Why does God let us suffer so?

Genesis chapter 3 provides an enlightening glimpse as to why a loving God allows suffering, because it looks like God meant Adam and Eve to suffer. First he creates a tree, the fruit of which when eaten would expose Adam and Eve to evil, and then God lets a serpent loose on them to tempt them into eating it.

Result? Adam and Eve suffer. And every human has suffered since too, “For God has bound ALL men over to disobedience.” God lets evil have its way with all of us – for a reason, though – “so that he may have mercy on them all,” Romans 11:32.

It’s a hard concept to grasp, a loving God allowing us to suffer so we understand his mercy, but God longs for a relationship with us that will last happily for eternity, and here we see how he does it. He does it in two ways – through suffering and mercy.

Suffering plays its part in showing us what destroys our relationship with God: It’s the overwhelming power of evil. That’s what destroyed Adam and Eve’s relationship with God. But the only way any of us wake up to evil being real and lethal is experiencing it, and the suffering it creates. It’s heartbreaking having to watch young people come to that realization, but God went through that heartbreak with his beloved Israel too, because the school of hard knocks is the only way we humans realize we’re no match for evil on our own strength.

But having experienced the heartache and broken relationships caused by evil, and we’re ready at last to admit how easily evil overwhelms us, God is ready and waiting with mercy, just as loving parents are ready and waiting to hug a foolish child.

So it’s after we’ve learnt what destroys our relationship with God that God then teaches us what restores our relationship with him. It’s his mercy. God welcomes us with open arms when we seek his forgiveness and help. You’d think he’d want nothing to do with us after what we’ve done, but he longs for relationship with us, just as parents long for relationship with their foolish, rebellious children.

And that’s the message God would love people to hear, that he “was reconciling the (whole) world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them,” 2 Corinthians 5:19. God holds none of our stupidity or weakness against us. And there is joy in heaven when a hurting, wounded child of God comes to that staggering realization and believes it, because it’s the understanding of God’s amazing mercy that helps us realize at last how much he loves us.

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“I can do all things.” Oh, really?

Children are being taught that they can do whatever they put their minds to, in school, children’s books, and in endlessly nauseating Disney movies. And bookstores are full of self-help books by patronizing gurus telling us, “I did it; so can you.”

It was a relief for me some time back, then, to discover that I can’t do whatever I put my mind to, because God made us humans subject to futility and frustration (Romans 8:20), so that even at our best we amount to nothing more than broken pots (2 Corinthians 4:7).

And the reason God did this to us was to get us to include him in our lives. Why? Because we’ve proved beyond doubt in our human history that we cannot live the life he designed for us on our own. So he continues to let us suffer from war, disease, famine, pollution and a host of other unsolvable problems, to convince us we cannot do whatever we put our minds to. And children soon discover that all their great plans and dreams aren’t guaranteed to always work either, because their resolve weakens under pressure, accidents happen, or people conspire against them – including their own parents.

But once we’ve accepted that we’re limited and life isn’t fair, what do we do then? Well, it’s lift the lid on our broken pot, pop our heads out, and ask God to help us, which he promises to do, and in so many ways that eventually we can say as Paul said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

But Paul didn’t come to that understanding easily. For much of his life he’d depended on the power of his own mind and will, just like children are being taught to do today. But to his horror he also experienced his mind and will conspiring against him to make him do the very opposite of what he wanted to do. It was hugely frustrating. But in his frustration he cried out to God for help and made the most amazing discovery, that to make things happen “the all-surpassing power is from God and not from us,” 2 Corinthians 4:7.

In other words, it’s a totally false idea that we humans can do whatever we put our minds to, because it’s only GOD who can do that. Only he can do whatever he puts his mind to. But God’s quite willing to share the power of his mind with us, and that’s what a child needs to hear, that yes he can do whatever he puts his mind to, so long as he’s trusting in the power of God’s mind to help him, not just his own.

How can I trust a weird God?

To many people God is repulsive, because what kind of God kills every firstborn child in Egypt, commands the slaughter of every woman and child in Jericho, and drowns Pharaoh and his army just to prove how powerful he is?

In Pharaoh’s case, however, God fires right back with a question of his own. “Since when,” he asks in Romans 9, “did clay argue with the potter as to what it’s used for? Exquisite vase or humble flowerpot, I have the right to make you into whatever I want. If I designed you to display my anger or my goodness, what’s that to you?”

But what kind of answer is that? I’m just a nobody, am I, without rights or say in what happens to me?

“But you were already a nobody without rights or say,” God replies, same chapter (paraphrased), “because admit it, you were coasting through life totally absorbed in your own petty projects, all of which amounted to a big fat zero and a six foot hole in the ground. Fortunately for you, I’ve always had better things in mind for my beloved humans.”

