I taught Christian apologetics for an extended period of time. When asked which were the most difficult topics to manage, I identified suffering and world religions. The former came closest to home.
My father was raised to attend church, but took his leave as an adolescent. While this is not all uncommon, many find their way back during their early or mid-twenties. When Dad was asked why he persisted, he cited the hypocrites in church. Of course, hypocrisy is pervasive in society.
I suspect that a critical factor was that his youthful wife became critically ill, and passed away. This was something he never mentioned, and it was not until later in life that I discovered he had been previously married.
With this in mind, I recently authored Pain As a Means of Grace (Wipf & Stock). It serves as a companion volume to C. S. Lewis’ classic text The Problem of Pain. As such, it argues that the capacity for pleasure is commensurate with that of pain. For instance, a story is told concerning a group of devout Jewish men anguishing over the destruction of their beloved temple. One, however, seemed to relish the experience. When asked concerning this, he replied: “If the destruction of our sanctuary can induce such pain, just imagine the rejoicing when it is rebuilt.”
The initial chapter explores paradise lost. This recalls a youngster who would regularly tune in late to some conversation. Whereupon, he was at a loss to understand the interaction. So it is that the creation and fall are necessary to grasp the current state of affairs.
This recalls the story of a person who complained that he could have created a better universe if given the opportunity. As a matter of fact, God did. Consequently, it is said that evil is good gone wrong.
Chaos theory suggests that even minimal alterations in initial conditions can have monumental results. Then, too, man’s defection was not an insignificant event.
The Job narrative next invites our attention. I considered this source more in detail in My Servant Job. Now the patriarch was an exemplary person, as confirmed by the Almighty. Satan, however, insisted that this was simply so that he could be more prosperous.
So Job was sorely tested. He was striped of his vast wealth, along with the death of his sons and daughters. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away,” he allowed; “may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21). “In all this,” it was observed, “Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”
“Skin for skin!” Satan exclaimed. “A man will give all he has for his own life. But stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face” (2:4-5). So the patriarch was again tested, this time with a grievous affliction. However, Job did not waver in his commitment. Qualifications aside, God commended him. Thus are we alerted to the fact that suffering attends our struggle against evil principalities and powers.
This leads us to consider the accounts of Jesus’ passion, which played such an important role in the gospel narratives. Luke, for instance, briefly considers Jesus’ formative years, expands on his public ministry, but dwells at length on the closing incidents in his life.
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus cried out from the cross (Matt. 27:46). He was quoting from a psalm employed to console those suffering adversity. It concludes on a triumphant note: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him” (Psa. 22:27).
We are next invited to listen to the voices of the martyrs. In particular, those of Stephen, Ignatius, and Polycarp. “For even though I am in bonds for his Name’s sake, I am not yet perfected in Jesus Christ,” Ignatius observes. He thereby portrays himself as a work in progress, as are we all. Now while the circumstances differ from one to the next, the disciple is without exception called upon to relinquish his former life, and embrace life in Christ.
“It is good for me to die for Jesus Christ rather than to reign over the farthest bounds of the earth,” he adds. “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal,” Jesus cautioned. “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and dust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21).
When threatened with execution, the venerable bishop Polycarp replied:”Fourscore and six years have I been His servant, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” Thus was his faith confirmed and refined.
The final chapter provides a more systematic treatment of the topic. As such, it interacts with Lewis’ above mentioned text. There are, in fact, striking similarities between his experience and mine.
Even so, every person’s experience is unique. My mother conceived when beyond the time women usually give birth, and was not in good health. My birth was difficult for her, with lingering adverse results. However, I am not aware that she ever had second thoughts. Accordingly, I am indebted to her not only for life, but such ministry as I have been allowed. We are thus again reminded in closing of the potential in pain.
If you died today, are you absolutely certain that you would go to heaven? You can be! TRUST JESUS NOW
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