Monday, January 9, 2012

The Problem of Suffering

It's a centuries-old debate, and as far as I know, it has no clear answer yet:  "If God is good and all-loving, then why does He allow suffering?"

It's definitely a question we've pondered from various angles since Al's stroke.  My understanding is this:  God IS indeed all-good, all-powerful, and all-knowing and has ultimate authority over all.  He does not inflict suffering upon us because of our sin - Jesus took the punishment that was ours due to sin, as He was Crucified on the Cross.  His mercy and forgiveness are a free and generous gift.

However, we still experience pain, disease and suffering.  God allows it (but does not inflict it) for a purpose:  Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?  If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all.  Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!  They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.  Hebrews 12:7-11.  My understanding of "discipline" in this passage is not punishment for sin, but rather training in righteousness.  

(Side note:  I've written about this passage before, but especially in the context of Al's post-stroke disability, I love verses 12-13, "Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.  Make level paths for your feet, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed."  Yes!!!)

This is how I have perceived "the reason" that Al had a stroke, in the light of the previous passage:  God allowed it to happen to him for a purpose, part of which is to train him/us in holiness, and also to teach us to rely on His grace more than we ever had to before.

Now, when it comes to Al's rehabilitation and healing, there are also many Scriptures which speak to this.   In Matthew 7:7-11 tells us, "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  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!"

In John 14:13-14 assures us, "And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it."  

Those Scriptures, along with many others seem to promise me that Al's complete healing is a done deal.  I can ask (and I have asked many, many times!) for God to heal and restore Al completely, in Jesus' name.  I don't have a problem believing that what Jesus promised us in Scripture is true.  However, there are people who are not healed - good, holy, righteous, faith-filled people - who do not receive healing from their diseases, at least not until they die and receive their glorified body in Heaven.

There is also the line of thinking which says, "You have to have enough faith for God to do the healing".  But that seems to put a little too much pressure on me, the faith-filled-but-could-always-use-more-faith Christian.  I am more like the man who asked Jesus, "Lord, I believe.  Help my unbelief."  We will never have perfect faith, but I know many people who have stronger faith than I think I have, and still haven't been healed.

So, how should I pray?  Either I can pray with absolute certainty that God will heal Al, no doubt in my mind at all!  I would like to pray with that much faith, but I also don't want to be blind and deaf to what God wants to teach me / us while we go through the difficulty.  He is the genius Creator, so He knows how to orchestrate these things for our best benefit, right?  If I only focus on asking for healing, then I may miss out on the richness of drawing closer to God during a time of suffering.

I'm writing this post because there is an ongoing "debate" with a family member who insists that God's plan is for Al to be completely and totally restored and that we shouldn't settle for believing any less.  However, she also adds tidbits about how Al and I are such good Christians and that God will definitely heal Al soon because of that.  This is where the theology gets really tricky - DOES God reward us with health and wealth for being faithful Christians?  The corollary to that line of thinking would lead us to think that God withholds material blessings or healing from those who are unfaithful.  That doesn't ring true with me. 

So, please enter into this debate with me - not for the sake of convincing me of anything in particular (I'm very confident that God has a good plan for Al's life, and that He will bring the best out of the situation - Romans 8:28, Jeremiah 29:11, etc.), but for the sake of helping me muddle through this challenging philosophy that God will indeed bless us with our every wish and whim because we are "faithful" Christians.  (I only write that in quotation marks because I know that we could me MUCH more faithful!!!)

Also, I want to be as respectful as I can be about the whole debate, but it really comes up quite often in our discussions with this family member, so I would love the input.

Thanks for your time!


