OVERCOMING TOUGH TIMES
Why Do Good People Suffer?
March 29, 2009
Why do good people suffer? There have been many responses to that question over time; from Buddhism to Atheism to Christianity…all seek to find the answer to this ever pervasive question. Join Ben Young in the third message of this series as he takes a look at different religious points of view and how each searches for a valid answer.
I’ve already shared with you that I collect weird things, and one of the things I’m collecting right now are various warning labels on products. All of us today are kind of paranoid about being sued, so people put all these strange labels on things. Some of them are very good warnings; some of them, I don’t know! I found some more! Some of these warnings are so out there I can’t even read them in church; but these I can, and I want to share them. These are warning labels found on actual products. This is found on a baby stroller: “Warning! Remove infant before folding for storage.” Isn’t that a given? This was found on a toilet bowl cleaning brush: “Warning! Do not use orally.” Hmmm…That’s where they got the term “potty mouth” I guess! That was funny by the way! This next one was found on a microwave oven manual: “Do not use for drying pets.” Can’t you see the Bozo going up to this microwave—“Popcorn, poultry—oh, pet drying!” This is good here, a sign at a railroad station: “Beware! To touch these wires is instant death. Anyone found doing so will be prosecuted!” Oh man! Attorney friends, can’t you see them rolling in that corpse for the courtroom?
I’m sharing these warnings because I do have a warning about today’s message. Today’s message is that we are in the deep end of life. The questions that we’re talking about; the problem that we’re trying to solve and respond to is in the deep end of life. It’s very deep; it’s very complex; it’s very, very personal. So I just wanted to throw that out there for you. If you came here today looking for some good old preaching; someone who is going to give it to you straight and get in your grill; you came to the wrong place! I’m not going to preach so much as I’m going to teach.
During this series called Overcoming Tough Times, we’ve been following a guy named Job. We found that Job had it all. He was “Man of the Year.” He was wealthy. He had a hot wife and ten kids. He had a great faith! He had it going on, until all of a sudden, SMASH! His life was shattered into a million pieces! He was trying to pick up the pieces of his life, and he was trying to figure out what he was going to do next, and where God was in the midst of the mess that his life had become. He had lost it all. He lost his money; he lost his job; he lost his company; he lost his health; he lost his kids! He was in a mess.
We’ve been following the journey of Job, and as we’ve been doing that, there’s been a question that’s been looming that I would consider one of the great questions; one of the big questions, whether you choose to believe in God, or you choose to believe there is not a God; it’s really a big question everyone has to find an answer to.
There are many ways to phrase this question. One way is this: “If there is a God and this God is all good, and all powerful; how do you account for the massive amount of evil and suffering in the world? If God is all powerful, He would intervene and stop the suffering. If God was all good, He wouldn’t allow it in the first place.”
Another way to phrase this question is a more personal way, and that is to say, “Why do good people suffer? Why does someone like Job, who had it all together and was following God, who was successful in his business and had a great family; why in the world would the bottom fall out on his life, and why would he have to endure this tunnel of chaos and darkness? Why? Why, why, why? Why do bad things and suffering happen to good people?”
A while back, I wrote a book called Why Mike’s Not A Christian. In this book, I deal with a lot of common questions that both skeptics and some believers have about the Christian faith. I have a chapter in this book that talks about evil and suffering, and it kind of answers maybe more questions and gets into more detail than I’m going to today; but if you don’t have a copy of this book, you can pick one up.
Why do good people suffer? There have been many responses to that question. One of the best responses to that question was from a man by the name of Siddhartha Gautama. You may know him as The Buddha. The term Buddha is a term like Messiah. It’s not a name; it’s a title. The word Buddha means “enlightened one.” Siddhartha Gautama was trying to figure out the riddle centuries ago; centuries before the birth of Christ. Why in the world do we have so much evil and suffering? Why do we have sickness? Why do we have death? How do you alleviate and eliminate pain and suffering?
Basically, Buddha says these four things. He said there are four noble truths, and these are the four noble truths of Buddhism. The first one, according to Buddha, is that life is suffering. Noble truth two is that suffering is caused by desire. In other words, we have these desires; we have these expectations for life to be like this; and here is reality. So the difference between reality, our personal experience and our high expectations—the difference is pain and suffering.
