I had worked in Christian ministries for some time before my first “field trip,” and I thought I knew what front-line ministry was like. I was wrong.
In the middle of a third-world slum, surrounded by hungry children and hopeless adults living in dirt-floored shanties, assaulted with the odors, noises, dust, heat, and sheer heartache, I stood in the middle of what passed for a street – and cried. Openly and unashamedly. I was utterly overwhelmed.
I found myself asking “How could a loving God permit this? Does he not hear their cry?” The question has haunted me for years, along with my frustration over how little I could do to relieve this suffering.
In the midst of another African famine, I asked myself: Does my God not hear the weak protests of listless, starving children? Fixed by the desperate, pleading gaze of a roomful of Romanian orphans, overwhelmed by the need for love of just one, much less a hundred, I asked: Does not the heart of my God break? Later, standing on a coastline littered with the detritus of a killer tsunami, I asked: Is not the God of love touched by the tragedy of whole villages drowned? At home in Los Angeles, walking down a skid-row street on a balmy summer night, I wondered: Does not my Lord remember having no place to lay his head?
How many times, in the midst of doing what little I can, have I cried out in anguish, “God, it’s too much! How do you stand it? How is it you do not rend the heavens and scatter the stars, reaching out in your awesome power to feed the hungry, heal the sick, comfort the broken and console the lonely? How can you possibly know all things and yet do nothing? How is it that I, a man of dust with a heart of stone, find myself brought to my knees in tears at the plight of my brothers and sisters while you, who can do all things, seem to remain unmoved?”
How do I answer the unbeliever who challenges my assertion that God is love, that he knows all things and can do all things? What do I say when they look around at the world and say, “If this is what your God is like, I want nothing to do with him”? With what argument do I explain a child dying of diarrhea who could have been saved by clean water and a few pennies worth of salts? How do I shield my God from these accusatory arrows?
For many years my answer was, “I don’t know. Someday I will. For now, I stand in faith, believing in a God I cannot see and whom I do not understand, but whom I know to be love.” Yes, I’ve heard the arguments about “someday,” about sovereignty, about predestination and sin and the arrogance of man to question the will and motivation of his maker. I’ve staunchly defended in public, while agonizing over in private, Christians answer to what, in my opinion, is one of the most troubling questions of our times.
One day, reading in the Bible, an unexpected answer blazed like a lightning bolt in the darkened sky of my understanding. The Gospel of John recounts:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:1–3)
“Now wait a minute! Here suffering is not, Lord, as your disciples assume, the judgment of God against sin. Why then did you say this happened? ‘So that the work of God might be displayed in his life’? You mean to tell me that the purpose of a lifetime of blindness was that God might open his eyes in a moment?
“But just for this one special circumstance, right? I mean, you weren’t teaching a general principle here, were you?” Yet I found a few pages later that Lazarus’ death occurred “so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” (John 11:4).
“Let’s make sure I understand this correctly: You allow pain and suffering and heartache in this world so that God may be glorified? So that the love of God might be revealed on the earth? Do you mean to say that every instance of suffering is also an opportunity for God to move, to show his love, to demonstrate his works of mercy and compassion and grace?”
If this is true, it follows that what we are to see when we behold suffering is the glory of God. But can the world see the glory and love of God directly? No, they see it in the body of the Messiah – his church. It is in our lives that the love of God is to be shown forth. And it is through us that he desires to work.
The purpose of God in suffering is that the world might see the love of God in action through his people – in response to the suffering. The first thing an unbelieving world should see as it contemplates its suffering is the hand of God outstretched towards it. And we, as the body of God on this earth, are those hands.
What an awesome calling: to manifest the love of God to a suffering world! What an awesome responsibility, for if people don’t see God’s love in us they may not see it at all.The almighty God has chosen to work on this earth through his people: through our prayers, our actions, our gifts, our hands.
James Murphy works for a ministry that feeds the homeless in San Diego and provides training and support for organizations serving the victims of human trafficking. This article is adapted by the author from his book, How Could a Loving God…?
For further reading on this subject, see The Individual and World Need.