Robert Jeffress - How Can I Know God Is Good With All The Suffering In The World?
Hi, I'm Robert Jeffress, and welcome again to Pathway to Victory. If you've ever watched a family member suffer through a serious illness or struggled through a season of financial hardship, you've probably asked yourself the question, if God is good, why does he allow bad things to happen? Today my goal is to help you reconcile the reality of evil with the certainty of a loving God. We're answering the question, how can I know God is good with all of the suffering in the world? On today's edition of Pathway to Victory.
Author Lee Strobel, who was here in our church a few years ago, commissioned a national survey in which he asked a cross-section of Americans this question. If you could ask God any question and knew that he would give you an answer, what would you ask him? Do you know what the number one response was? The majority of people said, "If we could ask God anything, we would ask him, why do you allow suffering and evil in the world"? And it's a question that all of us have to grapple with from time to time. Why does God allow suffering and evil, not only in the world in general, but in our personal world? That's a problem, frankly, that everyone suffers at some point in their life. How could God allow such a thing to happen to me?
It was John Stott who once said, "The fact of suffering poses the single greatest threat to the Christian faith". Why is that? You know, in all my years in the ministry, I have never had somebody ask me the question, "How can I know God really exists with all of the porcupines in the world"? I mean, the fact is, the presence of porcupines in the world in no way challenges the reality of God. Both truths are compatible with one another, but there is something that is very disconcerting about trying to reconcile a belief in God with the reality of evil, and the reason is, it's hard to put these four truths together, that I've put in your outline.
It's hard to accept that:
A - God exists.
B - That he's all-powerful
C - That he is good and loving, and yet...
D - That there is evil present in the world.
How do you put all of that together? The Scottish skeptic David Hume had a famous trilemma that has troubled many people through the years. He said, is God willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he's impotent. Is God able to prevent evil but not willing? Then he's malevolent. That is, he is evil. Is God both able and willing to prevent evil? Then where is evil? What Hume was saying was this. If God is able to prevent suffering and evil, but he's not willing to prevent it, then he's an evil God. If God is willing and wants to prevent suffering, but he can't pull it off, then he's an impotent God. But if God is both willing and able to stop suffering, where is suffering? The fact that suffering exists means that that God we thought existed, in fact, doesn't exist.
Now, there is another explanation for reconciling the existence of God with suffering in the world, and we'll look at that in just a moment. But first of all, let's talk about some common ways people today try to reconcile a belief in God with the reality of evil and suffering. Some people say, well, suffering is simply an illusion. That's what groups like Christian scientists teach, that sickness isn't real, it's just an illusion. Suffering and evil are simply matters of perception. And yet the reality of evil and suffering can neither be minimized or denied.
When I was pastoring my first church in Eastland, Texas, I was sitting in my office one day, when my secretary buzzed me and told me that a man was passing through and wanted to come in and visit with me. So he came into my office, and he said, "I would like to tell you my story". He said, "A few years ago, I was seated in my church on a Sunday morning in June of 1980, in the First Baptist Church of Dangerfield, Texas. The church was packed that day. We were all there to welcome our new pastor, when suddenly, in the middle of the service, the doors in the back burst open and a man ran in, yelling, this is war! And he opened fire on our congregation, killing five, wounding 12".
The man said, "Seated next to me was my seven-year-old daughter, and the gunshots literally blew off half of her face. She died instantly". He said, "Several days later, at the funeral", he said, "I was so overcome with grief that when the graveside service was over, I couldn't leave. I was just paralyzed, and finally our pastor came over and tapped me on the shoulder and said, it's time to leave. The cemetery workers will cover the grave". And the father said to me, "I thought to myself, the least I can do for my daughter is to cover her grave myself. So I took off my coat and my tie and I took the shovel in my hand, and I threw the dirt on my daughter's casket".
Try telling that man that evil and suffering don't really exist, that they're simply a matter of perception. There is evil in the world. Good people do suffer in this world, and interestingly, the Bible never denies or even minimizes that reality. In Romans 8:22-23, Paul said, "For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but we ourselves, having the first fruits of the spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies". And Jesus said in John 16:33, "These things I have spoken to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage: I have overcome the world".
Jesus said as long as you and I live in this world, we are going to suffer. That's one way, by the way, we know that the Bible is God's word. It never sugar-coats reality. It tells us about life just as it is. Secondly, some people try to reconcile evil with the existence of God by saying, well, the God of the Bible doesn't exist. A lot of people don't want to completely dismiss the idea of some divine first cause out there, but they said whatever that first cause is, it can't be the God who is portrayed in the Bible, someone who is all-powerful, loves righteousness, and hates evil. You can't believe in that God because how could that God exist with the tsunamis and floods and genocides and child tortures that go on in our world today?