So suffering is caused by desire. The third noble truth is the way to end suffering is to end desire. So if I decrease my desire in a sense; decrease my expectations to a point where I almost kill all desire; then I reach a point of oneness with expectation and desire, and I reach Nirvana. That leads to the fourth noble truth which is how do you end desire? You do so by following the Eight Fold Path of Buddhism, which is a lot of spiritual disciplines: Right thinking, right practice, right meditation, and right giving—all these things that fall into the Eight Fold Path.
I like Buddha! I think Buddha is the second wisest man ever to walk the plant earth. I think his plan for trying to answer the question as to why good people suffer, and also pragmatically, how to eliminate that, was a radical and bold plan. I believe there are problems within that particular world view in response to the question; but we’ll deal with the problem I see in that in a few moments.
Let’s look at another response to the question “Why do good people suffer?” Let’s look at the atheist’s response. The atheist’s response is rather simple and simplistic. It says basically there is no God. God is a delusion; therefore, evil and suffering that happens to people is really no big deal. Why? Because for an atheist, material things matter; stuff is all there is!
Richard Dawkins, who wrote the book God Delusion, said this, and I’m quoting from a different book, not The New York Times best seller. Dawkins is probably one of the most influential and outspoken atheists in the world today. “In the university of blind, physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt. Other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
So basically from a materialist’s point of view, an atheist’s point of view, we are only molecules in motion bouncing against one another. You have a certain form that makes you look like a human being. Someone else has a form that makes them look like an animal. Another form makes them look like a thing; but basically, we’re all just material “stuff.” In a way, it’s almost an atheistic interpretation of Hinduism, or Pantheism.
The atheists have a point. How do you deal with evil and suffering? How in the world could there be a good and great God, given the fact that so many people suffer? They just say punt the whole idea of God! Let me say this: I respect atheists more than I do agnostics. At least atheists are making a bold claim and wanting to stand by it.
However, there are problems in the atheistic world view. That’s basically the world view that Job’s wife held, wasn’t it? After Job’s life was shattered into a million pieces, Job’s wife said, “Job—give up this idea of God; this good God, this great God! Give that up! Look! You have nothing! Give up! Curse God and die!” So her view was a type of qualified atheism.
Let me deal with some of the problems I see within atheism as well as within Buddhism. Let’s deal with atheism first. Here’s a problem for the atheists. Atheism needs the existence of God to make their argument. Atheism pre-supposes theism. In other words, when I’m talking to someone and they say, “There is no God” and they’re challenging me, let’s say on something like the Holocaust. “How in the world can you believe in God when you look at the evil, and the atrocities, and the murders that happened to six million Jews that were extinguished and killed during World War II? How can a good and loving God, an all-powerful God allow this to happen?” I would say, “You know what? I’m outraged by that! But you shouldn’t be, if you’re an atheist. If you’re an atheist, why are you so upset? All that happened in World War II in the holocaust and all the killings were just molecules changing from one form to another. There’s no reason to cry, or get upset, or say “injustice,” right? Because if you say “injustice”—you’re implying the very thing you’re denying! In order for there to be justice, there means there has to be right and wrong in the world for all people and all places. For there to be right and wrong, moral law; there has to be a moral law giver! For there to be a moral law giver, He has to stand outside of space and time, and He has communicated these moral laws and ethics to all people in all places!” I have a right to be mad, angry, upset, and wonder what went on during World War II, and what goes on now with the millions of people that are starving, and being raped, and being cast into slavery around the world! I can be mad at that; but if you’re an atheist, you have no right to be mad at it! You have no right to cry! You can’t use the words “right or wrong; evil and good.” You can use the word “preference.” That’s not very tasty, but you can’t say it was right or wrong.
So for an atheist to even get their argument off the ground, they’ve got to borrow capital from my world view. It’s like if my 10-year old daughter wants to slap me in my face; she has to sit in my lap in order to do it. So atheism pre-supposes theism. They are denying that there is a transcendent moral standard; but at the same time, they are using it to be outraged!
So the problem I have with the neo-atheists like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett is that they’re not intellectually honest. Even Richard Dawkins, who I quoted earlier, who wrote the best-selling book God Delusion, said that he is a cultural Christian. I’m like, “Hey—get off of my cloud!
Richard, you need to go see another atheist friend of yours who is a philosopher at Princeton named Peter Singer.” Peter is a much more consistent atheist, and he says there is really no distinction between a chick, a cat, a dog and a chair! So be honest and don’t borrow from my world view to try to make your point. It’s not going to fly! That is a problem atheism has, and there is more to that, but we don’t have time to get into that today.
