Feeling others’ suffering

It isn’t just global warming that’s raising sea levels it’s the tears of those suffering from senseless acts of terrorism. And the terrorist acts keep piling up, to the point they become mind-numbing. “Not more utter stupidity,” I hear myself say at the latest act of insanity, and I simply want to turn it off in my head and not think about it.

And in one way I suppose my tuning out can be justified, because I can’t carry the world’s suffering on my shoulders; it will kill me too. I can’t do anything about what’s happening, either. I can’t step inside the heads of terrorists to understand why they do what they do, nor can I stop them doing what they do. I am utterly powerless to either change a terrorist’s mind or stop him before he acts. And up to this point it seems nobody can figure out what makes ordinary people do terrible things, nor can we come up with any way of protecting the innocent from people who just decide to crash their vehicles into pedestrians.

I can understand people saying, “My God, why is he letting this happen?” Does God have no feeling for those suffering as well? Could he not stop a terrorist act from happening? Well, yes, he could, but he chose another route. He let us make our own choices, and he allowed us to shape the world the way we wanted, knowing it wouldn’t work. It’s like parents letting their kids do what they must, knowing it’s going to end up in tears, but for humans it seems this is the only way we learn.

But like parents, God suffers when his children jump the rails. We know he does, because he showed us. It was all there in Jesus on the cross, who was up there to feel every bit of what it’s like as an innocent man to suffer. A terrorist act was done on him by uncaring, brutal people who cared for nothing but themselves. And he allowed them to do it to him, so he’d know what it was like to be human and suffer from senseless acts by insane people.

He cried the same cry we cry when awful things happen: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why are you letting this happen to me? Why? I’m innocent. Why are you letting evil people destroy good people?

But that was the moment God’s Kingdom began. It only began when God felt our suffering to the core. It’s on that cross, therefore, that we have our guarantee that God feels for our suffering and he will end it.

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I need comfort too when others are suffering

It’s hard taking on board the suffering of others. It knocks my day to pieces when bad news comes through about a fellow Christian. It’s depressing. It’s depressing not knowing what to pray about too, because I have no idea if God intends to heal the person’s illness, or stop the person from dying, or if he’ll ease the desperate situation the person is in. I can’t read God’s mind, so I can’t promise the person a good outcome either. What do I say at his bedside, or at church? I feel utterly helpless.

So that’s two of us now suffering. The sick or dying person is suffering and I am as well, and I can’t just blank it out of my head and carry on my day unperturbed, because as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:26 we can’t help suffering when a fellow Christian suffers. When one part of your body is in pain the whole body feels it. In the church that’s the way it is.

But Paul also made the rather startling statement in 2 Corinthians 1:6 that his suffering brought “comfort and salvation” to others. Oh, so in the church that’s the way it is too, is it? But how? How can suffering cause comfort? And Paul goes one step further too, when he says his suffering brought “salvation,” meaning it actually spared people from despairing.

Paul does not back off the fact in verse 5 that Christ allows us to suffer, but he adds a bit on the end of the verse, “For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” With Christ, suffering never travels alone. It is always accompanied by comfort. But not just comfort for the one suffering; it’s comfort for the ones watching and hearing about the person suffering too. That’s why Paul could say in verse 7, “our hope in you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.” And I appreciate that, because I need comfort too when others are suffering.

Here’s how it works, says Paul: He explains how terribly he suffered in Asia, to the point that he and his coworkers “despaired even of life,” verse 8, but their hope was kept alive “as you help us by your prayers,” verse 10-11. And that’s where comfort comes from for those watching others suffer. It comes from knowing our prayers keep the suffering person’s hope in God alive. Jesus literally transforms our prayers into hope. And how comforting that is, that no matter how badly a person is suffering, our prayers guarantee God’s “gracious favour” on him, verse 11.

Has a dog ever asked, “Why does God let me suffer?”

Dogs have suffered horribly at the hands of humans. They’ve been trained for dog fights to kill and maim, and bred for human vanity without concern for the problems pedigree dogs suffer, like weak hips, spinal pressure, squashed nasal passages, cancerous skin, and epilepsy.

Dogs are also smooched on and pampered like little girly dolls, making them fat, ugly and obnoxious. They are locked up for hours in empty homes with nothing to do, making them bored, listless and arthritic. Or they’ve been so badly treated they turn savage and attack without warning. What humans have done to dogs is disgusting.

But dogs, amazingly, take it. They react badly when life becomes unbearable, yes, but it’s not done in revenge, or because they’re thinking, “I’ve had enough of this idiot, and it’s time he got a taste of his own medicine.”