Well, that’s nice, but how can I convince people God has our best interests in mind when story after story in the Bible makes God seem monstrous and uncaring? It’s like trying to convince your teenage daughter you have her best interests in mind when telling her to be home by 10:00 pm, and she snarls like a cornered cat and stomps off to text her friends about the rejects she has for parents.

But some teenagers don’t do that, do they? They trust their parents even when their parents seem impossibly old-fashioned. Why? Because they accept their parents know more about life than they do – just as billions of galaxies humming away quite nicely above our heads prove God knows a whole lot more about life than we do. And some people, like Abraham, could see that. So, when told by God to kill his son, Abraham didn’t argue or accuse God of being out of his mind; he simply trusted him.

So why don’t we all simply trust him?

Because the lesson from the very beginning of our history is that we’d rather trust in ourselves and in gods of our own making – which is tragic because look at the mess we’re still in as humans. We desperately need God’s help, but we can’t bring ourselves to trust him. Fortunately, God took care of that for us in Jesus, who did trust God and now promises to give us his trust, so when God at times seems weird to us we can trust him too.

The real source of “spirituality”

A lot of people nowadays are dumping religion for “spirituality,” believing you don’t have to be religious to be spiritual. A Dad, for instance, can be so deeply moved by his newborn baby it becomes a “spiritual” experience for him. Music, too, creates emotions so intense that even atheists say they’ve been “moved spiritually.” And all kinds of non-religious people claim they’re having spiritual experiences through meditation or by tuning into the Earth’s vibrations.

Religious folk say it’s all a false spirituality, however, because in their opinion if you’re not doing the proper religious stuff in a proper religious place with a proper religious chap in charge, you’re no more spiritual than a horse. On the other hand, non-religious folk reply, all that religious stuff hasn’t exactly made religious people very spiritual either, has it?

They have a point; religious people are some of the most bloodthirsty maniacs on the planet, and many are elitist, condemning, self-righteous prats. Religion, therefore, doesn’t automatically make you spiritual; it can actually make you extremely unpleasant.

So what does make a person spiritual? Or, if one is seeking a truly spiritual experience, what defines it as spiritual? I ask because intense and extraordinary experiences can be created without a spirit source. Mind-altering drugs, for example, can create visions and out-of-body sensations as real as any claimed by mystics or religious folk.

The Bible, however, talks of a Spirit source that includes a clearly defined list of what spirituality really is (in Galatians 5:22) – and it doesn’t involve anything religious. There’s no religious ritual one has to perform, no temple one has to attend, or religion one has to join.

Anybody can receive what the Holy Spirit provides for nothing more than simply recognizing this is what Jesus died on the cross for, to make such a Spirit available to us. And what that Spirit does for us also happens to be exactly what we need on this planet. It provides us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And that’s the kind of spirituality I’d dearly love to have, rather than all that fluffy nonsense about getting in touch with the Earth goddess, or tapping into the divine within, because I notice I haven’t got much divine within me when someone cuts me off in traffic, and the Earth goddess isn’t exactly doing much to change people either, is she?

I need help from a source beyond myself that’s real, powerful and instant. It’s good to know, then, that when “the Spirit is the source of our life,” verse 25, the down-to-earth, practical help that I and the planet so desperately need is ready and available.

“Is that really God’s voice I’m hearing?”

To many people Mother Teresa was the ultimate saint, sacrificing her life to caring for the poor, and smiling serenely through it all.

But all was not well behind that smile of hers.

The problem was this: she hears what she believes is Christ’s voice on a train in 1946 telling her to “Come be my light” by serving the poor in the slums of Calcutta, but after she gets there and starts working Jesus disappears. She doesn’t feel the love and personal contact she felt from him before. Seven years later she writes a letter about the terrible darkness within her “as if everything was dead. It has been like this more or less from the time I started the work.”

So all that time the world was knocking at her door, thinking she was wonder woman in intimate touch with God and feeling his presence everywhere, she was feeling abandoned by God. Her prayers were empty and she even admitted that saving souls held no attraction for her.

To an atheist this is further proof of how religion twists people into mental knots. But, Christians argue, “It was God’s voice she heard.” So they, just like her, work themselves to the bone doing what they believe God called them to do. But after years of slogging away God seems miles away and life has become a loathsome ritual. But they carry on anyway, just like Mother Teresa, smiling in public as if everything is wonderful, while pouring out their pain in private journals and letters.

There’s something sadly wrong about a religion like that, because it sets people up for discouragement and disillusionment when, after working one’s tail off for God, life is dark and empty. It happened to Mother Teresa.

It didn’t happen to the apostle Paul, however, and he experienced pressures as great as any Mother Teresa ever faced, but God never disappeared on him or left him in terrible darkness.

