A good God, a broken world
“All suffering in this world challenges us and challenges our faith. But even worse for our faith is when we suffer as believers. We are his people, he is our God! How can he let all these things happen to us?”
– Stuart J. Foster. Highly Favoured: Our Powerful God’s Covenant with You.
“The Mumaahi evangelism team was on the way. It had been raining hard for three days. Thick red mud stuck to the Land Rover’s wheels. It could barely make it up the hill. Going down the other side was worse. The car skidded sideways and nearly ended up in the bush. The bridge at the bottom of the hill was under water. Then a tyre went flat. One brother said to the others, “The Devil is against our journey.”
I remember standing on the fresh earth of a newly-dug grave, as we buried our seven-year-old daughter, also lost to malaria. I looked into the faces of the women and men from the church standing there with us, together in pain. Almost every one of them had lost a daughter or a son during years of war, hardship, and poverty. It was a hard comfort, realizing that our pain was shared.
But there was also a deep doubt. How is it that the people of God can suffer like this? What had the little one done to deserve it? My family and I had given ourselves to the Lord to serve him in a civil war in one of the poorest places on earth. Instead of running from dangers, we had stayed committed.
But where were the protection and power of God? We prayed, “God, weren’t you supposed to take care of us? Where were you? We went out on a limb risking ourselves for you. Why did you chop off the branch that held us up?”
Each one of us has our own stories to add to these: people who belong to God, are trying to do the right thing, and have terrible things happen to them. If we are the covenant people of God, rich in privileges and promises, how come we have such a hard time? If the favour of God is part of our lives, how can we face so many defeats?
All suffering in this world challenges us and challenges our faith. But even worse for our faith is when we suffer as believers. We are his people, he is our God! How can he let all these things happen to us?
I am not going to pretend to deal here with the whole problem of suffering. It is too big. We have cried together before, and we will cry together again. But I do want to share with you some of what the Lord has woven into our lives as we have grieved over our daughter, as we have grieved over other hurts, as we have grieved with those around us.
When our daughter died, we had been working through the Psalms with the Elomwe translation team. The hard edges and sharp emotions of these psalms worked their way into our grief, shaping us and stiffening us. The two surprises we talked about at the beginning of this book have both become more real for us: first, that we already have the favour of God; second, that this favour we already have in Jesus is better than we think and better than we ask for. It’s that second surprise that is the heart of this chapter.
Right near the start, Psalms reminds us of reality:
This world has big problems. Things are not right. The world is full of noise and confusion, violence and destruction, disease and poverty. Both peoples and leaders are involved. And we could say that the anger and confusion is right there, way down in our individual hearts as well. There are times when I know I am supposed to pray, when I actually want to pray, and yet I think of a thousand other things – resentments and hurts, and then don’t pray.
The psalm explains that what is wrong with this world, and with us, is that mankind doesn’t want God to be in charge. This whole world system is in loud revolt against God and his chosen ruler, his Messiah, his Christ. So we shouldn’t expect it to be full of peace, prosperity, and contentment. In fact, the apostle Paul says, the whole of creation is groaning right now, waiting for release (Romans 8:22). We cannot insist, as Christians, that we are immune to these conditions. We have not been raised above to a higher plane of guaranteed prosperity, abundance, and good health. Some of the “groaning” comes from us!
But God is not threatened by all the noise. Up in heaven, he rules. Down on earth, too, he rules, through the king he has chosen, the Christ. Psalm 2:4 says that God actually laughs at the noise.
I once came face to face with a lion, a male lion with a big mane. He roared, and a lion’s roar will take you places you have never been. It is so deep it will reach inside and grab your bones and rattle them. But actually, I wasn’t scared. I was physically shaken, and I didn’t laugh, but I wasn’t really scared. It’s not because I’m such a fool, either. It’s because the lion was in the zoo in Lisbon, Portugal, and there were some nice, thick steel bars keeping him from me.
God is in charge, his Christ is in charge, and he knows it. He is not scared at all. It’s just the world that is confused. And it’s the world and its people who ought to be scared. The psalm says to smarten up, submit, and serve him. In a messed-up world, there is joy when we take refuge in him.
This psalm takes evil seriously, but takes God and his control even more seriously. I think a drunken teenager at a checkpoint pointing an AK-47 is even more scary than a lion. But Psalm 2 tells me that even there, Jesus rules. We belong to him, by covenant. It’s no surprise when the world that hates him hurts us (John 15:18). And he is taking care of us, when the gun does not fire, but also when it does.