A sermon by Howard Batson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Tx.
It’s an age-old question that no one has ever adequately answered. So I don’t suppose that I’ll be able to answer it either. But, sometimes it does make me feel better to wrestle with the question.
The problem is we have an all-powerful God who is an all-good God who still allows suffering in this world.
Philosophers have debated for eons about this problem. If God is all-good, maybe He’s not all-powerful. Maybe that’s why we have suffering. Or maybe God is all-powerful, but He’s not all-good, and, therefore, we have suffering.
But how do you say that God is both all-powerful and all-good and allow terrible suffering in innocent people?
The reality is most Christians have unresolved disappointments with God.
When you experience innocent suffering, you become part of the largest fraternity on earth. Sometimes we think we’re the only ones, but in reality more Christians were killed for their faith in the 20th century than in the previous 19 combined. God’s people are suffering inexplicability.
Wednesday night, Reed introduced us to a book by a well-known writer named David Foster Wallace. In his last work, The Pale King, the famed author writes:
The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, “What’s wrong?” You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, “What do you mean?” You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it.
What the author is telling us is that we all live in a world with brokenness. In fact, David Foster Wallace, who wrote those words, committed suicide before he finished his last book. It was pieced together by editors from scraps of paper and notes on his computer.
What we really want in life is a hard and fast equation. If we do the right things, then we’ll have the right result. And people who do the wrong things get the wrong result. But we live in a terrifying world where that is seldom the case. Of course, I could give you countless examples, but I don’t think I have to do much convincing. You know that much suffering is endured by the innocent. Our Lord said the same thing in John 9.
You tell me what eight-year-old Martin Richard was doing wrong. Just a bystander at the Boston Marathon. In fact, following the shooting of Trayvan Martin, eight-year-old Martin Richard made a sign at school – a poster. Five words, three symbols. He had two hearts and one peace sign. Simple message: “No more hurting people, peace.” This little eight-year-old prophet of peace was simply standing close to the finish line, waiting for friends to complete the race. A child who was crying out for an end to violence – senseless violence – was one of the three to die from the wicked act of cowardice. Brave men don’t hide secret bombs among innocent people. That’s a coward.
Not only was little Martin murdered by the senseless violence in Boston, but his mother, Denise, was gravely injured, and his sister Jane, seven, is going to lose a leg.
Now those who think that all suffering is a result of one’s own, individual sin, explain that equation to me. Oh, there was sin all right. But it wasn’t the eight-year-old boy nor his seven-year-old sister who sinned. They were simply waiting for close friends to finish a race.
The topic of senseless suffering could and should include several sermons in a series, but today we simply look at it from the perspective of Romans 8.
I noticed something with more intensity this time as I read through Romans 8. Most often we begin in verse 28. “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Those can sound like awfully trite words when tragedy has visited your house. But others speak of God’s grand plan, saying “you just need to be patient and the answer will be clear.” Trite words yield little comfort.
I want us to put this passage in context, so we, ourselves, don’t use it in a trite way with others, and those of us who suffer – all of us, though certainly some more than others – might at least find solace in hearing Paul in an honest way
I. He hears even though we don’t speak.
I want us to notice that we ought to begin in verse 26, not verse 28. “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
Sometimes when tragedies strike, quite honestly, we don’t even know what to say. In reality, we say too much. We don’t know what to say to each other. We don’t know what to say to God. We are numb in the midst of senseless and unmerited pain.
Paul has already told us that the world is in pain, groaning for a new creation where there is no sin, no hurt, no suffering (8:22). We’ve seen, too, the church shares in this pain – groaning in our longing for our own redeemed bodies, suffering in the tension between “the already” possessing the first fruits of the Spirit and the “not yet” of our present mortal existence.
In our suffering and sorrow, we don’t have the right words; we’re struggling to even whisper a prayer to God because we’re neither sure of Him nor of His willingness to respond and help – that’s when the Spirit of God works most. It is a prayer beyond prayer, says Paul. Diving down into the cold, dark depths beyond our human sight or knowing, God responds even to prayers that are nothing more than groans – painful groans. Tossing and turning at night on the hot bed when you can’t sleep – those are prayers, too. (See N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone, p. 154-156)
The reality is every church and every Christian must shoulder the task of this kind of groaning prayer. It’s a redeeming dialogue between God the Father and the Spirit, who groans on our behalf.
II. God searches our hearts
Look at verse 27
And He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
You know God by so many different names. He is Yahweh of the Old Testament. He is the Almighty, the Holy One of Israel. He is the God of Abraham. Sometimes the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all thrown together. In fact, Jacob apparently knows God as the fear of his father Isaac (Genesis 31:42, 53; See N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone, p. 153).
