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Why do bad things happen to God’s people?

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 Peter 1:1-2

A friend sent me some questions I could not answer. Let’s see how you do:

  • The first couple to be shown in bed together on prime time television? Fred and Wilma Flintstone.
  • Coca-Cola was originally what color? Green.
  • The state with the highest percentage of people who walk to work? Alaska.
  • The percentage of Africa that is wilderness? 28%. The percentage of America that is wilderness? 38%.
  • The cost of raising a medium-sized dog to the age of eleven? $6,400.
  • What do bulletproof vests, fire escapes, windshield wipers, and laser printers all have in common? They were invented by women.

If such trivia represents one end of the relevance spectrum, our question today represents the other. You’ve heard the question, Why do bad things happen to good people? Our question is even tougher: Why do bad things happen to God’s people?

This summer we’ve learned that we are God’s saints, his new creation, the temple of his Holy Spirit. We are branches of his vine, his building, his bride, his body, citizens of his Kingdom, the very people of God. Why, then, are our lives so often so hard?

Being a Christian does not immunize us from a single problem the rest of the world experiences. We get cancer and heart disease just like the rest of the population; the divorce rate is apparently the same for Christians as for the rest of society; our sons and daughters fight and die in Iraq; we lose our jobs and parents and children just like everyone else. If the God of the universe is our Father, why does he treat his children this way?

Where is our question especially pertinent for you this morning? How has stress or struggle or suffering found you today? Why?

Know who you are

Let’s start with the good news. Our text tells us exactly who we are, no matter where we are. It describes in very specific ways precisely how God sees us. No matter how lonely we feel, or abandoned we seem, we’re not. God + 1 = majority, always. Here’s why.

We are “God’s elect,” “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.”

“Elect” translates the Greek word for “chosen, selected.” It was used to describe fruit chosen because it was especially ripe, or clothes chosen because they were especially well-tailored. Once this word applied only to Israel, as the “chosen people of God.” But now it applies to us–all of us.

You read it last week: “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:9-10).

This happened by “the foreknowledge of God the Father.” God knew before time began that he would choose us, that he would want a personal, intimate, eternal relationship with every one of us. He wants such a relationship with every person he made, for he is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). He “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy. 2:4).

When we accept his invitation to personal relationship with him, we “elect” the One who “elects” us. We join his chosen people from across all the nations and all the centuries. We become part of God’s people forever. This is our identity.

Here is the power to be who we are: “through the sanctifying work of the Spirit.”

The Spirit saved you when he convicted you of your sins and led you to faith in Christ. He is saving you now, “sanctifying” you–making you more and more God’s saint, his holy one. He will save you for eternity.

To partner with the Spirit, we surrender to him every day. We begin the morning by yielding it to his Lordship. We ask his guidance before our decisions, his forgiveness when we sin, his power to defeat temptation, his help for our problems. When we walk in the Spirit, we are sanctified by the Spirit.

Now we discover the purpose for which we are chosen and sanctified: “in obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood.”

To obey and to serve him. As Moses sprinkled blood on the altar of sacrifice, so we are to sprinkle the “blood of Christ” wherever we go. We exist to make disciples of all nations, to be the salt and light of Christ, his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

The church is the only hope of the world. As we obey Jesus and share his saving love with our dying world, we fulfill a purpose more significant than any other. Bodies may be healed, but they will one day die. Finances will belong to someone else or be lost. Cars will rust. Clothes will wear out. Houses will be torn down. Nothing we do in time will count for eternity, except what we do to obey Jesus and share his love with all we can. This is the reason we are here, the purpose of our lives. It is the highest purpose in all of human history.

Know where you are

So you are not what you do, or what you own, or how many friends you have. You are the chosen, sanctified, serving child of God. If all this is so, why do bad things happen to God’s people? If we are chosen, sanctified, and called, why is life so often so hard? The answer lies not in who we are, but in where we are.

We are “strangers in the world.” “Strangers” translates the Greek word for “sojourners,” temporary residents, not permanent settlers in the land. We are immigrants in this world, just here for a while, only passing through.

All the while, we are expected to remember our true home.

