How can we see God as good and loving when the world He has made and governs is so full of human suffering?
The question is, perhaps, as old as the world itself, or at least as old as the fallen world, for human suffering surely entered the world quickly upon the heels of sin. Indeed, the created paradise characterized by unbroken fellowship with God and with one another became quickly broken, plagued by shame, and blame, and envy, and hatred, and even murder, each resulting in deeper degrees of human pain and suffering.
When we consider the first sin entered a perfect world already wrapped up in a question of God’s goodness, it is to be expected that in an imperfect world flawed by sin God’s goodness would continually be called into question. But why does God allow and/or not alleviate suffering? Is there an answer to the question? More importantly, what does God Himself have to say in the matter?
Last week one of our members handed me a newspaper clipping from a recent edition of the New York Times (International Edition, April 20-21, 2019). It was a thoughtful Easter-weekend column by Peter Wehner regarding the cross as the symbol of Christianity.
In the column, Wehner points out the unlikelihood that a tool of first-century Roman torture and cruelty could have ever become the pivotal and compelling symbol of a world-renowned Faith. From a public relations viewpoint, it was (and would still seem to be) sheer madness. And yet, as Wehner points out, it is precisely the suffering of the cross that has been able to speak hope into a world itself so horribly scarred by sin and suffering.
Regarding the question, “Why is there suffering?” Wehner writes, “Jesus never answers that question, and even if we had the theological answer, it would not ease our burdens in any significant way. What God offers instead is the promise that he is with us in our suffering . . .”
In his piece, Wehner acknowledges the theology of the Atonement in which God and sinners are reconciled through the cross, but he focuses on the cross as proof that God enters into and identifies with human suffering. He writes, “From the perspective of Christianity, one can question why God allows suffering, but one cannot say God doesn’t understand it. He is not remote, indifferent, untouched or unscarred.”
“The most important moment in my faith pilgrimage” Wehner writes, “was when the cross became my interpretive prism.” He goes on to explain that while he continues to have countless questions about suffering and about difficult texts in the Bible, he has come to recognize that if answers to his questions are ever to be found, they will only be found in the context of the cross.
I believe Wehner is correct to see the the cross as a prism or filter for interpreting human suffering. In fact, I believe it is in the cross of the crucified Christ that we find God’s definitive answer to all the age-old questions. We find in the cross the love and good intention of God toward the world.
There was, however, at least one instance, in which Jesus answered a question regarding the purpose of human suffering. In the case of the man born blind (recorded in John 9), Jesus replied that the man was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him. We can assume Jesus had in mind the miraculous works of healing and forgiveness that He subsequently wrought in this man to his joy and to the glory of God.
But Jesus might well have said the same thing about his own suffering at the cross–This happened, or rather, I suffer, so that the great work of God might be displayed in me–the work of healing and forgiveness–of the salvation–of the world from sin and suffering and death. (With so great a work having been wrought through the suffering of so great a wrong, how much more might God be glorified in our own suffering?)
In his column, Wehner includes several moving lines from a poem, entitled, “Jesus of the Scars,” written by Edward Shillito. Shillito, was an English minister, who witnessed the waves of badly wounded soldiers returning from World War I. In the face of horrific human suffering, his confidence in God’s grace came in looking upon the wounds and suffering of Jesus.
I provide, below, the full text of the poem as food for thought.
If we have never sought, we seek thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-marks on thy brow,
We must have thee, O Jesus of the scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm.
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by thy scars we know thy grace.
If, when the doors are shut, thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of thine;
We know today what wounds are, have no fear;
Show us thy scars, we know the countersign.
The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.
Moving words to be sure–words in which we find echoes of the Gospel scene in which Thomas cried out, “My Lord and my God!”
In closing, I would simply add that our confidence and hope for an eternity free from suffering and death is not found merely in our own view of Jesus’ scars, but in the fact that our heavenly Father also sees the suffering Passover sacrifice of His Son, the bleeding wounds which plead effectively for you and for me.