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.

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.

Does My Worldview Matter?

When my family and I lived in the Texas Panhandle for a few years in the late 1990s, we became accustomed to driving long, lonely stretches of highway without seeing another car for miles. For Pete’s sake, the closest Walmart was an hour away! The windshield of our Dodge Caravan would easily accumulate a few zillion suicidal bugs on trips down those desolate dusty roads. They were assisted to their fate by the perpetually blowing winds common to that part of Texas. A thick gritty paste would eventually develop on the glass, requiring us to utilize a little elbow grease and one of those nifty squeegee things at the car wash to restore a clear field of vision. If we didn’t take this necessary step, our ability to safely operate the vehicle was severely impacted, and the mess on the windshield would prevent us from taking in the unparalleled beauty all around us. The flat treeless plains in the Texas Panhandle provided a panoramic backdrop for some of the most breathtaking sunrises and sunsets on the planet. It would have been a shame to miss out on the vibrant red, blazing orange, and deep purple hues because of some bugs and dust.

Sometimes in life, our view of the world around us can become obscured, as if we are gazing out through a dirty windshield. We are tempted to peer through the lens of preferences, misconceptions, or everyday disappointments in order to shape our view of life. Other times life altering circumstances come hurtling at us like rocks kicked up off the road toward the glass, completely shattering the way we see the world. An unclear or inconsistent worldview can be incredibly disorienting, causing us to live life off balance and uncertain of whether or not our feet are planted on a sturdy foundation. For this reason, it’s worth taking some time to carefully examine the source of our worldview so that when challenges come, we can meet them with confidence.

In “The Universe Next Door” James Sire defines worldview as “…a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) that we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.” One’s worldview will answer questions like: How did I get here? What’s the meaning of life? What is right and wrong? Where am I headed? We all have a worldview whether we realize it or not. We live our day to day lives as if we believe certain things to be true, even when we may not be able to clearly articulate the specifics.

As Christians, our worldview should be rooted in the Bible as we allow it to encompass and guide all aspects of our lives. It provides a fully faceted answer to all the big questions in life by showing us who God is, what He’s like, and what He does. Scripture tells us that God reveals Himself to us both through nature and His Word. Paul says in Romans 1:20, “For his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse.” The natural world shows us things about God’s character that should guide the way we live. The Psalmist reveals in Psalm 19:1-2, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands. Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge.” We observe order, intentionality, beauty, and purpose in creation, and make the assumption that Someone bigger than us is responsible for it all. This Someone brings order to our lives, creates beautiful things for us to enjoy, and intentionally guides us to a greater purpose outside of ourselves.

God also reveals Himself to us through His inspired Word. It’s no coincidence that the longest chapter in the Bible focuses on delighting in God’s Word. Psalm 119, consisting of 176 verses, highlights attributes of God like His righteousness, trustworthiness, truthfulness, faithfulness, immutability, and eternality. The Psalmist reveals how God opens our eyes (v. 18) and turns our hearts (v. 36). God is defined as good (v. 68) and as the Creator who gives understanding (v. 73). Psalm 119:105 says, “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.” Scripture provides the illumination we need as we journey along the paths of our daily lives. God’s Word is both a light that shines directly on each step we take, and a lamp that illuminates the farthest horizon to bring our lives sharply into focus.

When I received specialized training as an occupational therapist in low vision rehabilitation, one of the first and simplest concepts I learned was the effective use of lighting. I was taught that if the light comes from the wrong direction, it can actually be more harmful than beneficial. A light coming from behind instead of in front, beside, or directly above can be blocked or distorted, making completion of a task more difficult. The same is true of the perfect light of God’s Word. When imperfect people (that’s all of us) don’t give Scripture its proper position in our lives, we miss the benefits of understanding God’s character, and risk coming away with a distorted view of how He works His purposes in and through us. The work of the Holy Spirit changes us as the Bible points us to God and illuminates aspects of His character. The point is not for us to see ourselves within the pages of Scripture, but to see Him, and allow Him to transform us into who He desires for us to be. We discover in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that “All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

A truly Biblical worldview leads us to the conclusion that our value does not originate within ourselves, but comes from the One who made us. We are loved not because we are good, but because He is good. Our worth does not come from some external earthly standard, but from the One who is Himself the standard of all that is true and just. We don’t find our significance by looking within, but from looking above. A painting or sculpture is not valuable because of the materials that comprise it, but because of the artist who designed it. A story is not compelling because of the paper and ink on which it is written, but because it came from the mind of the one who crafted it. Paul says in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.” From the perspective of a Biblical worldview, the way we see ourselves in the world should be all about Him and the purposes for which He created us.

Jesus told His followers in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Our culture applauds carving a broad and winding path through life, rather than traveling along the well-defined narrow way of God’s Word. Truth is defined as whatever feels best or is most convenient at the moment, rather than the truth embodied in Christ and revealed in Scripture. Often living “the good life” is celebrated as preferable to submitting to the One who is good. There is no doubt that it is becoming more and more difficult to live consistently within a Biblical worldview in the midst of a culture that answers the big questions of life much differently than we do. The views of Christ-followers are viewed as peculiar and intolerant. A culture that values rugged individualism and instant gratification simply can’t wrap its collective brain around a worldview that claims its followers are hidden within Someone bigger than themselves as they await a future glory (Colossians 3:3-4). But Jesus never promised it would be easy. Instead, He assured His disciples that He would be with them as they faced persecution, rejection, and hardship. Holding onto a worldview centered on God and His Word does matter and is of eternal significance as we strive to illuminate darkness and provide clarity in an increasingly confused world.