We have a new series coming up in June called ‘In The Meantime’ that will ask the question, “What do we do when there is nothing we can do?” But before we answer that, I believe there are a couple of things we need to talk about. Like why is there suffering in the world? And how do we persevere through the sufferings? So this week and next, we are going to building a foundation for the series in June. So today we are asking the question, why is there suffering in the world?
I believe C.S. Lewis, an amazing Christian author, was spot on when he wrote these words in his book called “The Problem of Pain.”
“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.”The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis
Maybe that’s your story. Maybe you were going along, minding your own business, you hadn’t given God a thought in many years or maybe ever, and then you got that call, you felt that pain, you got that bad news, you realize your life would never be the same again and you found yourself looking up and face-to-face with the God you’d never believed in before, that perhaps the God you had abandoned somewhere along the way, and you have believed ever since. The pain was 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 such different conclusions about faith and God? How can people with similar experiences of pain or loss be led to such different conclusions? That’s our topic for today.
Admiral Jim Stockdale
Now, you may be familiar with this name, Admiral Jim Stockdale. Admiral Jim Stockdale ran for vice president back in the 90s, but what he’s most famous is that he was a POW, a prisoner of war, during the Vietnam War. He was Vice Admiral in the Navy and was the highest-ranking United States military officer to be in prison in the Hanoi (Huh-noy) Hilton POW camp during the Vietnam War. He was a POW for almost eight years. He was tortured over 20 times, and one of the reasons he was tortured was that he refused to be used as propaganda for the North Vietnamese. He actually disfigured himself, beating his own face beyond recognition so they would not put him on camera.
Years later, after he was set free and accomplished some extraordinary things, Jim Collins interviewed him as he was writing his book “Good to Great.” In the interview, Jim Collins asked the question that we would all ask, “How in the world did you survive eight years as a POW?” And here’s what he said. “I never lost faith in the end of the story.” That is such a powerful statement. I thought about reading that and closing in prayer right there. But the rest of this is too good.
He continued, “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, “Which prisoners didn’t make it out?” And his answer surprised everybody. He said, “Oh, that’s easy, the optimists. They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. 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. They died of a broken heart.”
And then he turned to Jim Collins and said, “What I’m about to say is so very important.” Which means listen up. What I’m about to say next is the lesson to take away from all of this.
He said, “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
This statement is sometimes referred to as the Stockdale Paradox. A paradox is a statement that on the surface doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, but when you explore it further, you realize it actually proves to be true. The paradox that Stockdale is pointing to is to never give up hope, but you also never deceive yourself about current reality. You never give up hope, but at the same time you don’t refuse to face the reality in front of you, the things that could cause us to possibly lose hope.
A Future Hope
The reason I bring this up is that Christianity, our faith, actually comes pre-packaged with a similar paradox that we have a future hope, but yet it’s tied to a brutal fact. The problem is, for many of us Christians, we get so focused on the hope that we try to pray away, faith away or obey away the brutal fact that is part of the package. In fact, some versions of Christianity just deny the brutal fact.
So what’s the brutal fact of Christianity? It’s the one that’s 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, faithlessness, and 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, the personal consequences of personal sin. We all get that.
But the brutal fact, the fact that is so difficult for many people to get their mind and hearts around is this. That 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 walked right in behind sin. When sin entered the world, death came in along with it.
And the interesting thing is, when you read the New Testament, Jesus assumed this this brutal fact worldview. The message of Jesus was a message of hope that never lost sight of the brutal fact that sin was making its way through the world and would touch every single human being. This was built into the paradigm that He lived with and that He embraced and that He left us with in the Gospels.
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.
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
They understood that there’s a relationship between blindness or illness and sin. But they thought it was a one-to-one connection. Their assumption was basically that good things happened to good people, and bad things happened to bad people, the sinners. What they did not understand or had lost sight of was the fact that there are global ramifications of sin.
So Jesus responds,
3 “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. His blindness is the consequence of sin wreaking havoc in the world.
3 “but this happened 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 going to turn into an illustration of the fact that I, the Son of God, have power over sin, which includes global 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 says,
4 As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. 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,
5 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 that power. 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 brutal fact that you must never lose sight of because if you lose sight of the brutal fact, you will eventually lose your faith.
On another occasion, Jesus is in someone’s large home teaching. There are so many people packed in the house that people are outside trying to listen in. Some men show up with a friend who’s paralyzed, and they want Jesus to heal him. But they can’t get their friend in through the crowd, so they climb up on the roof of the house, dig through the roof, and lower this man on a cot right at Jesus’ feet. Talk about good aim.
5 When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
No one was expecting Him to say 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, “That’s not why we dug a hole in the roof. We did not bring him here to be forgiven of his sins.”
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 went berserk.
6 Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, 7 “Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
They were like, “Wait a minute, he is flat out telling stories. 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 a trick question.
8 Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this was what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them, “Why are you thinking these things? 9 Which is easier: to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’?
He asked, “Which is easier to say to this paralyzed man, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or ‘Get up, take up your mat and walk?'” It really doesn’t make a difference 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,
10 But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”
Here it is, “I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, 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 more powerful than the global consequences of sin had arrived.
Then years later, the Apostle Paul comes along and while writing a letter to the Christians who were living in Rome, he explains this concept. He basically said, “Here’s the big idea Christians, here’s the idea you dare not lose sight of. We have hope tied to a brutal fact that sin has impacted the entire world.” Here are Paul’s words.
Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man,
I have to pause and make an observation. I think this will be so helpful. The Apostle Paul talks about sin and treats it like we do energy or information. It’s something you can’t see or put in a box, but it’s undeniably there. It’s everywhere and affects everything.
He goes on,
12 Therefore, just as sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all people, because all sinned.
Sin entered the world through one man, which brought death. And in this way, death came to all people because all sin. 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 brutal fact. This is the reality that is hard for us to get our minds and hearts around.
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 brutal 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, 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 that’s not how the world works. Jesus even taught that’s not how the world works.
But here’s what you need to know. If you cling to that myth that somehow only good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people, your faith will eventually be grounded into dust.
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 things happen to the best possible people. 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. 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 brutal fact of Christianity is that there is a relationship between sin and suffering.
The Apostle Paul continues,
17 For if, by the trespass (or sin) of the one man (Adam), death reigned through that one man, how much more will those who receive God’s abundant provision of grace and of the gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ!
Let me break this down. 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 have a relationship with our Heavenly Father that is secure, reign in life through the one man, Jesus Christ?”
We reign in life by embracing this paradox. We embrace the paradox that sin will have its way today, but not forever. Or to paraphrase Jesus, 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 offers real life and the ultimate and final solution for sin.
And the amazing thing is….the New Testament authors are so clear and 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. “That the word became flesh,” talking about Jesus, “and made his dwelling among us.” He faced what we face. He felt what we feel. The Apostle Paul says in…
“Jesus, being in the very nature of God (that Jesus was God in human form) 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.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!
Your Savior faced the ultimate consequence of sin, death. But not just any death, the worst kind of death. The author of Hebrews comes along later and says,
15 “For we do not have a high priest (talking about Jesus) who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses,”
Weakness is a permanent part of the human condition. You can’t pray, faith, or obey your way beyond it. But the author says the good news is that your high priest, the one that you go to in prayer, understands. He continues.
15 but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.
And then, here’s the best part. He says, in the meantime, here’s what you’re to do. In the meantime, you are to do exactly what your 1st-century brothers and sisters did as they lived in the conflict of a future hope with a world that was afflicted by a ton of suffering and death.
It’s the same thing that I’ve seen parents do when their children are sick or when they’ve had to bury a child. It’s the thing I’ve seen brothers and sisters do when they had to bury a parent too early. It’s the thing I’ve seen many people do when they faced extraordinary suffering or were surprised by grief and loss. Here is God’s promise to you.
16 Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
You can bet the New Testament authors had their feet firmly planted on the soil of suffering. They understood the world we live in.
When you’re going through the suffering and the pain, when you feel like you are drowning in it, there is a hope. You can come to your Heavenly Father with confidence and you will receive mercy and you will receive grace in your time of need.
The Apostle Paul, who himself was awakened by the megaphone on his way to Damascus to inflict pain on 1st-century Christians, puts in context for us when he writes these powerful words.
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that (future tense) will be revealed in us.
And because we know that, we have confidence that,
22 For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering. We, too, wait with eager hope for the day when God will give us our full rights as his adopted children, including the new bodies he has promised us. 24 We were given this hope when we were saved. (If we already have something, we don’t need to hope for it.
For in this hope, not in the hope that everything’s going to work out today, not in the hope that everything’s going to work out for us eventually. But in the ultimate hope that Jesus came to earth not only to die for our sins but to demonstrate that He has the power over the global consequences of sin.
And we live in the tension 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 it. 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 our 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 or find for the first time, our hope. It’s a wake-up call for anyone who has ears to hear. And 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. Again, C.S. Lewis said it so perfectly when he wrote these words.
“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 is that I was made, and that you were made, for another world.”Admiral Jim Stockdale
So, Admiral Stockdale was exactly right. We must never lose faith in the end of the story. And, my friends, what we are living in right now, is not the end.
Our present sufferings are nothing to be compared with our future hope. Our present sufferings are just another reminder of the global consequences of sin. It’s 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.
Our nations issues, our world’s issues, may in fact be God’s megaphone to rouse this deaf world. The only question is, will we listen, and will we respond? And if you already have Christ in your life, He’s still shouting at you. Will you do the work He’s asking us to do?
I have some questions I’d love for you to ponder on and use to keep this conversation going with your family and each other. They are on the back of your bulletin.
- Were you raised to assume that there is a one-to-one correlation between bad behavior and suffering? Were you raised to believe that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people?
- What is, or has been, your go-to explanation for why good people suffer? Because we’ve all seen good people suffer. So, in the past, how have you justified, or how have you explained with your world view, why good people suffer?
- Read Hebrews 4:14–16. According to verse 14, why should we remain faithful during seasons of suffering? According to verse 16, what can we expect from God during seasons of suffering?
I would love for you to wrestle with these questions, because these are big issues, and this is the time to be thinking about all of these things as we look at what’s going on in our world today.
Heavenly Father, thank you for promising grace and mercy. Thank you for providing grace and mercy in our time of need. Father, for the man, the woman, the student, the teenager, the senior adult, whoever needs a big dose of grace and mercy today, please provide that for them through somebody they can talk to, through something they hear, through music, through whatever you use. Help them to know and have the confidence of our New Testament authors that you are with them, and that you will give them the grace they need to endure whatever they’re facing. Help them to see their situation the way that you see it. Give them eyes to see themselves the way that you see them, and then give them eyes to see you the way that you are. We pray all of this, in the name of Jesus, who suffered for our sin. Amen.