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Where is God when it hurts?

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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Topical Scripture: 1 John 4:7-12

So you think you had a bad day recently. This true account was taken from a recent Florida newspaper.

A man was working on his motorcycle on his patio when it slipped into gear and dragged him through the glass patio door and into the dining room. He lay bleeding on the floor as his wife called the paramedics, who transported him to the hospital for stitches. Then she went into the living room, pushed the motorcycle back outside, and used some paper towels to blot up the gasoline which had spilled onto the floor. She threw the towels into the toilet and went to the hospital to check on her husband.

His stitches done, he was released to go home. As he looked at his shattered patio door and damaged motorcycle, he became despondent, went into the bathroom, sat down and smoked a cigarette. He then threw it into the toilet where the gasoline-soaked towels were. It exploded, blowing his trousers away and burning his backside. His wife again ran to the telephone to call for an ambulance.

The same paramedics came to the house again. As they were carrying him on their stretcher down the stairs to the ambulance, one of them asked his wife how he had burned himself. She told him, and the paramedics started laughing so hard one of them tipped the stretcher and dumped the man out. He fell down the remaining steps and broke his arm.

Now, how was your week?

We begin today a series on problems with God, starting with the hardest question of all: where is God when it hurts? Christians believe three facts: God is all powerful, God is all loving, and evil exists. If you’re hurting today or care about someone who is, you know the third statement is true. But what of the others? Where is God when life hurts?

God is love

One answer to this problem is to deny the first statement, the assertion that God is all-powerful. If God could not prevent this problem, or heal this disease, or change these circumstances, then we should not blame him for them. Across the years many have unfortunately chosen this approach.

Here’s an example. Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the bestseller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, out of the suffering and death of his own child. In his book, the rabbi states flatly that God cannot change the laws of nature for our benefit, and will not answer our prayers for the impossible or the unnatural. The rabbi has chosen a limited God as his approach to suffering in the world. Many would agree.

But most of us would not. I am assuming today that most of us know that God, if he is indeed God, is all-powerful. The God who created the universe out of nothing clearly has the power to intervene in that universe. If I can create a watch, I can change its time. If I can create a car, I can drive it.

We more commonly question God’s love, don’t we? If God really loved us, he wouldn’t allow this problem or this pain, we say.

Now our text is clear: “God is love.” The text does not say, “God loves,” for we love and we are not God. It does not say “love is God,” for God is more than a loving feeling or action. The Bible says that God is love.

Love is his nature, his very being. You and I sometimes do loving things—God is love. God loves in action because he is love in essence. Love is who God is, the Bible says.

Do you believe that it’s really true?

Many did not believe these words when John wrote them. The Greeks of his century pictured their gods living on Mt. Olympus, removed from our cares and problems, throwing thunderbolts at us on a whim.

The Roman Stoics of his day saw the gods as fates. They said that we are dogs tied to carts. We can run with the cart or be dragged with the cart, but we’re going with the cart. Apathy—literally “no feeling”—is the best way to deal with gods who do not feel.

Some today struggle to picture God as love. They know that Jesus loves us, but are not so sure that God the Father does. I still remember the preacher’s story about the dying woman, with her husband on one side and their estranged son on the other. In her last act, she took the hand of the father and the hand of the child, brought them together, and died. And so the preacher said that Jesus on the cross took the hand of the wrathful Father and sinful humanity and brought them together in his death. But the Bible says, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16).

Perhaps you struggle with this assertion that God is love. If God really loved you, he wouldn’t let you hurt like this, would he? He wouldn’t allow a plane to crash, killing ten people associated with a college basketball team; he wouldn’t permit an earthquake to kill multiplied thousands; he wouldn’t countenance cancer or heart disease, or rape or drug abuse, or poverty or pain. Or so it seems.

How do we know that God really loves us in the face of hard times? This must have been a question John anticipated in writing this letter as well, for he answers it immediately: “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins” (vs. 9-10).

He sent his Son as our sacrifice (v. 10). He died in our place, for our sins, to prove his love.

He sent him as our Savior: “We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world” (v. 14). He sent him to save us from our sins and give us eternal life in heaven, to prove his love.

And he sent him as our security, to guarantee us this life with his Father: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

I first preached on this text on March 16, 1986, the Sunday after Ryan was born. I only thought I did not understand God’s love in sending his Son to die for us. Then God gave Janet and me a son. Now I know that I don’t understand how God could do this for you and for me. But he did. Our Father proved his love by sending his Son for us.

