Three Lenses To Help Make Sense of Suffering

As I think back to painful times in my life, the weight often feels very fresh. Emotions rise to the surface and memories replay in technicolor hues. Because the good world God created is now broken, each of us has a unique lived experience of this brokenness. While God has graciously spared me from agonizing physical suffering, I have at times felt the crushing blows of mental and emotional anguish. During those times, God felt very distant, and it was perplexingly difficult to understand why He chose to leave me in my circumstances. I knew without a doubt that He could reach down, pluck me up, and rescue me if He wanted to, so why didn’t He? I’ve watched friends and loved ones experience tragedy that made no sense to me. Lives cut short, jobs lost, property devastated by natural disaster, bodies ravaged by disease. Why would people who were serving others, loving God, and making His name known be subjected to such pain and sorrow? Why are innocent lives destroyed through no fault of their own? Why does God allow injustice to continue? Why doesn’t He choose to immediately wipe away every tear and eliminate all pain? Isaiah 55:8-13 provides the clearest yet still difficult to grasp answer, “’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.’ This is the Lord’s declaration.‘For as heaven is higher than earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”

Wise theologians and brilliant philosophers have attempted to solve the problem of evil with its subsequent suffering and pain since the beginning of time. C.S. Lewis famously said in The Problem of Pain, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” God does tend to awaken something in us through suffering. Difficult experiences in my life make more sense to me as I think about them in terms of a visual metaphor and view them through three different lenses: a magnifying glass, a projector, and a telescope. The first helps me look inward to see how sanctification is God’s end goal for me. The second directs my view outward and illuminates the fallenness of the world. The third casts my gaze upward and makes me long for the sweetness of eternity in heaven.

Personal suffering often leads me to focus on myself. My pain can cause me to become introspective and engage in self-examination, reminiscent of how a magnifying glass functions. This type of convex lens causes light rays to be refracted inward in order to enlarge things that may be difficult to see with the naked eye. The Psalmist says in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” God can use painful experiences to help me see my own heart more clearly and understand better how my sin contributes to the fallenness in the world. In his book Why Does God Allow Evil, Clay Jones says that as we encounter evil on earth, we are learning lessons about the stupidity of sin that will benefit us in eternity. If I suffer well through the inescapable consequences of my own sin and the sin in the world around me, God can use these experiences to sanctify me. His ultimate purpose is to prepare me to live in eternity with Him and be free from the repercussions of evil. While they may seem unbearable at times, we can be certain that our light and momentary afflictions are serving God’s greater purposes in our lives as He prepares us to be participants in His eternal kingdom (2 Corinthians 4:17-18).

When I think about the fallenness all around me, I’m reminded of how a projector works by using a concave lens to cause light rays to diverge out into the distance. It takes images that start out small and makes them bigger. Looking through this lens, I see how brokenness is not only present in my own heart but is broadcast out into the world. I become acutely aware of the universal problem of sin that infects every person. God’s perfect and good creation was marred by the fateful choice to elevate the will of the creature above that of the Creator (Genesis 3). The effects of that single decision have roared like a riptide through human history ever since, causing unspeakable atrocities among fellow image bearers. Dr. Thaddeus Williams says in his book Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth that this longing to elevate ourselves above God is the root cause of all other injustices in the world. When we fail to give God His due first, the dominoes topple over and we quickly fall short in treating those who bear His image with kindness and dignity. Even the natural world experiences the effects of the fall. The apostle Paul tells us in Romans 8:22-23, “For the creation was subjected to futility—not willingly, but because of him who subjected it—in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage to decay into the glorious freedom of God’s children. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together with labor pains until now. Not only that, but we ourselves who have the Spirit as the firstfruits—we also groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.” While we inhabit this earthly realm we will experience the results of brokenness both through our interactions with other people and in the natural world through disaster and disease, but praise God for the redemption and hope we are promised in Christ.

Suffering also functions like a telescope for me. Telescopes have a narrow, but extremely focused field of view. They work by collecting light rays from a distant object and bringing them together into a precisely defined point. As we are sanctified and suffer well through the inevitable consequences of the world’s fallenness, God’s character and His eternal purposes come sharply into focus like brilliant light from a far away star. We experience attributes in Him that sustain us no matter the circumstance. Through suffering I can see more clearly that He is:

  • All-powerful, so I don’t need to wonder whether or not He can handle the pain in my life. Oh, Lord God! You yourself made the heavens and earth by your great power and with your outstretched arm. Nothing is too difficult for you! (Jeremiah 32:17)
  • Good, so I know that He has my eternal benefit in mind, even in suffering. You are good, and you do what is good; teach me your statutes. (Psalm 119:68)
  • Just, so I am assured that evil and wrongdoing will be punished when He sees fit. When I choose a time, I will judge fairly. When the earth and all its inhabitants shake, I am the one who steadies its pillars. (Psalm 75:2-3)
  • All-knowing, so I am confident that nothing escapes His notice. Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I stand up; you understand my thoughts from far away. You observe my travels and my rest; you are aware of all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, you know all about it, Lord. You have encircled me; you have placed your hand on me. This wondrous knowledge is beyond me. It is lofty; I am unable to reach it (Psalm 139:1-6)
  • Ever-present, so I am comforted to know that He is with me in whatever circumstance I may face. Where can I go to escape your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I fly on the wings of the dawn and settle down on the western horizon, even there your hand will lead me; your right hand will hold on to me. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me, and the light around me will be night”— even the darkness is not dark to you. The night shines like the day; darkness and light are alike to you. (Psalm 139:7-12)

