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Why do God’s people suffer?

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: Matthew 5:10-12

Innocent suffering is the greatest single problem confronting the Christian faith. We Christians believe three facts about God:

God is all loving—he would want to end evil and suffering, it would seem.

God is all powerful—he could end evil and suffering.

Evil exists—it is not merely the product of wrong thinking or appearance, but very real and very deadly.

The easy answer to innocent suffering is to minimize one of these three convictions. Some will say that the Fort Worth tragedy happened because God is not all loving, and is somehow punishing them; or it happened because God either doesn’t or can’t get involved in such things; or it isn’t real. We’re past the stage of denial, so we must either question God’s love, his power, or both; or find a better solution.

Let’s find that better solution together today, from the word of God, not just for the victims of the shooting, but for every person who faces suffering today or tomorrow.

Truths for troubled times

Our text makes four statements plain. First, we will be persecuted.

Jesus does not say, “Blessed are you if people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (v. 11). He says, “Blessed are you when people insult you ….”

The Greek grammar actually says, “Blessed are those who have been and are now being persecuted” (v. 10). Suffering is a fact of the faith.

Listen to 1 Peter 4:12: “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.” Suffering is a part of the Christian life.

Around the world, 500,000 are killed every year simply because they are Christians. Cassie Bernall and Rachel Scott were murdered at Columbine High School specifically because they stood up for Jesus. Seven people were killed in Fort Worth last Wednesday because they were Christians.

Jesus was clear: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20). Christians will be persecuted for their faith.

The second truth of our text is that such suffering is not our fault.

Christians die in plane crashes and car accidents like everyone else. We get cancer like the rest of the population. But sometimes we suffer specifically because of our faith. When we do, such suffering is not our fault.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness” (v. 10). He amplified, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (v. 11).

Listen again to Peter: “If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name” (1 Peter 4:15-16).

There is a great spiritual battle going on between God and Satan, between good and evil. We are the turf. And the African proverb is right: “When elephants fight, the grass is trampled.”

Those who died in Fort Worth were doing exactly what they should have been doing. After standing up for Jesus on their campus, they stood up for him at their church. Now they’re standing in his presence forever, blessed by his joy. Suffering for Jesus is not our fault.

The third truth of our text is that God will redeem our suffering for him.

We are to “rejoice and be glad” for this reason: “great is your reward in heaven” (v. 12).

Not because suffering is good, for it is not. But because God will redeem our suffering for a greater good one day. God redeemed Joseph’s slavery, using him to save the nation; God redeemed Moses’ years in the wilderness, calling him to shepherd his people; God redeemed John’s suffering on Patmos by giving him the Revelation; God redeemed Jesus’ cross with his crown.

God will redeem this suffering somehow. He will use it for good, as we’ll see in a moment.

And so innocent suffering has always been part of the life of faith.

Listen to Hebrews 11: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. They were all commended for their faith” (vs. 36-39).

Remember Jim Elliott, the martyred missionary, and his motto: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Those who died in Fort Worth were not fools—they were faithful. And God will be faithful to them, and to us.

Why do God’s people suffer?

On the basis of this text and the larger word of God, let’s ask our question: Why do God’s people suffer? There is no single answer to the question. Instead, we need to build a “theodicy” together—a theological approach to evil and suffering. There are six facts which make up that approach, and I want us to be very clear about each one of them.

Fact one: God is love. Remember 1 John 4:8: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” God didn’t “do” this. He didn’t cause this. Rather, he grieved it. If a father in that sanctuary watched his child die, how would he feel? God did that at Calvary, and again in Fort Worth last Wednesday. No matter how bad this fallen world becomes, God is love.

Fact two: Satan is real. 1 Peter 5:8 is plain: “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” We have an enemy who wants to destroy us.

Jesus warned us that he “comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10). This is just what he did last Wednesday. John 8:44 says that Satan “was a murderer from the beginning.”

And in this fallen, sinful world, he attacks God’s people and God’s creation. He is not behind everything wrong that happens in the world. But what happened last Wednesday night was an attack used by the enemy himself. Satan is real.

Fact three: we have free will. God created us to worship him (Matthew 4:10), and worship requires freedom. So God made us with free will (Genesis 2:15-17), which we have misused.

James 1:13-15 explains what the gunman did and why: “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death.”

When we misuse our free will, evil and suffering result. This fact doesn’t explain why the innocent suffer, but it does explain why the guilty sin.

Fact four: God will use this suffering. Romans 8:28 does not say that all things are good. But it does promise that God works through all things for good. This he will do.

I think of the witness of the faithful Christians at Columbine, and its global impact. I predict the same effect from the faith we’ve seen displayed by Wedgwood Baptist Church, her pastor and people. God will use this suffering.

Fact five: there is great hope. Those who died last Wednesday are with Jesus. He told the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Paul said, “To live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians1:21). Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live; and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).

We will grieve the years they did not get to live, but they do not. They are in glory, in joy, in the perfect reward and eternal presence of Jesus himself. They are well. And we will see them again. As they reckon time in heaven, it will only be a moment before they see us again.

We will understand one day what we do not today: “One day I shall know, even as I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

Paul was sure: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). There is great hope.

Six: God is with us. Remember God’s assurance: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3).

I love this promise: “When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you” (Deuteronomy 20:1).

Peter told his suffering people: “Cast all your anxiety on God because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). God hurts as we hurt; he suffers as we suffer; he is Immanuel, God with us.

Conclusion

So, what do we do about suffering now?

Make sure of your own relationship with Jesus Christ. He will be your strength, shield, hope, and help, but you must allow him to be so. Give your life and soul to him as your Savior and Lord, today.

Minister to those who grieve. Pray for Wedgwood, and those hurt by this. Seek actively to help them. Get involved personally.

And minister to the hurting, lonely people around us. The man who did this needed someone to care about him, to reach him. When Lee Harvey Oswald was a boy, he was sent home by a Baptist church in Dallas because he wasn’t dressed properly for church, and he never went back. Some of us know someone who especially needs our love, attention, and compassion.

Meanwhile, know that those who were killed were not really. They are with God, in his presence, eternally.

Some time ago, a family asked me to read these words at a funeral, and I’ve treasured them every since: “I am standing upon the seashore. A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean. She is an object of beauty and strength. I stand and watch her until at length she hangs like a speck of white cloud just where the sea and sky come to mingle with each other.

“Then someone at my side says, ‘There, she is gone!’ Gone where?

“Gone from my sight. That is all. She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to her destined port.

“Her diminished size is in me, not in her. And just at the moment when someone at my side says, ‘There, she is gone!’ there are other eyes watching her coming, and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, ‘Here she comes!'”

They are with God, and God is with us. This is the Father’s promise to us today.