By Pastor Glenn Pease
One of the good things to come out of suffering is this: It forces those who cannot see any sense in it to grapple with the mystery, and strive to squeeze some meaning out of it. Almost everyone who writes on suffering does so out of their own personal encounter with this mysterious monster. In the book When It Hurts Too Much To Cry, Jerry Fallwell begins with this account. He tells of Clifford who left his good paying job to come to Lynchberg to study for the ministry. He had a wife and two small sons. He was an excellent student, and Fallwell was proud to have such a caliber of man in his school.
One Saturday night just after Cliff had finished with family devotions someone fired a shotgun through the living room window and Cliff was killed instantly. Fallwell arrived in a few minutes to see the most senseless thing he had ever witnessed, and he could not help but question God, and wonder why He would allow such a terrible thing to happen. He gave it a great deal of thought, and the only conclusion he could come to was that it is an unsolvable mystery with no sense whatever on any level known to man. In the light of this tragedy he rebukes those who deal with suffering superficially. He writes, "I think Christian leaders often do their people a disservice when they spout glib and shallow cliches to people going through some of these dark experiences!"
There are many people who do this. He has had others in this same category. One of their fine students was going home and picked up a hitchhiker. The student was killed and dragged into the woods where his body was found. He has other horror stories as well, but the point is, you cannot look at the victims of serious suffering and not ask the question why? The disciples of Jesus could not help but wonder when they saw a man who had been blind from birth-why? Why would any man have to enter the world never to see it? Why is there such meaningless suffering? It is the most simple question to ask, but unfortunately, the answer is not so simple.
The disciples see no profound complexity in the situation. They are confident they have narrowed down the answer to one of two alternatives. Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind? Jesus could have taken either, and they would have been satisfied, but instead, he took neither, and said it was not personal or parental sin that caused this suffering. Jesus through a monkey wrench of complexity into their simple solution to the problem of suffering, and by so doing he taught them, and teaches us, one of the most important principles we can learn on the subject of suffering. The principle is this:
I. SIMPLE SOLUTIONS TO SUFFERING ARE SUPERFICIAL.
Show me a simple solution to the problem of suffering, and I will show you a heresy that will fit neither the revelation of God, nor the experience of man. Simple solutions are none the less the most popular and widely held by the intelligent and ignorant alike. Here are the disciples of Christ who are hand picked by the Master Himself, and they view suffering with the same old worn out theory held by the friends of Job. They assume that such a terrible fate as being born blind had to be the result of somebody's sin. It was so logical and obvious to them that they did not even see the cruelty of it. They are asking, who is guilty for such an awful thing: His parents or himself. In other words, who do we blame when this horrible reality occurs? What kind of parents must they have been to give birth to such a monstrosity as a blind baby? Or what kind of a low life scoundrel must he be that God would punish him at birth for the sins he foresaw that he would commit?
I hope the disciples at least asked their question out of ear shot of this poor blind man, for there are very few things more cruel than to make suffering people feel guilty for their own suffering. Both the Old Testament and the New Testament reject this theory to account for suffering, and it is superficial, but it is still often promoted. Fallwell tells of his personal friends Dr. and Mrs. Rudy Holland who discovered their young son had a brain tumor. Surgery removed it, but 11 months later it returned. This time it was much larger and inoperable. They were told their son had less than a year to live. They heard of a new technique developed at Boston Children's Hospital, and they took their son there. The surgery led to all kinds of complications, and he was in the hospital for months. He did eventually come home but was kept alive by synthetic hormones. Then a cyst that had formed ruptured, and he was in a coma for 32 days. After being out of it for a month he lapsed into it for another month. He lost most of his memory and was going blind. Fallwell says that you can't put into words the kind of suffering this family had to endure. Imagine the cruelty of trying to figure out whose sin it is they are suffering for.
We want life to be simple, and we want to have easy answers that give meaning to life. We want life to be black and white where the good guys are escaping suffering, and the bad guys are getting their due reward of judgment. If life was only like the movies, but it is not, and often the real life story has the bad guys getting by with murder, and the good guys being the ones getting murdered. So it was with Able, John the Baptist, Stephen, and on and on. Simple answers are not always false, but they are so often foolish and cruel when applied to specific situations.