Christ met his every need and frustration with all the help necessary to see him through (2 Corinthians 4:8-10 and 12:9-10). Sadly, that wasn’t what Mother Teresa experienced. One has to wonder, then, if it really was Christ’s voice she heard on that train, especially when Christ explicitly said he’d never abandon us (John 14:21) – a very different story to that told by Mother Teresa in her letters.

But she did at least write about her pain, and that, hopefully, will free other people up to talk about the pain religion has created in their lives too. And to those who’ve been doing their all for God but God seems so distant, perhaps they too might ask, “Is that really God’s voice I’m hearing?”

Does God still give visions?

In Acts 2:17, Peter quotes a prophecy from the book of Joel that “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people,” and “your young men will see visions.” The Greek word for visions means God-given visions, and so does the Hebrew word for visions in Joel 2:28, so yes, God gives visions, but does Acts 2:17 mean God will be giving visions to Christians all through the centuries, or was it meant only for the Jews back then?

In context, verse 14, Peter is talking to his “Fellow Jews” when he quotes Joel, and he ends the quote with “Men of Israel” in verse 22, so the prophecy is clearly meant for the Jews and Israel back then. But why Joel? Because Joel’s prophecy was both a warning and hope for the Jews of Peter’s time, just it had been a warning and hope for the Jews of Joel’s time.

In both Acts 2 and Joel the Jews were heading for the “dreadful day of the Lord” (Joel 1:15), a time when Judah would be attacked and destroyed by an invading army. In Joel the attacker was most likely Babylon, and in Acts it would be the Romans in 70 AD, when Jerusalem would be totally destroyed.

To the Jews in Joel’s day who responded to his warning and repented, God promised mercy, protection, and the pouring out of his Spirit and other “wonders” to provide clear evidence that he was with them before calamity struck – and that he would save any survivors who called on him when calamity struck. So hope was offered with the warning. But the Jews of Joel’s day didn’t respond to God’s call, and all the way up to Acts 2 they never received protection from pagan powers and they never received the Holy Spirit or the other wonders Joel promised.

And now in Acts 2 the Jews are warned again of the dreadful day of the Lord coming, in their case the impending attack by the Romans, but with the same hope being offered of the pouring out of the Spirit and other wonders to provide clear evidence God was with them, and that God would spare those who called on him from the calamity coming.

And many Jews did heed the warning (Acts 2:40), and the Holy Spirit was poured out on 3,000 of them in one day, followed by all sorts of visions and other wonders given and done by the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts.

In context, then, Acts 2:17 is about God giving visions back then, and why. If some take that to mean God still gives visions today, Acts 2:17 is not a good verse for proving it.

Visions, dreams and voices – who needs them?

People keep popping up who claim they’ve been given “messages from the Lord” through visions, dreams and voices in their heads. But is it really God speaking to them, and how do they know?

It’s a well-known fact, for instance, documented brilliantly in the movie ‘A Beautiful Mind,’ that the human mind can create people and events that seem utterly real that aren’t real at all. A person claiming a hotline to God, then, could in fact be a schizophrenic, whose premonitions, proclamations and prophecies are caused by nothing more than a chemical imbalance in the brain. Can anyone say for certain, then, that his visions are supernatural when the cause could be quite natural, like medication, mental illness, intense stress, or simply eating too much before bed?

The mind is a tricky thing, and it can be easily manipulated. A hypnotist, for instance, can also create visions in a person’s head and make people think all kinds of crazy things, none of which are from God. So there’s an element of doubt, surely, when a person states with absolute authority that his visions are from God, when visions can quite easily be created without God being involved at all.

Fortunately, God himself provided the means for detecting a real message from him. He sent Jesus Christ with all the messages we’d ever need, and then confirmed his choice of messenger personally by bringing him back from the dead. So all we need do when someone says he or she has a vision or a message from God is compare it to the message of the one messenger we know for certain came from God, and if it agrees, great, and if it doesn’t, ignore it.

And to aid us in that quest, God promised us a Spirit helper who would help us understand what Jesus taught (John 14:26). No spooky premonitions or wild prophecies, just a clear guide for detecting if a “message from the Lord” really is of God, or not, so we can tell if a charismatic visionary or a self-proclaimed prophet is talking through his hat.

People will keep popping up, however, who claim they’ve had revelations from God, which is tragic, because look at the fruits of such “revelations” so far. We have a world full of confusing, differing religious cults and self-proclaimed prophets, all of them a law to themselves in deciding what God’s will is. The result is a tragic mess of warring religions, denominational splits, wild speculation, failed prophecies, arrogant know-it-alls, chronic self-deception and all too often, horrible disillusionment.

Surely by the fruits, then, we can ask the question, “Visions, dreams and voices – who needs them?”