” governing God’s contract relationship with the Israelites expressed a unique relationship that we cannot, nor should we expect to, emulate.
Consider the principles from the Old Testament in light of the kinds of questions people raise today. “Why me?” we ask almost instinctively when tragedy hits…. Two thousand cars were driving in the rain on the expressway–why did mine skid into a bridge? Lift lines were crowded with skiers all day–why was I the one to break a leg and ruin my vacation? A rare type of cancer strikes only one in a hundred people–why did my father have to be among the victims?
Suffering people torment themselves with such questions, and the biblical examples offer some guidance. As to the first overall observation, that certain actions may lead to painful consequences, that principle applies in full force today. A person who skis beyond a boundary, toward avalanche country and ungroomed slopes, puts her life in peril. A person who speeds on rain-slick highways courts the danger of hydroplaning. A person who eats all fried foods and Twinkies exposes his body to certain health risks.
The book of Proverbs goes further than these simple examples, making clear that our actions have a moral dimension that will affect our health and comfort on earth. Our modern versions–smoking, promiscuous sex, doing drugs, abusing the environment, gluttony–all have direct and painful consequences. Scientists recognize the connections and advertise them widely. The principles, built into creation, apply to Christians and non-Christians alike. Actuarial tables demonstrate this fact beyond dispute: Utah, home of health-conscious Mormons, has one of the lowest rates of heart disease while its neighbor Nevada, home of loose living, has one of the highest.
What of the second principle, that God sometimes intervenes directly, to punish people for wrong behavior? I have been astonished at how commonly and unthinkingly Christians apply that principle today. They visit the hospital room bearing gifts of guilt (“You must have done something to deserve this”) and accusation (“You must not be praying hard enough”).
But there is a huge difference between the suffering most of us encounter–a skiing injury, a rare form of cancer, the bus accident–and the suffering-as-punishment described in the Old Testament. There, punishment follows repeated warnings against specific behavior. To be effective, in fact, punishment requires a clear tie to behavior. Think of a parent who punishes a young child. It would do little good for that parent to sneak up at odd times during a day and whack the child with no explanation. Such tactics would produce a neurotic, not an obedient, child.
The people of Israel knew why they were being punished; the prophets had warned them in excruciating detail. The Pharaoh of Egypt knew exactly why the ten plagues were unleashed against his land: God had predicted them, told him why, and described what change of heart could forestall them. Biblical examples of suffering-as-punishment, then, tend to fit a pattern. The pain comes after much warning, and no one sits around afterward asking, “Why?” They know very well why they are suffering.
Does that pattern resemble what happens to most of us today? Do we get a direct revelation from God warning us of a coming catastrophe? Does personal suffering come packaged with a clear explanation from God? If not, I must question whether the pains most of us feel–cancer, a traffic mishap–are indeed punishments from God. If suffering does come as punishment, we are getting confusing messages indeed, for the occurrence of disease and pain seems random, unrelated to any pattern of virtue or vice.
Frankly, I believe that unless God distinctly reveals otherwise, we would do better to look to other biblical models. And the Bible contains some stories of people who suffered but definitely were not being punished by God.
What Jesus Says
Christians believe that with the coming of Jesus, God fully entered human history. He was no longer “out there,” sometimes dipping into history to change things. Now he resided in the body of a human being on earth, making himself subject to the physical laws and limitations of this planet. Therefore, the best clue we have into how God feels about human pain is to look at Jesus’ response. Jesus never gave a poor or suffering person a speech about “accepting your lot in life,” or “taking the medicine that God has given you.” He seemed unusually sensitive to the groans of suffering people, and set about remedying them. And he used his supernatural powers to heal, never to punish.
Miracles of healing were great crowd pleasers, of course, but even so Jesus refused to make them the centerpiece of his ministry. More than anything, he used physical healings as “signs” of some deeper truth. At times Jesus seemed almost reluctant to intervene, telling his followers he performed the signs only because they had need of them. Often he hushed up the spreading rumors about his miracles. On certain occasions Jesus deliberately elected not to intervene in the natural order of things, for example, by not calling on angels to deliver him from his most painful hour.
