Andy Stanley - Why Is There Suffering In The World?
So, I think C.S. Lewis was spot-on when he wrote these famous words. He wrote: "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain". And then, for the next few minutes, I wanna talk about how he completes this thought. You may have read this before. It is talking about pain. Pain "is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world".
And maybe that's your story. You were goin' along, kinda minding your own business, you hadn't given God a thought in maybe many years, or maybe ever, and then you got that call, you felt that pain, you got that bad news, you realized your life would never be the same again. And you found yourself looking up and then you found yourself face to face with a God you'd never believed in before, that perhaps you had abandoned in childhood and you'd been believing ever since that pain was in fact the megaphone that got your attention.
Or maybe your story is the opposite of that. Pain in the world, or maybe personal suffering, caused you to doubt God, it's the thing that caused you to lose faith. Isn't it interesting that people with identical experiences, or near-identical experiences, can arrive at different conclusions about faith and God when it comes to their experience with pain? That's what I wanna talk about for the next few minutes.
Now, you may be familiar with this name. Admiral Jim Stockdale. Admiral Jim Stockdale. Admiral Jim Stockdale actually ran for Vice President back in the '90s but what he's most famous for was he was a POW during the Vietnam War. He was actually a Vice Admiral in the Navy. And he was the highest ranking, this is amazing, he was the highest-ranking United States military officer to be imprisoned in the Hanoi Hilton prisoner-of-war camp during the Vietnam War. In fact, he was a POW for eight years. He was tortured over 20 times and one of the reasons he was tortured, he refused to participate in the North Vietnamese propaganda machine. He actually took a razor and disfigured his own face so they would not put him on camera.
Well, years later, after he was out and accomplished some extraordinary things, Jim Collins interviewed him when he was writing his book "Good to Great", some of you have read that book. And in the interview, of course, Jim Collins asked the question that we would all ask. He said, "How in the world did you survive eight years in a POW camp"? And here's what he said. He said, "I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never lost faith in the end of the story". This is such a powerful statement to me. I thought about just reading this and then we could just close in prayer.
This is such an extraordinary, extraordinary statement. But he continues and he explains. He said the following: I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade. That's amazing.
And then, Jim Collins asked him this question. He said, "Well, you made it out, tell me about the people who didn't make it out. Who didn't make it out"? And his answer surprised everybody. He said, "Oh, that's easy, the optimists". The optimists. Jim said, "What do you mean by optimists"? And here's what he said. He said, "The optimists were the ones who said, 'Well, we're gonna be out by Christmas'. And Christmas would come and Christmas would go". And then, "Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter'. And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again". And he went on to say this, "Those men died of a broken heart".
And then he turned to Jim Collins. He said, "What I'm about to say is so very important. What I'm about to say next is the lesson to take away from all of this". Here's what he said. He said, "You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end". You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end, "which you can never afford to lose". You can never afford to lose that you are gonna prevail in the end. But you can't confuse that kind of confidence in faith "with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever that might be".
Now, this statement is sometimes referred to as the Stockdale Paradox. And you know what a paradox is, a paradox is a statement that, on the surface, doesn't seem to make any sense and then you explore it further and it actually proves to be true. And the paradox that he's pointing to, the reason this is called a paradox is the paradox is to never give up hope but never deceive yourself about current reality. You never give up hope but at the same time you don't refuse to face the things that you don't wanna face, the things that would cause you to possibly lose hope. You hold both of them. You never give up hope and you never deceive yourself about current reality.
And the reason I bring that up is that Christianity, our faith, actually comes prepackaged with a similar paradox. And the similar paradox is this: that we have a future hope and it is tethered to a brutal fact, to use his term. That we have a future hope and it is tethered to, it comes complete with, a brutal fact. And the problem is, for many of us as Christians, we get so focused on the hope that we try to pray away, faith away, and obey away the brutal fact that is part of the package.
In fact, some versions of Christianity, maybe you were raised with one of these versions, some versions of Christianity just deny the brutal fact. So, let's begin with that. The brutal fact of Christianity. Here it is, it's the one that easy to lose sight of. Especially when things are going good. But if you lose sight of it when things are going well, it creates confusion, it creates faithlessness, and it creates despair when things turn upside down. Here's the brutal fact.
There is a cause and effect relationship between sin and suffering. And we know this on a personal level because all of us have done things that we consider bad and we suffered because of it. We have all experienced the pain that is associated with certain behaviors. If you're a Jesus follower and you use the word "sin", you know that you have experienced the consequences, the personal consequences, of personal sin. So we all get that. But the brute fact, the fact that is so difficult for many people to get their mind and hearts around, is this. That the relationship, the cause-and-effect relationship, between sin and suffering, goes beyond personal behavior. It is a global reality.
