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The reality of suffering, and the Gospel confronting culture

Published: 29 March 2014 (GMT+10)

The issue of death and suffering is one that comes up frequently. R.W., USA, wrote:

There is always the issue of suffering. My question is simple and you may wish to look into this matter from a different view. What do we declare as suffering as a human view and the idea of suffering from the view of God. God allowed his own son to experience suffering. What if God views suffering as we know it to be something totally different. The question that many ask is why would a good God allow suffering and why would God allow people to go to hell. The answer is simple. He doesn’t. I submit that the definition for suffering is a Webster definition and not that of God. A person breaks a leg, they suffer. People die in a hurricane, they suffer. A love one is loss, they suffer. A child is infected by a parasite, they suffer. Christ was beaten, hung on a cross, He suffered. God does not for example get in the middle of a hurricane and sets aside those He wishes to not experience harm, just as God does not stop a person from jumping in front of an oncoming car.

, CMI-US, responds:

Dear R.,

If we were happy and comfortable in a fallen world, it would not point us to the Gospel.

I think that as Christians we can say that God works for a believer’s ultimate good—and that is only fully manifested in the Resurrection. And of course, this often involves intense suffering along the way as we suffer various tragedies. But I think your thoughts trivialize suffering a little; any answer to death and suffering has to acknowledge its reality if it is going to be effective.

God’s definition of suffering must be the same as ours (even though His perspective is vastly greater). If words can mean completely different things (the word ‘suffering’ means ‘blueberry’) to the people that are trying to communicate then transmission of accurate information becomes impossible. God’s logic and our logic must be the same or else we can’t really know anything, because all knowledge comes ultimately from God.

Suffering is real, it is sometimes unbearably intense, even for believers. God allows suffering because of sin. While He may intervene at any point (and we may never know how often He does), God allows the consequences of sin to play out. I think for several reasons:

  1. It is a reminder that there is something terribly wrong with the world. If we were happy and comfortable in a fallen world, it would not point us to the Gospel.
  2. For the unbeliever, it is a warning and a foretaste of the judgment to come. Even the most intense suffering in this world does not compare to the hopelessness of eternal judgment apart from God or any hope of redemption.
  3. For the believer, God uses suffering for our eternal good. While this is difficult to understand, we can see instance after instance of it. For instance, Joni Eareckson-Tada became a quadriplegic after a swimming accident that left her body paralyzed. She went through intense depression and even now suffers from chronic pain (she is also a cancer survivor). Yet she has said she is thankful that God put her in her wheelchair, because He has used her disability to bring her closer to Him as she depends on Him, and it is also a platform for her ministry. There are so many other instances that I can think of where mature, faithful Christians have gone through suffering only to have it bring them closer to God as a result.

Jesus came into the world and suffered, not just on the Cross (though that is of course the most important part), but throughout His life as He lived a normal human life. He had to experience the entire human life in order to not only save us (i.e., pay for our sins), but also make us righteous in God’s sight (we could not be credited with His righteousness if He had not lived a righteous human life).

I hope these few thoughts are useful.

S.H., USA, writes:

Dear CMI,
Firstly I want to thank you so much for your ministry and what you do; your efforts have produced much fruit, and have helped me to take Scripture seriously at its claims, with evidence.
Please continue to answer questions, expose lies and give answers for the reason you hope :)
My question is this:
Do Christian missions/missionaries destroy the culture of the native people groups in the land they are in?

Lita Cosner responds:

Dear S.,

Thanks for writing in.

How missionary activity impacts the culture of previously-unreached people groups is one of the controversial aspects of evangelism. Critics often use phrases like ‘Christianity destroys people’s culture’ to cast Christianity in a negative light. But I think there is more to consider about this issue.

The history of religion shows that there are no depths to which humans will not descend in the worship of their false, demonic gods.

Many cultures, isolated from the Gospel, create intricate systems to try to placate their gods and other spirits. This includes child sacrifice, ritual rape, and various forms of murder, not to mention the general fear and oppression of the religions. There is often some awareness of spiritual reality, but divorced from the Gospel this turns to animism and demon worship.

