Robert Jeffress - Is God Ultimately Responsible For Suffering?
Hi, I'm Robert Jeffress, and welcome again to Pathway to Victory. When tragedy strikes, it's only natural to look for someone to blame. Many times the cause of an accident can be traced back to human error. But in the case of terminal illness or a natural disaster, who's responsible then? Today I'm going to explore the difficult topic of God's role in human suffering. My message is titled "Is God Ultimately Responsible For Suffering?" On today's edition of Pathway to Victory.
September the 11th, 2001. Who will ever forget the picture of those two jets slamming into the world trade center? Another jet crashing into the pentagon, still another nose-diving into that field in Pennsylvania. On that date, nearly 3.000 Americans lost their lives. And today, seven years later, there are still survivors who are trying to cope with the aftermath that horrific evil. If you remember, there was no shortage of answers to the questions, where was God on 9/11? Remember people asking that question? Anytime there is such an evil deed committed, people want to know, where was God in the midst of that suffering? People ask the question, where was God on September the 11th? Of all of the explanations for September 11th, hardly anyone was willing to offer the politically incorrect answer to September 11th, and that is the highly unpopular belief that God was ultimately responsible for the events of September the 11th.
And terrorist attacks, child murders, hurricanes, famines, all naturally raised the question of, what is God's role in human suffering? Author and theologian John Stott claims, "The fact of suffering constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith". Indeed, that's not religious hyperbole. George Barna surveyed Americans at one point and asked them the question, "If you could ask God any one question and knew he would answer it, what question would you ask God"? The number one question, why is there pain and suffering in the world? Perhaps, as you've tried to share your faith with people, people would ask you that question as well. If there really is a God, why does he allow evil in the world?
By the way, through the ages, many have used the existence of evil as a way of disputing the idea that there is a God. It was the Scottish Philosopher David Hume, who tried to impale the Christian faith on the horns of his famous dilemma. He said, "If God is willing to prevent evil, but unable to do so, it means he's impotent. If God is able to stop evil, but then doesn't stop evil, it means he is evil. If God is both willing and able to stop suffering, but doesn't, where then is evil"? There actually is a fourth explanation about God's role in evil. It's one that we're going to look at in just a moment. It's one that comes straight from the pages of scripture. But first of all, let's examine that argument, the three arguments that David Hume posed for the existence of evil. Explanation number one on your outline, there is no God. That's what some people would say. The fact that evil exists is an argument that there really is no God.
I read, not long ago, a horrifying account about a 14-year-old girl who was kidnapped in the western United States. She was dismembered and decapitated by her kidnapper. You read a horrific story like that and you wonder, if there really is a God, how would he allow such a tragedy to take place? Many people would say, an act like that is the smoking gun that proves there really is no God. But I want to suggest to you, the fact that such evil exists actually proves there is a God. Let me explain what I mean by that. The fact that you and I are able to label certain things as evil means there must be a God.
What is it that makes decapitating a 14-year-old girl wrong? What is it that makes it evil? Some people would say, well, that's real easy, Robert, everybody knows that the fact is that that's against the law, and therefore, that is evil. But is the law always a reliable guide as to what is good and evil? I mean, it wasn't that long in our own nation's history when our law said slavery is okay. But we all know that wasn't right, that was wrong for a human to own another human being. In parts of the world today, we know that there are certain places where it's allowed to offer your children as burnt sacrifices to satisfy a pagan deity. But just because the law allows it, does that mean it's right? No, the existence of evil and the fact that we care about it can't be explained just simply on the basis of human law. Other people would say, well, Robert, the fact is, the fact that we care about evil, that is a part of our evolutionary development. We just evolved in a way that we care about good and evil.
Ravi Zacharias shows the absurdity of such an argument when he says, "Are we really to suppose that human beings are just a random compilation of cells and chemicals and somehow we came together through this amoral process called evolution and suddenly we care about good and evil? How is it that people would come into being through an amoral process like evolution and suddenly care about good and evil? Why not instead call those things orange and purple"? If Richard Dawkins, the atheist, is right in that the universe is indifferent to good and evil, why is it that you and I care about both? The reason is, ladies and gentlemen, all of us, every human being has been stamped with a unique moral code, an absolute moral code of what is evil. We all had that code stamped on us.
And the fact that we all had that moral code, that we care about good and evil, means there is a moral law giver named God who has stamped every human heart with a sense of right and wrong, good and evil. The fact that there is evil, and more importantly, that you and I care about evil proves it doesn't disprove the existence of God. A second explanation for God's role in suffering is God is evil. That's what some people would say, and they wouldn't say it out loud, because again, that's not politically correct either to talk about God being an evil God. But after all, if evil exists, and it does, and God is all powerful and he allows it, could it be that he is evil?