And he is love, no matter what our circumstances might be. No conditions are placed on this statement in Scripture, or in life. No matter what is happening to you, God loves you. It probably doesn’t seem or feel that way, but it’s so.

Charles Spurgeon, the Baptist preaching genius, was out for a walk in the country one afternoon. He came upon a farmer’s barn with a weathervane on the roof, and saw the words at the top of the weathervane, “God is love.” Just then the farmer came out, and Spurgeon asked him, “Do you mean to say that God’s love is as changing as the weather?” The farmer smiled and said, “Not at all. I mean to say that no matter where the winds blow, God is love.”

Help for our minds

So why would a loving God allow life to hurt so much? Here in brief is the collected wisdom of theologians and other scholars on the subject. Here’s help for our minds. Then we’ll seek help for our hearts.

First, some suffering comes from the natural order. God created a world which operates according to natural laws. As one theologian observed, the man who jumps from a fifty-story window doesn’t break the law of gravity—he illustrates it. God could not give us fire without the possibility that we might be burned, or water without the possibility that we might drown, or the ability to produce cars without the possibility that they might crash. Some suffering results from the natural world.

Second, some suffering comes from the enemy. Scripture says that Satan is a “roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Lions only roar when they are about to attack. Not all pain comes from him, but some does.

Third, some suffering results from our mistakes. Not all, but some. When I don’t study for a test and fail it, I shouldn’t blame the teacher (but I do). When Mickey Mantle was dying of liver disease caused by a series of wrong choices he told the world, “Don’t do what I did.” And I admire his courage in saying it.

God gave us freedom of choice, so we could choose to worship him. If we misuse this freedom, the fault is not with God but us.

Fourth, God can redeem all suffering. Scripture teaches that God works through all things for good (Romans 8:28). He sometimes permits suffering so as to grow us spiritually and personally. And he always redeems suffering for good, either now or in the future, given the opportunity.

Fifth, we will fully understand suffering one day. The Bible says, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

When Mike Yaconelli’s child died he wrote, “We are surviving this a day at a time, knowing that one day we will be able to ask God some very hard questions.” So will we all.

Last, God suffers with us. Because he is love, he hurts as we hurt. David was right: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4).

Every parent in this room knows that we hurt when our children hurt, for we love them. How much more does the God who is love hurt as we hurt. And love us all the while.

Help for our hearts (11-12)

Now let’s make this study as practical as we can. How do we experience his love, his help, his presence? In his Spirit, in his word, but especially in his people.

God calls us to prove his love through ours: “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” “Ought” here means to be morally obligated or compelled.

Then the text continues: “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (vs. 11-12).

We are the only Bible most people will read, the only Jesus they will see. Nearly 20 centuries ago, Clement of Alexandria said that the real Christian “practices being God.” Because we have received, we know how to give. Because we are accepted, we know how to accept. Because we are loved, we know how to love. With God’s love.

Jesus said that loving hurting people would be our greatest witness: “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). We prove God’s love when we love.

When my father died, two of the people who helped me most were Ricky Wilcox and Linda Sharp. Ricky drove across Houston the next day, and spent that day sitting with me. No advice, no words of wisdom, just his presence. He was just there. I’ve never forgotten the love of God I felt in his love.

And Linda Sharp was there. Linda’s father had died of cancer and then her pregnant older sister was killed by a drunk driver. She put her arms around my brother and me and said, “Time helps.” She was right. And God’s love was in hers.

Someone said, “I would like to ask God why he doesn’t do something about all the pain and suffering in the world.” “Why don’t you ask him?” someone replied. The man answered, “Because I’m afraid he’ll ask me the same question.”

Conclusion

No matter where the wind blows, God is still love. He hurts as you hurt, and wants to redeem your suffering for his glory and your good. And he wants you to show his love to the hurting people close to you. Today.

Debbie Hamilton has helped us worship God today, and I’m grateful. One of the most powerful experiences of my three years with you occurred in Paul and Debbie’s home last fall. The Waggoners are in their Sunday school class; as you know, Chip and Wendy’s little baby Benjamin was born with serious health challenges, though surgery this past week was wonderfully successful.

The week before the birth, the Hamilton class met in their home to pray for Chip, Wendy, and Benjamin. They surrounded them with their care and love. Then, when the members left, each took a specific assignment for helping: mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, bringing food, etc. They each also took a stamped envelope to send the Waggoners a note of encouragement. They showed Jesus’ love in theirs.

Where is God when it hurts? Someone is waiting for your answer.