Do people go blind because they mix up a pile of gun powder and then light it? Of course they do. Do they go blind because they stare at the Sun too long? Yes they do. People go blind for all kinds of foolish things they do. They cause their blindness by the choices they make. But to take what we know to be true and make it the truth, and apply it to every blind person, is to be cruel. If we see a blind child and say, I wonder what stupid thing this kid did to become blind, then we are the ones being foolish. There are hundreds of reasons for why people are blind. Those who assume that there is only one reason, and that is that they did something evil or stupid, are a part of the problem in the suffering of the world.
Simple answers are convenient, but they are often worthless or cruel. Harold Kushner in his book When Bad Things Happen To Good People writes, "I once read of an Iranian folk proverb, ' If you see a blind man, kick him; why should you be kinder than God?' In other words, if you see someone who is suffering, you must believe that he deserves his fate and that God wants him to suffer. Therefore, put yourself on God's side by shunning Him or humiliating Him further. If you try to help him, you will be going against God's justice." It is simple solutions like this that make so many religious people cruel and without compassion.
It is true that many people become stronger through their suffering, and they become great examples of how it can strengthen character. But it is a major mistake to try and apply this to somebody else's tragedy. If a family just hears that their teenage daughter has been killed in an auto accident, and you try to comfort them by saying God wants to make you stronger, you are being cruel. You have no business trying to interpret other people's suffering. If they ask you for an opinion, you can share your theory, and they can take it or leave it, but to impose your unasked interpretation on people based on ignorance is to be a part of the problem. It is as foolish and superficial as someone standing at the cross asking, who did sin, this man or his parents that he should meet with such a violent end? This question might fit the two thieves for they were suffering as a direct result of their crimes, but Jesus was innocent. You can say that two out of three ain't bad, but it is bad when you apply a simple solution to a situation where it is superficial and does not fit the facts.
This was just what the friends of Job were doing for days, and they were making his life miserable, and they were completely wrong. Now the disciples are doing the same things with this poor blind man. They were not so cruel as Job's friends, for they did not spend days rubbing his nose in it, and making him feel guilty. But they believed the same simple falsehood that all suffering is connected with specific sin. Old errors die hard, if they ever die at all. They usually become so ingrained in the minds of people that even after they are rejected they continue to affect the attitudes.
The book of Job ends with God's rejection of Job's friends simple solution to his suffering. It would have ended with God's judgment on the friends had Job not interceded on their behalf. God was angry with their superficiality which they so dogmatically defended. Now we are seeing history repeating itself in our text. Jesus is again rejecting the simple solution to specific suffering by saying it has no connection with any specific sin in the sufferer or his parents. By doing this Jesus shut down the number one most popular explanation for suffering of all time. The vast majority of the human race has always clung to this simple explanation of suffering, that it is the punishment for sin. Let's consider why-
II. THE SIMPLE SOLUTION IS SO SUCCESSFUL.
The reason for its popularity is its simplicity. It basically eliminates the problem of suffering altogether. If all suffering is a result of the sin of the one suffering, then where is the problem? All is as it should be, and justice is being done, and all it fair. Everybody is reaping what they have sown. Life is no mystery at all, but is perfectly sensible and orderly.
That is why billions cling to the doctrine of reincarnation. It is the simple solution to suffering perfected in a system. All that seems unjust and unfair when innocent people suffer is easily explained. They are suffering for sin in a previous life, and so there is no problem. Every miserable situation you can imagine can be accepted by these people, for even though they may be innocent babies who are suffering, it all makes sense because they were sinful scoundrels in their previous life, and their present tragedy is just what they deserve.
The simple solution allows people to live in the midst of horrible suffering and feel no guilt when they don't lift a finger to help relieve the pain, because everything is really just as it ought to be, for suffering is the just punishment for sin. The simple solution eliminates all mystery. There is nothing to wonder about and question, except maybe, is it the sufferers sin or the parents sin that is being punished? In other words, the simple solution is a denial of the problem of suffering. There is no problem because there is no such thing as innocent suffering. Once you eliminate the whole concept of innocent, unjust, and unfair suffering you have, in essence, eliminated evil.
The one thing all simple solutions to suffering have in common is that they deny the reality of evil. Like Christian Science they conclude that evil is just the result of the wrong way of looking at reality. If we look at it properly, they say there is no evil. Evil is an error of the mind. Christians fall into the same trap when they try to justify all suffering by quoting Rom. 8:28 and say, "All things work together for good." They imply by that that all things are good, and do not stop to realize that what they are doing is denying the reality of evil. If all things are really good, then there is no such thing as evil. This is pure heresy along with all the other simple solutions to suffering. It calls evil good, and makes a mockery of all the suffering innocent people have to do.