Let’s talk about Buddha. As I said, I like Buddha and Buddhism. If I weren’t a Christian, I possibly could be a Buddhist because I respect what he was trying to do, and I think Buddha was a very wise man. However, the problem I have with Buddha is that in trying to extinguish the ego, or to extinguish desire is like you’re killing the person to cure the disease.
Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosopher at Boston College, says this, “Nirvana, I have to see it as spiritual euthanasia; the killing of the patient, the self, the ego to cure the disease which would be egotism, or selfishness.” So if I did reach a point of Nirvana by following the Eight Fold Path of Buddhism; then if I got there and I extinguished my desires, and my expectations were so lowered that I reached this point; I don’t know if I’d want to reach that point. The same eye that craves; the same eye that desires is also the same eye that loves, and the same eye that dreams, and the same eye that has hopes and passions that I believe are good things that God has given to us.
So I like Buddha; I like his plan, and his response to the question, “Why do good people suffer?” But I think we can go farther. I think God goes farther. Let me say this and we talked about this a few months ago—God has revealed Himself to us in many ways, but one of the primary ways God has revealed Himself to us is in a Book.
The best-selling book of all time is the Bible. The most translated Book in the history of mankind is the Bible. The number one, best-selling book on The New York Times best-seller list, every single year, and has been—the same is true in Britain and around the world, is the Bible! It’s been number one so long, you just forget about it, right? So if you’ve not read the Bible, I would encourage you to do that, because the Bible deals very directly with the problem of evil and suffering. The oldest Book in the Bible is the Book of Job. The whole story is about “Where is God, and where are we when we encounter intense evil, suffering and pain in our lives?”
Let me give you three responses I think God has to the question as to why good people suffer. The first response I would say the Bible teaches us is this: Suffering is caused by free will. Let me hear you say those two words together. Ready? Free will. Let’s try it again. Free will.
When I say free will, I mean both Angelic free will, and Adamic free will. The Bible teaches that God created the entire universe. He spoke the universe into being. Some scientists may interpret that, or use the term as The Big Bang, but God created the universe ex-nilo, out of nothing. Before God created the universe; before He created all the galaxies, before He made the Milky Way galaxy, and the planet earth; before He did all that; we know that God created some type of angelic beings, some powerful angelic beings, and for a point of time in history that they had free will. Some of these angels rebelled against God. Lucifer was the head angel, and he took some other angels with him.
So before we came on the scene, you had these angels who had this free will who abused it, and they had a cosmic rebellion against God. Then you have God who creates Adam and Eve, and puts them in this idyllic place. Adam and Eve also chose to rebel against God. They had their own plan, and because of the satanic rebellion; because of the rebellion of Adam and Eve and the fact that they abused their free will, and because you and I continue to abuse our free will; we have consequences. Therefore, you have a tremendous amount of pain, evil, and suffering in the world, even within the cosmic realm, because of the rebellion of Satan, and because of the rebellion of mankind.
I don’t know many people, be it someone who is an atheist, agnostic, a Christian or Buddhist who would want God to take away our free will. What if I approached someone who said, “I don’t believe there’s a God.” Or, “Maybe there’s a God; maybe there’s not.” I said, “Okay, let me ask you a question: Do you think someone should pass a law banning abortion?” They would probably say, “No, I don’t think you should pass a law banning abortion. People should have the freedom to choose.” I would say, “The freedom to choose is basically to choose between two options. The freedom to choose means you can choose something that’s right, or something that’s wrong.” So for there to be free will, for God to allow us to have free will; there has to be the possibility that we can also choose in a negative way. So how did we get into this mess? It was both an Angelic and an Adamic free-will abuse, and we continue to abuse our free will today.
The second response God has to the problem as to why good people suffer is that suffering is a part of God’s plan. When the bottom fell out on Job’s life; when he lost his money, his savings, his job, his kids, his health; he didn’t know what was going on! But we know because we have the DVD, the director’s cut, right? We know that God said to Satan, “Hey! Have you ever thought about My man, Job?” We know that God, for some reason, allowed Job to go through intense, traumatic, horrific, hellacious suffering! Job was a good guy!
