Stories about innocent suffering make the news daily.
Five watercolor paintings attributed to Adolf Hitler failed to sell at auction last weekend, reminding us that the Nazi dictator was a failed artist before inciting the deaths of six million Jews and twelve million other victims in World War II.
Nearly one hundred children have died in Africa from the second-deadliest outbreak of Ebola in history. More than eight hundred people have reported symptoms.
Tragically, no organization is immune to such abuse. The Roman Catholic Church continues to respond to reports of clergy abuse over the last several years. Sexual abuse scandals have rocked the Presbyterian Church USA, the Boy Scouts, gymnastics, swimming, hockey, college football, and political leaders as well.
A study found that nearly five hundred schoolteachers were arrested in 2015 on sexual abuse charges. Shockingly, about 10 percent of children in eighth through eleventh grades were found to have been subjected to some form of sexual abuse by an adult at school (most often a teacher or coach).
Where is God when such tragedies occur?
“Why have you forgotten me?”
Job 9 poignantly describes the pain innocent victims feel when God seems to fail them.
Job pictures the omnipotence of the One “who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea . . . who does great things beyond searching out, and marvelous things beyond number” (vv. 8, 10).
But this omnipotent God seems impervious to Job’s cries for help: “If I summoned him and he answered me, I would not believe that he was listening to my voice. For he crushes me with a tempest and multiplies my wounds without cause” (vv. 16-17). In fact, according to Job, “When disaster brings sudden death, he mocks at the calamity of the innocent” (v. 23).
This must be how many victims of sexual abuse feel about God.
Job is not the only person in Scripture to complain about innocent suffering: “I say to God, my rock: ‘Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?’ As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, ‘Where is your God?'” (Psalm 42:9-10). Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
How are we to reconcile God’s power with his love? Let’s consider five biblical facts.
One: God does not cause innocent suffering. God is holy (Isaiah 6:3), sinless (1 Peter 2:22), and perfectly just (Deuteronomy 32:4). He does not tempt anyone to evil (James 1:13). Misused free will causes much of the innocent suffering in the world, as when Judas betrayed Jesus (Matthew 26:47-50). Disease and natural disasters cause much innocent suffering as well.
Two: God must allow us to misuse our freedom, or we are not truly free. He set before his people “life and death, blessing and curse” and called them to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19).
Three: Disease and disaster are a result of the Fall. When the first humans sinned, the natural order was disastrously affected (Genesis 3:17-19) and remains fallen today (Romans 8:22).
Four: God sometimes intervenes to prevent the consequences of sin and the Fall. He did not keep Herod from executing James, but he sent angels to keep him from executing Peter (Acts 12:1-11). Jesus healed many who were sick (Matthew 8:14-17) and calmed the stormy Sea of Galilee (vv. 23-27).
Five: God redeems all he allows. I’ve discussed this principle elsewhere. For today, I’ll summarize by stating that because God is sovereign, he must allow all that happens (1 Chronicles 29:11). Because he is holy, he can never make a mistake (Isaiah 6:3). However, he makes a mistake if he allows anything he does not redeem for a greater good (cf. Romans 8:28). Therefore, our Lord redeems all he allows. We may not see or understand his redemption on this side of heaven (1 Corinthians 13:12), but we can trust it today.
“So are my ways higher than your ways”
Here’s the mystery: Since God sometimes prevents innocent suffering, why doesn’t he always?
If God is as cruel as he seems to be when he allows a minister to abuse a child, why did he allow his Son to die for our sins? Why does he forgive our sins? Why does he prepare a place for us in paradise?
But if he is as loving as he seems to be at Calvary, why does he allow innocent people to be abused?
Perhaps God could explain this mystery to us but chooses not to. This seems unlikely since innocent suffering causes so many people to turn from faith in him. My father fought in World War II and did not attend church again because he could not reconcile his faith with the suffering he experienced. I cannot believe that God could have explained this issue to him but refused to do so.
The Lord reminds us: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). Given that our minds are finite and fallen (Genesis 6:5), it seems much more plausible that God cannot reveal the mystery of innocent suffering to us because we cannot understand it. Just as a physics professor cannot explain Einsteinian relativity to a first-grader, so God cannot explain this enigma to us.
“I believe; help my unbelief!”
When we cannot understand God’s ways, we can decide to reject his love, grace, and power. But this is to turn from the Great Physician when we most need his help.
Or we can trust our pain to his love, knowing that our Father feels all we feel (John 10:29; Hebrews 4:15) and grieves with us as we hurt (cf. John 11:35). We can trust him to redeem our innocent suffering for his glory and our good. When we cannot see his hand, we can trust his heart.
Perhaps you’re finding such trust to be difficult this morning. The father of a suffering son felt the same way. He said to Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). And Jesus did.
You can pray to God for the faith to have faith in God.
Where is such a prayer relevant for you today?