Thursday, October 07, 2004

Is Suffering Part of God's Plan?

Here’s my take on the much-debated issue of healing and suffering in the Christian life which I wrote some time ago. It sort of captures the inspiration behind this blog.

First of all, we believe in a good God who wants the best for us. There is no doubt about that as Jeremiah 29:11 very clearly promises, “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” God loves us – His very own handiwork and creation, which he fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14) that He gave His only begotten son to die on the cross for our sins (John 3:16). However, I’ll like to go one step further to say that God loves us so much that His passion for us does not stop at the work on the cross. God loves us too much than to give us a life on this temporary earth that is smooth sailing; akin to a bed of roses. I’ll also like to clarify that I am no sado-masochist who likes to suffer and see others suffer. However, I deem suffering an essential aspect of living a victorious life on earth.

Yes, suffering was not part of God’s original created order (Gen 1-2). There was no suffering in the world before humanity turned and rebelled against God. Moreover, we can also be comforted to hear that there will no longer be any suffering when God creates a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21). "…Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." Suffering only entered this world because Adam and Eve sinned.

Now we may ask that if we believe in an omnipotent God, and if suffering is a result of sin, then why did he allow the intrusion of sin into a world that was originally intended to be Utopia?

God did so because he loves us and wanted to give us free will. As we know, love is not love if it is forced. If I like a girl, I cannot force her to love me. There will be no love! Love can only be a result of choice. Thus, God gave human beings the choice and freedom to love or not to love. Given this freedom from the all-loving Father, men and women have chosen to break God’s laws, and the result has been suffering.

Some of the suffering we endure is a result of our own sin. God made a world built on moral foundations and there is a natural connection between sin and its consequences. If a person smokes, we all know that he can end up with obstructive lung disease. If someone drives a car recklessly and gets involved in an accident, his injuries are partially a result of his sin. Similarly, selfishness, greed, lust, arrogance and foul temper often destroy relationships and stir up unhappiness.

Sometimes God actively judges sin in this life. The great flood was God’s punishment for a gravely sinful world. “The Lord saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.” (Genesis 6:5-6). Similarly, sexual immorality was not God’s intention (but note that he allowed Man the free will to do as he wished), and he wiped out the promiscuous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah with rain of burning sulfur as divine punishment. There are countless times in the Old Testament that God judged and castigated nations and individuals for their sin.

At this juncture, we may wonder if all this discussion of Old Testament evidence is anachronistic. One may say that the very fact that Jesus died on the cross for our sins has brought a whole new dimension to the idea of suffering as a consequence of sin. Yes indeed, Isaiah 53:5 proclaims that he (Jesus) was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. However, I would say that it is rather parochial for us to say that just because the blood Jesus shed on the cross washes away our sins, that removes suffering from the equation, and as a result all sin can be attributed to the detestable works of Satan. Let us realize that our omnipotent God has every power to stop Satan from wreaking havoc and dishing out suffering to His children, but above all He chooses not to for a good reason which I shall later explain.

It is important to stress that not all suffering is the direct result of our own sin. Job’s friends, Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar were quick to judge that Job’s suffering was a result of his sin, but Job 1:1 clearly dispels this possibility,”…This man was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” In fact, in the end God not only exonerated Job (Job 42:7-8), but also gave him double of what he initially had (cross ref Job 1:3 and Job 42:12). Jesus himself repudiated the automatic link between sin and suffering (John 9:1-3). He also pointed out that natural disasters are not necessarily a form of punishment of God (Luke 13:1-5).

Much of the suffering in the world is a result of other people’s sin. Take for example the innocent man who was run over by a drunk driver. The remaining suffering can be attributed to the fact that we live in a fallen world: a world where all creation has been affected by the sin of human beings. It is the result of Adam and Eve’s sin that ‘thorns and thistles’ entered the world (Gen 3:18). Ever since, creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:20)


Now then, why does God allow suffering?

Let us remember first that in ALL things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). Personally, I feel that the emphasis in this commonly quoted verse should be the word ‘all’. ‘All’ refers to both the GOOD AND BAD, for better or for worse, health or illness, times of joy or sorrow, life or death. Many people often interpret this verse in the way that they like to hear it: that God only wants the good for us who are living out His purpose. However, have you ever considered that the God could have allowed a baby who has yet to even see the world die in the arms of his distraught mother?

I’ll like to share with you the story of Jeremy, the baby son of a one of my dad’s good friends. When Jeremy was only 1 month old, he died in hospital of pneumonia. Now Jeremy’s parents were not Christians, but in their desperation to get their dying son healed, they turned to my dad with requests for prayer. My dad obliged and even got a pastor to go down to the ICU to pray for the child. Alas, God’s plan was not for Jeremy to live. Two days later, Jeremy died cyanotic due to the excessive fluid that had accumulated in his lungs. What good would come out of this? A week later, Jeremy’s parents gave their lives to the Lord Jesus. At Jeremy’s funeral wake, his dad gave a heart-rending testimony. He also noted that Jeremy (Jeremiah) was the weeping prophet in the Bible, and that his only purpose on earth was to get his parents saved. An amazing testimony that came from the mouth of a father whose child had just died days ago! Now you discern whether suffering (or allowing suffering) was the plan of God in this instance.