Sometimes suffering and pain we experience in our lives is because of our own consequences. We’re experiencing the consequences of abusing our free will, and doing what we know is wrong inside of our hearts; doing what we know is wrong as revealed by God’s Word. So there is suffering we experience because of consequences of sin.
Then there is another category of suffering we have for people in the United States that I call urban suffering. What is that? Well, urban suffering is, “The XM radio on my BMW X-5 is not working today! Why me, Lord?” That’s not real suffering; that’s urban suffering! Or, “My 72-inch flat screen’s gone out, and I want to watch the OU, UNC game! Why am I suffering?” That’s not it! “I’m having a bad hair day!” That’s not it either!
There is real suffering we experience in an urban context, whether it’s sickness, or rejection, or relational hurt and pain, or death, or losing our job. It’s real, but there’s another kind of suffering we see in Job where for some reason, our lives just seem to be destroyed all around us and broken into a million little pieces. Yet, Job knew in the midst of his brokenness that somehow God was with him! We can see that in the passage early on in Job 1:20 through 22. It says, “At this, Job got up, tore his robe, shaved his head, then fell to the ground in worship. And he said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. May the Name of the Lord be praised!’”
Job realized that yes, there was some kind of cosmic treason; Satan is real. Yes, there are free-will choices that human beings make that cause all kinds of evil, but he was saying what? Over and above this, there is a providential God who sees and allows everything to happen, and he says, “I can’t put it all together, these broken pieces of my life right now, but somehow I know, if there is a God, then He is the ultimate reality, and somehow, some way, God is working these things out! Somehow, God has allowed me to experience this loss, to experience this death, to experience this economic deprivation for a reason. It’s a part of His plan!”
This leads us to the third thing that God reveals to us about why good people suffer, and that is that suffering ultimately works out for the good. It ultimately works out for the good.
Augustine, the great 4th century philosopher, said basically that somehow, evil is assuaged by the ultimate goodness that God brings out of it.
Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good for those who love Him, and who have been called according to His purpose.”
That’s a very powerful verse that talks about the ultimate sovereignty, justice and mercy of God. I don’t recommend using that verse right away if you’re in the midst of your own brokenness right now, or someone you know has gone through a horrific time of suffering with illness, or they’ve lost a loved one, or they’ve had a ruptured relationship, or they’ve lost their job. Don’t just go up there and throw Romans 8:28 in their face! They may throw it right back at you, and they can call me up, and I’ll join them in throwing it back at you!
But in all that, when you work through the tunnel of darkness and chaos; when you start trying to put together the broken pieces of your life; you have to deal with the whole issue of the sovereignty of God, and is God the ultimate recycler? Is God going to somehow use all the evil, all the pain, all the hurt in a productive way? The Bible tells us ultimately that He will! That’s the good thing that happens if you feel like you have been treated unjustly, or someone has harmed you, or they have abused you! Listen…No one gets away with anything! The Bible clearly teaches that God is a just God, and vengeance is His, and He will give a pay-day some day for every single person who’s broken and abused His law; from the jay walker, all the way to the serial killers, okay? God is a just God. I also know that God, as we’ll talk about next Sunday, is a God who can somehow recycle and transform us in the middle of our pain and suffering.
Here is the problem I have with that last truth that God reveals to us, that things ultimately work out for the good. Please, emphasize, and italicize, and bold and highlight the word “ultimately.” In this realm, in the earth realm, and in our lifetimes, not everything is going to work out! Not all the pieces of the puzzle are going to fit. There are going to be some missing pieces. But ultimately, we worship a God, we believe, who sees the entire big picture, and we hold on by faith to Him.
Atheists have a problem with trying to figure out why good things and bad things happen to good people. Buddha, I believe, has a problem, and I think we have a problem too, and here is our problem: Our knowledge of God’s ultimate plan is extremely limited. Isaiah 55:8 says, “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord.” God’s thoughts, and God’s plans, and God’s ways are on a whole other level than where we are. God does not reveal to us very much about His ultimate plan.
If you can read the Book of Revelation and understand it—congratulations! I want to read your book and your commentary; but one thing I do know about the Book of Revelation is that God is just and merciful, and we win through Him! I know that! But there are a lot of the details of a lot of stuff going on right now, and things that have gone on in the past that I simply do not understand!
I do not see how God is going to recycle these things, but it says in His Word that He is… So there is a mystery there.