This theory makes it good for Judas to betray Jesus; good for Christian men to have affairs; good for people to drink and drive killing innocent people, and on and on we could go calling all evil good. This, of course, will not stand up in the court of reality. Evil is real, and the innocent do suffer, and there is no way to call it good. Rom. 8:28 is not saying that all is good. It is saying that God will not abandon us to evil, but will in every situation, even the most evil, work with us for good. But no matter what good comes out of the evil, it does not justify the evil. Any theory that rejects the reality of evil is not biblically valid, and that is what all simple solutions to suffering do.
What we need to see is that because something is true, it does not mean it is the truth. This is what leads every simple solution to the level of heresy. It is a partial truth exalted to the level of an absolute where it becomes a falsehood. It is obvious that there is much truth to the idea that sin leads to suffering. Adam and Eve lost paradise, and began the suffering of the human race because of their sin and violation of the will of God. There is no end to examples of how sin leads to suffering. This simple solution, however, breaks down very quickly when we see Abel being murdered by Cain. All of the sudden we see the good guy dying while the bad guy lives. Now we have innocent suffering, and the mystery of suffering begins. Abel did not die because of his sin, but because of Cain's jealously. It was not good, but evil, and it happened to a righteous man, and God did not stop it or prevent it. The Bible very quickly thrusts us into the problem of suffering, and just as quickly rejects the simple solution to suffering.
The greatest sufferer of all time was Jesus, and He was sinless. He was the only truly innocent sufferer whoever lived. He suffered completely because of the sins of others. John the Baptist was the greatest born of woman in the Old Testament, but he was still a sinner. But who would have the audacity to say he was beheaded in his 30's by Herod because he deserved it? He died because of the sin of others in their opposition to righteousness. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was also a young man and a righteous man. He was still a sinner, but who would dare suggest that he was allowed to be stoned by God because of sin in his life? This tragedy had nothing to do with Stephen's sin. Maybe he did lose his tempter that week, and maybe he had a struggle with envy or lust, or any number of sins, but nothing could be more superficial than to suggest that his suffering and death had anything to do with his personal sin.
The most popular solution to suffering of all time fails to make any sense in these and millions of other situations. You will find it still believed in high places, however. The minds of the Apostles were sold on it until Jesus set them straight. Jesus said the blind man was not blind because of his sin or the sin of his parents, but that the work of God might be made manifest in his life. What a shock this was to the disciples. Here was a man who was not sinless, but his sin had nothing to do with his blindness. This is true of most people who are blind, and most people who have any disease, handicap, or affliction. The reason we have compassion on these people in Christian lands is because we have rejected the idea that people suffer because of their sin. We recognize that they are victims of evil, and do not deserve their suffering. If they did deserve it, then all of our Christian compassion that tries to relieve their suffering would be putting us in opposition to God's will.
This being the case, we need to reject another major false concept that grows out of the simple solution of suffering. If all suffering is due to sin, then it follows that the innocent will not suffer. If all suffering is the deserved punishment for sin, there will be no suffering on the part of those who do not deserve it. In other words, the simple solution promises freedom from suffering to the innocent and the righteous. This is the very thing which the Bible does not promise. The simple solution denies the reality of evil, and that the innocent suffer. The Bible, however, reveals that much suffering is unjust and unfair. Peter preaches the Gospel and 3,000 souls come to Christ. Stephen preaches the same Gospel and 3,000 stones come flying at him to knock the life out of him. One gets souls, and the other gets stones. There is nothing fair about this. Many innocent people suffer the pains of life and do recover, but many do not, and the simple solution does not deal with this aspect of reality. It ignores it, and that is why it is so superficial. It is blind to unjust and innocent suffering.
The Bible does not ignore this reality. It makes it clear that this will be a major battle of life. God does not promise that life will be fair. In fact, He promises that it will be very unfair because of the power of evil. All He promises is that He will be fair, and that those who endure the unjust suffering of life will be greatly rewarded. Jesus says we can even be glad and rejoice in unjust suffering for we know that our reward in heaven will be great. Jesus prepared his disciples to expect to suffer for being righteous. It was just the opposite of the simple solution that relates suffering to sin. He said much suffering will be related to not sinning, and they will be persecuted because of their being godly and not going along with the unholiness of the world. All through history Christians have had to suffer just for being what God wanted them to be.