  1. Oh yes...this IS the great debate, isn't it? I will just start by saying there is little that irks me more than when I hear stories of people being told (by clergy, nonetheless) that they or their loved ones have not been healed because they did not have enough faith. WE don't get to decide who is healed and who is not. If we did, wouldn't that kind of make us demi-gods? I would say the same in reverse then, I don't believe that if we have a super strong faith we are any more likely to be healed. I think you are on track though Jen, we do have to pray BELIEVING that God will answer our prayers, but I always pray for His will, never my own. God knows best but I do not believe that any measure of faith, whether great or little, can determine whether or not we are healed. That puts it back within our control..."if I just had MORE faith", or..."but I am so faithful and true, WHY didn't God bring healing". The point is, we don't have the answers to many things, only God does.

    That was a long answer. Please know that I stand with you and will pray for complete physical healing for Al!

    God's blessings to you all!

  2. This topic is very complex; it actually includes all of life. I hear good Christians say, "I've had a terrible day." What does that mean? In Whom is our joy, our peace, our hope? Do these things depend on our circumstances? I Peter 4:1 says "Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same thought, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin." This is a very puzzling verse to me because whenever I am suffering, I tend to get short-tempered, irritable, etc.

    Perhaps C.J. Lewis' The Problem of Pain would be a good resource. He's a lot smarter than me!

    Peace - Jan

  3. I am not super religious...but I am spiritual. I have always prayed for strength in helping me deal with what comes. I don't know what God has in store for me. I can only hope for the best, deal with what I'm given, and express graititude for all the gifts in my life. I don't get to decide what the final outcome will be. I can only work as hard as I can and accept what is with grace and gratitude. As far as stroke recovery, I think you have to believe and live as though your husband will experience a full matter what. :) Perhaps that is my version of faith. Many experts disagreed with me on that...and I fired them...for trying to discourage me. Maybe I'm in denial...I don't care. If you don't believe it and work towards will never come. I will never accept that I am finished recovering until I'm fully might be a long wait, but I have time. Thankfully!!! It's God's plan, not mine after all.

  4. was it in facing the giants that they said, "if we win, we will praise you, and if we lose, we will praise you"?, or something to that effect. I don't think you need to worry about how much healing God will provide, just be thankful and praise him each step of the way, every little victory, and trust that he will give you all the strength and fortitude and peace needed to get through this. Love you Jen:)

  5. I'm not sure we can know the answer to this Jen. I do know that if Christ suffered, we too must suffer because we are His followers and the bible tells us this is so! I know God in His econemy will not waste it, but use it to bring good.
    I think suffering exists because evil exists in the world. Sometimes our Lord chooses to heal us and sometimes He allows the suffering to go on and only heals us in the next life. Either way we trust He knows what is best for us. In heaven, we will know all, but while on earth, we just pray and ask Him for His perfect will to be fulfilled in us... we ask for what we know at the time and have faith that He will do as He knows is best for us.
    You are exactly in the right place! Keep up the good work of love and prayer that you so beautifully and stedfastly give! God will show you if you need to change anything!
    Bless you and that beautiful family!

  6. Who can know God's plans? Nevertheless, we can know He has plans for us, and they are good. Corrie ten Boom's message that she spread all over the world was that the deepest darkness is outshone by the light of Jesus. She was a very credible witness because she emerged from a very deep darkness. Her time in a concentration camp was not wasted; it was the springboard for a very fruitful ministry. What you and Al are going through now may be the beginning of a great service that you will be well equipped to perform. This may be the most significant formation you ever receive. I am praying for a successful and swiftly-completed course of study!

  7. Who can know God's plans? All we know about God's plans is that He has them and they are good.

    Here is one possible explanation. Corrie ten Boom traveled around the world with the message that the deepest darkness is outshone by the light of Jesus. She was a credible witness because she had been through very deep darkness. Had it not been for the concentration camps she survived, we would not have her testimony.

    What you and Al are going through may be the most significant formation experience of your lives, and it may equip you for serving God in ways which you otherwise would not be fit to perform. For Corrie ten Boom, the concentration camp experience was not wasted. I'll pray that this training you are now receiving will be successful and swiftly-completed!