I'm taking a class this semester called Problems and Procedures. The last 2 weeks have focused on the problem of suffering. We've had to read a book by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steve Estes called When God Weeps. If you haven't read it, whether you are going through tough times or not, you should read it. Here's some thoughts I've had on this subject.
I was deeply impacted by something Joni said on pages 156-57. It doesn't so much have to do with suffering except that it is a great comfort to me. In fact I found it quite profound. Joni speaks of Jesus being forsaken on the cross so that he could confidently proclaim to the disciples a few chapters later that he would "never leave or forsake" them. This is a profound aspect of Christ's redemptive program. We were the ones who deserved to be forsaken by God. Yet He intervened and experienced this on our behalf on the cross when he cried out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"
It was not random that Christ used the same word in that great promise to the disciples (when he called them to spread the Gospel) as he spoke to God on the cross. "We may feel forsaken in the midst of our suffering, but the fact remains, we're not" (157). The profundity of this truth comes when we consider that it is one side of a two-sided coin. Those who do not place their faith solely in Christ, the one who experienced God's separation to the fullest as his/her substitute, will experience it to its fullest on their own. They will cry out different words than Jesus because they won't even be able to call God, "my God." If anyone had the right to use such a possessive along with God, it was Jesus. Yet he courageously chose to die in our stead and experience the tearing away of his most prized possession…his Father.
The bottom line is that we all experience a sense of being forsaken by God at some point or other. Unbelievers actually experience it their whole lives if they never believe. Suffering is not something just for Christians. All people experience aspects of the Fall and therefore suffer. It's a shame that unbelievers suffer for no reason. The suffering they experience in this life is mere foreshadow of what they will suffer forever. As the book reminds us in chapter twelve, hell is a very real place and has always been maintained by the Christian Church.
The worst aspect of hell is the fact that it isn't Satan who's running things…it's God.
In hell, God won't be the baby Jesus, meek and mild; he will be the hulking male warrior come to do battle. He will be patience exhausted. What could be more horrifying than having as your prosecutor, judge, jury, and jailer a Father whose son you murdered? Someone you've ignored and offended all your days? Some whose mercies you have ungratefully inhaled over a lifetime-like the spoiled kid on Christmas morning tearing through his gifts with no thought about who gave them? Someone whose interests and reputation you have only cared about when it served your purposes? (190)At first blush, it would seem that God delights in sending people to hell. Scripture paints a different picture. Hell wasn’t even created for people. It was created for the devil and his cohorts. In fact, Adam was destined for eternal life with God, but he failed the probationary test in the Garden of Eden. Had he obeyed, all men could have avoided this whole Fall thing and enjoyed eternal life. But the Fall happened and God’s justice must prevail. “God takes no joy in sending anyone to eternal misery; his Son was a lifeguard urgently warning swimmers of treacherous waters” (191).
Hell is the only option for those who don’t repent and place their trust solely in Christ. It is sad that instead so many people place their trust in themselves and their own abilities to achieve life. People who suffer desperately want to make sense of their sufferings, but they look to themselves rather than to the one whose sufferings make sense of theirs.
Christian suffering, on the other hand, has profound purpose. We can't always pinpoint the purpose, but we know it is there. One thing suffering has produced in my life is a dependence on God and a mistrust of my circumstances, especially when they seem to be going well. I am skeptical when things are going good. Suffering has caused me to enjoy the good times a lot more. It has caused me to weep a lot more when times aren't so good for others. It has caused me to pray and cry out for full redemption to happen.
Suffering has instilled in me the truth about the seriousness of the Fall and the reality that Christ has come to make all things new. I long for newness. I now look for ways that newness shows itself in this life. Seeing redemption brings comfort like nothing else can in the midst of difficulty.
What about the sufferings of unbelievers? The chapter on hell ends with a hopeful note,
But there’s a hidden mercy here. By tasting hell in this life we are driven to ponder what may face us in the next. In this way, our trials may be our greatest mercies. For some of us, they become God’s roadblocks on our headlong rush to hell. The depressed young homemaker reaches for an answer. The cancer-ridden patient makes peace with his Creator. The ladder-climber executive slips and falls into the arms of God. (196)The question, then, is where our sufferings take us. Do they cause us to ponder what comes in the next life for us? Or do they cause us to become more self-reliant and embittered towards the merciful God who desires that none of us should perish?