Years ago I was writing a book with a friend of mine—not the one I mentioned earlier. We were talking about the whole problem of evil and suffering, and we had this scenario that we were going to present to the publishers. The publisher got back to us, and we gave them the answer. One of the answers and the responses we have in Christianity is that there is a lot of mystery here.
The publisher said “Well, that’s not good enough!” We were like “Whatever…” Show me the answer! There is not an answer. There are responses… There is not an answer to the problem of why evil and suffering occur; but there are clues along the way. Colonel Mustard in the library with the rope, right? There are clues! Some great clues! I think Christianity answers that question better than any world view I know of and have seen to this point. But there is mystery there, and that’s okay… Do you want to worship a God who you can totally figure out? By the way, for those of you who are single; it’s always good to keep some mystery too when you’re dating. You need to have some mystery…Anyway, that’s a whole other subject. But mystery is a good thing! There is mystery here!
I play “What if” sometimes… What if God stepped down from His transcendence and kind of got down and dirty with us? What if God would come and get His feet dirty? Like the old 90’s songs—what if God was one of us, and would take a bus? What if He got splinters in his hand and kind of really understood what it’s like to live as a human being? What if God would do that? That would be great, wouldn’t it? I could love a God and like a God like that. I could…
How many of ya’ll remember the last film that Bruce Lee made before he died? Can you remember the name of that film? Yes—you’re exactly right! Enter the Dragon! Remember Bruce Lee? Quickest martial arts, kung-fu guy ever! You see all these diets on T.V. I want to know the Bruce Lee diet! The guy was shredded, and… Anyway! Enter the Dragon, right? Classic, epic, kung fu, martial arts smack down! Dragons! What do you do with a dragon within literature and medieval? What do you do with a dragon? You slay them, right? What does God do? God enters into planet earth. God becomes one of us. He experienced rejection; He experienced humiliation; He knows what it’s like to be tired; He knows what it’s like to cry out! He knows what it’s like to be lonely; He knows what it’s like to be tempted! He knows exactly what we’ve been through, and that Man is Jesus Christ!
That’s what Christmas is all about! We believe in the incarnation, the ultimate reality, the God who made and knows everything has not just talked philosophically about evil and suffering, and what it’s like. He has entered into time, space and history, and He died on a Cross to identify with you and me.
I like what Timothy Keller says, “The death of Jesus was qualitatively different from any other death.” That makes sense to us. If Jesus Christ really was God; then His death and life has much more impact than yours, mine, Napoleon, Abraham Lincoln, or whatever figures you want—Socrates, from history. “The death of Jesus was qualitatively different from any other death…The physical pain was nothing compared to the spiritual experience of cosmic abandonment. Christianity alone among the world religions claims God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore He knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture and imprisonment. On the Cross He went beyond the worst human suffering, and He experienced cosmic rejection and pain that exceeds ours infinitely as His knowledge and power exceeds our own.”
In the midst of brokenness, pain and suffering; we know we can go to a God who can relate to us! If you are going through a time in your life—the tunnel of chaos, and it’s dark and you feel broken; one of the main things you need is validation! Someone you can talk to, who can understand what you’re going through! Someone who is currently going through it, or someone possibly who has not only gone through it; they have gone through it and survived, and they have a smile on their face, and they’re still breathing, living and working! You want validation! Jesus Christ is our validation that God cares, and God is one with us in our brokenness and suffering.
On the Cross—enter the dragon, God’s kung fu! He takes something like a crucifixion—evil and death upon Him, and He turns the energy around—BOOM and makes it an instrument of life, forgiveness, empathy, and compassion, and He didn’t even have to use sub-titles or dubbing to do it!
God, I thank You that You’re a God who comes to us in the middle of our pain and suffering; in the middle of our questions. I thank You, Lord that we’re at different places here today. We have thousands of people here. Some doubt whether You are there. Some doubt, if You are there; do You really care? God, I thank You that Your Word tells us, “Come, let us reason together” not “Come, let us park our brains!” God, we don’t want to just talk about intellectual, philosophical answers, though they can be important at times God. We want to know that You know us, and we know that You do. We want to know that You care, and we know that You cared so much that You entered into time, space and history. You were slain as a dragon is slain, in our place, so that You could forgive us and bring us back to You, but also so You could know and we could have a sense of a mediator who knows what we’re going through right now! In Jesus name we pray, Amen.