But this is an interesting name for God. One we never hear about. Look at verse 27: “He who searches the hearts.” God, the searcher of hearts.
We already know that God will eventually judge all human secrets (Romans 2:16). But God is the searcher of our hearts. It’s the image of someone lighting a torch and going down into a dark room, full of all sorts of things, looking for something in particular. Peeking around in the dark and listening. What is He wanting to find, the God who goes to the room of our heart? And what happens when He finds it?
No doubt God, in searching the dark spaces of our hearts, comes across all sorts of things which we had just as soon had remained hidden. But what He wants to find, above all else, is the sound of the Spirit’s groaning. God, who is at one with the Spirit, is continually in communication with the Spirit who dwells in the hearts of His people. God understands what the Spirit is saying on our behalf, even though we do not. God hears the groanings of His Spirit. The searcher of our hearts looks for the presence of His own Spirit, which is a mark that we are, indeed, called to be His.
III. God causes all things to work for good.
This is the part that you hear, so often out of context. You have to be careful how you use it. If you’re the one suffering, these aren’t very comforting words coming from someone else.
Those who are God’s people should not be surprised at the broken equation of suffering. Were not children slaughtered when Herod was threatened by the infant Christ? Babies too young to have ever sinned, sliced by the sword of Herod. Or Stephen stoned by jealous Jews. Or the Israelites treated as slaves with the crack of Pharaoh’s whip upon their back. And if you want to push the equation, Jesus – the only sinless person to ever live – goes through the most suffering of all.
“But don’t worry,” our friends tell us. “It will all work out for good.”
As an aside, Paul talks about God’s foreknowledge of those He will call – that they would be conformed in the image of His Son. Once we’re called, we’re justified. Once we’re justified, we’re glorified.
Don’t make too much of this language of foreknowledge and predestination. It’s a mystery. If the Apostle Paul himself doesn’t attempt to penetrate the mystery with any full teaching, then why should we? God always takes the initiative in our salvation – He calls us; we respond. He is the beginning and the end of our salvation. No more needs to be said; it’s a waste of time.
What Paul is saying is simply this: The world is groaning. We are groaning. And the Spirit is groaning with us, and God will bring it out for the good.
To be sure, sometimes our suffering makes us better people. We’ve all seen that. The lady sits self-centered among her own glories. Then suffering comes to her life, and the makeup won’t cover it up. And now, the one who had the shallow heart – her river runs as deep as the Nile. Suffering changed her. God worked it out for the good.
So, to be sure, sometimes we see our suffering saves us, and sometimes we never see it on this side.
And Paul certainly wants us to see (Romans 8:17-18) that the present sufferings, whether it’s death, divorce, or disease, are nothing to be compared to the glory to be revealed that will last not for just a lifetime, but will last for all eternity. We will, once again, be reunited in the plan of God with those that we love who died ahead of us. And nothing, nothing can interrupt that relationship ever again. At that moment, all of our questions will be answered before we think them, and all of God’s reasons for permitting our suffering will be clarified. Our present faithfulness will be redeemed with future rewards in glory (Revelation 2:10).
I believe all of those things with all my heart. And sometimes that’s the only thing we can lean on. We live in a world that is broken – not broken by God. God created it perfect. He made a paradise, a Garden of Eden. But we ourselves in the person of Adam, introduced suffering and death and pain. So, in that sense, we’re all part of that broken world.
Another way of saying that God causes all things to work out for good is to say that God redeems all that God permits. God didn’t break our world, and God doesn’t cause all our suffering. But if He allows it, He will eventually redeem it. The fact that we can see no redemption in our pain doesn’t make it any less real. C. S. Lewis once said the man who denies the sunrise doesn’t harm the sun. God is free to use our pain for His good purposes, whether we see His love at work or not. He doesn’t need our permission – after all, He is God.
We can all think of the story of Joseph. He brags. God wouldn’t want us to be arrogant – that’s not a fruit of the Spirit. His brothers nearly kill him and sell him into slavery. Jealousy and violence – God wouldn’t condone that. Potiphar’s wife screams “rape.” Bearing false witness – that’s part of the other side, not the God side. And yet, in the midst of the arrogance, the jealousy, the violence, and the false witnessing, God has His way. Joseph ends up in prison, has the gift of interpreting dreams, and emerges as what we would call the vice-president of Egypt. And there God is able to use all of the sin and circumstances in the way in which He saves His people from starvation. Had he never been sold into slavery, had he never gone to prison because of Potiphar’s wife, had he never interpreted the dream…well, we might have had God’s people dying of starvation. God worked out all things, even the bad things, for the good – in Joseph and in God’s people.
