She was five, and her question was sincere, “Dad, God doesn’t want us to get hurt, right?” Her father, my friend, responded, “God loves you. He keeps you from being hurt.” This thought struck me because days earlier the toddler of a famous Christian musician was run over by a car. Sadly, forever sadly, the little girl died. Now, I don’t think my friend was wrong in telling his little girl that God keeps us safe; the little girl is five, and that’s decent theology for a five year old. But that is horrible theology for the rest of life.
The right statement, the theologically correct and painful answer is, “Jesus doesn’t always keep us from being hurt, but He is always with us in the hurt. Jesus will let you suffer.” When we turn Jesus’ primary concern into protecting our comfort and comforting our expectations, He is not Jesus anymore. He just a character formed in our imaginations.
I think Jesus answers the little girl’s question as He deals with the suffering and death of His friend, Lazarus. In John 11, Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, sent word to Jesus about their brother’s worsening condition—fully confident of Jesus’ care and capabilities, knowing Jesus would rush to Lazarus’ side healing him as Jesus had so many other people. Jesus crushed that confidence and hope with His delay, letting hope turn to despair, letting sickness turn to death.
This is not pretty. This is difficult. While God didn’t create suffering He will allow it. I tangled with this idea, and the reality of the suffering in my life, through my college years. It wasn’t until seminary that I began to embrace a God that allows suffering while loving us in it. One of my professors, a jolly, huggable type, lectured on these things daily. He was brilliant, teaching from a foundation of logic, philosophy, and scripture. He said God grants human freedom, and with freedom comes the possibility of human choice, and with human choice comes the possibility of choosing evil and causing suffering … which we did in the beginning and inevitably do now.
Due to Adam and Eve’s initial act of rebellion (the apple incident) this world operates in a fallen imperfect state, so we end up with a world with natural disasters and horrible accidents. We rage with God over these horrors … but only have ourselves to blame. Ever since the apple incident ,humanity is born into a state of sin, a state of living in opposition to God, a state of making decisions that can cause suffering. Remember, none of this was God’s original design. He created a peaceful, perfect world. We tainted it with our desire for independence.
I used to wrestle with the idea that God could’ve created a world where the possibility of evil didn’t exist, and thus suffering would never enter the human experience—that would be a world without true freedom. I’m not sure we can come to a resounding conclusion over this thought, but I think, perhaps, an evil greater than man’s rebellion would be for a good God to withhold freedom from His creation. And suffering becomes inevitable in a world where imperfect people aren’t robots.
The professor also said that God doesn’t desire to bring about His purposes in this world through suffering, but when people choose evil and cause suffering God is willing to use it for His purposes and our good. As my small mind processed and began to believe those truths I came to terms with the suffering in this world and with the pain in my life.
I imagine Lazarus and his sisters were consumed with doubt and confusion for those two days: Where is the man who loves us so dearly? Jesus’ delay is a clear statement to all of humanity that He will let us suffer—He will delay coming, delay rescuing us. God is not primarily in the business of preventing pain in the lives of His children.
I don’t like the evils that plague our world – the sickness and abuse and cruelty. And while I don’t pretend to know the answer for every evil under the sun I do know that God is not blind. God sees our suffering. “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. ‘Where have you laid him?’ he asked. ‘Come and see, Lord,’ they replied. Jesus wept.” (John 11:33-35, italics mine).
Jesus ordered for the stone to be rolled away. The end of the story is more comforting than the beginning. The dead man, still wrapped in strips of linen, walked out of the grave. A new man. Rescued.
Don’t let His silence or delay confuse you about His goodness. There is no suffering in which Jesus will not walk and weep with you. There is no hurt the power of God can’t bring new life to. In the proper time Jesus will make His way to your tomb, roll the stone away, and bring life to the dead. And the tears formed from mourning and doubt will flow with joy and gratitude.
Russ Masterson is a husband, father, child, friend, and pastor in Atlanta. He also teaches, through microphones and keyboards, and blogs at http://www.liesioverheardinchurch.com/.