We are “scattered”–the word translates diaspora, the official word for the dispersal of the Jewish people across the Gentile world. At various times in their history, many in Israel left Palestine to take up residency abroad. Some were forced out by persecution; others left in search of jobs and prosperity. But they always considered Israel their nation, the Jews their people, the Holy Land their home.

They would return to Jerusalem each year for Passover and Pentecost, which is why so many from these very regions were there when the Spirit fell at Pentecost and the Church was born. Many of Peter’s readers were likely converted during that Pentecost miracle, and have now returned to their homes. He is their pastor; the Jerusalem church is their home church; he is writing to his people as they are away.

Like the Jews scattered around the world, they are strangers where they live, scattered in the world. They are to remember their true home: in heaven with their Lord.

The reason why bad things happen to God’s people is simple: we’re not home yet. We’re scattered strangers. This world is not our home.

When Ryan and Craig head out to college in two weeks, they won’t be home any longer. Janet can’t make sure they’re eating well, or doing their homework; she can’t clean up their dorm room or wash their clothes (not that she’ll miss that part so much). It’s not her fault if their rooms look as bad as mine looked in college, or if they get by on cold pizza and stale French fries. They’re not home.

Why will we allow them to go off and live in places where we can’t take care of them? Because that is what’s best for them. That’s how they’ll grow, and learn, and mature. They’ll learn things they could not learn at home, and grow in ways they could not if they lived with us. And that’s best for the places they will go–the friends they’ll make, the people they’ll help, the vocations they’ll eventually serve.

We could keep them safe and well-fed at home, but that’s not what’s best for them or the world they are called to serve.

Conclusion

So, why did God allow his elect, sanctified, serving people to be scattered strangers across Asia Minor? Because they could take the gospel wherever they went, building the Kingdom across the world.

Why has God allowed you to be where you are today? His holiness requires him to redeem all that he permits or causes. Know that you are in your circumstances this morning because they are the best place for you to serve your Lord and build his Kingdom. When that changes, when you’re no longer where you can be sanctified and serve most fully, you’ll be the first to know.

In the meanwhile, ask him how he intends to redeem your work and your world today. Know that you are his child, elect and chosen.

How can this hard place help the Spirit sanctify you? What can you learn which will grow your faith and build your character? God never wastes a hurt. He works through all things for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). How could he redeem your scattered life by helping you be more like Jesus?

How can this hard time help you obey Jesus and share his love with your world? How can you help someone who is hurting as you are? Who will see your faith under trial and be drawn to God? Remember that this world is not your home. Ask God to redeem the place and pain where you are living today, and know that he will. Every time.

Last month it was my privilege to spend the week at Thee Camp with Pike and our youth ministry. We arrived on Sunday and returned on Friday. We had rain nearly every night and mud nearly every day. But we also had powerful worship and practical Bible studies. And one of the most anointed speakers I’ve ever heard.

Afshin Ziafat was born in Houston, my hometown. When he was two, his family returned to their native Iran, but left four years later when the Iranian Revolution began. He grew up in an extremely religious Muslim home. As a senior in high school, he read the Bible and came to faith in Christ. His father disowned him; their relationship has been strained ever since.

God has called Afshin to preach in churches, conferences, and camps across the nation and around the world. He is helping get thousands of Bibles back into Iran, and training pastors there for the revival we all pray is coming to that land. If I could interview Afshin this morning and ask him if God has redeemed his sufferings for a greater good, my friend would immediately agree.

I saw proof of it all week long, as a large number of students came to faith in Jesus for the first time, and dozens made significant new commitments to Christ. The final proof came Thursday evening, as I was invited to pray with the senior men. There were 22 of them, led by Alan Daniels all week. We were planning to pray for 15 or 20 minutes, as it was already 11:30 p.m. We prayed for two hours.

I heard these young men pour out their hearts to God, dedicate themselves to his call on their lives as they go to college, intercede for their families and lost friends, and yield themselves completely to the Spirit. My son was one of them.

I will forever be grateful to God for using an Iranian Muslim who is now a Spirit-led preacher to touch my son and my life and my family. All that it has cost him to be a stranger scattered in the world, God has more than redeemed. As he will with me. As he will with you.

Where is the hard place you need to put in the hand of God today?