the gift of suffering

“I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he gives us the gift of suffering. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the Sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much are what make us perfect.”

~ C.S. Lewis

Letter to Vicky

“I suggest to you that it is because God loves us that he gives us the gift of suffering. Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world. You see, we are like blocks of stone out of which the Sculptor carves the forms of men. The blows of his chisel, which hurt us so much are what make us perfect.”

C.S. Lewis

“No healthy Christian ever chooses suffering; he chooses God’s will, as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not.”

Oswald Chambers

I understand that when your Women’s Group met a few weeks ago, you brought up the question, “Why does God allow evil people to prosper?”, along with a desire to take a look at the various scriptures on the subject. 

A great question commonly asked by all who stand back and watch the world unravel, wondering why ethics (or ought-ness as compared to the actual mess that is morality or is-ness) doesn’t always prevail. I won’t get into this now, but that is a favorite argument used by many to defend the reality of an afterlife, where an Omni-God finally proves to all that ethics is more than a distant philosophical concept. It works. Again, it works, but on the other side, not always here, and that appears to be the reason for your question. Let’s take the back-door entrance, as you suggest, to the more commonly stated problem, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” the front door to the same house. 

First, a disclaimer of sorts. Conservative Biblical Christianity (CBC) vs. conjecture: I am a layperson, in other words, no formal education or work experience in this area. My only credentials, if you could loosely call them that, derive from my experience in leading a Bible study at work. I would be careful to warn the ladies, when not certain of the CBC position, to label the next explanation a Carvalho-ism. I want to be sure that they understand the difference. As far as I can tell, what proceeds below lands firmly in the CBC category. Therefore, the focus or intent, will always be truth and truth according to God – no one else. We all have thoughts, opinions, preferences, experiences, limitations, ideas. Some right, some wrong. When we hear God’s voice, then all is right – none wrong. If I tell you Pittsburg is a city in Pennsylvania, I may be right. If God told you the same thing, you could be certain.  

Let us agree that epistemology, the pursuit of truth, the study of knowledge, how we know, can we know, is the primary challenge or goal in the universe. Yes, this trumps – sorry – the pursuit of Christ, for the simple reason that if the gospel message as recorded in scripture, if not ultimately true, would necessarily motivate us to seek truth elsewhere. Let’s not spend time making the classical arguments for the inerrancy of scripture in the original manuscript, the concept of preservation, the battle of the 9s (are we currently 99% or 99.9% confident we have it right?).  Similarly, if truth, scripture, is authored by the Holy Spirit and the Christian carries the author with them, determining biblical truth for the important and foundational doctrines, only requires an interview with the author who is always and easily available. A common objection to our faith, the unfounded reference to the complexity and questionable biblical record, is simply not warranted. The foundational truths of our faith, as detailed sufficiently in scripture, require no more than time, asking, seeking, knocking, and prayer correctly targeted.

Something else before we get started. We are not Universalists. We are Christians. There are only two kinds of people in this world: those taking a right turn at eternity’s door and those taking a left. Our primary goal is to be sure we will land on the right side. Once accomplished, our focus becomes passionate persuasion, so that as many people as possible will join us. That mind-set, our non-negotiable personal Christian worldview, is the only way to walk forward. We make decisions that honor Him. We see the world through His eyes, not ours. Let’s define key terms according to God, not us. 

One day in Bible study, we had fun developing a scatter chart in Excel. We decided to plot a value for notable people in our recent history who proved or demonstrated by their lives and decisions, their hearts, their natures. From zero to ten, we agreed Mother Teresa of Calcutta earned a ten; Hitler, a zero. We then plotted others, the most entertaining being the attendees. Jokes, sarcasm and laughing took over as we attempted to hold it together to make a significant point. Once we agreed on the human value and scores of the group, we decided to add our Lord. A short debate, because it wouldn’t matter, ultimately, earned Jesus a score of one million. This is a simple illustration with little intellectual challenge except for what is necessary to process the lesson. Everyone on the chart, all mere mortals, were flat-lined when compared to the other, the beyond, the ultimate source of love, yes, the holiness of Christ. Why the story today? We cannot begin to think through the good and evil population we find ourselves immersed in, at least for a short while, without first agreeing on perspective. The mind of Christ starts with the constant reference point and foundational application of the holiness of God. We are all, essentially, in a similar boat. Divisions, especially what we perceive as significant in the human population, come only from the horizontal or natural view. God sees all of us in only the two categories mentioned above. 

Let’s start with where you started. The back-door is used less frequently, therefore, it is a bit more intriguing. Let’s look at Luke 16: 19-31, The Parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. Jesus tells us that a Rich Man, who could qualify as evil, especially since we are told a poor man resided at his gate, has everything anyone could ever want in this world. Can we call this “prosper?” You know the story. After death, the beggar is comforted by Abraham, and the Rich Man is in torment. The lesson is straight forward. Those who have it all in this life may not be the ones that will be in the Lord’s presence for eternity. Recall the camel and the eye of the needle dilemma in Matthew 19:24. Also, we hear Jesus in the Beatitudes talk about those who are blessed. (Matthew 5:1-12). We do not see any references to those who prosper. Recall The Widow’s Offering in Mark 12:41-44. Matthew 5:44-45, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, the heart of God. Read James 5:1-6, his Warning to Rich Oppressors. 

Uh-oh. Here is Jesus addressing the whole crowd as evil (self-centered sinners). Matthew 7:9-12, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

A relatively quick read of the book of Jonah helps us understand the conflict between our view of justice and God’s. Here, only Jonah 3:10. “When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” The evil people in Nineveh were spared. Jonah, the Lord’s prophet, was sitting in the suburbs overlooking the town waiting for the fireworks to begin. Similarly, The Parable of the Lost Son, God’s heart revealed for dummies like his youngest son. Dad divides his property. Son squanders it. You might say that the father (God) blessed his evil son (us). And by the way, remember 1 Timothy 2:3-4, “This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” All means all. Maybe God doesn’t want to give up on us? Then we have The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Matthew 20:1-16, but here only verse 15. “Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Psalm 37 is one of my favorite psalms because the Lord reminds us three times not to fret – a terrific biblical lesson. But, for our discussion today, see especially verses 35 and 36. We are reminded that the evil or wicked people prosper only temporarily. They are soon gone. And, in the land of the living, evil people can be left behind. God’s patience is almost limitless. Almost. There are times that the curtain closes. Recall Luke 9:5, “If people do not welcome you, leave their town and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” That verse scares me. Jesus was telling the disciples that the Jewish community was no better than a Gentile one. They were guilty of rejecting the offer of salvation. In other words, “They had their chance.”

Back to our question. Why does God allow evil people to prosper? Look at the final outcome. The evil person here had an opportunity to make better decisions. He did not, and will pay for his mistakes for eternity. I did not define the term “prosper” thinking the examples from scripture were sufficient.

Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Let’s try the front door. This may be the primary challenge voiced when the unbeliever first contemplates the allegedly loving Omni-God that Christians propose created the universe and still has His hands on the steering wheel. “Sure, you tell me God loves everybody and He is able to fix anything broken, but, when I look out at the world, I see a lotta broken.” 

No doubt, one of the best, if not the best, passages in scripture that clearly explains the Lord’s perspective of a perceived accident and follow-on heartbreak that we deal with routinely is the story of the Tower of Siloam. Luke 13:4-5, “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! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Those in the crowd are scratching their heads wondering how you can make sense of what appears to be a meaningless tragedy. Many, if not most, in our culture would say, “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time.” As was the case then, before then (read Job) and now, people commonly try to equate tragedy with some dysfunction in character, be that sin, whatever. Clearly, there can be a correlation between misbehavior and outcome. Smoke a few packs a day, and you may instigate lung cancer, or drive down the highway at lightspeed, an appointment with the state police, if not more. But, in this world, to search for a meaning, a correlation between sin and an easy or hard life, is a fool’s errand. Jesus’ response was a reminder to the people and us of this simple fact. The unfortunates were not worse sinners. Sooner or later we will all die. In fact, Jesus’ use of the word “perish” (facing God’s judgement), refers to the wrong side of eternity. So, rather than being concerned about the quality or ease and safety of our lives from a Hedonistic viewpoint, we ought to be more focused on the final outcome. 

And, nearly everyone’s favorite in this category is 2 Corinthians 17-18. “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” If you want to see what exactly Paul was putting up with and how severe his trials were, please take a look at 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. Spoiler alert: He is not complaining about being stuck in traffic on I-85 or the high that day could be 103 degrees. 

We need to be careful, lest unbelievers argue that Christianity is a spiritual narcotic for those who just can’t face reality. No matter how bad this life, no matter how many wrongs you feel personally or collectively, no fear – on the other side, it won’t matter. Actually, that is true. It essentially won’t matter, but Paul reminds us again of God’s perspective. 

One more item to consider: In a general sense, the human condition is such that unbelievers may often require a nudge, a wake-up call, a personal tragedy, to get them to seriously contemplate the most important thing in life – their eternal destiny. If that is what it takes, then rather than shake our fist at God, we should thank Him for relentlessly bringing tragedy into our lives to wake us up. After regeneration, our relationship with the Lord expands greatly, and we become more Christ-like only when we suffer. So, again, the correct posture is to thank God for allowing suffering as we move closer to Him, increasing our peace and joy and sprint forward in our remaining years as salt and light, His Representatives, His Ambassadors.  

Tony Carvalho