In the course of listening to people over many years I have heard a lot of questions, and the one that comes up over and over again is “why do so many bad things happen to such good people”. Unfortunately, most people don’t really want to hear the answer because the Bible tells us that everyone, including Christians (and perhaps especially Christians), will have problems in their lives.
There are many people who believe that Christians should have no problems; that if they pray with enough faith, or if they keep all the rules, or if they have enough love for the Savior, God will always protect them from the evil in this world, and make them happy. They are confused when this is not the case. They become guilt ridden, assuming that they are somehow “doing it wrong” when their problems don’t disappear, or they become angry with God because they think He has changed the rules. Unfortunately, they have not been taught well, and God’s ways are not always predictable.
A state of exemption from problems is not what the Bible teaches us to expect. All the sentimental rhetoric and good intentions in the world will not keep us safe from real pain and deep sorrow scattered throughout our lives. As I have aged, I have come to see that a healthy Christian life is not about escaping our problems. Instead it is about realistically recognizing that there are times when we are justifiably afraid or sorrowful, and that we need help to deal with it. When these things happen, we know to Whom we are to go. Christians are to be a dependent people ~ looking to God for our strength and wisdom, not trying to go it alone.
Scripture bears this out. The Psalms are not all happy songs and joyful praises. They demonstrate that humanity is subject to the whole spectrum of emotion and challenge, and that one of the things God wants from us is absolute honesty with Him. Am I a genuinely effective witness to the power of God if I go around pretending that everything is always good, when in my heart of hearts I know it is not? Our witness is not that God will take away all our problems, but that in the middle of the natural problems of life which we all experience, He can give us the power to overcome. His grace is that even in the worst of circumstances He is able to give us peace, courage and comfort. That is not the same as making the problem go away.
In the past some well-meaning missionaries would give food and protection to any who claimed to become Christians, and so many smart indigenous people became “Christian” in order to insure a supply of rice. We are not to be “rice Christians”, claiming His Name because we believe He will keep us fed and safe. We are to follow Him because He is GOD, and because only in Him do we have eternal life, no matter what the circumstances of our lives here on earth.
As we go through life, growing in faith as we lean on Him through each successive trial, we learn to put our trust in God: to remember how He has been with us in the past, Who and What He is, and gradually recognizing the depth of His love and sacrifice on our behalf. We learn by experience that He is always there, whether or not we are aware of Him, and that His will for us is always good. We come to know that while our problems may not go away, we can find peace within the trial by bringing all our fear and anxiety to the foot of the Cross, and leaving it there to the best of our ability.
If we are faithfully following Him, we can count on problems. Sometimes these are in the form of temptations, which come from the evil one, and sometimes they are trials which God allows in the course of training us toward holiness and spiritual maturity. James says: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance”. (James 1: 2)
Problems don’t mean that He doesn’t love us; He is shaping us through allowing disciplines of various kinds in order for us to become the people He wants us to be. A. W. Tozer, theologian and author, once said that “God is never able to bless a man mightily unless He has allowed Him to suffer mightily“. The book of James, Hebrews 12, and other scripture references clearly tell us that if we are Christians, we can expect trouble. Paul and the other apostles all experienced suffering and problems and terrible deaths. Many of the early disciples, and hosts of Christian martyrs throughout the history of the Church suffered for their faith. Even today believers in the Persecuted Church are being imprisoned, tortured, and put to death. Does this mean that God doesn’t love them, or that they don’t have enough faith? I think, possibly, instead He has trusted them to be extreme examples of how faith and an acceptance of God’s sovereignty can take us even through death in peace and trust. It is a spiritual perspective, not the perspective of being tied to the earth. It is in Him that we can find the strength to get us through our difficult problems in life.
God’s primary concern is with our spiritual development. His goal is not necessarily our physical or material well-being. His goal for us is to be conformed to the image of Christ in humility and obedience. He refines us, like the refiners fire, in order to rid us of all the impurities in us which hinder this process. We need to remember that the refiner’s process involves extreme heat.
Beyond learning endurance, more and more I am coming to believe that our specific circumstances in life should be mostly irrelevant, including even some suffering and pain. What is most important to God is our response to problems. Evil exists in the world, whether through the enemy directly or through the pervasive environment of sin brought about by man’s disobedience. We need to face that realistically. God does not “give us” cancer, although He may allow it. The presence of sin in the world has brought disease as well as many other problems, and we will all feel the effects of this. We are not to blame God, but instead realize that the author of evil is that one who is always trying to break our trust in God by planting doubts in our minds.
Do we let our hard times draw us nearer to God, take us closer to Jesus, or do we let ourselves be eaten up with bitterness and doubt? Do we resent Him because He has allowed our problems, or do we cling all the harder to Him in the faith that ultimately His will toward us is always good? Our answers to these questions may vary at times, if we are honest… but it is a journey. We just need to remember that God’s intent is always to be shaping us toward the image of His Son, and His educational methods may not be to our liking.
Scripture speaks of suffering as “our light affliction”, because it is seen in the light of eternity. It may be hard to remember this if we are genuinely suffering… but that is really what faith is all about: an unwavering belief in the love of God which is able to transcend even the most difficult of circumstances. It is in recognizing that He is sovereign, and that all that we have is by His grace ~ not through entitlement or just because we want it. All these problems are designed to bring us closer to Him, to keep us moving forward toward the goal of knowing Christ and becoming more like Him.
What is faith? Is it merely an intellectual acknowledgment of Jesus as the Christ, which the enemy certainly has, or does it carry within its definition the implication of “conversion”, a response to Christ with a turning around toward repentance and change? If faith is powerless to effect change, then one must wonder if it is alive or dead. Christ said to Nicodemus, “You must be born again!” This implies regeneration, a rebirth, a transformation from what we have been. Problems are among the teaching exercises which God uses in instructing us in faith. Real faith will impel us toward conformity with the character of Christ as we let God change us through both happy and difficult circumstances, and in our response of trust and obedience.
We have the solid assurance that He loves all those who have received His grace. James also says: “Blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love Him.” (James 1:12)