Saturday, October 14, 2017

Questions and Answers on Suffering (R.C. Sproul)

The following questions and answers were taken from RC Sproul's book Surprised by Suffering: The Role of Pain and Death in the Christian Life (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2010.

1) How would you counsel Christians who are suffering from illness or age-related infirmity and who would rather be in heaven than remain on earth?

First, I would commend such people for their preference. They are certainly in good company. Frequently this sentiment is expressed by biblical heroes and heroines. We remember the aged Simeon who, after waiting years to behold the Messiah, finally was blessed to see the Christ child in the temple. He took the baby Jesus in his arms and spoke the poem known as the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation” (Luke 2:29–30).

Job, in the midst of his great pain, begged God for the release of death: “Oh, that I might have my request, that God would grant me the thing that I long for! That it would please God to crush me, that He would loose His hand and cut me off!” (Job 6:8–9). Moses and Jeremiah, among others, made the same plea.

I once heard a man describing the throes of seasickness by saying, “First, I was afraid I was going to die, and then I was afraid I wouldn’t.” What he uttered in jest is a sober reality for many who are afflicted.

Billy Graham has been quoted publicly in recent years as saying that he was tired and longed to go home and be with Christ. Dr. Graham’s remarks echoed those of the apostle Paul when he wrote: “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you” (Phil. 1:21–24).

Paul was willing to continue his ministry on earth, but his clear preference was to die and be with Christ. Likewise, we should pray that God would give us the grace to remain fruitful in this world, even if our preference is to die and be with Christ.

There are two basic reasons why Christians at times long for death. The first is our deep longing to arrive at our spiritual destination. The pilgrimage of our souls is not finished until we enter into our rest. The second reason is the desire for relief from affliction.

As I noted earlier in this book, the time of our death is in God’s hands. We must not take steps to hasten the moment of our departure. God is the author of life and is sovereign over both life and death. We may pray for death, but the request may be granted by God alone.

What about suicide? What happens to those who commit suicide?

Historically the church has taken a dim view of suicide. However, many people do, in fact, kill themselves.

I was once asked on a television talk show whether people who commit suicide could go to heaven. I answered with a simple yes. My answer caused the switchboard to light up like a Christmas tree. The host also was shocked by my response.

I explained that suicide is nowhere identified as an unforgivable sin. We do not know with any degree of certainty what is going through a person’s mind at the moment of suicide. It is possible that suicide is an act of pure unbelief, a succumbing to total despair that indicates the absence of any faith in God. On the other hand, it may be the sign of temporary or prolonged mental illness. Or it may result from a sudden wave of severe depression. (Such depression can be brought on by organic causes or by the unintentional use of certain medications.)

One psychiatrist remarked that the vast majority of people who committed suicide would not have done so had they waited twenty-four hours. Such an observation is conjecture, but it is based on numerous interviews of people who made serious unsuccessful attempts at suicide and subsequently recovered from their overwhelming discouragement.

The point is that people commit suicide for a wide variety of reasons. The complexity of the thinking process of a person at the moment of suicide is known comprehensively by God alone. Therefore, God alone is able to render a fair and accurate judgment on any person. Ultimately, an individual’s salvation is dependent on whether he or she has been united to Christ by faith alone. The fact remains that genuine Christians are capable of succumbing to a tidal-wave of depression.

Though we must seek to discourage people from suicide, we leave those who have done it to the mercy of God.

Is it wrong to try to avoid suffering?

There have been times in church history when suffering was looked on as such a virtue that people went out of their way to experience it. The ancient heresy of Manichaeism, which focused on releasing the soul from the evil flesh, had a powerful and lasting influence on the church. Rigorous acts of asceticism, including bizarre forms of self-flagellation, have been seen as ways of accruing merit in the sight of God.

However, suffering merely for the sake of suffering has no particular virtue. The quest for suffering may indicate a psychological disorder, such as masochism. It also may point to an attempt at self-justification whereby a person, out of pride, wants to atone for his sins rather than to receive the grace of forgiveness.

There is no reason to seek suffering. Neither is there anything wrong in trying to avoid it unless avoiding it purposely involves a betrayal of Christ. The early martyrs could have avoided the lions if they had repudiated Christ, but such an avoidance of suffering would have been sin. Such examples are not limited to the early church. In many situations in the contemporary world, notably in totalitarian countries, Christians choose—and in some cases do not choose—to suffer for Christ.
We seek to avoid suffering when we buy food to eat and use medicine to heal our diseases. This is not sin but prudence. God calls us to take care of ourselves in the stewardship of both body and soul.
So the avoidance of suffering may be virtue or sin, depending on the circumstances involved.

