Saturday, March 29, 2008

Suffering and Divine Justice

Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 3A
Genesis 18:25b
Bob Rakestraw

March 29, 2008

The single most-widely held reason for not believing in a personal, loving God is, it seems to me, the prevalence of suffering in the world. While neither I nor anyone else can say for sure that this is the most deeply and widely held objection to belief in a caring God, it appears to me from studying the personal accounts and arguments of atheists or near atheists to be so. And if we consider suffering to include the broad area of unanswered prayer, this confirms even more the category of suffering as the biggest objection to God.

Not long ago my wife and I were sitting at the table after breakfast, looking through the newspaper. I was glancing at the obituary section—something I have done more frequently during the past year than in my whole life before. (In March, 2007, I was told I probably had no more than six months to live.) I read a few of the write-ups about those who had recently died, then my eyes feel to a brief section titled "In Memoriam" after the obituaries. Here is where loved ones place fond memories and kind thoughts concerning relatives and friends who died one or more years ago, marking the anniversaries of their deaths. Often these tributes are written directly to the deceased person, and are very touching.

I read one of the tributes from a man to his wife who died in 2001. As soon as I read it I began to sob—gushing with loud and tearful bursts of sorrow and pain. The man had written next to her photo:

"We had it all
and I wish we could do it over."

I am not sure why these words and the photo affected me so deeply. I kept sobbing and grieving for several minutes, while Judy sat there offering what consolation she could. Perhaps I had this outburst of emotion that morning because I had had a difficult time health-wise the night before. Ever since my heart transplant in 2003 I have been more sensitive emotionally. Perhaps this is due—at least in part—to the powerful drugs I take to prevent rejection. Perhaps it is due to physiological changes within my body since the surgery. I may have had my outburst that morning because reading the bereaved husband's words triggered grief over the eventual parting with my wife here on earth, thinking that our parting—due to my precarious health condition—might be near.

One thing I know is that I have in recent years become more sensitive to the hurts, sufferings and sorrows of my fellow human beings on this planet earth. I feel the sufferings of the millions devastated by the Asian Tsunami of December 26, 2004. I feel the agonies of those caught in the ugly web of human trafficking. I grieve deeply over tragic news stories such as murders, rapes, accidents and suicides, and at times I know I take these burdens upon myself in ways that affect my mood (and therefore overall health) significantly. I sometimes allow the sufferings of others to tear me apart. While I know that compassion is an important Christian quality, I struggle at times to find a healthy balance between—on the one hand—an unhealthy sense of anguish over the sufferings of others and—on the other hand—a sense of detachment and apathy about human pain. I know there is a godly, biblical balance between these two extremes, and I continue to search for it.

Where is God in the midst of human suffering? Is God really a God of justice and mercy, as I have taught my college and seminary students for many years? If so, how can there be so much pain in the world?

It is obvious, of course, to each of you who has read this article so far, that the subject I have raised is simply enormous. A very large number of books has been published on the topic, as well as countless articles in magazines, journals and edited collections. My purpose here and in the next posting or two, is quite limited: to consider briefly one scripture text bearing on the topic—a Bible verse that, to me, has been the single most important thought on the issue, whether viewed philosophically, theologically, biblically, or any other way.

In my next posting I want to think about the issues raised above, but for now I want to offer a benediction to you that I trust will give genuine comfort and hope.

"And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever, Amen." (I Peter 5:10-11)

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