There are obviously some parts of culture that are beautiful and should be preserved. Clothing, architecture, art and music styles are all part of a particular people group’s heritage and can be admired ‘culturally’. But who can admire the former Indian practice of sutee, where a widow would be burned on her husband’s pyre? Or the ritual cannibalism practiced by many cultures throughout history? The history of religion shows that there are no depths to which humans will not descend in the worship of their false, demonic gods.

So the Gospel itself will change the culture, but for the better. Also, evangelism also brings with it exposure to the modern world, particularly for tribal peoples in various parts of the world. Some people think that this is a bad thing in and of itself. But put yourself in the place of the person being affected; is the possibility of better technology for getting food and clean water, medical care, and contact with the outside world such a bad thing? Certainly no one should be forced into a way of life they don’t want (i.e., if someone wants to reject computers and fast food, then fine!). But surely there is nothing biblical about idealizing more “primitive” ways of life.

A book that goes into this in detail is One Human Family by Dr Carl Wieland.

Helpful Resources

From Creation to Salvation
by Lita Cosner
US $12.00
Beyond the Shadows
by Dr Carl Wieland
US $10.00
The Genesis Account
by Jonathan Sarfati
US $35.00

Readers’ comments

Robert D.
We have to remember that we must submit all things to God. Much of culture, in the absence of Scripture, is sinfully made by sinful men for sinful purpose. Theres not that many things in life that are truly "morally neutral". Although clothes and architecture are mentioned, and rightly too- they still carry a great deal of sin very often that wouldn't be there if Christians created it. e.g indecent exposure. Perhaps we shouldn't mourn what passes away when Christianity enters into a place. Perhaps we should be too busy praising God for his work in that culture - that is, to create a new spiritual culture of obedience and loving submission to him, that breeds safety, purity, righteousness... rather than being concerned with the material stuff
Joseph M.
The question “How can a good god allow bad things to happen?” is an oxymoron because the doing of good means you are not allowing bad to happen. It’s a contradictory statement.

It’s really the fallacy of false cause because the question is attributing the false cause of “good” being the effect of “bad” things allowed to happen. The true cause-and-effect relationship which the question misrepresented is the cause of “absence” of doing good has the effect of allowing bad things to happen.

Since God’s nature is good then He cannot be allowing bad things to happen. Since bad things are allowed to happen where there is an “absence” of good, then we must look to where the “absence” of good is. We find the “absence” of good in evil men, so it’s evil men who allow bad things to happen and are fighting against the good coming from God.