Dogs, instead, take life as it comes. If they spend all day in the garage with a blanket and a bowl of water while the family are at work and school, so be it. And if they get bopped on the nose for chewing the carpet, they get the point and adapt to their owner’s requirements. They may whine if left alone or they can’t join in with the kids playing, but they don’t bear grudges or wonder why they’re being ignored or mistreated when they don’t deserve it. A dog doesn’t take pain personally; and has a dog ever asked, “Why does God let me suffer?”

But humans do. When life doesn’t turn out the way we like, we take it personally, and look for someone to blame and vent our anger on. And who better than God, who holds the reins of the universe and could make every life turn out right if he wanted to? So we pretend he doesn’t love us, to excuse ourselves acting like bratty children who can’t get their way.

But dogs never do that. They never seek excuse to turn on their owners with weird notions that their owners don’t love them, or their owners like punishing them. It makes me wonder, therefore, if God created dogs to become our best friends so we can learn from them, because we cannot escape the fact that here is a creature that accepts whatever we throw at it, and it keeps on trusting no matter what.

And it’s so obviously the way to be, because dogs are the happiest creatures on earth. They are easily content in whatever situation they find themselves in, and accept life as it comes without complaint. I wonder how many humans have asked, then, “How can I be more like a dog?”

Pain, suffering and evil

So how come pain, suffering and evil still exist, despite the fact that Christ in his death “condemned sin in sinful man” (Romans 8:3), and in his resurrected state he’s now at God’s “right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the age to come“ (Ephesians 1:20-21)?

Surely our hope rests in clear evidence that those two scriptures are true “in the present age” – in life in this world right now, in other words – and we can see with our own eyes too that Jesus rules supreme, “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20). If peace is what Christ died to create, then shouldn’t we be seeing pain, suffering and evil becoming less and less?

Yes, if by “peace” it means an obvious decrease in pain, suffering and evil worldwide. And isn’t that the world’s great hope, that one day all pain, suffering and evil will be eradicated? But in Colossians 1:21-22, that’s not what peace means. Peace isn’t the opposite to pain, suffering and evil. Peace is defined as no longer being “alienated from God,” and “enemies in our minds because of our evil behaviour.” Peace is defined in context here as the eradication of our hostile attitude to God, because at the heart and core of all evil is thinking God is our enemy.

Remove that thought in our heads and, hey presto, we have peace. But that’s what Christ died for, to reconcile us to God (verse 22) so we don’t see him as our enemy anymore. But how can he be our enemy when it was God, in Jesus, who died to cancel out every evil thing we’ve ever done or thought of, and now “through his death presents us holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation” (verse 22)?

We brought pain, suffering and evil on ourselves by our hostility to God, but God shows through Jesus’ death that he feels no hostility to us. It’s so hard to keep that in mind, though, when evil things happen, because it looks like God doesn’t like us at all, and he makes us suffer to show his disapproval.

But we can keep it in mind, Paul says in verse 23, “IF we continue in our faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.” The hope of the gospel is that Christ’s death will end everyone’s hostility to God, and it’s keeping that in mind that keeps us remarkably and miraculously at peace, despite everything happening to and around us.

Why was God so vicious in the Old Testament?

The God of the Old Testament was involved in killing thousands upon thousands of people. In Genesis alone he drowned thousands in Noah’s flood, and he had Sodom and Gomorrah firebombed. In Exodus he wiped out the Egyptians’ firstborn, and buried Egypt’s war machine in the Red Sea. In Exodus 17:14 he promised to “completely erase” the Amalekites, and in Numbers he creamed anyone who threatened or attacked Israel. Huge slaughter commanded by God in each case; lots of blood, destruction and “no survivors” (Deuteronomy 2:34), and then came the total destruction of Jericho and “twelve thousand men and women” killed in Ai (Joshua 8:25).

Add up the thousands of Israelites yet to die because of their rebellion, and possibly millions more who died in attacks against Israel, all by God’s command or direct action, and we have a horrible picture of God emerging in the Old Testament, doling out bucket loads of death and suffering, and even on children too.

So why was God so vicious? Because, as Paul explains in Romans 5:13, “sin was in the world.” If there’d been no sin, in other words, there wouldn’t have been any death. But “sin entered the world” when Adam and Eve blatantly disobeyed God, totally disregarding why God had created them, “and in this way death came to all men” (verse 12), exactly as God had said it would back in Genesis 2:17.

But death wasn’t real, because people continued doing exactly what Adam and Eve did, totally ignoring God’s purpose for them. Clearly, then, humans had to learn what God meant by death, and how seriously he meant it. For nearly four thousand years, therefore, God made his promise of death real. Anyone who did not fit in with what he created humans for became expendable. He allowed millions of people to die violently, but their lives held no value anyway, because sin had already destroyed their value.