Times of failure and suffering are periods when we learn to depend on God. Can you imagine a world in which everything is in perfect order; one without pain, failures and setbacks? There would be absolutely no need for a God in such a world! People would be self-reliant, and if there’s anyone they would worship it would be themselves (self-worship). God knows too well the egotistic tendencies of sinful Man to grant us a pain-free and failure-free world. He wants us to love and depend on Him by choice just as He loves us unconditionally. Thus, He knows better than to create the barrier of self-sufficiency between himself and us. Proverbs 3:5-6 exhorts us to “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.” The words ‘lean’ and ‘acknowledge’ are extremely important here as they emphasize dependence on God’s infinite wisdom rather than our own, and recognition of God’s hand in every aspect of our lives. All of us are innately proud beings. In Genesis 11, the people said, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth." The Tower of Babel was meant to be the hallmark of human hubris. The pride of Man had gotten to him and he wanted to build a structure (with his own strength and wisdom) that would reach the heavens, thereby putting him on equal footing with God. God immediately sensed the danger in allowing Man to speak a common language, and knowing that it would be an absolute disaster if he was allowed to think that everything in this world is under his control, God deliberately confused the languages, preventing the construction of the tower. As such, it is evident that God will do all that He deems necessary to teach us to rely on Him.

Pain as God’s mode of communication

Pain is something God uses to get our attention. C.S. Lewis once wrote, ”God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains… it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Truly, as Christians, we often get lulled into a sense of complacency once we break into the mundane cycle of life. We focus on God’s blessings in this and that and lose sight of our purpose here on earth. Worse still, when everything seems to fall in place nicely, we forget to lean on His wisdom to guide us in our daily lives, trusting instead in our own human insight and judgment. (I remember the pastor of a church embroiled in controversy here in Singapore telling the media that he built up the ministry through sheer grit, hard work and wise planning. Notably, there was no mention of God.)

John Donne was a 17th century poet who found himself listening to the megaphone of pain. An angry father-in-law got him fired from his job and blackballed from a career in law. In desperation, he turned to the church and began to serve as an Anglican priest. But the year after he took his first parish job, his wife died, leaving him with 7 children. A few years later, in 1623, he was diagnosed with the bubonic plague. In the midst of this illness, Donne wrote a series of devotions on suffering. As the years went by, Donne’s paradigm shifted from that of self-pity to the stark realization that the periods of sharpest suffering are the very occasions of spiritual growth. Trials had purged sin and developed character; poverty had taught him dependence on God and cleansed him of greed; failure and public disgrace had helped worldly ambition. Pain could be transformed and even redeemed. In the course of his years of affliction, he has much time for prayer. Through it all, he learned humility, trust, gratitude and faith. He began to realize that his life even in his bedridden state was not meaningless. He directed his energy toward spiritual growth and got his mind of himself and onto others. Devotions records a seismic shift in his attitude toward pain. He began with prayers that pain be removed but he ended with prayers that pain be redeemed, that he be catechized by affliction. Such redemption might take the form of miraculous cure – he still hoped so – but even if it did not, God could take a molten ingot and through the refiner’s fire of suffering make it pure gold. Truly, God puts us through life’s crucible of trials and tribulations so that we will emerge from the fire of suffering cleansed and purified of all our inadequacies; better equipped for life in eternity.

At this juncture let us realise that while throughout his ministry on earth Jesus never denied anyone healing; he used his supernatural powers to heal and never to punish, and though miracles of healing were crowd-pleasers, he refused to make them the centerpiece of his ministry. More than anything, he used physical healing as ‘signs’ of some deeper truth. At times Jesus seemed almost reluctant to intervene, telling the disciples he performed the signs only because there was a need to. Often, he hushed up the spreading talk about his miracles. At times, Jesus deliberately chose not to intervene with the natural order of things, for example by not calling on angels to deliver him from his most painful hour.

In his Gold Medallion-winning book “Where Is God When It Hurts?” Philip Yancey recounts attending a funeral service for a teenage girl killed in a car accident. Her mother wailed, ”The Lord took her home. He must have some purpose… Thank you, Lord.” This incident made him reflect on sick Christians who agonize over the question, “What is God trying to teach me?”, or plead, “How can I find enough faith to get rid of this illness? How can I get God to rescue me?” He quips that maybe such people have it all wrong. Maybe God isn’t trying to tell us anything specific each time we hurt. Pain and suffering are part and parcel of our planet, and Christians are not exempt. Half the time we know why we fall ill: too little exercise, a poor diet, contact with germs. Thus, do we expect God to go around protecting us whenever we encounter something dangerous?