Just as a worldly judge sentences men for their bad deeds, so it is with God, after the resurrection, that He will judge, in righteousness, the bad deeds of men that allowed bad things to happen.
Wolfram H.
The replies of the questions mentioned here are really good. In Kyrgyz tradition women are stolen by their future husbands to marry. But male Kyrgyz Christians do not do this anymore.
Stephen D.
You say, " Jesus paid for our sins" - over and over again. I don't mean to be a thorn in your flesh and it's not the subject at hand,but you're trying to give the gospel through creation.
If you have to resort to phrases NEVER STATED in the Bible every time you present the Gospel, there is a chance you have a gospel that is a creation of man.
Really, the Bible never says that Jesus paid for our sins. It does say that His blood washes away our sins. If you are going to preach the Gospel, stick to the Bible like you do with creation!... And you do a great job with that.
Lita Cosner
Thanks for this comment, but the idea is biblical. See 1 Corinthians 6:20, 7:23; 2 Peter 2:1.
Kevin M.
There is a common misconception that 'primitive people are happy - we must not disturb their happiness by imposing our foreign beliefs on them'. Without knowing Christ, the people where we have worked live in daily fear of the spirits and of sorcery worked by their fellow men and women. Their relief when given the truth is robust and genuine - in Christ they are set free from all their fears. Offering them the gospel is not of itself changing their culture, but giving them the best gift we could offer. Usually this will be followed by some changes in the culture, but for the better not worse. And it is the people themselves who make the changes under the guidance of God's Holy Spirit. A wise missionary does not impose his culture on them, because he does not need to.
P. T.
Hi Lita,
thanks for your response to the suffering inquiry. I just wanted to add something to what you touched on, but I feel a little more detail may be helpful:
Ex. 20:1-17, the 10 Commandments - the Law that God requires us to LIVE by - do ANY of us obey it all? Are we not ALL therefore in line for judgement? Truly, we do not understand how offensive our sins are to God - yet:
Ps 103:10 He does not treat us as our sins deserve, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
Actually Ps 103:8-14 is worth reading/meditating on regarding this matter.
Perhaps our personal suffering can also be a means of making ourselves more compassionate towards others when they suffer.
And when we care for those who are suffering we do something our Father always does for us - show love and compassion even when it costs us significantly.
Terry P.
Why does God allow us to suffer evil? Well, Job is the quintessential book on the purpose of evil and suffering. It is basically to test our faith in God, as summarised in 1 Peter 1:6-7 and many other scriptures:
"This is cause for great joy, even though now you smart for a little while, if need be, under trials of many kinds. Even gold passes through the assayer’s fire, and more precious than perishable gold is faith which has stood the test. These trials come so that your faith may prove itself worthy of all praise, glory, and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed."
As Jesus exhorted us to pray in the Lord’s prayer: "And do not bring us to the test, but save us from the evil one."
Jared S.
About the destroying the culture question; my parents are missionaries, and I grew up on the mission field in Liberia, West Africa, and I must say, some of the culture that prevails is abominable, the biggest that comes to mind is child sacrifices and offering oneself up to the spirits. Why? So that your political party will win the election(s), or for better crops this year. The country is beautiful, and has some amazing art, and no one would want those things destroyed, but the spiritism and fear of 'the society' is something that is so sad to see in a culture that claims to be Christian.
daniel R.
I hear this question so much. ''how can a good god allow bad things to happen?'' There is not just 1 answer, but the one i think is best is almost just rephrasing the question. I rephrase kind like this-''how can a good and righteous god who knows everything i think and do not kill me in my sleep for sins i commit every day?'' when you look at it like that, suffering looks like god showing grace to us. I would still prefer not to suffer but its something I have no right to complain about.
Tony F.
To put suffering in context I think needs the reaction of Jesus. At Lazarus's Tomb he not only wept but was angry that suffering and death was in the world. I am sure there was this element when looking over Jerusalem He wept.
Richard F.
God wants us all to be well. It is not his plan that we suffer; we fall into sin and suffer the consequences. God does not use suffering to get our attention; He is a God of love. He sent Jesus who took on our infirmities; by His stripes we were healed. God's plan of restoration was completed with all that Jesus willing undertook for us. Satan would have us believe otherwise!
Lita Cosner
Richard, God certainly does want all who belong to Him to be well, and sent Jesus to make that happen, but because of sin, this is something that is not ultimately realized in this life, because we still die. But the great hope of the resurrection is that every believer will have a new body that will never get sick or die.
Peter N.
R.W. USA asked: "The question that many ask is why would a good God allow suffering and why would God allow people to go to hell. The answer is simple. He doesn’t."
Could you comment on that please. Specifically: I read RW as saying that God 'allows' no one to go to hell, whereas my understanding is that if we reject Jesus, He has no choice but to allow us to go to hell; there being nowhere else we can go if we reject God.
Lita Cosner
Peter, I didn't read it that way, but like he was saying, "God doesn't send people to Hell, sin does". The larger context of his comment bears that out. In any case, we have a lot to say against universalism, not the least of which is Why would a loving God send people to Hell?.
Robert B.
The Waodani in Ecuador are still existing today, only because of intervention by God using missionaries, who gave their lives for Him.

The movie 'End of the Spear' shows how Christ cares for all, regardless of culture.

What a supernatural culture shall we have in Heaven and eternity when we 'jump the Great Boa" as the Waodani say.

Dave W.
While most people in the western world encourage and celebrate progress of developed nations, there seems to be a large number of people that think that primative cultures should be kept. The result is groups of people like Australian Aborigines and Native Americans who can often find it difficult to take advantage of modern medicine and technology, being compelled to live as their ancestors did. This, to me, is racism based on the evolutionary idea that they are a less evolved people. By all means record what we can of their knowledge, but don't lock them in the past.

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