Christians have come to believe that they have some kind of promise to be protected from the trials and tragedies of life. This view leads to rebellion and rejection of God when it is proven false by serious suffering. A mother who lost a son in battle wrote this to her pastor. "I never intend to step inside a church again. It has failed me. It has lied to me. It has taught me to believe that God would take care of my boy and bring him back in safety as I prayed. I have prayed. My boy is dead. What do you have to say to me now? I hate God. He cannot be trusted." This has happened to millions of people who have swallowed the simple solution to suffering. They believe that only the sinful will suffer. The innocent and godly will escape suffering. When reality comes crashing in on them they blame God. Their false ideas of God lead them to be angry at God when they should be angry at themselves for neglecting to read everything God has revealed in His Word, which is a promise that in this world you will suffer.
The simple solution to suffering has created more atheists than any other tool of the devil that I am aware of. You read the works of the great unbelievers, and you find that the god they are angry at is the god that is created by the false and superficial ideas of suffering. When this spider web of theory cannot hold the weight of reality, they reject God for not keeping promises He never made. A good portion of the world's suffering is caused by this simple solution to suffering. People believe it is the truth, and when it turns out to be a lie they blame God. Mark Twain wrote a whole book blaming God for the rotten things in this world. He was raised to believe that God would not allow bad things to happen to good people. When he grew up and saw it wasn't so, he rejected God. Nobody had any right to give that false concept of God to any child. It is a lie, and it will lead to the rejection of God who is the only ultimate answer to the problem of suffering.
False ideas about suffering are the cause of much suffering. I agree with J. B. Philips who wrote about the false idea that godly people will not suffer. He writes, "It seems to me that a great deal of misunderstanding and mental suffering could be avoided if this erroneous idea were exposed and abandoned. How many people who fall sickly say, either openly or to themselves, "Why should this happen to me? I've always lived a decent life."
"There are even people who feel that God has somehow broken His side of the bargain in allowing illness or misfortune to come upon them. But what is the bargain? If we regard the New Testament as our authority, we shall find no such arrangement being offered to those who open their lives to the living Spirit of God. They are indeed guaranteed that nothing, not even the bitterest persecution, the worst misfortune, the death of the body, can do them any permanent harm or separate them from the love of God. They are promised that no circumstance of earthly life can defeat them in spirit and that the resources of God are always available for them. Further, they have the assurance that the ultimate purpose of God can never be defeated. But the idea that if a man pleases God then God will especially shield him belongs to the dim twilight religion and not to Christianity at all."
The fact is, the godly often suffer even more than the ungodly. The poet put it,
The rain falls on the just and unjust fella,
And sometimes more on the just, for the unjust
Steals the just's umbrella.
There is no promise that life will be fair, but only that God will. Jesus says in Luke 21:16-17, "You will be betrayed by parents, brothers, relatives and friends and they will put some of you to death. All men will hate you because of me." That is not much of a promise of a fair life. But then in the next verse Jesus says, "But not a hair of your head will parish." This is His way of saying that its an unfair world, and unjust suffering is inevitable, but in God's ultimate plan no child of His will lose one minute thing because of the power of evil.
Jesus says in John 16:2, "A time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God." Jesus did not hold back any punches. He told His disciples there were no guarantees that they would escape anything by following Him. He ends the chapter by saying in verse 33, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world." Jesus was so realistic about life, and that is why He promised trouble. But He was also reassuring, for He promised final victory and present peace in Him.
Paul was a great sufferer of all kinds of unjust pain, and it was not because of sin, but because he was a servant of Christ. He writes in II Cor. 11:23-29 that he was in prison frequently, had been flogged often, been exposed to death many times, received whippings, and was beaten with rods, once was stoned, three times shipwrecked, and suffered frequent dangers and pressures. Who sinned, was it Paul or his parents that he should have to suffer so much pain? The simple solution to suffering will gladly accept either alternative just as long as sin is the cause of his suffering. The biblical answer, however, is like the answer of Jesus concerning the blind man. The answer he gave is neither. Paul's suffering was unfair and unjust, and not punishment for sin. It was the price he paid to do the will of God in taking the good news of salvation to a lost world.
Are we to conclude that suffering is not due to sin, but instead due to being an opponent to sin, as Paul was? Not at all, for this would be to replace one simple solution with another, and when it comes to suffering all simple solutions are superficial.