Why do the Righteous Suffer?

On September 19th, 2008, my daughter Macy was stillborn.  Her death was completely unexpected.  Right up till the day she was born, every indication was that she was doing fine.

Lauren and I have never learned why she died.  I do know this, though:  in the aftermath of her death, we suffered terribly.  Even now, ten years later, every time I see her picture hanging on our bedroom wall, it sends a jolt of pain right through my heart.

Our experience is hardly unique.  Even in a country like ours, at some point in their lives, nearly everyone encounters great suffering.  This is true for unbelievers, but it’s true for the most faithful Christians too.

Here, some locate the greatest challenge to our faith.  They ask, “If God is both good and powerful, then why does He allow the innocent and undeserving to suffer?”

This is hardly a new question.  It goes back at least to the book of Job, if not before.  However, it is an important one, with great relevance to all of us.  Thankfully, it’s also a topic that the Bible explores in considerable depth.  Let’s turn to the Scriptures, then, to answer the question, “Why do the righteous suffer?”

First, the word teaches us that even the righteous suffer BECAUSE OF FREE WILL.  This concept first appears in Scripture in Genesis 2:16-17.  Here, God gives Adam two things:  a choice, and a warning of what the consequences will be if he makes the wrong choice.  That’s what free will is.  It’s the ability to make a choice that matters.

Angels also have free will, but in the physical creation, human beings are the only entities that possess it.  We alone can choose to love and serve God, or, conversely, to reject and disobey Him.  God is our Father, but He isn’t a helicopter parent.  When we choose to sin, He does not shield us or others from the consequences of that sin.

This was true from the beginning.  It was Adam’s choice to disobey the commandment we just read that brought suffering and death into the world.  He introduced evil into a creation that to that point had been wholly good, and today, we still suffer because of his sin.

One might ask why this has to be.  Why doesn’t God protect the innocent from the consequences of someone else’s sin?  The problem is that free will without consequences isn’t really free will.

Let me explain.  Let’s say that I decide that Redskins fans are the most hateful people on earth, and that I cannot stand to work even one more day with my Redskins-fan coworker.  As a result, I bring my trusty ball-peen hammer to work, I sneak up on Shawn while he’s working at his desk, and I beat his brains out.  However, God intervenes.  Like the liquid-metal robot in Terminator 2, Shawn’s bashed-open head flows back together, and there he sits at his desk, good as new.

At that point, God has not only nullified the consequences of my choice.  He’s nullified my choice.  I can concoct evil in my heart, but I’m impotent to do anything about it.  That’s not free will.  Admittedly, free will is a concept with a significant downside, but we must remember that if we are not free to express hatred, neither are we free to express love.

Second, God allows the righteous to suffer TO REFINE THEM.  Peter explores this idea in 1 Peter 1:6-7.  In this life, it seems to be true that the only way to make something grow is to stress it.  Take, for instance, a football team.  The coach of the team may be a good man, kindly intentioned toward his players, but that doesn’t mean that he’s going to allow them to spend August lounging around in air-conditioned comfort.  Instead, he’s going to drive them out onto that scorching-hot practice field, push them to the limits of their physical endurance, and drill them on the same plays over and over again.  He does this because he knows that stress—suffering—is the only way to get them to develop as players and grow together as a team.

The same is true for us.  As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 9, we are spiritual athletes.  We will only reach our full potential if God puts us through stress and trial too.  Let’s be honest here, friends:  when do we grow the most as Christians?  Is it when life is easy and everything’s going well and we’re never challenged, or is it when hard times push us to our limits and beyond?

I know when it is for me.  In fact, I’m experiencing it right now.  My decision to become a foster parent has made my life difficult and challenging in ways that I didn’t expect.

But you know what?  The difficulty has pushed me to grow.  I’ve had to learn to become more patient than I was.  I’ve learned humility as I’ve confronted the limits of what I’m able to accomplish.  I’ve leaned more on God in prayer.  I haven’t enjoyed the process, but I can see that bit by bit, God is using it to refine me and make me more what He wants me to be.