I’ll shall continue to explain why although in Luke 13:16 Jesus made it plain that Satan directly causes suffering as in the case of the crippled woman “…Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?", our sovereign God is the one who allows Satan to inflict the suffering so that His higher purposes may be fulfilled.

In John 9, Jesus refutes the traditional explanation of suffering. When the disciples asked him if the blind man could not see because he had sinned or he was born blind because of the sins of his parents, Jesus replied, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned…but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” The Message translation puts it more clearly, “You’re asking the wrong question. You’re looking for someone to blame. There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.” Note however that this does not mean that God allows all cases of suffering in this world so that in each and every one of these instances He can manifest His work through supernatural healing. Neither is it an act of doubting God’s ability to heal or His loving nature if we say that there are instances when chooses not to heal but to manifest his work in other ways. It would be narrow-minded and in fact fallacious for us to presume that our omnipotent and omniscient God can only display His work through the act of physical healing. Isaiah 55:9 says, "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God in His infinite wisdom works in ways beyond our own finite understanding. Thus, I conclude that sometimes, as with the man born blind, the work of God is manifest through dramatic miracle. Sometimes it is NOT. But in every case, suffering offers an opportunity for us to display God’s work.

We need to humble ourselves in our times of suffering to accept God’s greater purpose in our life rather than presumptuously and petulantly demand God’s healing by taking Him to task with His very own promises in the Bible. No doubt God never breaks His promises, but where in the Bible did he promise healing here on this earth? Our healing will come in due time, be it in this temporary life or in eternity (Rev 21 as quoted earlier). There is nothing fundamentally wrong with having faith for healing here and now, but I dare to say that we are losing sight of the big picture (ie. the reason why God has strategically placed us here) if we choose to obsess our minds with promises such as that by His stripes we are healed and by our faith we are healed. Why should the focus be on claiming God’s promises here when much more awaits us in eternity? 2 Cor 1:20-22 (KJV) says, “He carries out and fulfills all of God's promises, no matter how many of them there are; and we have told everyone how faithful he is, giving glory to his name. It is this God who has made you and me into faithful Christians and commissioned us apostles to preach the Good News. He has put his brand upon us--his mark of ownership--and given us his Holy Spirit in our hearts as guarantee that we belong to him and as the first instalment of all that he is going to give us.” Shouldn’t we focus not on what is seen but what is unseen? “For what is seen is temporary but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Cor 4:18) Go ahead and ask God for healing. Even I do that. As I have shared before, the fact that I am sitting here writing this is a testimony of Jehovah Rophe’s healing touch; I was miraculously saved from the brink of death 12 years ago when I came down with a bout of dengue haemorrhagic fever. I was also cured of the nasty affliction of atopic eczema in 1996. However, I cannot say that I enjoy perfect health today, and if God does not heal me it is not due to a lack of faith on my part. I accept my suffering as part of my humble service to God for I know that when I am ultimately promoted to heaven, I will be made whole and perfect. There will no longer be any suffering. As for now, I gratefully thank God that I have hands and legs, the gift of speech and life so that I may be a living testimony of His goodness, which is no less than perfect even if one of my legs is shorter than the other.

The life of Joni Eareckson is one that has inspired me greatly. Joni was a lively Christian teenager who loved outdoor activities. In the summer of 1967, she was paralysed neck down in a freak diving accident. From that fateful moment, her life was changed. She could no longer live the active life she enjoyed. At first, she found it impossible to reconcile her condition with her belief in a loving God. It took three years of tears and violent questioning to change her attitude from one of bitterness to one of trust. She once said, “I have hope for the future now. The Bible speaks of our bodies being ‘glorified’ in heaven. In high school that always seemed a hazy foreign concept to me. But now I realise that I will be healed. I haven’t been cheated out of being a complete person – I’m just going through a forty- or fifty-year delay, and God stays with me even through that. I now know the meaning of being ‘glorified’. It’s the time, after my death here, when I’ll be on my feet dancing.” This was such a poignant reflection of the highest order of faith that I could feel tears welling in my eyes when I read it.