Steve Jobs, as you know, was the co-founder of Apple Computer. He died recently at age 56, of pancreatic cancer. Steve Jobs was a fan of eastern religions, but what most people don't know about Steve Jobs was, when he was younger, his adoptive parents took him regularly to a conservative Christian church. One day, Steve Jobs went to church when he was 13 years old and he carried with him a copy of Life magazine from July of 1968. And the cover of Life Magazine was a cover picture of two little girls in Biafra, who were starving to death. He stopped his pastor in the hallway. He said, "Pastor, if I raise my hand, does God know beforehand what I was going to do"? And the pastor said, "Well, yes, Steve".
And then Steve pulled out the cover of Life Magazine and said, "Pastor, does God know about these two girls who are starving to death"? And the pastor said, "Well, Steve, I know it's hard to understand, but yes, he knows about it". Dissatisfied with the answer, Steve Jobs walked out of church that day, never to return to church or to Christianity. Now, had Steve Jobs hung around just a little longer, he might have heard his pastor say, "Steve, I know you're troubled by what you've seen, but the fact that you are troubled by evil, by starving girls, is in itself a proof that God really exists".
You see, you can't call something evil without a reference point for what is good. There can be no crooked line unless somewhere there exists a straight line, and the fact that there is evil in the world and that you and I care about it is proof that there is a divine being who has stamped us with a sense of right and wrong.
Thirdly, some people say, well, the only way to reconcile evil and suffering with the existence of God is to believe that God is limited in his ability to intervene in human lives. In other words, God sees the pain you're suffering. He weeps when you weep. God would love to help you in your particular situation, but he is unable to intervene.
Rabbi Harold Kushner, after watching his young son die from a disease, wrote the book, "When Bad Things Happen to Good People", and in that book he said, quote, "I recognize God's limitations. He is limited in what he can do by the laws of nature and by the evolution of human nature and human moral freedom". In other words, God would like to help you, but he can't intervene in your situation because he is bound by the laws of nature and also by human freedom. Is that true? Is God bound? Is he kept from intervening in our situations? Is he limited in any way?
Take the laws of nature. Many people say, well, God can't change the laws of nature. Really? Listen to Job 38:4-8, in which God reminded Job that he not only is in control over the natural world, he is also the one who has established the laws that govern the natural world. In Job 38:4-8, he said, "Where were you, Job, when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who set its measurements? Since you know. Or who stretched the line on it? On what were its bases sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who enclosed the sea with doors when, bursting forth, it went out from the womb". God says, "I'm not only the one who controls nature, I'm the one who controls the laws of nature. I control nature. Nature does not control me".
Yes, God has established certain natural laws, but he has the ability, any time he chooses so, to override those natural laws. Other people say, well, God's limited by human freedom. That is, he wishes that rapists would not assault the 80-year-old woman on the street, but God is unable to prevent such an assault, for two reasons. First of all, God doesn't know ahead of time what his creatures are going to do.
You know, there are many Christians who have bought on into that theory. It's called open theism. It's the idea that God is limited in what he knows, and therefore, God is watching in real time what you and I do, and he's adjusting his plan according to what we do. Is that what the Bible teaches? That the future is a mystery to God? No, God not only knows what we are going to do. Do you realize he has written every day of our life in his book? In Psalm 139:16, God said to the Psalmist, "Your eyes have seen my unformed substance: and in your book were written all the days that were ordained for me, when as yet there was not one of them". The date of your birth, the date of your death, and everything in between is all a part of God's plan. It's all written in his book.
Some people say, well, God just not only doesn't know what his creatures are going to do, but even if he did know, he couldn't intervene, because God can't interfere with human freedom, and that's why he can't stop that rapist from assaulting the woman. He'd like to stop him, but to do so would be to violate his free will, and God has no power over individual choice. Is that what the Bible teaches? Listen to what Jesus said to Pontius Pilate, when Pilate was saying, "I have the power to execute you, if I choose to do so". In John 19:11, Jesus said, "You would have no authority over me, unless it had been given to you from me".
Any freedom you and I think we have, that freedom is simply on loan to us from God, and he can override it any time he wants to. One great example of that is in the life of Jesus. In fact, this happened several different times, when the enemies of Jesus wanted to prematurely kill him, and yet God intervened, not because he was trying to prevent the death of Christ. That was God's plan, but it was gonna be according to his timetable, not those of the Jewish leaders. In John 7:30, on one of these occasions, when the Jewish leaders were trying to kill Jesus, John writes, "So they were seeking to seize him: and no man laid his hands on him: because his hour had not come".