I talked to you last week about media mogul, Ted Turner, who once labeled Christianity a religion for losers. You might be interested to know Ted Turner didn't always believe that. Ted Turner grew up in a Christian home. He went to a Christian prep school. He said, "I was saved at least seven or eight times when I was a child". But he said, "One event dramatically changed his attitude toward God". His younger sister became desperately ill and Ted Turner says that he prayed for five years that God would heal her. God didn't heal her, and turner said he had no further use for a God who would allow his sister to suffer in such a way. He said, quote, "I began to lose my faith, and the more I lost it, the better I felt". Some people have come to that conclusion about God. He's evil, and therefore, they turn away from him.
A third explanation and one that is held commonly by Christians is the explanation that God would like to help, he would like to intervene in human suffering, but he can't, he just can't intervene. That is, he's a good God, he's an all-powerful God, but God is limited in intervening in our everyday affairs. What is it that limits God? What is it that keeps him from stopping evil in the world? Some people would say, it's God's own nature. God's own nature.
You remember Rabbi Harold Kushner who wrote the best-selling book back in the '80s, "When bad things happen to good people". Harold Kushner wrote that book as a result of watching his own young teenage son die from a disease called progeria. And he came to the conclusion that, and this is what the rabbi said, quote, "Even God has a hard time keeping chaos in check". And quote, "God is a God of justice, but not a God of power". He concluded his book, "When bad things happened to good people", with these words, "Are you capable of forgiving and loving God, even when you have found out that he's not perfect, even when he has let you down and disappointed you by permitting bad luck and sickness and cruelty in his world and permitting some of those things to happen to you? Can you learn to love and forgive God despite his limitations and as you once learned to forgive and love your parents, even though they were not as wise, as strong, or as perfect as you needed them to be"?
With just a few strokes of the pen, Harold Kushner reduced God from an all-powerful, all-wise, all-loving God to an imperfect, impotent deity. And one Jewish writer in responding to Kushner's words said, "If that's who God is, he ought to resign right now and let somebody more competent take his place". Other people would say, no, God doesn't intervene, he refuses to act because of natural laws that he has put into place, because of natural laws. In other words, every accident, every hurricane, every famine, every case of cancer, it's all the result of natural laws that God has put into place, and God will not violate these natural laws. In other words, God has set this world in control of these laws. He has handcuffed himself, if you will, by these natural laws and he's thrown away the key.
And some people say, no, what really keeps God from intervening is man's free will, man's free will. And that's probably the explanation you would hear from many of our church members today. Why doesn't God stop evil in the world? Well, it's because of man's free will. In other words, God really wishes that man wouldn't decapitate the 14-year-old girl. He grieves when it happens, but he absolutely has no power to stop it, because God has imbued every person with a free will and it has to work itself out completely. And God cannot intervene in the choices that his creatures make. Now, some people, again, employ this rather selectively. Again, Rabbi Kushner says that, "No, God can't stop somebody from being assaulted, but he moves in the hearts of people like policemen to protect those who are assaulted. God can't stop people from getting cancer. He doesn't cure people today, but he can move people to become oncologists and nurses and minister to those who have cancer".
Now, think how illogic that is. You're saying on one hand, God can't stop the guy from assaulting you on the street, but he can override a person's vocational choice and make them become a policeman. God can't stop a maverick cancer cell in a person's body, but he can override a person's heart and make them choose to become a oncologist or a nurse. No, either God is sovereign or he's not. May I point out to you there's a fourth explanation for God's role in suffering? Again, it is politically incorrect. In fact, I'll have to say of all the seven politically incorrect truths we're going to look at over this series, this is the one that Christians react against most violently, and it's the truth we're going to look at today, and that is that God is responsible for everything in his universe, including suffering. God is responsible for everything in his universe, including suffering.
By the way, such a truth is not only grounded in scriptures we're going to see in a moment, it is the only explanation that will give people comfort when they are in the midst of suffering and heartache. God is in control of everything in his universe. Aw Tozer begins his classic book, "The knowledge of the holy", with these words, "What comes to our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us". What comes to your mind when you think about God? Unfortunately for most of us, we have created the God of our imagination rather than the God of scripture.
What does the Bible say about God's role in suffering first of all? Jot it down on your outline. "God is in control of all his creation. God is in control of all of his creation". The Psalmist declared in Psalm 103:19, "The Lord has established his throne in the heavens and his sovereignty rules over all". There is a great definition of the word, sovereignty. To be sovereign means to rule over everything. For a king to be sovereign means he has control of everything in his kingdom. It is impossible for a king to be semi-sovereign, just like it's impossible for a woman to be semi-pregnant. You know, either you are or you aren't, okay? It's the same way with sovereignty, either a king is in control or he's not in control. And God says, I'm in control, in control over all my creation.