At first Joni received a flood of letters urging her to pray for healing, or berating her lack of faith. She did pray for healing, of course. In the summer of 1972, after an intimate service of healing, she became convinced that in the next few weeks her spinal cord would miraculously regenerate. However, it did not turn out that way, and in her books Joni explains why she came to the conclusion that she would not receive physical healing. She now calls the accident a ‘glorious intruder’ and claims it was the best thing that ever happened to her. God used it to get her attention and direct her thoughts towards him. Apart from the accident, she says, she would have lived a typical middle-class life: aimless, comfortable, with two divorces under her belt now. The injury changed all that. Over time, God’s grace in Joni’s life became so evident that she now stands as an emblem strong enough to silence puerile arguments about faith. Does a lack of healing mean lack of faith? But what about Joni Eareckson Tada? Moreover, Joni has become a striking demonstration of transformed or ‘redeemed’ suffering. Today, Joni directs a ministry called “Joni and Friends” that sponsors conferences and seminars, and funds worthy projects for the disabled. Her powerful testimony has brought hope to the disabled and enlightenment to those who are not.

Is a lack of healing a result of little faith?

I’ll now like to address the question having sufficient faith for healing. Once, at a tutorial group outing, I got engaged in a lively debate with a classmate who highlighted to me many verses in the Bible about grace, faith, redemption and healing. Please do not get me wrong. I am a firm advocate of the Word of God and I believe that it contains the gems of truth that will undoubtedly set us free from the wages of sin to live a victorious Christian life - one worthy to be called a servant of God. During the discussion, it was argued (in a rather misguided way I feel) that Christians who did not receive physical healing failed to do so either because of a lack of faith or insufficient faith to claim the promises of healing made in the Bible.

First of all, it is important to note that there are Christians dying every second. If we all wait long enough, whether people are Christians or not, the ratio of births to deaths is 1:1. That is a cold, hard fact! It is absurd for a church which believes in the Prosperity Gospel to say that there are more marriages than deaths in the church. All over the world, many people who trust Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour are suffering from infirmity. This includes pastors and church leaders too. When we talk of a lack of faith and a lack of healing as a cause and effect thing, are we saying that some of our pastors and evangelists are suffering because of a lack of faith? This sounds like a totally ludicrous notion to me, for who then can profess to have enough faith? It is most certainly not a case of I was healed, and thus ipso facto, I had sufficient faith. Faith is not a measurable quantity. Can we imagine God with this instrument for measuring the quantity ‘faith’ and after substituting the value of ‘faith’ as a function of healing, He carefully determines who has enough faith to deserve healing? How about the Buddhist, atheist or pagan who was healed? Does that go to say that they had more faith than the pastor of Faith Assembly of God Church Simon Loh who died of SARS as a result of ministering to a victim? Or does Buddha have the power to heal the devotee who burned stacks of incense as an offering?

It does not require much more than a logical mind to reason out that faith and healing cannot be as loosely associated as many make it out to be. God is a faithful God who loves us and hates to see us suffer. We can draw assurance from Psalm 111:7, “The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy,” and 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” Yes, indeed our God is faithful and just. The promise that we receive immediately upon confessing that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Saviour is: we will not perish but have eternal life. If God intended that every single believer to be physically healed upon receiving salvation, John 3:16 would instead have read "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not suffer but receive healing.” However, we all know that that is blasphemy. We cannot extrapolate a promise of physical healing from Christ’s work on the cross. When God’s own perfect time for us comes, no matter what suffering we may have gone through in this ephemeral world, we will be restored to wholeness. Echoing what Joni Eareckson said, we will be dancing for joy in heaven, enjoying rewards for having run a good race for the Kingdom of God despite all the trials and tribulations that hindered us.

Finally, healing is a certainty for all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as our Saviour. However, Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us that “there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” God never promised that we’ll be granted physical healing here and now when we are under heaven, but he did promise that in due time “He will wipe every tear from their (our) eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." (Revelation 21:4). I find it saddening that many people who truly love God with so much fervour would constantly deceive themselves that they MUST be physically healed because the Bible speaks at great length about Jesus’ healing miracles and the redemption on the cross. It is all the more tragic when people bewilder themselves with the notion that failure to receive God’s healing touch is a result of having insufficient faith. God will never test us beyond what we can bear. He loves us, the darlings of His creation, too much to see us suffer. However, I will do no more than to assure you that in our times of pain He cries and feels for us. We must constantly bear in mind that He knows what He is doing and that it is part of His greater plan for us; far beyond what the human mind can perceive. Let us thus remember that whether we are healed now, tomorrow or in heaven; we are all going to be made perfect eventually. The greatest concern of ours on this earth should not be on how much God can bless us, but rather how much we can be a blessing to others, for Jesus said in Matthew 10:8, “… Freely you have received, freely give.” Truly, faith is believing in what is unseen and living life with the knowledge and assurance that the greatest reward awaits us in heaven.

This old but meaningful song “In His Time” encapsulates the gist of what I’ve said.

In His time
In His time
He makes all things beautiful
In His time
Lord my life to you I bring
May each song I have to sing
Be to You a lovely thing
In Your time

In Your time
In Your time
You makes all things beautiful
In Your time
Lord please show me every day
As You're teaching me Your way
And I'll do just what You say
In Your time

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