The brutal fact is that there is a global relationship between sin and suffering. This is the part we resist. And the reason we resist it is because it's not fair and it takes everything out of our control. But the fact is, that when sin entered the world, it held the door for sorrow, death, illness, and despair. They snuck in right behind sin. When sin entered the world, death came in along with it.
And Jesus, the interesting thing is, when you read the New Testament, Jesus assumed this worldview. Jesus assumed this brutal fact. The message of Jesus was a message of hope that never lost sight of the brute fact or the brutal fact that sin was making its way through the world and would touch every single human being. This was built-in to the paradigm that He lived with and that He embraced and that He left us with in the Gospels.
So, a couple of examples might help. John tells us about a time that Jesus and the disciples were going along and, well, here's how John wrote it. He said: As we, or "He went along", He, talking about Jesus, "saw a blind man who'd been blind from birth. And His disciples asked Jesus, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind'"? So they understood that there's a relationship between blindness or illness and sin. But they thought it was a one-to-one correlation. And their assumption looked something like this. That good things happen to good people. Bad things happen to sinners. What they did not understand or had lost sight of the fact is that there is a global relationship between sin and suffering, between sin, sorrow, and death. They didn't seem to understand that connection.
So, Jesus responds this way. He says, well, you're wrong. "Neither this man nor his parents sinned", said Jesus. Not meaning they'd never sinned, but meaning no one's personal sin was responsible for this man's blindness. This man was not blind because of personal sin but this man was blind because sin was wreaking havoc in the world. That the presence of sin in the world resulted in illness and resulted in this man's blindness. It was the consequence, the global consequence, of sin in the world.
He goes on and says this, "but this happened, this blindness happened, so that the works of God", this is so amazing, "so that the works of God might be displayed in him". Jesus said, "The purpose for this blindness, that was caused by the global effects of sin, is gonna turn into an illustration of the fact that I, the son of God, have power over the global consequences of sin". Which infers that "I have power over sin". That "I am the solution to the world's greatest problem".
The problem that plagues every single one of us every single day. That God would use His power over the global consequences of sin to draw attention to Himself. He goes on and He says this, He preaches a little sermon. He says, "As long as it is day, we must do the works of Him who sent me", talking about God. But that day is coming to an end. "Night is coming, when no one can work". And of course, they look at each other like, "Does anyone know what He's talking about"? So Jesus clarifies it for them and He makes this statement: "While I am in the world, I am the light of the world".
While I am in the world, I am going to demonstrate my power over the global consequences of sin because God has power over the global consequences of sin. While I am in the world, I'm going to show you that I have come to address the root issue. There is hope but in the meantime, there is a brute fact you must never lose sight of. Because if you lose sight of the brute fact, you will eventually lose your faith. On another occasion, in fact, this is a really familiar story, we actually talked about this a few weeks ago.
Jesus is in someone's large home. He's teaching, there's so many people there that people are outside trying to listen, you'll remember this story. Some men show up with a friend of theirs that's paralyzed, they want Jesus to heal their friend, they can't get Jesus in front of their friend so they climb up on the roof of the house, dig through the roof of the house, and they lower this man on a cot right at the feet of Jesus. And you'll remember this. When Jesus saw their faith, they had faith that Jesus could heal their friend.
When Jesus saw their faith, "He said to the paralyzed man", and no one was expecting this, "he said to the paralyzed man, 'Son, your sins are forgiven'", to which he could've responded, "That's not what I dropped in for", right? And his friends up on the roof are like, "And that's not why we dug a hole in the roof. We did not bring him here to be forgiven of his sins". So why would Jesus say this? Because Jesus is pointing to this fact that there is a relationship between sin and illness. Sin and sickness. Not personal sin. But existence and the presence of sin in the world.
Now, when Jesus said this, the religious leaders immediately kind of went berserk. They were like, "Wait a minute, he's blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but God alone"? Here he is putting himself in the place of God. And Jesus smiles because this was the point. He smiles and he asked them a question, not at trick question. He asked, "Which is easier to say to this paralyzed man, 'Your sins are forgiven'". Anyone can say that, right? "Which is easier to say to this man, 'Your sins are forgiven' or to say, 'Get up, take up your mat, and walk'"? Because the two are related. Sin and illness are related. Not this man's personal sin, but the presence of sin in the world is why this man is paralyzed. And so Jesus responded with this: "But I want you to know that the Son of Man", here it is, "has authority on Earth to forgive sins".