But all stories don’t end that way, of course – not even all biblical stories. We have John the Baptist who goes to prison for preaching as a courageous prophet against the sin of Herod and Herodius, only to find himself with his head on a platter. In fact, I’ve often noted that John the Baptizer in prison, he himself isn’t sure about Jesus anymore when he says, “Are you the one, or should we look for another? I can’t equate the suffering, the stinky dungeon of Herod and the pain and suffering that I am experiencing. I thought you were ushering in God’s Kingdom, and I’m in the dungeon.”
Jim Denison says God never wastes hurt. He can be trusted to redeem all He permits. He wants us to notice that Paul is not saying that all things are good. Sin is not good. Suffering is not always good. But even in the bad things, God works for the good of those who are in love with Him (Wrestling With God, p. 107).
I want to remind you of something that makes this verse a lot less trite to me. Paul, the one who is saying that God redeems what God allows, himself experiences a great deal of suffering. Paul is not a preacher of health, wealth, and prosperity for whom all goes with ease, who simply says to those who experience suffering unknown to him, “Now, now, it will all be good. Make no big deal of it.”
Dare you ever read what happened to the Apostle Paul in his preaching of Jesus? Here is a man who knows suffering and a man who would ultimately become a martyr, be murdered for his faith. Don’t you remember Paul has a thorn in his flesh, and he prays that God would take it away. God says, “No, no, I’m not going to take it away because when you’re weak, Paul, then I show My strength.”
Listen to Paul’s litany of suffering from 2 Corinthians 11: “I’ve been in labors. I’ve been in prison numerous times. I’ve been beaten so many times I can’t count. I’ve often been in the shadow of the danger of death.” By the way, he does die – those are real shadows cast over Paul. “Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes.” In the gospel account Jesus receives thirty-nine lashes one time. Paul endured the whip of thirty-nine lashes five times. “Beaten with rods three times. Stoned.” In fact, when Paul was stoned, his injuries were so severe they thought he was dead. “Been in three shipwrecks. Floated around in the ocean all night long.” He’s been robbed. He’s got the Jews mad at him. The Gentiles mad at him. People in the city are mad at him. People in the wilderness are mad at him. The false teachers are attacking him. He says, “I’ve gone through many nights without any sleep. I’ve been hungry. I know what it means to thirst. I’ve gone without food. I’ve been cold and exposed. And then I have all the stress of all the churches on my back. Who doesn’t sin that I don’t have to get involved with the consequences?”
Paul is no shallow Christian who always had good things. Paul has the worst of things. And Paul says, “Though I don’t understand it – why I had to be beaten, why I had to float in the ocean, why I’ve been hungry and thirsty and cold, and why I have all this stress every night that keeps me awake – God, somehow, is going to redeem it in His glory.
IV. His love cannot be taken away from those whom He calls (vs. 29-30).
Now this is one of my favorite passages. Listen to how he closes out.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?” (Romans 8:35). Paul had been around a lot of those things. “No, in all things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death” – there it is folks, death itself cannot separate you from God’s love, for those who are His live forever – “nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any the created things, will be able to separate us from the love of God” – and how do we find that love? – “which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).
I want you to see that not only has Paul suffered, who writes these words, but he’s writing about the One who suffered more. God does not stand at a distance and look down at our suffering and say, “It’s no big deal; I’ll work it out for good in the end.” God comes down, and God puts on skin, and God is crucified – the most horrible, painful death that anyone could experience. God is not far away. God is here. He suffers with us. His love is not even separated by death. He is in that suffering. And He loves us through death.
God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4). He weeps as we weep (John 11:35). The Father, through Jesus, walks with His children through the worst passages of life.
So maybe we can reread this passage this way: Sometimes there is going to be tragedy in your life to such an extent that you won’t even know what to pray. There are no words that comfort. There are no words to bring peace or joy. And at that very moment when pain itself has forced you to silence, the Spirit of God within you will groan and the Spirit of God will talk for you. God will search your heart, find His Spirit groaning, and have communion with you at your lowest moment. You don’t even need to pray words – you just pray groans with the help of the Spirit. And in the midst of your deepest pain, know that God is at work even though we don’t understand. If God is on our side, nobody can stand against us. And there is nothing that will ever separate you permanently from the love of God. Tribulation will not. Persecution will not. Starving to death won’t keep you from the love of God. Going naked will not keep you from the love of God. A sword can’t stop the love of God. Height or depth can’t stop the love of God. Principalities and powers of all the demons in the world can’t stop the love of God. Death itself cannot stop the glorious reign of God which will last forever, for we will always be in the love of God which comes to us through Christ Jesus our Lord.