Speaking to His disciples before He was betrayed and arrested, Jesus said, “I have told you these things so that in me you may have peace. You will have suffering in this world. Be courageous! I have conquered the world.” (John 16:33) Pain is promised as we struggle against the spiritual forces of evil that surround us, the sin that resides within our hearts, and the fallenness of the world around us. As followers of Christ, we can be assured that our sovereign and faithful Heavenly Father does not waste even one second of it, but uses it to sanctify, comfort, and prepare us for an eternity with Him.

Three Reasons Why the Cross Makes Sense to Me

Years ago, a family member who had not been raised in the Christian faith attended church with me during the Easter season. The service was filled with imagery of the cross, including references to the cleansing power and redemption wrought by the blood of Jesus. I don’t recall exactly which songs we sang that day, but I’m certain that hymns like “The Old Rugged Cross,” “Calvary,” and “Nothing But the Blood” were featured prominently in worship. Consumed by celebrating the beauty of what Jesus had accomplished through His death on the cross, I was completely unaware of what this symbolism might mean to someone unfamiliar with Christianity. When the service concluded, my inquisitive guest peppered me with questions about what she had just heard and experienced. She was baffled by our celebration of the cruel and gruesome death of the Savior we claimed to love. I had never thought about it before, but for someone unfamiliar with the tenets of Christian doctrine, the cross makes no sense. We who were raised in the evangelical church take for granted a universal appreciation for the beauty of the cross; however, First Corinthians 1:18 says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The event described above occurred more than twenty-five years ago, and the cross makes even less sense to many people in the world today. Some even refer to it as “cosmic child abuse” and see God as a cruel and vindictive father. To many skeptics, preaching about Christ’s substitutionary atonement and singing hymns about what transpired on a hill called Calvary sound as if we are celebrating ancient capital punishment. Why on earth would we do that? The Easter season provides the perfect opportunity to explain three reasons why the cross makes sense to me personally, and how it provides an anchor in the faith for all followers of Christ. The cross demonstrates the severity of sin, illuminates God’s multifaceted character, and fulfills Old Testament prophecy.

The cross demonstrates the severity of sin.

Sin is mankind’s biggest problem. It prevents each of us from experiencing the nearness of our Creator since He is perfectly holy and cannot tolerate sin in His presence. Our sin is egregious not only because it prevents us from being able to enter God’s presence, but because any sin, no matter how minor we may consider it to be, is ultimately committed against God. My sin either fails to honor God directly by worshipping Him alone, or indirectly by harming others on whom He has stamped His image. Minimizing my sin is like thinking it is no big deal to turn a toddler loose with a Sharpie at the Louvre or allowing a couple of rowdy kids to play ball in the halls of Buckingham Palace. While such careless acts might lead to marked up walls or broken vases in my house, the consequences would be insignificant compared to the damage done to masterpieces at an acclaimed art museum or to the furnishings of a world-renowned royal residence. It matters immensely who the transgression is committed against. Because our sin is against God, an exceedingly high price must be paid to account for it. Hebrews 9:22 says, “According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” The sacrificial system described in the Old Testament law was established to make temporary atonement for sin and provide the means to receive forgiveness, but it was never intended to be a permanent solution. Only the death of Jesus, the perfect sinless sacrifice, could provide once and for all reconciliation between God and man. The cross laid bare the ugliness of sin and reminds me of the high price of transgressing against a holy God.

The cross illuminates God’s multifaceted character.

God is perfectly just, perfectly loving, and perfectly merciful. The cross brilliantly illuminates the convergence of these three aspects of God’s character. No other point in history displays the richness of who God is as clearly as the moment that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, laid down His rights and carried out the will of His Heavenly Father. “Instead he emptied himself by assuming the form of a servant, taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death—even to death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7-8) Because God is perfectly just, sin had to be punished or He would no longer be just. Because God is perfectly loving, He offered Himself as the perfect sinless sacrifice to suffer and die in my place. “Love consists in this:  not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) His mercy overflows to me, and instead of receiving what I deserve, I experience the outpouring of His grace and become the beneficiary of Christ’s righteousness purchased for me on the cross. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

The cross fulfills Old Testament prophecy.