In Paul’s words in Romans 9:22, humans had become “objects” who deserved to be eradicated. Harsh words, but when God said “death” he meant death, horrible death, dreadful destruction, and human life becoming utterly useless and dispensable.

But after four thousand years of wasted human life, God sent Jesus to end that era of death. It had gone on long enough, but long enough to seal the brutal lesson in human history that human life is completely pointless and therefore totally dispensable “because of sin” (Romans 8:10). So, what is human life like without sin? Well, that’s what we’ve been finding out ever since Jesus “condemned sin in sinful man” (Romans 8:3). Now we’re learning what happens to humans who are tuned in to God’s purpose, and how valuable such a life becomes.

How do we share in Jesus’ sufferings?

Paul shared in Jesus’ sufferings by “becoming like him in his death,” Philippians 3:10. It can’t mean we die on a cross like Jesus did, so what did Paul mean instead?

He gives us a clue in Philippians 2:8. In describing Jesus’ death, the point Paul emphasizes is: Jesus “humbled himself.” Jesus not only gave up everything he had to become human (7), he also gave himself entirely to being “obedient to death” (8). His entire focus as a human was on total obedience to God’s purpose and a life of selfless service until he died, and he humbled himself to that.

So should we, said Paul in verse 5, because “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” It meant, verse 3, “Doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.” A life of selfless service to God and neighbour with no gain to ourselves – and we are willing to humble ourselves to that until we die, just as Jesus was.

So was Paul. He’d been a top-ranking Pharisee with admirable credentials and an impressive record of faultless obedience to the Law (3:5-6), but “whatever was to my profit (before) I now consider loss….I consider them rubbish” (3:7, 8).

It must’ve been humbling, though, giving all that up and “in humility considering others better than” himself (2:3). Never again could Paul resort to any tactic that would elevate himself above others. Despite what people said about him or did to him, he could not retaliate in kind, or make snide remarks behind people’s backs to make himself feel better. Nor could he use religion or his faultless obedience to the Law, or even his intelligence anymore, to make himself feel superior. He couldn’t even be offended if people hurt him or wrongly accused him. And never again could he focus on polishing his image or making a name for himself to become more noticeable and admired among his peers. All that dreadful rubbish had to die.

But in dying to it Paul would share in the suffering of Christ, in the humbling experience of living with selfish people but never reacting to them selfishly, and never being competitive. It was tough, yes, but Paul willingly humbled himself to such a life because more than anything he wanted to become like Christ, and in this way he could. It was by humbly squashing his pride, hurt and ambitions, and dying to them daily, just as Jesus died to them daily too.

And it’s in that daily death we become like Christ in his death. We die with him in the same things he died to. Tough, yes, but for Paul there was also “the power of Jesus’ resurrection” to help him (3:10).

Why leave us in this world to suffer?

Living in Christ’s world, under grace, is no bed of roses. It’s wonderful that we’re in it, because once we’re in it Jesus isn’t going to lose us, but just like the children in Narnia we face an ugly world every day and we still find ourselves with some pretty awful thoughts and motives. So why doesn’t God get us out of this world, free us from the influence of evil, and let us live our new nature to the full, without interruption from the wiles and schemes of the Devil?

Paul answers that in Romans 5:3. He talks about rejoicing in our sufferings because there’s a purpose to them, just like there was a purpose to the challenges the children faced in Narnia. When they first entered Narnia through the wardrobe and set out together to explore this new and fascinating land, they were typical children. The younger boy was soon tempted by the witch to suit her evil purposes. The two older children weren’t exactly forgiving toward him, either. They were short-tempered, impatient with each other, and really very selfish at the beginning. But all they had to go on was their own childish strength and responses, so they soon lost heart if things went wrong, and they easily got angry and scared. 

As they spent more time in Narnia, however, they grew. But it wasn’t because of anything they were consciously doing to make themselves grow. They weren’t on a program of self-improvement or character development. They were simply responding to each difficult situation as it arose, in the process of which they grew. They became more forgiving, more patient with each other, more courageous and more positive, not because of anything they were doing, but because Aslan, the great lion, had planned it this way, that the journey he had them on would produce the growth.

Our own Aslan, Jesus, planned it this way for us, too. That’s why we can rejoice in our sufferings, verses 3-4, “because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character; and character, hope.” The journey produces these things for us just as it did for the children in Narnia. Every suffering and trial has a purpose. In some way we’ll grow from it. And that hope will never be disappointed (verse 5) because “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Aslan did the same for the children, too. He infused his nature into them, so they’d never lose hope on the journey. Yes, the journey gets rough, but we discover in time that we’re not the selfish, fearful children we used to be. We’re growing up.