The Problem of Evil and Suffering: Part Four – It’s Not All Doom and Gloom!

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad” (Psalm 126:1-3 ESV).
Beloved, even in the midst of trials and suffering, God wants us to be able to rejoice in him, because he has done great things for us and he wants us to be glad.
One of the things that sets us apart as believers in Christ is our ability to rejoice and give glory to God in the presence of even our deepest pain. But how is this possible? How can we as just regular people manage to see beyond loss, or suffering, or grief and give God thanks in the middle of a terrible storm?
We can do this because, as the prophet Ezra said in the book of Nehemiah, we are assured that “The joy of the Lord is our strength,” and that as Jesus said to his disciples as he prepared them to face his coming crucifixion, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Nehemiah 8:10; John 15:11 ESV).
God intends for our joy to be full, not because we are able to continuously make ourselves happy (because we surely can’t!), and not because our circumstances always make us happy (because they surely won't!), but because the joy of Christ abides within us. Jesus made it a point to tell his closest followers that he wanted them – and all who were to follow him after them – to be filled with his joy. It is through the Lord’s joy abiding in us that we find our greatest happiness and strength.
What is it, then, that makes God so happy that his happiness overflows to fill us with joy so that our joy is full?
In the gospel of Luke, chapter 15, Jesus gave us several parables about what happens when something that is lost has been found. He said that when a shepherd finds his lost sheep he picks it up, carries it on his shoulders and calls all of his friends and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that is lost.” Jesus told the story of a woman who lost a part of her dowry, a silver coin, and she lit every candle and swept her house clean until she found it and said to all her friends and neighbors, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”
Jesus said, “Just so I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10 ESV).
Notice that Jesus said that there is joy “before the angels.” Who is it that is rejoicing in front of the angels of heaven but God himself!
To illustrate this Jesus goes on to tell the parable of the wealthy father whose youngest boy leaves home, squanders his fortune and winds up eating food that he was supposed to be feeding to pigs. When this young man finally realized that even the servants in his father’s house were being treated better than he was, he set out toward home, hoping that since he had thrown away his birthright, maybe his father would be willing to take him in as a servant.
But what the young man found was not that his father had turned away from him in anger as he deserved, but he had been watching and waiting for him to come to his senses and come home. Jesus said that when the young man was still a long way off, in the distance he saw his father running toward him, and when he reached his prodigal son, the father threw himself on the boy’s neck and kissed him. He covered him with a royal robe and placed shoes on his feet and his signet ring on his hand – the declaration that everything that belonged to the father belonged to his son. And then his father threw him a big welcome home party! (See Luke 15:11-32.)
The prodigal son knew that his behavior warranted him being an outcast from his father’s house, but his father’s love for him was so strong that as soon as his son turned toward home, he ran to meet him, clothe him in his finest garments and acknowledge him before everyone. He said to his servants, “’For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found,’ and they began to celebrate” (15:24).
Beloved Friends, we are that prodigal child, God is our Father, and his servants are the angels in heaven. His greatest joy is not only for us, but God’s greatest rejoicing is because of us. Our Father rejoices in the presence of his angels whenever a child of his turns toward home.
Our Father wants us to remember him, to trust him, and to come back to him so that he can acknowledge us as his children before all of creation.
But how can we do this? What makes this possible? Here’s a really cool thing about the story of the prodigal’s return…did you know that the younger son had an older brother?
He did, indeed, but in the story that Jesus told, the elder brother was a little put-out when his little brother came home, and dad threw him a party instead of grounding him for the rest of his life. After all, big brother had stayed home, tended his father’s flocks, always been obedient, and never asked for anything. But he never got a party.
In fact, he complained to his dad when he said, “…Look, these many years I have served you, and I never  disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends” (15:29).
Obviously, that’s not the cool part of the story, because elder brother was totally not cool.
But have you ever wondered why, since the father had two sons, he didn’t send the elder boy to go out and fetch the younger? I don’t see any indication in the story that big brother ever even got it into his head to bring the boy home.
So, here’s the cool part…if we are the sons and daughters, and God is our Father, and the angels are his servants, who is the real Elder Brother? Who did the Father actually send to fetch the prodigal children?
Of course, you know already that it’s Jesus. You see, God – our heavenly Father – loves us so much, that he sent his beloved Son, his only Begotten Son, in whom God is well pleased, to come down here where we are, in this classroom where we are learning about the nature of good and evil, to fight for us, pay the price for us, rescue us, and bring us all the way home.
The best story of all is that we have a Savior, who not only loves us but was willing to die on the cross to save us and redeem us from all the effects that this world filled with sin has had on us.
Beloved Friends, we have a Hero. And not just any Hero, but the King of kings and Lord of lords. The Lion of Judah. The Light of the World. The Prince of Peace. The Lord of Hosts. The Big Kahuna. Very God of Very God. Lord Almighty.
He is our Elder Brother, and he is on our side. He’s got our back. He goes before us, he walks beside us, and he’s got all our bases covered. He has done great things for us. We do not have to be afraid, because God has a mighty plan for each one of us.
Psalm 126 closes this way: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (v. 4-6 ESV).
All of this is true because “...God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:16-17 ESV).
Because God sent his only Begotten Son to bring his children home, no matter what circumstances we face, we can praise him and rejoice because the joy of the Lord will forever be our strength.


We Will Never Forget.

The Lord Is My Shepherd
A Psalm of David.
 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
  He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
 He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
    for his name's sake.
 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
    all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
(Psalm 23 ESV)

The Problem of Evil and Suffering: Part Three – Why Does God Allow Suffering?

“Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce, and would like nothing better than to catch you napping. Keep your guard up. You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world. So keep a firm grip on the faith. The suffering won’t last forever. It won’t be long before this generous God who has great plans for us in Christ—eternal and glorious plans they are!—will have you put together and on your feet for good. He gets the last word; yes, he does” (1 Peter 5:8-11 MSG).
As photos begin to emerge of the catastrophic impact of hurricane Dorian on the Bahamas and her people – and as Georgia and North and South Carolina brace for the storm’s arrival – it’s a struggle to find words that won’t in any way minimize the fear, shock and devastation that many thousands are experiencing right now. I assure you that our hearts are crying with you, our prayers are constantly with you, and that God has not abandoned you – and he never will.
It is during times of extreme suffering that God’s grace and mercy are most present. These are the times when he most yearns to comfort us. These are the situations where he most desires to pour the balm of his healing presence into the chaos of our circumstances.
Why does God allow suffering? If God is all-loving and all-powerful, why doesn’t he stop suffering before it starts? Is there any value in our suffering, or are we just random victims of fate? Where is God when we suffer? Can we trust a God who allows so much evil and suffering to exist in the world? Is there any hope?
Dear Friends, one of the things that suffering teaches us is that we are not in control. That can be a bitter pill to swallow and a difficult lesson to learn, but it is an essential component in establishing of our faith.
Hebrews 11:1-3 says “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony.
By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (NKJV).
These verses tell us that the same God who formed the heavens and the earth and all that is in them is always working behind the scenes – in ways that for us are invisible. And that our faith is the the evidence that we do know and believe that God – and nothing but God – is in control of the universe and all creation, even though we cannot begin to understand the magnitude of his plan.
Jude, a half-brother of Jesus, encouraged us to build ourselves up in faith by praying in the Holy Spirit (1:20), and the author of Hebrews stated that “… without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (11:6 NKJV).
This world is full of suffering, and the suffering we experience is painful and real. In fact, Paul writes that “… we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.  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” (Romans 8:22-23a NLT).
God knows that because of the effects of sin in this world, we all experience suffering. And he knows that his entire creation is groaning, like a woman in labor, waiting for the pains to be over – and for the joy of new birth to arrive.
Paul said that after long, considered study, he had come to the conclusion that even though the sufferings that we experience are extreme, he was convinced that the glory that would be revealed in the fullness of God’s plan for us will demonstrate beyond any doubt that it has all been worth it (Romans 8:16-39).
Beloved, God knows who you are, and God knows everything that you’ve suffered. And Almighty God, who stepped down from his throne in heaven to become fully human like each one of us, and who experiences every suffering with us, will not allow one moment of our suffering to be wasted.
“You haven’t received the spirit of slaves that leads you into fear again. Instead, you have received the spirit of God’s adopted children by which we call out, ‘Abba! Father!’  The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. If we are his children, we are also God’s heirs. If we share in Christ’s suffering in order to share his glory, we are heirs together with him” (Romans 8:15-17 GW).
We share in Christ’s suffering, because he shared in our suffering. His suffering is our suffering, and our suffering is his suffering. That is what he took upon himself when he became not only fully God but also fully human, and bore the punishment for our sin and the pain of ALL our suffering, at the cross.
The prophet Isaiah witnessed this in the spirit when he said that the Suffering Servant who was to come would be a man of sorrows who was acquainted with grief:
“He certainly has taken upon himself our suffering
        and carried our sorrows,
            but we thought that God had wounded him,
                beat him, and punished him.
 He was wounded for our rebellious acts.
        He was crushed for our sins.
            He was punished so that we could have peace,
                and we received healing from his wounds” (Isaiah 53:4-5 GW).
Therefore Beloved, whenever we suffer, we can be completely assured that Christ is with us and he will bear our burdens and wipe away every tear from our eyes. Not only in the kingdom that is to come but here now, where the suffering still exists. We are not alone, and although we do suffer, we do not suffer alone. Because Jesus was willing to go beyond all comfort, he is with us and he will comfort us. His assurance in the presence of our suffering is the basis for our faith.
You know the story of bold, brash Peter, who walked on water – for just a minute or two; and who insisted that no matter what happened he would stick with Jesus through thick and thin – only to deny him three times. Friends, I can imagine that Peter’s suffering before the cross was unbearable. But listen to what one of Jesus’ closest disciples says to encourage us in him: “Dear friends, don’t be surprised at the fiery trials you are going through, as if something strange were happening to you. Instead, be very glad—for these trials make you partners with Christ in his suffering, so that you will have the wonderful joy of seeing his glory when it is revealed to all the world” (1 Peter 4:12-13 NLT).
Scripture tells us that in this world we will experience suffering, but that in our suffering not only are we partners in Christ, but he is partners with us. He is the stronger and we are the weaker partner. Because we understand that we are weak and he is strong, it is important for us to cast our cares onto him and not try and bear the burden of suffering on our own.
Peter said this about our relationship to Christ in suffering, “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God [set aside self-righteous pride], so that He may exalt you [to a place of honor in His service] at the appropriate time, casting all your cares [all your anxieties, all your worries, and all your concerns, once and for all] on Him, for He cares about you [with deepest affection, and watches over you very carefully]” (1 Peter 5:6-7 AMP).
Beloved, God watches over us very carefully. If you are experiencing any kind of suffering today, please be assured that God is standing by to help.
“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ says the Lord. ‘They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope’” (Jeremiah 29:11 NLT).


Continued in Part Four.