Does free will play a role in suffering? For example, if a man smokes and then dies from cancer, is his suffering a call from God as a vocation? Is it a divine judgment? Or is it a result of the man taking his chances?

This question lists three possible explanations for the suffering described. We can eliminate one of them altogether. If God is sovereign, then nothing happens purely by chance. A chance event would be totally outside of the sovereign will of God. If any events were outside the sovereign will of God, it would be a contradiction in terms to call God sovereign. As I’ve written elsewhere, if there is one maverick molecule in the universe running around free of God’s sovereignty, then there is no guarantee that any promise God has ever made will come to pass. That one molecule might be the very thing that disrupts God’s eternal plan. Not just the best-laid plans of mice and men, but those of the Creator himself, might go astray.

If God is not sovereign, then God is not God. A non-sovereign God is no God at all. A non-sovereign God would be like a titular king who reigns but doesn’t rule. To be sure, men have free will, but our free will is limited. It is always limited by God’s free will. God’s free will is a sovereign free will. Our free will is a subordinate free will.

When I speak of suffering being a vocation, I have in mind that God is sovereign over everything that happens to us. That does not cancel out our free will and responsibility.

The question remains, is the suffering mentioned the result of God’s vocation or God’s judgment? Here we face a false dilemma. This need not be an either/or situation. God’s call to suffer may at the same time be an act of judgment.

We remember the nocturnal call that came to Samuel when he served under Eli. God revealed to Samuel that He was going to bring His holy judgment on the house of Eli. Eli then begged Samuel to tell him what God had revealed: “ ‘What is the word that the LORD spoke to you? Please do not hide it from me. God do so to you, and more also, if you hide anything from me of all the things that He said to you.’ Then Samuel told him everything, and hid nothing from him. And he said, ‘It is the LORD. Let Him do what seems good to Him’ ” (1 Sam. 3:17–18).

Eli recognized the judgment of God. He recognized the justice of it. He submitted himself to it. Here he accepted a vocation, a call to bear a chastisement involving suffering.

Likewise, when Nathan told David that David had sinned, David repented. David’s life was spared, but his son’s was not: “So David said to Nathan, ‘I have sinned against the LORD.’ And Nathan said to David, ‘The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die. However, because by this deed you have given great occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also who is born to you shall surely die’ ” (2 Sam. 12:13–14).

The biblical record informs us that David then pleaded with God for the child. He fasted and prayed. But God said no. On the seventh day, the child died. What was David’s response? “So David arose from the ground, washed and anointed himself, and changed his clothes; and he went into the house of the LORD and worshiped” (2 Sam. 12:20).

David worshiped God in the midst of his suffering. Indeed, he knew he was suffering under the corrective judgment of God. David answered the call of God righteously.

David’s response echoes that of Job when Job declared: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21).

What can we do when God’s purpose in our suffering is not clear and we feel overcome by fear, anger, or shock?

The example of Job is very instructive here. In the depth of his agony, compounded because he could make no sense out of his tragedy, Job said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.” Job cried out for God to answer his questions. He desperately wanted to know why he was called upon to endure so much suffering. Finally God answered him out of the whirlwind, but the answer was not what Job expected. God refused to grant Job an explanation of His reasons for the affliction. Ultimately, the only answer God gave to Job was a revelation of Himself. Job was not asked to trust a plan but a Person, a personal God who is sovereign, wise, and good. God deserves to be trusted.

In light of Jesus’ teaching about life after death, why should a believer cry over the passing of a Christian loved one?

It is comforting to know that Jesus was moved to tears by the sadness of grieving people. Tears are a gift from God to heal the deepest hurts that cannot be touched by any medicine, and they are a meaningful tribute to the depth of feelings generated by a loved one. While our culture accepts and honors tears at the moment of death and burial, there is often an unease that develops if someone weeps much later. The pressure to control tears is sad, for deep, strong feelings will remain for a long time, and the need for release remains as well. In most cases, the hardest times come long after the initial shock of loss. There is no shame in continuing to mourn, for grief seems to require all of us to pass through definite stages of recovery, and the process always takes time. There is no more lack of trust in responding to emotional hurts than there is in dressing a wound that afflicts the body. Neither is there any merit in “putting on a happy face” and denying the existence of real sorrow. The true joy and peace of the believer comes through experiencing the Lord’s comfort in the midst of pain, not instead of pain.