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An honest approach to the mystery of suffering

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Psalm 3

It’s been a hard week in the news. From a three-year-old boy attacked with acid to flooding victims on the East Coast to shootings in Canada to wildfires in Greece and bombings in Pakistan, the headlines have been painful.

When we learn of such unfairness, we want to ask how God can be all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving, and yet allow this world to be the way it is. If I were God, infants would never be attacked; shootings and bombings would never occur; fires and floods would not happen. I’m sure you’d say the same thing.

Before we study this week’s psalm, let’s explore the issue we need it to address.

Hard answers to a hard question

I know the traditional theological responses: One, we live in a fallen world. In the Garden of Eden, storms didn’t rage, and wildfires didn’t kill people. Two, Satan is alive and well. As the Bible says, he comes to steal, kill, and destroy. Three, people can misuse their freedom. It’s not God’s fault if people choose to attack children and adults. Four, God suffers as we suffer and promises to give us all we need for the hard days. Five, he redeems for greater good all that he allows.

However, if you’re like me, there’s a “but” in the back of your mind. I understand all of that, but still—if I were God, it wouldn’t be like this. If God can still work miracles, why didn’t he on the East Coast and in Greece? If he’s more powerful than Satan, why does he let the devil steal, kill, and destroy?

I understand the importance of free will, but the Lord sometimes prevents the consequences of misused freedom, as when he freed Peter from Herod’s prison and Paul from his Philippian jail. He will help us through hard days, but we’d rather not face them at all. He will redeem what he allows, but we’d rather he not allow it.

Now consider another factor: It’s illogical for God to make a world in which there is human free will but no evil and suffering. If we don’t have evil as an option, how are we free to choose? If there are no consequences to wrong choices, did we really have a choice?

But that’s just what he will do for us in heaven. We will still be ourselves—even more fully ourselves than on earth. But in heaven, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).

If there, why not here?

Here’s the bottom line: I don’t know. I don’t know why we can have free will in a perfect paradise in heaven but not on earth. I don’t know why God sometimes intervenes miraculously but not always. I don’t know why three-year-olds get attacked and families die in fires and bystanders get shot.

I can choose to let the mystery of suffering drive me to atheism, concluding that there cannot be a biblical God in a universe like ours. But then I must account for all the good that makes no sense in such a godless world.

I must account for the astounding beauty and complexity of creation that so surpasses supposed evolutionary purposes. I must account for the goodness of people who sacrifice so unselfishly for each other. I must account for the basic human drive for morality that makes no sense apart from a Creator who bestowed this impulse.

And if there is no God, I must account for the overwhelming evidence for the truthfulness of Scripture, the existence of Jesus, his bodily resurrection, and the transformed lives of his followers. I must account for the billions of lives changed by his saving grace.

And I must admit that by definition, my finite, fallen mind cannot comprehend the nature and purposes of an infinite, perfect Deity. Just as a mathematician could not explain calculus to my four-year-old granddaughter (brilliant though she is!), a God as described in the Bible could not fully explain his ways to me.

I am left with a binary decision. Either choice requires a commitment that transcends the evidence. The universe is not so evil that its depravity proves God does not exist. It is not so good that its virtues prove he does.

So, it seems to me that our decision when facing the mystery of suffering is practical rather than theoretical. We can let suffering drive us further from God, or we can use it to draw us closer to him. Neither decision can be proven before it is chosen. It is as though we’re facing two roads and cannot know their destination until we travel on them.

Here’s why we should choose the road of faith.

Three steps to the grace of God

Psalm 3 is one of fourteen psalms linked to actual events in David’s life. As we will see, the setting of this psalm makes it especially relevant to this message.

Note the presence of three “Selah”s. This is a musical term instructing the worship leader and congregation to pause, reflect on what has just been said, and praise God as a result. We will use them to divide the psalm into three sections.

Tell God about your suffering

David begins: “O Lord, how many are my foes! Many are rising up against me” (v. 1). The setting explains his suffering.

Psalm 3 was composed by King David after his son Absalom staged a successful revolt against him. This was the greatest crisis of his life. The king was forced to flee Jerusalem, with no guarantee that he would return to his throne or even survive the night.

Things were so bad that Absalom’s armies were taunting David: “Many are saying of my soul, ‘There is no salvation for him in God’. Selah” (v. 2). Note the three-fold repetition of “many” in these two verses, emphasizing the danger of his situation.

Rather than allow this crisis to drive David from God, he used it to seek God. He turned to his Lord in honesty, describing the peril and grief of the moment.

Unless your son has rebelled against you and sought to kill you, you have not met circumstances like these. But Psalm 3 is in the Bible for all who face suffering and tragedy of any kind. Its beginning is God’s invitation to turn to him with our suffering in honesty and pain.

Not because we’re telling God what he doesn’t know, but because we’re admitting our need of his provision and power.

Turn to God in faith

In spite of his peril, David did not give up on his Lord: “But you, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head” (v. 3). “But you” is emphatic in the Hebrew.

Note the present tense. Despite all appearances, despite the dangers he faces and the peril of the moment, David chose to believe that God is a “shield about me” who bestows glory on him and lifts his head when it falls in discouragement.

How can this be so? “I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy hill. Selah” (v. 4). “His holy hill” refers to God’s presence prior to the building of the Jerusalem temple. It was from his high and holy presence that God heard his suffering child and answered him.

Our circumstances change nothing about God. Whatever he was before Absalom rebelled, our Lord is after his rebellion. If he was our shield yesterday, he is our shield today.

Because David prayed, God could answer. A doctor cannot serve a patient who will not seek her help.

Act in trust and courage

As a result, David testified, “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the Lord sustained me” (v. 5). Sleep was the most dangerous and vulnerable time in war, but after David prayed to God and claimed the fact that the Lord was his shield and protector, he “lay down and slept.” When he woke again the next morning, he discovered that the Lord had sustained him.

His experience of God’s provision in the present encouraged him to trust God with the future: “I will not be afraid of many thousands of people who have set themselves against me all around” (v. 6). Now he could pray specifically, “Arise, O Lord! Save me, O my God!” (v. 7a).

He could claim his Lord’s omnipotence: “For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked” (v. 7b). God can do what David cannot do. But he can act only if David will ask.

David concluded: “Salvation belongs to the Lord; your blessing be on your people! Selah” (v. 8). Salvation “belongs” to God and thus comes only from him. If we will not turn to him, we cannot have what he alone possesses. But if we will use our suffering as a bridge of faith, we will find his “blessing” on the other side.

Conclusion

Who is your Absalom? What suffering are you facing today? Choose with David to turn to God in honesty and faith, and you will be able to act in faith and courage.

There are some lessons that can be learned only the hard way. One of them is that God provides in the depths of life’s greatest challenges.

And there are some decisions that can only be made in hard times. One of them is the choice to turn to God in honesty and faith. When we do, we discover that we can act in trust and courage.

An anonymous Confederate soldier wrote:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve; I was made weak, that I might learn to serve. I asked for health, that I might do great things; I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for wealth, that I might be happy; I was given poverty, that I might be wise. I asked for power, that I might earn the praise of men; I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life; I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing I asked for, but all I hoped for. Despite myself, my prayers were answered. And I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

So can we be. This is the promise and the invitation of God.