Do you understand what John is saying? God thwarted the will of these people who wanted to harm Jesus. Now, I don't know how he did it. Maybe he changed their circumstances, maybe he changed their hearts, but God can override human freedom. He is not our prisoner. In Romans 9:18, Paul said, "So then God has mercy on whom he desires, and he hardens whom he desires". Human beings are free until they're not free. God is not limited by the laws of nature. He's not limited by human freedom. So how do we reconcile the reality of evil and suffering in our lives and in the world with the reality of a good and loving and all-powerful God?
We're gonna answer that in just a moment, but I want to stop here and say something. Whenever people ask you about how can God exist with all the evil and suffering in the world, I want to remind you of something, that when people ask that question, usually, they're not asking it because they're not concerned about the suffering in the world in general. They're asking it because they're concerned about the suffering they're experiencing in their world. A betrayal, a sexual assault, abuse, neglect, the death of a loved one all make people question the reality of God, and that means when people start asking us about this question, we need to realize they're doing so probably out of a great hurt they've experienced in their life, and that wound they have experienced cannot be healed by cold, philosophical arguments.
Whenever people ask you about how and why would God allow this in my life, you can always say, God understands what you're going through. Back in Psalm 34:18, the Psalmist said, "The Lord is close to those whose hearts are breaking". No matter what you're going through now, God is not some distant deity who doesn't care. He understands, he cares about what you're experiencing. And although we can't answer specifically why did God allow this to happen, or why did God allow that to happen, you can assure somebody who asks you there are some truths that we can hang onto when we go through the storms of suffering in our life, and then you might consider using this illustration.
A few years ago, Amy and I were driving late one night from Fort Worth back to our home in Wichita Falls, and it was a torrential downpour, thunderstorm going on, and there was fog and we couldn't see two inches in front of us, and all of a sudden, we were out on this highway in the middle of nowhere, when the electrical system in our new car failed us and all the headlights and all the lights in the car went off. So here we are, driving along at 70 miles an hour, no headlights, rain coming down, can't see two inches in front of you, and I thought, "Now, what am I going to do in this? If I pull over to the side and stop, I could easily be hit with no lights on the car".
And I looked in my rear-view mirror and I saw behind me an 18-wheeler approaching me. And so I thought, I'm gonna pull over, veer over to the right here, and allow that guy to pass me, which he did, and then I locked in on his taillights and simply followed him into town until we were there safely.
You know, the Psalmist said in Psalm 119:105, God's word is a light unto our path. And when we're going through a storm in life, when we can't see two inches in front of us, when we don't know what is going to happen, God's word provides four lights that, if we will lock into and lock onto, will get us safely through the storm. What are those lights? What are those truths we can know for sure when we're experiencing suffering in our life? truth number one is this. God is both good and all-powerful. The Bible testifies that God is good, not evil. He is all-powerful, not weak. Admittedly, it's hard to put all that together with the reality of evil in the world, but over and over again, the Bible attests to, first of all, God's goodness.
In Exodus 34:6, the Bible says, "Then the Lord passed by in front of him", that is Moses, "And proclaimed, the Lord, the Lord God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth". No matter what you're going through, know this. God is good. He is not evil. Yes, the Bible says that, but is there any evidence outside of the Bible for the fact that God is good and not evil? We see that evidence all around us.
Yes, occasionally, floods and earthquakes kill thousands of people, but most of the time, rivers stay within their banks, don't they? Most of the time, the tectonic plates don't shift. Or occasionally, we read about a drought causing farmers to go bankrupt because they've lost their crop, but that's the exception, not the rule. Most of the time, the rains do come and the harvest comes about as well. You know, we speak about, we read about these unspeakable crimes that people commit against one another, but those are the exception rather than the rule. The reason they are news is because they don't happen that often. The fact is, we see evidence of God's goodness all around us.
But Robert, if God hates evil as much as the Bible claims, why does he allow it to continue? A lot of people try to answer that question by lowering their view of God. Sometimes, people try to comfort themselves with the thought, well, God would have loved to have helped in that situation, but the laws of nature and human freedom tie his hands where he can't help me in my situation. Is there any comfort in that? Does it give you any comfort to think that a distracted driver could suddenly pull into the wrong lane and kill your wife or child? No, I find no comfort in thinking that we are all victims of random people and random circumstances. Instead, I would rather believe in the God, the God of the Bible, who is all-powerful, who can do anything he chooses to do. That's the God that the Bible testifies of over and over again.
In 2 Chronicles 20:6, the Word of God says, "O Lord, God of our father, are you not God in the heavens? And are you not ruler over all the kingdoms of the nations? Power and might are in your hand so that no one can stand against you". Or Job 42:2. Job finally came to the conclusion that God was all powerful. He said, "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted". Admittedly, God's absolute control over his creation causes many, many questions, some of which can never be answered, but I love what Chuck Swindoll says about the sovereignty of God. He says, "The sovereignty of God doesn't answer all of my questions, but it does relieve me of all of my anxiety". God is good, and God is in control of your life.