Now, if you believe what the Word of God says, you have to believe that that means God is in control of all of the angels in heaven, he is in control of all the demons on the earth and under the earth, you have to believe that God is in control of all human beings, whom he has created, you have to believe that God has control of all of natural phenomena. God is in control of all his creation. Psalm 115:3 says, "But our God is in the heavens and he does whatever he pleases". Daniel 4:35, "And all the inhabitants of the earth are counted as nothing, but he does according to his will and the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of earth, and no one can ward off his hand or say to him, what has thou done"?
Political writer William Safire says, "The candidate who takes credit for the rain also has to accept the blame for the drought". I mean, if we're willing to say, if God says, I'm in control of everything that happens in the universe, then God has to take credit, not just for the good things, but the bad things, the ugly things. Is he willing to do that? Listen to what he says in Exodus 4:11. Look at it on the screen. This is God talking to Moses. He said, "Who has made man's mouth? Or who makes him dumb or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord"?
Now, folks, you have to either believe God's word or not. God says, I'm taking responsibility for that. Well, what about calamity in the world? What about calamity in the world? Things like famines or hurricanes or tragedies like September 11th. If God is going to take responsibility for everything, he has to take responsibility for those things as well. And he does. Isaiah 45:6-7, we read them a moment ago. He said, "I am the Lord and there is no other, the one forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and creating," what? "Calamity. I'm the God who does all this". Some theologians try to let God off the hook here by saying, well, now, God doesn't cause these things, he just allows them to happen. You've heard that before. He doesn't cause it, he allows it to happen.
Let me say very clearly, I do not believe God is the author of evil. That would be inconsistent with who he reveals himself to be in scripture. He is not the author of evil. He is not the first cause of many of the evil things that happen. But the fact that God allows them to happen makes him ultimately responsible. If God is able to prevent suffering and still allows it, then God has to be held responsible for everything that happens in his universe. But I want to show you something today that I had not seen until last week.
Turn to Job 23 for just a moment, would you? Job 23. We all know the story of Job. We know his story about he was a righteous man, an upright man who turned away from evil, did good, and yet, in the space of a very short amount of time, he lost his 10 children in a freak windstorm that collapsed the roof of their house. And after news came to him about that, he also lost all of his possessions, and not only that, he lost his health. He was afflicted with an illness many people think is elephantiasis, a terribly debilitating disease. And yet, what was his response to the sudden loss of his possessions, his health, his own children? We know what he did, he refused to blame God. He worshiped God. He said, "The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord".
And we all like to point to that passage as an example of faith in the midst of suffering. Here's a man who never questioned God, not in chapters one and two, but he certainly started questioning God later on. After the initial shock of his loss wore off, he had some very deep doubts and questions about God's role in his own suffering. I want you to look at Job 23. Here he is in the midst of heavy loss, and notice what he says in verse three. He said, "Oh that I knew where I might find him". Talking about God. "That I might come to his seat. I would present my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn the words, which he would answer, and perceive what he would say to me. In other words, if I could find God and just tell him what he wanted to hear, I would so I could get some answers". But there was nothing. He seemed distant, he seemed absent.
And then we go down to verse 14. Not only is Job frustrated by God's absence, he is terrified by God's plan for his life. Look at verse 14. Job says, "For he performs what he has appointed for me, and many such decrees are with him. Therefore, I would be dismayed at his presence when I consider I am terrified of him". And I don't know about you, but sometimes I get nauseated by all these happy Christians. You know the people I'm talking about. They walk around with this plastic grin on their face. Oh, God has this happy plan for your life, and get your miracle today, and all of this court of thing. And if you're going through suffering, you just need to buck yourself up and start feeling happy, 'cause God's plan is a happy plan for you. Oh, it's grand and happy to be a Christian. No, it's not all the time. No, God's plan for your life and my life isn't always a happy plan.
Job was starting to find that out. He said, "When I look around, God, at what you still might have in store for me, I am terrified. I'm terrified, God, at your plan". But between Job's frustration of God's absence and he's being terrified at God's plan, look at the faith of Job in verse 10. He says, "But God knows the way I take. When he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold. My foot has held fast to his path. I have kept his way and I have not turned aside". Job said, "God, even though I can't see you, I know you can see me. And even though I don't know what you're doing in my life, you understand perfectly what you're doing in my life. And because of that, I'm going to trust you. Because of that, I'm going to stay obedient to you, believing in the end, your plan is good. And my faith will come out tested as gold".
Job trusted in not only the sovereignty, but in the goodness of God. What about you? There are some of you right now who are in a storm. You don't understand what's happening in your life. You sure don't understand why it's happening. Are you willing to say, God, even though I can't see you right now, I know your eye is on me, even though I don't understand what you're doing, you know perfectly what you're doing in my life and I'm going to obey you regardless? As God said to the prophet Jeremiah, "I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans for your welfare, not for calamity. A plan to give you a future and a hope".