A good friend of mine recently experienced an emotional breakthrough after struggling to come to terms with a life that can be described only as suffering. A lesser person would have cracked under the weight of pain she’s endured for decades. She’s been twice disappointed in marriage. Her first husband was physically and emotionally abusive (to put it mildly) and made a sadistic art of eroding her self-confidence. He beat her, sometimes by kicking her with steel-toed boots, and went to extraordinary lengths to make sure she always felt worthless. When she finally mustered up the courage to leave, the church she attended labeled her with a cruel epithet that implied sexual impurity—and did it publicly, from the platform.
She eventually remarried, but her second husband died after a short time, and she suddenly found herself alone, struggling to make ends meet. Then her health began to fail in frightening ways. It was at that point, as she faced the prospect of a premature death, that we became friends.
We had a lot in common and clicked immediately. My wife, Jean, and I now think of her as a family member. She even refers to me as the little brother she’s always wanted, and she has become the sister I never had. Once a week we meet by telephone to study the Bible and pray, and those sessions with the Scriptures usually generate both laughter and tears—and a great deal of the peace that “surpasses all understanding” that Paul describes (Phil. 4:7).
The Best Answer
My friend—we’ll call her Sarah—has suffered far more than most people. The stories she’s shared have underlined the unbelievable cruelty of which even supposed Christians are capable. I find myself awestruck by her astonishing resilience. I have also suffered, and have learned the sacred art of endurance, but as I listen to her, I suspect I would have broken under the load she’s been forced to carry. My own suffering pales by comparison, and I know that during the health scare I endured some years ago because of a mystery illness,1 I failed what I call the “Job test.” At the bottom of that experience, I found myself getting angry with God, demanding to know why I seemed destined to make such a horrible exit from this world, after I had dedicated my life to ministry. (I might be a preacher, but I’m decidedly human.)
But as awful as that was, what I endured seems insignificant compared to Sarah’s trials. Occasionally she asks me why God allows these terrible things, and often I must answer with a meek “I don’t know.” Sometimes that’s the best answer, because pretending to know why God sometimes chooses to intervene dramatically and sometimes doesn’t . . . Well, it’s dishonest to feign knowledge that belongs to God alone, and it usually only adds to the victim’s misery.
Of course, as a pastor I’m equipped to explain the existence of suffering in broader terms—the great controversy. God is not the author of our pain and suffering; it is the natural consequence of decisions we have corporately made as a human race. Our fallen lives are now a cosmic lie about the nature of the One who made us.
We have turned Planet Earth into a showcase of pain, and more often than not, the devil uses that showcase as Exhibit A in his case against God, and he’s done an incredible job of making us believe it. We struggle, as philosophers have for thousands of years, to explain how a good God can create a universe where evil emerges—and there really is no good reason for its existence.
One of the most profound statements to come from the pen of Ellen White is found, appropriately enough, in The Great Controversy:
“It is impossible to explain the origin of sin so as to give a reason for its existence. . . . Nothing is more plainly taught in Scripture than that God was in no wise responsible for the entrance of sin; that there was no arbitrary withdrawal of divine grace, no deficiency in the divine government, that gave occasion for the uprising of rebellion. Sin is an intruder, for whose presence no reason can be given. It is mysterious, unaccountable; to excuse it is to defend it. Could excuse for it be found, or cause be shown for its existence, it would cease to be sin.”2
I read that statement on the air one time during a broadcast of the Voice of Prophecy and was surprised to receive a letter from an atheist listener stating that she had gone to the library to find a copy of The Great Controversy after hearing it. There is no rational explanation for pain and suffering, because it is the result of sin, which has no rational explanation. If you could explain sin, give a good reason for it, it would no longer be sin.
What we do know from Scripture is that instead of eliminating us, which would have been His right, God delayed His just reaction long enough to save us. God is nothing like the capricious deities of Olympus, who loved to toy with human beings, amusing themselves by heaping trials on innocent people. The God of the Bible is love, and He made the impossible decision: God the Son would become one of us, a new head for humanity, and He would take the wages of our sin on Himself.
He Endures With Us
Now that Christ has already paid the price of our redemption, why does suffering continue? It’s a good question. Consider the parable of the prodigal son, the boy who demanded his liberty in addition to demanding his share of the inheritance. He wanted the same thing we demanded in Eden: independence from the Father, but please, let’s keep the benefits coming. In time, the wayward son ends up squandering his wealth in wildly inappropriate ways, and he finds himself seeking employment, any employment, just to make ends meet:
“So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything” (Luke 15:15, 16, ESV).
