I have previously written about my own struggles with faith at length. Last week I put it to you all out there as to what you would say to somebody who asked some tough, legitimate questions about issues that affected his/her faith. Much appreciation to everyone who responded.
I am still meeting with my friend as time allows to discuss faith issues, and I am pleased to report that she has been responsive. Credit goes more to her openness than to my skills (cough cough) as an apologist. No, a bright light has not shone upon her causing her to fall to her knees and shout, “You’re right! How did I miss this?”, but she is receptive and willing to consider what I throw out there.
The last time we met we discussed that old but venerable hang-up about the suffering of the innocent. As wiser folks than I have observed, no answer to this question is 100% satisfactory. There are some explanations that hold together better than others. However, addressing pain in this life is far more than an intellectual exercise. Suffering stops people cold in their tracks and leaves deep, ugly scars in its wake. Sometimes it derails their faith completely. And no argument for a good and loving God makes it easier. It is one thing to theologize about it, another to live it.
I am convinced that every believer has to find his/her own answer to dealing with this. The longer I live the less stock I put in meta-explanations, i.e. responses that are suitable for every suffering person in every conceivable situation. What I am putting more stock into is each person finding his or her own answer in scripture and prayer; less an orthodoxy than a personal understanding between the believer and God that allows the believer to stay in the game without being overwhelmed by cognitive dissonance.
I don’t presume to know all of the whys and wherefores to this. But one “why” that I try to keep in the forefront of my mind is that God is in the process of refining the world and everyone in it; especially those who call on Him. And He is doing so in the context of haphazard lives lived out in a fallen world. This means that our growth and change is done in the hardest way possible, through experience. Sometimes, sadly, this process breaks the believer’s faith. Other times, the believer who comes out the other side has a tougher, sharper faith.
Nobody lived through this process more than Paul the apostle. Consider the following:
2 Cor. 4:7-12
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” [Emphasis mine]
“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” [Emphasis mine]
In fact, the Lord predicted the experiences of Paul in Acts 9-11-15:
“The Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.’
‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.’
But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.‘” [Emphasis mine]
None of this means that the believer should go it alone. This is where the fellowship comes in. I am convinced that we exasperate the sufferings of others through our failure to alleviate their suffering in any way possible. It takes more than a hug, an offer of prayer, and a reminder to “call if you need anything.” We have to suffer together.
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
“What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”
Again, this is the hard way to do it, because it means taking on more struggles in addition to our own. But I am convinced that this is the only way that any of us our going to get out of this world with our faith intact. As John Mark Hicks writes:
“…In Jesus, God did not explain suffering—how I long for a “Sermon on the Mount” about suffering—but rather he experienced it as one of us and redeemed us from it.
Jesus responded to suffering by sharing its burden, even death. Moved by love and compassion (even for his enemies, including us), he redeemed cosmic fallenness through healing and atonement.”
At a conference I attended several years ago, a speaker (for the life of me I cannot remember his name) spoke eloquently of his struggle with cancer; none of his doctors expected him to make it. Fortunately, they were mistaken. However, during the worst days of his struggle, he confessed to a friend that he did not have enough faith to face more chemo and surgery. His friend responded, “Then I’ll have enough faith for both of us.”
“I’ll have enough faith for both of us.” That simple yet beautiful promise has haunted and inspired me ever since. That is how we do it, brothers and sisters. When you are in the thick of it, let another believer have enough faith for you. When your brother or sister is facing the worst that the world has to offer, make sure that you have enough faith for yourself and him/her. But make sure that it is the faith that James talks about, the one that produces good works. It’s the hardest way, but I am more and more convicted that it is the only way.