Jesus’ death on the cross was the fulfillment of prophecies recorded throughout the pages of the Old Testament. As His blood flowed down the wooden crossbeam, He became the perfect Passover lamb written about in Exodus 12 whose blood spared the Israelites from the curse of death. As he was mocked, scorned, and abandoned, He became the scapegoat described in Leviticus 16 who carried the sins of God’s chosen people upon Himself and far away into the desert. As He was raised up on the rugged pole, He became the figure in the wilderness from Numbers 21 upon whom the people gazed in order to live. As He was forsaken, despised, rejected, punished, stricken, afflicted, pierced, crushed, and wounded, He became the suffering servant prophesied in Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53. “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5)

The message of the cross may sound strange to those around us who are unfamiliar with the historic Christian faith. It is worth taking some time to consider what the cross means to us personally, why it matters, and how we can engage a skeptical world with its story. The good news of salvation found in Jesus alone flows seamlessly throughout the pages of Scripture and is worth telling even to a world who may think it foolish.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

I’m a product of the crazy eighties, you know, the decade of parachute pants, big hair, Boy George, and a variety of weird cultural trends. The decade when I came of age also produced music with some very misguided definitions of love. In her 1984 hit, Tina Turner inquired, “What’s love got to do with it?” Exploring the question further, she concluded that love is simply “a secondhand emotion.” Whitney Houston asserted in 1985 that “the greatest love of all” is not only easy to achieve, but is found inside each one of us. Phil Colins threw in his two cents when he sang about a “groovy kind of love” in 1988. The pop singers of the eighties definitely thought they had it all figured out.

There’s no doubt that people have always loved to talk about love, especially when led to believe that it’s no more complicated than the lyrics of a pop song. But love is not that simple, and the world has eviscerated its true definition. Hillary Ferrer calls this redefinition of words by our culture “linguistic theft” in her book Mama Bear Apologetics. She says, “Love used to be defined as ‘to will the good of another.’…Anything that makes someone uncomfortable is now deemed unloving. Today, to love someone means to blindly accept whatever that person believes, even if his or her belief contradicts reality.” But to knowingly allow someone to walk in untruth is anything but loving. In fact, 1 Corinthians 13:6 tells us that real love rejoices in the truth.

To define love correctly, we must go back to the source of love. Our Creator God possesses love as one of His essential attributes (1 John 4:8). It isn’t just something that He does, it’s something that He is, and so it’s impossible for Him to be anything other than loving. Defined correctly, love means that I truly want what is in the best interest of another person, even if that means it is not what is most accepted by the world around me. God’s love would not allow Him to look the other way when His chosen people, the nation of Israel, sinned against Him despite repeated warnings. He knew that their prideful and idolatrous rebellion would only hurt them by taking their eyes off of Him and causing them to gaze at themselves. Their sin came at tremendous cost, and ours does, too. Because of His great self-sacrificial love for them and for us, the incredible gospel story of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration unfolded in history.

The greatest commandment instructs us to love God first; however, scripture tells us that there is something “of first importance” that comes before we are able to obey the greatest commandment. The gospel, or good news, is summarized in what is thought to be the earliest Christian creed. The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” His death on our behalf met the demands of God’s justice, paid for our sins, and reconciled us to God. This singular event in history makes it possible for us, through an act of the will, to accept God’s gracious gift of salvation. “No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (John 15:13-14) Jesus’ love sent Him to the cross for us, and compels us to follow His commands.

The order is of utmost importance. Attempting to love without first receiving the life-giving gift of the gospel perpetuates a never-ending cycle of self-justification. Thaddeus J. Williams says in Confronting Injustice Without Compromising Truth, “Without the gospel first, we become graceless in our truth telling, cheerless in our giving, and our neighborly love turns into self-righteous showmanship.” Because we have the moral law written on our hearts (Romans 2:15), we know we ought to do good, but have nothing on which to ground this obligation. We look to the world for validation and become accountable to our fellow humans rather than the One who formed us all. Thaddeus J. Williams continues, “Today people are terror-stricken less before the Creator and more before creatures.” We exist in a perpetual state of trying to satisfy the demands of the culture that surrounds us, knowing we will never quite measure up. So once we have the order right, gospel first followed by love for God and others, we have a workable definition of love that enables us to carry out the greatest commandment and the other commands that flow from it.

Returning to Tina Turner’s definition, a mere second hand emotion does not compel me to behave in the self-sacrificial manner that Christ exemplified on the cross. It takes much more than the world’s definition of love for me to look someone straight in the eyes with whom I disagree ideologically, and decide that I want what is best for them and not what would make me feel vindicated in the short term. Should we believe, like Whitney Houston, that all we need to do is learn to love ourselves better in order to find the source of love within our own hearts? I know myself too well to believe that to be true. I know that within myself is a deceitful heart (Jeremiah 17:9) that left to its own devices wants what it wants. Only by looking to an external standard, God and His Word, can I truly know how to love others correctly.

Real love is defined in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Patient, kind, humble, truthful, self-sacrificial love is the standard to which God’s Word holds us as Christ followers. It may not always feel groovy, but it is what God commands.