Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Suffering and Tragedy

A few days ago I posted a video from John Piper with images from the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. The message clip was from Romans 8. In this clip Piper was teaching how God subjected creation to “futility” in order to give us a taste of His disdain for sin and to create a longing for the glory of eternity with Christ and the “redemption of our bodies”.

There was a very interesting comment from my good friend John regarding how it is we are to explain the intentional role God plays in suffering to a person who is an unbeliever/seeker. What a great question! Some of the scriptures which talk about God hardening hearts (Ex 9:13), creating objects of wrath prepared for destruction (Rom 9:22), or subjecting all of creation to futility (Rom 8:20) are hard to understand, even for the Christian and especially for the non-Christian. The following is my attempt to wrestle a bit with this issue.

I recognize that even among Christian’s God’s role in tragedy is debated. Some Christians profess that the only reason we are living under the curse is because God gave man a free will and man sinned. In other words the curse was not an act of the Father in response to our sin, but rather a chain reaction or “knee jerk” that just happened as result of sin. Genesis 3:17-19 shows that the “curse upon the earth” was the result of Adam’s sin; however, it is also clear in the text that God had an active role in initiating the curse. This is confirmed very clearly in Romans 8:20. So, if God’s participation in calamity is clearly articulated in the Bible, why do so many deny it? I believe the primary answer is because it doesn’t seem rational to believe that an all-loving God would subject his children to suffering. It is far more rational (and palatable) to say it is completely our own fault because of our sin. The only problem with this type of thinking is, it reduces God to a state of helplessness and passivity that is contrary to what we read about Him in the scriptures.

So why did God subject all of creation to futility? This is a very difficult question to answer. Unfortunately when we study the Bible we find many realities about God that are difficult to understand. Take for example…
  1. How can God be 3 and also 1? The Trinitarian nature of God is enforced throughout the scriptures and is a complete mystery. To believe He is only one being is rational, and to believe he is three independent beings is also rational. Despite these realities, the scriptures give us no choice but to believe that which is irrational, He is both three and one.
  2. How can God be sovereign while also giving man a choice in His salvation? Romans 9 teaches that God creates some people to live eternally with him and others to be condemned to hell. Romans 10 teaches that people have the ability to choose salvation by faith. So which is it? Is God sovereign or is man responsible? To choose either one independent of the other would be a very rational thing to do; however, the scriptures don’t give us that option. We must believe that which is humanly irrational, namely that God is sovereign and man is responsible.
As we parallel these cases with the topic at hand, we can understand how for God, tragedy is both the exertion of His will and the result of sin.

If I was speaking with an unbeliever I would probably start by explaining the role sin had in the fall of humanity and the curse all creation is now living under. I would then explain how the scriptures teach that God also initiates and works through tragedy for several reasons. Here are a few…
  1. God’s glory is magnified in the depths of suffering. It is like the consonance and dissonance in a beautiful music composition. The resolution is made more beautiful when shown in contrast to dissonance.
  2. Suffering illustrates how desperately we need restored fellowship with God and how this restoration will one day be fully realized in all of creation by those who trust in Him.
  3. For the believer, suffering is actually an act by which we are refined in our faith. (James 1:2)
  4. As Piper taught, suffering illustrates for us the way our sin grieves the heart of God. Our response to this grief should be to surrender to the awesome and matchless grace of Jesus which removes our sin from us and clothes us in the righteousness of Christ.
In closing, I want to remind all of us where the scriptures lead us after considering the mysteries of God. Romans 11:33-36 says “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”

* I understand that this is not a comprehensive discussion on the subject of tragedy and suffering. Please feel free to leave your thoughts or comments regarding this issue.


Greg Mazunik said...

good thoughts, my brother.

i think unbelievers can be frustrated with knee-jerk responses from well-meaning christians that sound reductionistic and unsympathetic (e.g. "it's all part of God's plan", "the Lord works in mysterious ways"). i think your responses to tragedy are great explanations that can help frame the biblical teachings on the purposes of suffering.

i also liked piper's response to rabbi kushner's radio interview on the 35W tragedy. i'm sure you've checked it out, but if anyone hasn't, here ya go:

Greg Mazunik said...

here's a better version of the link: