The Last Chapter: The Biggest Problem

John Stott* cites the story of Joseph Parker [1830-1902], an English Congregational minister who was consumed with the desire to preach God’s word to as many people as he could.  Parker would draw thousands of people to his evangelistic events in the days before microphones.  It was said that he was on fire for God.  Yet at the age of sixty-eight after many years of working for the Lord, his faith collapsed; his wife died and “in that dark hour I became almost an atheist.”

What happened?

Suffering…

Stott saves the idea of suffering in God’s world for the last chapter of his book The Cross of Christ.  “The fact of suffering constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith…. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair.  Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love” [303].

It is very confusing to most new Christians who have given their lives to Christ.  There is such promise for a wonderful future with God as our Savior but Christians soon find they are not immune from hard times.  I remember wondering why I had such challenging events in my life after I was “born again.”**   I remember seeking answers from Harold Kushner in his book  When Bad Things Happen to Good People.    The topic here is referred to as theodicy, the role of a Divine God in a world where evil exists.  For many, this complex topic breaks down to either God wants to stop suffering but He cannot, or He chooses not to.

Either option is hard to understand.  God is supposed to be all-powerful; He created our universe and He governs the world.   He is supposed to have a loving nature.  Yet when we listen to the daily news, the world He created has so much suffering and pain and evil. 

The last chapter in The Cross of Christ is entitled “Suffering and Glory” and Stott’s object in the chapter is to “explore what relation there might be between the cross of Christ and our sufferings.”

By way of introduction, Stott mentions four “standard arguments” that try to explain God’s role in suffering.

First is the idea that suffering is an “alien intrusion” into a world that God intends to be good.  Evil is satanic, a direct attack from the Devil.   The book of Job illustrates this point of view very well as Job is attacked by a vindictive Satan who wants to test one believer’s faith. 

Secondly is the idea that suffering is a direct result of sin.  Sometimes the sin is our responsibility as we choose to abuse our freedom and we engage in harmful acts.  At other times sin is inflicted upon us as drunk drivers come across the center line, unloving parents abuse us, or cruel policies of aggressor nations inflict casualties on the innocent.  Again in the book of Job, Job’s friends attribute his suffering to his personal sins even though in the balance of the book, that idea is repudiated.

The third explanation is the whole idea of suffering can be explained by our sensitivity to pain.  Of course we live lives where we experience physical or emotional pain.  The idea is that suffering is a wonderful Godly creation because it warns us of impending danger.   We need it for personal and social survival.  If something hurts, the idea is we need to stay away from it.  Physical and emotional pain protect us from harm.

The last standard argument explaining the role of pain in the world is that it comes about because of the environment in which God has placed us.  In this viewpoint, almost all human suffering is brought about due to human sin, but not all.  What about hurricanes, flood, earthquakes and drought?  Today there is increasing scientific evidence that natural disasters are occurring more frequently and at much greater intensity due to human ecological irresponsibility but what happens when ordinary folks suffer due to natural disaster?  They go on living where they are and they don’t move.  They are the true innocents.  They have no “ecological responsibility;” they just suffer.

The problem with many of these standard arguments is that we want a society where we are free from suffering.  Stott cites C.S. Lewis who advocates that we need a “neutral” world where we can have a fixed nature and we can act freely toward other men and toward God.  I find it interesting that Stott rebuts this idea with the words “If we lived in a world in which God prevented every evil from happening…free and responsible activity would be impossible” [306].

This leaves us with four standard explanations and the feeling that none of them are adequate.   Jesus spoke of suffering as being for God’s glory.  He suffered so that the work of God might be displayed, but who really wants to go through suffering so that God can get the glory? 

So what is the relationship between Christ’s suffering and ours?  How does the pain I have felt in my life relate to the cross? 

As we finish commenting on The Cross of Christ in chapter thirteen, Stott posits six possible answers “from the simplest to the most sublime” [306].

In my next post, we will consider the idea of patient endurance.***

*From his book  The Cross of Christ

**a personal example is six years ago; I fell from a ten foot ladder, breaking my pelvis into several pieces.  As I had three months to recuperate, I spent many hours considering “why me?”

***This post is late.  I spent the week with my son in Memphis Tn., helping him work at his home.  All of the work I normally do for the church has been delayed.  Sorry…

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