Isaiah 45: 5-7 (NKJV)
I am the Lord, and there is no other; There is no God besides Me. I will gird you, though you have not known Me, that they may know from the rising of the sun to its setting That there is none besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; I form the light and create darkness, I make peace and create calamity; I, the Lord, do all these things.’
Ecclesiastes 9: 11-12
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.
John 11: 1-6
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
We begin another series on questions with a look at one of the most difficult questions I personally struggle with as a person of faith. Why does God allow disease, or more widely, why does God choose not to answer prayers when there is no reason for God not to want to help? Why do we not see people immediately healed of disease or injury when we lay hands on them? Why, in a word, is there suffering in a world with a good and infinite God?
I begin by saying that we do not have enough time to fully exhaust this question. There are people who have devoted their entire life to writing on this single question, and they have not come to a satisfying conclusion. We definitely are not going to come to a full examination of the problem of suffering in just the fifteen or twenty minutes we look at it today. However, I think we can start to understand the ways we can think about it and what each perspective can tell us about God.
The first perspective, one that I find completely unsatisfying, is the idea that Isaiah puts forward in our scripture for today. Isaiah wrote his prophecy at a time when a great deal of suffering was around him. Babylon had conquered and the people of God wanted answers. For some, the narrative coming out of Babylon that Nebuchadnezzar’s God had succeeded in conquering Israel’s God was compelling. Maybe the God of Abraham had been defeated, maybe they suffered because their divine patron was defeated or even worse, maybe that patron was dead.
Isaiah is clear that suffering is not the fault of some foreign divinity. There is no power in Heaven except for God. This means, from Isaiah’s perspective, that if anyone caused Judah to fall, it had to have been the God of Judah. In other words, God causes both the good and the bad in the universe. God heals the sick and also causes their sickness in the first place.
This idea is found a few places in scripture, but it is not a universe or undeniable truth. In modern belief, it is mostly a Calvinist idea that disease is caused by God directly. I have in my hand here a book that was sent to me, randomly, by John Piper’s ministry “Desiring God,” at the start of the Pandemic. In it, Piper alleges that while we cannot speculate as to what will happen during a pandemic, God controls it. Some people will get sick as punishment, some because God has allowed it to happen, and some for reasons no one can know. I don’t like this book. I do not think God sends disease to make us learn or suffer, and I think putting the full responsibility for suffering on God’s head, while reassuring to some, does nothing for me.
A second perspective in scripture as to why people suffer is found in Ecclesiastes, and it speaks to me as a more likely explanation of most trouble we face. The race of life is not to the best equipped person or the strongest or the kindest, but simply to how random chance positions us. I might not get sick from something that makes someone just like me sick. I might not hydroplane and crash a car while the vehicle next to me will. There does not have to be a deeper meaning to these bad events than that they happened. The problem with this, of course, is that it makes God a passive participant in history. If God is just sitting around seeing what happens, then what is the point?
A third perspective comes from John, where Jesus looks at the sickness and death of Lazarus as a means by which God’s glory can be shown to the world. This is similar to how John Piper presented things. God brings sickness and healing both as a testimony to how powerful God is on one hand and good God is on the other. I am not about to argue with Jesus, but I think that Lazarus specifically was an example of something happening so that God could show who Jesus was, and not so much that all suffering and death is just an example that God can use to show off. I don’t want a God who sees me as a chance to flex, I want a God who shows me love.
Now, those are three different perspectives, and I hope that each has shown you that there is no one answer that scripture gives about why there is suffering. More than just these, there are hundreds of stories that describe these conflicts in their own terms. Sometimes God is seen as being behind trouble, sometimes as being the remedy to something that nature or humanity has caused apart from God. Sometimes God highlights the moment as a chance to show the glory and love of Heaven and sometimes it seems to just be a thing that happened and that someone wrote down.
Job, having faced all the trouble in the world despite never doing anything to deserve it asked God hundreds of different ways why things happened the way they did. God looked down and showed Job that he was capable of taking care of things, not to worry, and even that did not satisfy Job. Job, like we often do, stopped questioning and started trusting, but he never says that he is satisfied with the lack of an answer. He repents of sack cloth and ashes, but not of questioning. In fact, God lifts Job up and says that he alone, among all those who speak throughout the book, honored God in questioning how a good God could allow so much trouble.
I’ll make things a bit more personally. My wife is chronically ill. Grace suffers from severe arthritis, persistent migraines, and a variety of other ailments that sometimes seem to have no end in sight and no obvious cause. She suffers so much pain and discomfort, so many nights of lost sleep and days of lost potential, and nothing seems to fix it. Treatment helps, but the thing about chronic illness is that there will never be a moment that it just gets fixed, where the trouble just disappears. I have prayed fervently for something to happen, asked for miracle after miracle. Still, she suffers pain, still she loses sleep, still I am left raging at a God who seems to be unwilling to move on behalf of someone so sick and so in pain.
I do not know why my prayers go unanswered. I do know, however, that God is not ignoring me. Beyond any abstract feeling of being heard, I know that God is on my side and by Grace’s side. Her pain is not ignored because God felt pain just like hers. I will be honest with you today and say that I can only continue on in my faith, only stand up and proclaim the Gospel like I do, because the questions and uncertainties, the various perspectives of pain that scripture express, are given something tangible and powerful in the person of Jesus Christ.
Our final scripture, from Philippians, is my favorite passage in the entire Bible. Here Paul recounts a hymn older than the New Testament itself. Jesus Christ, existent from the beginning and in very nature God, did not see fit to stay in the perfection of Heaven and the power of the Godhead. Instead, Christ took on human form and suffered with us. Christ felt the heat of a fever, the pain of bruises, and the awful pain of physical injury. Christ felt all sickness and all pain so that God could never let someone go unhealed without having felt the exact same thing they are left to suffer. I cannot give you a completely satisfying answer to why sickness is allowed to continue, but I can tell you that Christ is with us as we go through it.
We continue to pray for healing, and we trust in God to bring it. We know that God is in control somehow, even when we do not see our prayers answered like we would like or in the way we might. We know that God can show the glory of Heaven in our sickness and our Health. We know all this, not because of sheer force of real or ignorance to the reality of suffering, but because Jesus Christ came and lived and suffered among us. I may not understand why sickness has to continue on earth, why pain is allowed to reign in our life, but I know that God signed on to suffer alongside us in the midst of it all. It does not make everything instantly better just to acknowledge that, but it shows what God is willing to do to be with us and to show us God’s love. It may not make every question go away, but it is good enough for me. – Amen.