“You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.” Annie Dillard
I once had a chance to discuss the theodicy with atheist debater and editor of the Skeptic’s magazine Michael Shermer. The theodicy is the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil or in layman’s terms, an attempt to answer the age-old question of how there can be a good and loving God is there is much evil in the world?
I gave him my unique observation that almost all the debaters on this topic haven’t experienced the senseless evil they debate about and can’t define exactly what “human flourishing is”. After which, I gave my unique take (framed by decades of suffering and flirting with atheism and fatalism) that if “redemption is the pinnacle of human experience”, then suffering is a necessity and that since Christianity is the mother of redemption stories, it is the best answer to the theodicy. TO my surprise, Michael said he liked my answer and didn’t add to what I said. Read more about it here.
Today, I am going to expand on this.
Part of “the pinnacle of human experience” is Faith, Hope and Love. These are the three excellencies in life. All of them are impossible to see in a world without suffering. Let your suffering reveal He that loves you the most, has the faith you will be who you were meant to be and the hope that doesn’t disappoint.
He is Jesus. Let’s talk about what kind of Faith, Hope and Love He brings. These are unlike anything we see on earth, and they not only bring meaning to suffering, but also use suffering for a greater good.
Notice that not only does He start your faith, He also adds to it to make it complete.
looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)
And Jesus replied, “If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.” (Mark 9:22–23)
Here, Jesus isn’t putting the responsibility on the man to believe—in the Young’s Literal Translation (YLT), the verse says, “…all things are possible to the one that is believing”, which is Himself.
Jesus is saying, “Hook up your little faith to Me. It’s not about your faith but who your faith is in. All I want you to believe is that all things are possible for Me, and I am always full of faith.” As the Apostle Paul said, “I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20 KJV)
So when you look at a situation, don’t ask if you can believe God for this but if Jesus can believe God for this!
It’s easy to have faith in everything except God (yourself, the people around you) when luck is on your side and you are set up for success. But it’s only when the odds are stacked impossibly around you that you truly know that He was sustaining your faith throughout. When we suffer, it’s because of some sort of failure and an inability to overcome a challenge. The larger the suffering, the larger the challenge and larger the faith we need to overcome it. When the challenge is impossibly big, it requires Jesus to start that faith, and also to add to it because of own faith is too limited. After more than 2 decades of failed medical treatments and subsequent failings in career and relationships, how did I keep hanging on?
It made no sense. I know it is only God.
There were many days I wanted to break the mirror and use the shards to slice my wrist because the doctors could not cure me. Yet each time when I was close to doing so, I was restrained and decided to endure more arduous, painful days with no hope for recovery.
Why? I could never have expected the restoration that happened almost a decade later.
Just thinking about how I managed to hold my faith for so long made me realize that it wasn’t me that was holding that faith.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
God’s love is measured by the magnitude of His sacrifice. Jesus took all of our curses so that the bandwidth for blessings that come with an unfettered relationship with God can occur.
Steve Backlund expresses this well, he writes:
Here is some thrilling, good news written about in Divine Strategies about a key benefit you received through salvation, found in Galatians 3:13-14:
“Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’) that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
— Galatians 3:13-14
Jesus took all the curses that I deserved because of the choices made by my ancestors and me. He offers to me a great exchange. If I give Him the curses I earn because of violating His spiritual laws, then He will give us the blessing of Abraham that He merited through His sinless life of never breaking a spiritual law. We receive this gift by grace through faith. This is a tremendous aspect of the good news of our salvation!
Galatians 3:13-14 says that Jesus did not just remove our curses from us but actually became a curse for us. This has profound meaning. Jesus not only took the negative consequences of sinful choices, but He actually struck a death blow to our cursed nature itself. He became cursed so that we would not have to experience the cursed nature. Indeed, we are the righteousness of Christ and that certainly is not cursed. (See 2 Corinthians 5:21.)
To help us understand this further, consider these words that God spoke to Abram (whose name was later changed to Abraham):
“I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing”
— Genesis 12:2-2
God blessed Abraham but, incredibly, He also made him a blessing. He became like the Ark of Covenant that brought undeserved abundance and success to Obed-Edom and his household
Simply put, this is the poor-rich exchange Paul talks about.
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9)
This is love, He gave the best of himself to take your worst so that now you can freely commune with Him in heavenly places (Earth now has heavenly purposes too).
Suffering brings us to low places, but we see God’s love the most when we are being lifted from the lowest places, this where the contrast is the largest. Annie Dillard phrases this so well, “You do not have to sit outside in the dark. If, however, you want to look at the stars, you will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.”
Now hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Rom 5:5)
This hope is not worldly hope, which is a type of sentimentalism or blind faith. This biblical hope has divine destiny tied to it. The hope we will make to a place of peace, provision, and meaning is not because of the size of our emotional highs – rather it’s dependant on the love of God. This is of great comfort because this means that our mistakes and the mistakes of others on our lives will not permanently disqualify us from reaching that place with the fullness of life. Rather, because of God’s love that gave us Jesus, now God will use “All things” for our good (Rom 8:28). God will use all things to get us where we need to be, just as He did in Abraham’s life.
Worldly hope says that if you can generate this hope, you might attract some blessings to you. But this Biblical Hope is the opposite. Biblical Hope is a consequence of God working in your life and circumstances which is unfailing because it guaranteed by God’s love and not of your works. We see this when we expand Romans 5.
Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Rom 5:3-5)
Christ changes the order of the world. In a natural chaotic world, continuous suffering does not produce character and hope… it produces the opposite. People cheated by their spouses become less trusting, not more trusting. People that been robbed become less generous not more generous. When the world crushes us, we learn it’s a dog eat dog world, and we will manipulate and defend to be the biggest dog.
Why is it that under Christ, suffering leads to character and then hope?
Because without God, there is no protection from the cold, selfish world around us. But with the covenant in Christ, God restores what was stolen by the enemy (Deut 30:3), bring meaning from every unpleasant event (Ecc 3:11) and use bad things for our good and His purposes (Rom 8:28).
I didn’t say God “can” do it, but that He will do it. This is the reason Paul writes how the glory revealed in us comes with the present sufferings (Rom 8:18). The Gospel is to work in our lives to reveal to the world that glory. This glory is not in heaven, for if so, who are you revealing it to? But rather, this was the present glory King David yearned for “I would have despaired unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” (Ps 27:13)
The basis of this verse is in Romans 8, that tells us how we are “more than conquerors” in Christ.
Every time we see God victorious over our dark circumstances, we experience His glory, we trust Him more, and we ultimately become more like Jesus because we embrace Jesus as our savior – this leads to a real transformation of character, and not some behavior modification to get more along in the world.
We will not be able to see God using the bad things in life for our good unless there are bad things in our lives to begin with. It’s a prerequisite to seeing God’s providence.
Suffering is a pre-requisite for redemption.
For the unbeliever, suffering is meaningless is just the opposite of carnal pleasure. It is to be avoided since the unbeliever’s only motivation is to minimize suffering and maximize worldly pleasure since the world is all there is. Also, suffering is scary because whatever systematic issues that are causing the deep suffering is likely to continue – since one couldn’t stop the suffering from being that deep, why would one think he could stop it now since one would have stopped it long ago?
Instead, for the son of God, suffering is the starting point of redemption.
For the unbeliever, darkness falling confirms exactly that… that there is nothing but vast darkness. For the believer, when you turn off the lights, we get to see the stars.
Suffering reveals God’s redemption in our lives. God’s redemption includes the excellencies in life – Faith, Hope and Love.