I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on Earth to reverse the consequences of the global impact of sin on the world. I want you to know who you are dealing with. But how does He prove that? How do you prove you have the power to forgive sin and the consequences associated with sin? Well, you reverse the consequences of sin. Not the man's personal sin. The sin that impacts all of us. The sin that touches everyone. And he said to the man, "Get up and go home". And he did. And the crowd was in awe because something greater than the temple was here. Someone, someone more powerful than the global consequences of sin had arrived.
Then, years later, the Apostle Paul comes along. And the Apostle Paul kinda teases this idea out for us. Instead of illustrating it like Jesus did, he explains it, and here's how he explains it in what we call the Book of Romans, a letter he wrote to Christians living in Rome. He said, "Here's the big idea, Christians. Here's the idea you dare not lose sight of. We have hope tethered to a brute fact that sin has impacted the entire world". Here are Paul's words. He wrote these: "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man", and I have to pause and make an observation.
This is so helpful. The Apostle Paul talks about sin as an entity. He personifies it. He treats sin like we talk about energy or information. You can't see energy, you can't see information, but they're everywhere, you can't put 'em in a box but it's undeniable, right? You can't deny energy or information, they affect everything. And so the Apostle Paul kind of talks about sin in the same way. It's like an entity that you can't see but it impacts everything and it impacts everyone. And he goes on and he says this: "Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man", and right on the heels of sin, as soon as sin entered the world, sin held the door and right behind sin came death through sin.
And in this way, he said, "in this way, death came to all people". Death came to all people "because all sinned". Death and its allies marched through the world. And you cannot pray it away, you cannot faith it away, and you cannot obey it away. This is the brute fact. This is the reality that is hard for us to get our minds and hearts around. But if you divorce your hope in Christ from this brute fact, you run the risk of losing your faith. And anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who promises you that there's a way around this, is either trying to sell you something or they have never read the New Testament. They have certainly never followed Jesus through the Gospels.
And we don't like this. We don't like this because it's not fair. But facts aren't fair. Facts are facts, and this brute fact is absolutely true and you have experienced the reality of it and in some cases, you experience the reality of this every single day. We want there, and I get this, I'm the same way, we want there to be a one-to-one correlation. We want good things to happen to good people and we want bad things to happen to not-so-good people so they will become good people. But you're an adult. You've lived long enough to know that is not how the world works.
And here's what you need to know. Jesus assumed, Jesus taught, that's not how the world works and if you lost faith, this is so huge, if you lost faith because somehow sin and suffering did not line up with your Christian theology, perhaps you had the wrong theology. If you cling to that myth that somehow only good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, if you cling to that myth, your faith will eventually be ground into dust. But here's what you need to know. Christians, Christians have never believed that God doesn't allow bad things to happen to good people. In fact, just the opposite. Christians believe that the worst possible thing happened to the best possible person.
So, should we resist evil? Yes. Should we fight and try to solve the problems of the world? Yes. Should we try to alleviate pain and suffering in the world? Yes. Will we win that battle in the end? No. Because that is not our ultimate battle. Does that mean God doesn't care? No, read the Gospels, we know God cares. But this is not the end of the story and that is not the end of the story. There is hope, but our hope is not in solving the global consequences of sin in the world.
Our hope is in the person who came to address the ultimate issue. Which is not illness. It's not sickness. It's not pain. The ultimate issue is sin. And the brute fact of Christianity is there is a relationship between sin, sorrow, and ultimately death. The Apostle Paul continues, he says this: "For if", this is so big, "if, by the trespass" or the sin, "of one man", talking about Adam, "death reigned through that one man". And don't miss this, the Apostle Paul says, "Look, hey, I'm not pulling any punches. You live in a world where death reigns. Death reigns", he says, but, if sin entered the world, and through one man, "death reigned through that one man", here's the good news, "How much more will those who receive God's abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness", and let me define these terms for you, this is huge.
In this context, grace is a reference to the ability to endure. And righteousness is a reference to the fact that our relationship with God is secure. He said if death reigned through the one man Adam who brought sin into the world, how much more will those of us who have the ability to endure, and a relationship with our heavenly father that is secure, how much more then will we "reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ". But we reign in life, this is huge, we reign in life by embracing this paradox.
Embrace the paradox that sin will have its way today but not forever. That sin will have its way today but not forever. Or to paraphrase Jesus, to kind of put a spin on Jesus' words, We do not reign in life by devoting our lives to preserving our lives. If that's the win, you can never win. We reign in life by following the one who offered real life and the ultimate and final solution for sin. And the amazing thing is this. The New Testament authors are so clear and they're so consistent on this. That Jesus did not offer himself as the final solution to sin from the comforts of home. That he became one of us to experience exactly what we experience.