Grab a Bible and read the whole story very carefully: the father is found standing in the road peering at the horizon in the desperate hope that his boy will return. But he does not go to the pigpen. He fights the parental instinct to swoop in and rescue his boy. He knows that if his son is ever going to come back, he will have to sit in the filth of a pigsty and experience the consequences of poor choices. Only then will he realize that home is better than this.
What would happen if God were to rescue us from all the consequences of our bad choices? What if He kept suffering in complete check, so that none of us ever sits in the filth and stench of pigs? What would happen if He allowed us to become comfortable in Babylon? We’d never come back.
And so, with a heart torn by anguish, God allows us to live what we chose. He could simply eliminate us, but we are, surprisingly, considered too valuable to a perfect and holy God. He endures the pain with us, working a careful plan to ensure that nobody is ultimately lost unnecessarily. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness,” Peter reminds us, “but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9, ESV).
He is far more patient than we are. Occasionally we shake our fist at heaven and demand that God remove all the evil from this world. But then, if our hearts are soft enough to hear the whisper of the Spirit, we hear Him say, “Where, exactly, would you like Me to stop that process? Right before I get to you?” It’s easy for us to see everybody else’s role in perpetuating misery; it is not so easy for us to see that our selfish hearts have made significant contributions to it.
Witness the love and the patience of God as He adopts our form and lives among us. We find Him enduring loneliness, rejection, hunger, sleeplessness, and physical pain. He stood at the grave of Lazarus and wept—not just for His friend, but for all of us.3 He was moved with pity and did the unthinkable: granted the gift of human touch to a leper (Mark 1:41). “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15, ESV).
But now back to my friend. I cannot share details, but she has lived through more pain than most of us. And because she has dwelt in the fiery furnace for so long, I find myself eager to listen to what she has to say. As she speaks, I am reminded that the Son of man still comes to join us in the flames. Sometimes we struggle to see Him through our tears, but He always shows up.
“I’ve discovered,” she told me, “I am disposable.” Oh, no, I thought to myself, she’s succumbed to feelings of worthlessness. But she continued: “Look: I don’t really know where I belong. Church members have rejected me as if I am a leper. Family has disappointed me; I hear from only some of them when they want something. Friends have proved fickle. I have no real place in this world . . . I’m disposable.”
She’s not alone. Read Hebrews 11 and witness the people who wandered this earth and found no place that felt like home. The Bible tells us that they were treated as if they were disposable, but the world was not worthy of such people (Heb. 11:38). Sarah can call only one place home: Christ.
Why? Because Christ Himself was treated as if He were disposable, and He put Himself in that predicament on purpose. He was willing to make Himself disposable to save us. He was never at home in this world, the way it is, and we should count it a blessing if we feel the same way. Profound discomfort in this world is a gift from God. It anchors our hearts in the kingdom.
I cannot explain the particulars of your suffering; I am still struggling to come to grips with my own. Some days it leaves me exhausted. Other days, frustrated. Occasionally it leaves me quite literally weeping. In the darkest moments, as I am reminded that I too have contributed to the collective suffering of all, Christ loves me profoundly. I feel His hand on my shoulder, and I hear Him say, “I understand. I know what this place feels like. You belong with Me.”
Where Is God?
One of the frequent questions I’ve been asked: “Where was God when . . . ?” It’s a fair question: in moments of deep pain, we want to know why it appears that God has abandoned us. But even here Christ understands perfectly, because He’s lived it: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).
Where was God when I was suffering? The most powerful answer to that question came from a famous TV priest who, many years ago, leaned into the camera, paused for a moment, and answered, “In the same place He was when we murdered His Son.” God’s people suffer, exposing the brutal lies of prosperity preachers, who insist that God wishes, above all, to make us comfortable, wealthy, and popular. The truth: we have enrolled in the school of Christ, and He suffered “for the joy that was set before Him” (Heb. 12:2). We are disposable in this world because He was. And soon enough He will wipe away our tears for the last time (Rev. 21:4).
1 Yes, it was a mystery. The rumor mill, populated by people I’ve never met who claimed they were in the know, were happy to fill in details that surprised me. Somehow the doctors missed what these gossips claimed to know, and I can tell you, firsthand, that gossips only make the suffering worse.
2 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1911), p. 492.
3 See Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898, 1940), p. 533.