Was Jesus saying to us that it is not good for God to intervene in our world on a day-to-day basis? The important thing, the kingdom of heaven–isn’t that a kingdom of the spirit to be worked out inside hearts and minds, not by an external, spectacular display of God’s power? At the least, Jesus declined to make radical changes in the natural laws governing the planet. Rather than, say, rewiring the nervous system to make some design improvement, he himself took on the pain network with all its undesirable features. And when he faced suffering personally, he reacted much as we do: with fear and dread.
How did Jesus deal with the question “Who is responsible for suffering?” The clearest insight into that question appears in Luke 13. Again, just as in the Old Testament, there are several answers. For example, in verse 16 Jesus declares that Satan caused the pain of a woman bound in disease for eighteen years. And at the end of the chapter, Jesus grieves over the future of Jerusalem: like the Old Testament prophets, he could see that her actions of stubborn rebellion would bring about much suffering.
But early on in that same chapter, Jesus is asked about two “current events” that had evidently prompted much local discussion. One was an act of political oppression, in which Roman soldiers slaughtered members of a religious minority; the other, a construction accident that killed eighteen people. As I study the Bible, I can find no other situation more parallel to the kinds of suffering that bother most of us. Those first century Jews were asking about their equivalents to the Yuba City bus accident, or the collapse of a stadium roof.
Jesus’ response is at once enigmatic and brilliant. He does not fully answer the question most on their mind, the question of cause. Jesus never explains, “Here’s why those two tragedies occurred.” But he makes one thing clear: they did not occur as a result of specific wrongdoing: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!… Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!”
No grieving relative need stand around wondering what brought about the calamity; Jesus makes plain that the victims had done nothing unusual to deserve their fates. They were the same as other persons. He doesn’t say so, but perhaps the tower simply fell because it was built poorly. I believe Jesus would have replied similarly to the Yuba City tragedy: “Do you think they were worse sinners than other teenagers?” Perhaps the bus crashed because of driver error or mechanical failure.
But Jesus does not stop there. He uses both tragedies to point to eternal truths relevant to everyone (“Unless you repent, you too will all perish”) and follows with a parable about God’s restraining mercy. He implies that we “bystanders” of catastrophe have as much to learn from the event as do the victims. A tragedy should alert us to make ourselves ready in case we are the next victim of a falling tower, or an act of political terrorism. Catastrophe thus joins together victim and bystander in a call to repentance, by abruptly reminding us of the brevity of life.
Is God The Cause?
I once attended a funeral service for a teenage girl killed in a car accident. Her mother wailed, “The Lord took her home. He must have had some purpose…. Thank you, Lord.” I have been with sick Christian people who agonize over the question, “What is God trying to teach me?” Or, they may plead, “How can I find enough faith to get rid of this illness? How can I get God to rescue me?”
Maybe such people have it all wrong. Maybe God isn’t trying to tell us anything specific each time we hurt. Pain and suffering are part and parcel of our planet, and Christians are not exempt. Half the time we know why we get sick: too little exercise, a poor diet, contact with a germ. Do we really expect God to go around protecting us whenever we encounter something dangerous?
As I understand it, the approach Jesus takes corresponds exactly to what I have suggested about “pain, the megaphone of God.” Suffering offers a general message of warning to all humanity that something is wrong with this planet, and that we need radical outside intervention (“Unless you repent…. “). But you cannot argue backward and link someone’s specific pain to a direct act of God.
Another, similar story from the Gospels may clarify this approach even further. In John 9, Jesus refutes the traditional explanation of suffering. His followers point to a man born blind. Clucking with pity, they ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” In other words, why did he deserve blindness? Jesus answers bluntly, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
The disciples wanted to look backward, to find out “Why?” Jesus redirected their attention. Consistently, he points forward, answering a different question: “To what end?” And that, I believe, offers a neat summary of the Bible’s approach to the problem of pain. To backward-looking questions of cause, to the “Why?” questions, it gives no definitive answer. But it does hold out hope for the future, that even suffering can be transformed or “redeemed.” A human tragedy, like blindness, can be used to display God’s work.
Sometimes, as with the man born blind, the work of God is manifest through dramatic miracle. Sometimes it is not. But in every case, suffering offers an opportunity for us to display God’s work.
Taken from Where Is God When It Hurts? by Philip Yancey. Copyright © 1977, 1990 by Philip Yancey. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House.
This material has been taken from: Eternal Security: Can You Be Sure?
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