The Gospel writer John begins his Gospel with these famous words, he said this: That "The word became flesh", talking about Jesus, "and made his dwelling among us". He faced what we face. He felt what we felt. The Apostle Paul, he puts this spin on it. He says it this way: He says, "Jesus, being in very nature God", think about this, that Jesus was God in a body, "did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage". In other words, Jesus never cheated. Jesus never played the God card. Jesus experienced life just like you experience it. Just like I experience it. But he went even further. The Apostle Paul elaborates, he says, "He humbled himself by becoming obedient", how obedient, "to death, even death on a cross". That your savior faced the ultimate consequence of sin: death. But not just any death. The worst kind of death.
The author of Hebrews will come along later and give us his spin on it. Here's how he says it. He says, "For we do not have a high priest", talking about Jesus, "who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses", the implication being that weakness is a permanent part of the human condition. You can't pray, faith, or obey your way beyond it. But he says the good news is that your high priest, the one that you go to in prayer, understands and can empathize. He continues, he says this, "But, on the contrary, we have a high priest who has been tempted in every way, just as we are".
And then, here's the best part, he says in the meantime, in the meantime, here's what you're to do. In the meantime, you are to do exactly what your first-century brothers and sisters did as they lived in the conflict of a future hope but a world that was racked by pain, illness, suffering, and death. It's the same thing that I've seen dozens and dozens of parents do when their children are sick. Or when they've had to bury a child. It's the thing I've seen dozens and dozens of brothers and sisters do when they had to bury a parent too early. The thing I've seen hundreds of people do when they faced extraordinary suffering or were surprised by grief or surprised by loss.
Here is the invitation. Here is how to live in the messy, messy, middle. Here's what the author of Hebrews says, here is God's promise to you. He writes, "Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, that we may", here it is, "receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need". The New Testament authors had their feet firmly planted on the soil of suffering. They understood the world we live in.
And the author of Hebrews says this: when you're going through the suffering and the pain, when you realize, "I'm caught in the messy middle, there is a hope but there is a brute fact that I cannot get around", he says you can come to your Heavenly Father with confidence and here is God's promise to you. You will receive mercy and you will receive grace. You will receive grace and mercy in your time of need.
And then, once again, the Apostle Paul, and think about this, the Apostle Paul who himself was awakened by the megaphone of pain, on his way to Damascus to inflict pain on first-century Christians. Again, he puts this in context for us when he writes these powerful words. He says, "I consider that our present sufferings", no one avoids this, no one escapes this.
"I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that", future tense, "will be revealed in us". Because we know that, we have confidence that, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time". Then he continues, he writes this: "Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the spirit", in other words, even those of us who are Jesus followers, "we groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies".
And then these next words are so powerful. He says, with all that as a backdrop, with all that in mind, "For in this hope", for in this hope, not in the hope that everything's gonna work out today, not in the hope that everything's gonna work out for us eventually. Not in the hope that everything's ultimately gonna be fine now. But in the ultimate hope that Jesus came to Earth not only to die for our sins but to demonstrate He has the power over the global consequences of sin.
And we live in the tension, we live in the messy middle, of a future hope that we can have confidence in, while at the same time embracing and acknowledging the type of world that we live in. We don't like this. But it's true. When sin entered the world, death was right on its heels. And this is the age when the consequences of sin run their course. And no one, not even your savior, was an exception to that rule.
Did God cause it? No. Will God use it? Absolutely. He will use it as a wake-up call to rouse this world, to get us to look up and regain, or find for the first time, our hope. It's a wake-up call for anyone who has ears to hear. And one day, one day, the world will be as we know it should be. One day, the world will be as we know it should be. One day, there will be no more sin, no more sorrow, no more death. But not yet. Not you. And not me.
Again, C.S. Lewis says it so eloquently when he wrote these words. He said, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy", that is, if I am able to imagine a better world and there is something in me that longs for that better world, if I find within myself a desire that no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation, the most probable explanation is that I was made and that you were made for another world.
So, Admiral Stockdale was exactly right. We must never lose faith in the end of the story. And my friends, this is not the end. This is just the messy, messy middle. And in this messy middle, we can have the confidence that the New Testament authors had when they said that we can have confidence in God, we can have confidence that God loves us, that God is for us, that God cares for us. And that God will judge sin but He loves those of us left in the wake of His judgment on sin. That, as we've seen, He had every right to just walk away. But in fact, He chose to wade in and experience this life, as we experience it, with us.
Our present sufferings, our present sufferings are nothing to be compared with our future hope. Our present sufferings, they're just another reminder of the global consequences of sin. They're just another reminder of our need for a savior, of the world's need for a savior. Our current circumstances are just another reminder that one day God will, in fact, make all things new. If I find within myself a desire that no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.