Third, God allows suffering in the lives of the righteous TO EQUIP THEM.  The classic text here is 2 Corinthians 1:3-4.  All of 2 Corinthians 1 is a rich exploration of suffering, but I think this point is particularly profound.  Paul tells us that God allows us to see affliction so that when He comforts us, we can take that comfort, turn around, and share it with others who are dealing with the same problem.  We suffer so that we can help others.

Once again, this is something that I’ve experienced.  The death of my daughter was easily the worst experience of my life, but there have been so many ways that I’ve been able to use my experience for good.  I think I’ve told y’all the story before of how I was able to save the life and quite possibly the soul of a brother in Christ because Macy died.  He had lost a child too, and my experience allowed me to connect with him.

That’s the most obvious example, but it’s far from the only one.  It’s allowed me to support other fathers who have faced a similar loss.  Some of the most meaningful experiences of my life have come standing beside the casket of a child, taking the father’s hand, looking into his eyes, and saying, “I know what you’re going through.  I’m here for you.”  Additionally, my experience with Macy’s death put my feet on the road to becoming a foster parent.  I learned from her in a way that goes deeper than I can explain that every child’s life is precious.

I know that I’m a very different man than I would have been if my child had lived.  I believe, though, that in many ways I’m more useful to the Lord because she didn’t.

At this point, I know that some people would want to start getting outraged.  They would cry out, “So you’re saying that God let your daughter die to make you a more useful tool?  What a horrible God!”

From a certain perspective, that makes sense, but the problem is that it’s the wrong perspective.  If there were no afterlife, then yes, that would make God a horrible God.  As it is, though, God can make that call BECAUSE THIS LIFE IS NOT ALL THERE IS.  Look, for instance, at 1 Peter 1:3-5.  If you’re a materialist and you believe that it’s all over when we die, then yes, the suffering and death of a child may well be the worst thing you can imagine.  For those of us who believe in eternity, though, the death of a child might not make the Top 10.  You know what’s a lot worse than the loss of a child?  The loss of a soul, for one.

I do not believe that my daughter is dead.  I believe she is asleep.  Because I know Jesus rose from the dead, I am confident that He will return, and that when He does, she too will rise.  What’s more, I believe that if I am faithful to Him until death, I will rise as well to spend eternity with Him and her both.  This is my hope in Jesus Christ.

The importance of this hope to me cannot be overstated.  Frankly, without it, I don’t know how I would have kept going.  Even for the believer, tragedy is hard to bear.  For the unbeliever, it must be unendurable.  There’s nothing to look forward to, no possible consolation.  For me, though, and for all who share my faith, we eagerly anticipate a future filled with so much joy that even decades filled with the greatest grief will dwindle into insignificance.

Finally, I believe that the righteous suffer FOR REASONS BEYOND US.  Look at what Paul reveals about God in 1 Corinthians 1:25.  When we’re talking about the God of the Bible, we’re talking about a God who is so far beyond us intellectually that His foolishness is wiser than our wisdom!  We cannot understand, nor even hope to understand, everything that He is doing.

Many atheists really seem to struggle with this.  They can’t stand the notion that God might have reasons for acting or not acting that are beyond their comprehension.  They want to understand it all, and when they can’t square the suffering of the world with their understanding of God, they get angry and give up.

Friends, that’s arrogance, and I mean that very precisely.  We often use “pride” and “arrogance” as synonyms, but they aren’t, exactly.  Instead, according to the dictionary, “arrogance” is “an attitude of superiority manifested. . . in presumptuous claims or assumptions”.  When atheists get upset because they don’t understand God, they are claiming presumptuously that they ought to be able to.  They are assuming that they have all the facts and the mental horsepower necessary to draw the correct conclusion from those facts.

Brethren, ain’t none of us that smart!  We might pretend that we are, but just because a slug pretends to be an eagle doesn’t mean he’s about to get airborne.

In real life, none of us are entitled to question our Creator, and none of us have the capacity to question Him even if we had the right.  I understand some things about God and life, but there are other things that I don’t understand.  That’s OK.  He’s God, and I’m not.  Keeping our minds on that difference will help us to keep out of trouble.

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