Fourth Sunday After Pentecost: Why Bad Things Happen To Gods People
I woke up yesterday morning with a message on Face Book saying that a friend of mine lost his son to Muscular Dystrophy at 1:30 in the morning.
I can't say that I understand what it feels like to have ever lost a son. I did wake up early in the morning to hear my mom crying when she found my father had passed on. I was with my mom when she passed away in the hospital. But to loose a child....?
Over the years I’ve learned that you can’t be fooled by the happy faces you see among your Christians friends. Everybody who calls themselves a Christian has a story that includes pain and suffering. Behind each smiling face you will discover a tale of pain, difficulty, heartache, and many unanswered questions. Not that we aren’t happy–we are–or at least most of us are, but no one gets a free ride through life. Into each life some rain must fall. No one lives in the sunshine forever.
We are told that there are four ways that most people use when they’re facing suffering and difficulty.
B. Getting angry.
C. Blaming others.
D. Accept it and learn from it.
Our final option regarding suffering is to accept it and to learn from it. You can deny it, you can get angry, you can blame someone else, or you can accept what happens to you and begin to learn from it. Of those four ways, only the last one is a truly Christian way of dealing with the difficulties of life. When trouble comes, you really only have two choices. Either you can become a victim or you can become a student. How much better it is to be a student than a victim. Being a student means asking yourself, “What have I learned from this? What is God trying to say to me? How can I grow from this painful experience?”
Having said that, I have to admit that there are many questions I can’t answer about why bad things happen to God’s people. Sometimes the reasons are obvious; more often they are obscure. If I had all the time in the world, I still couldn’t answer all the questions about suffering because some of them simply defy any human explanation. However, what I do want to do is call your attention to our epistle reading for today on the issue of the believer and his suffering. We find in our text a liberating perspective. It will lift you up if you are in the throes of despair. All of us need to learn what God is saying in this passage of Scripture–Romans 8:18-27.
Suffering and Glory
The theme of the passage is given to us in verse 18, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” Underline the word “sufferings” and the word “glory.” Paul invites us to make a comparison of those two things. Most of us see only our sufferings. We’re acutely aware of the bad things that happen to us. As I said, we all have a story. All of us know what difficulty is all about. But there is a another side–the glory side. There are sufferings and then there is glory.
If you could put all the difficulties of your life on one side of the scale, and the glory that will someday be revealed to you on the other side of the scale, the glory would be so much heavier than your present sufferings that they would be blown away like a feather. The sufferings of this life, although they are terrible, are not even worth comparing with the greatness of the glory that will be revealed to us. That is a revolutionary perspective on life. If you ever let that thought grip you–that what God has for you is incomparably greater than what you are going through right now–it will revolutionize the way you look at your problems.
Three Unchanging Truths
With that as background, we turn to consider three unchanging truths regarding suffering. These truths are statements that form the Christian attitude toward sufferings.
Truth # 1: Our Suffering is Temporary. 19-22
“For the expectation of the creature waiteth for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creature was made subject to vanity or futility, not willingly, but by reason of him that made it subject, in hope: Because the creature also itself shall be delivered from the servitude of corruption, into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that every creature groaneth and travaileth in pain, even till now.”
We live in a world of futility. Nothing works the way it is supposed to. You buy something, it breaks, you fix it, it works for awhile, and then breaks again. Eventually it wears out completely and you have to replace it. That’s what Paul means when he says the creation was subjected to vanity. Nothing lasts forever, nothing works right. We live in a Murphy’s Law universe.
But it’s not just creation, it’s also you and me. We don’t work right either. Children are born with horrible defects, we get cancer or Alzheimer’s or Muscular Dystrophy or some other wasting disease. If you live long enough, you’ll have a stroke or a heart attack or grow senile and possibly end up in a nursing home. That’s ahead for all of us, and there is no escape for any of us. Unless you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get shot at a freeway rest stop in Florida–or on the streets of Chicago.
Verse 21 speaks of the “bondage to decay.” Every Wednesday morning two trucks come by my house. One picks up the newspaper and glass bottles for recycling; the other picks up our garbage. The trucks come every Wednesday. Why? Because the flow of garbage never ceases. The more we make, the more we spend. The more we spend, the more we use. The more we use, the more we waste. The more we waste, the more garbage we produce. If you doubt that, just let the garbage truck drivers go on strike for a week or two. Just see how fast the mountains of garbage pile up all around you. We live in a decaying, frustrating world.
Open the newspaper and you read about Tropical Storms causing floods. You read about tornadoes, and earthquakes. You read about children that are being shot. You read about famine and starvation. We read of wars and rumor of wars through out the world.
Something has gone wrong. This is not the world as God meant it to be. This is a world full of pain, suffering and death. This is the world as it has been messed up and knocked out of kilter by the entrance of sin.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the most powerful man in the world. It doesn’t matter if you are President of the United States. If you live long enough, you will know pain. You will know heartache. If you live long enough, you will brush the tears away as death comes to your door. We live in a frustrating world. A world filled with pain and suffering and death.
Why You Have to Mow Your Grass
Do you know what entropy is? Entropy is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. That’s the law that says in any closed system, energy always moves from complexity to randomness. The Second Law tells us that our universe is moving from order to disorder, from harmony to disharmony. Everything in the universe, left to itself, will just run down. If you wind your watch and then leave it alone, what happens? Eventually it runs down and stops. That same principle is why the beds in your house don’t stay made. That’s why your childrens bedroom don't stay clean. That’s why the plates in your kitchen don’t clean themselves. That’s why you have to re-paint your house every few years. That’s why you have to mow your grass. If you leave the grass alone, it will become a jungle. Why? Because we’re living in a universe where things run down.
No More Cavities
Do you remember the old slogan of Crest toothpaste: Look, Ma! No cavities! Remember that? I thought about that when I read this text. We have tooth decay now because we live in a decaying world. But there’s coming a time when the dentists will go out of business. There will be no more tooth decay because that which causes decay will itself be removed from the universe. I have even better news. That which causes heart decay and body decay and mind decay and spiritual decay–all that will be removed once and for all.
The Christian viewpoint on suffering is to say, “Yes, it’s bad. But it’s not going to last forever. Yes, it’s terrible, but this isn’t the final story. This isn’t the last chapter. Yes, we suffer, but God has ordained that our suffering is temporary. Something better for us is on the way.” That’s the first statement of truth. Our suffering is temporary.
II. Our Suffering is Educational 23-25
“And not only it, but ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption of the sons of God, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope. But hope that is seen, is not hope. For what a man seeth, why doth he hope for? But if we hope for that which we see not, we wait for it with patience.”
We groan inwardly, Paul says. We groan because of a job we hate. We groan because of unfulfilled dreams. We groan because our bodies break down. We groan because our marriages break up. We groan because our children go astray. We groan because our friends disappoint us.
Why does God allow such groaning among his children? Why doesn’t he do something about it? Doesn’t he know what we’re going through? Doesn’t he care?
Sometimes we begin to question God’s character–as if he somehow enjoys seeing his children suffer. We imagine him laughing in heaven as we weep. But it is not so. He knows what we are going through. He cares about our suffering. He feels our pain.
The Bible says God allows our pain for a purpose. Verses 24-25 tell us that through our suffering God wants to develop two qualities in us:
Hope and Patience
Hope is that settled confidence that looks to the future, knowing that God will someday keep all his promises. Patience is the ability to endure present hardship because you have hope in the future.
Our suffering is educational in that it teaches us hope and patience–two qualities that can’t be gained any other way. You only hope for that which you do not have. If you have it, you don’t have to hope for it. But if you don’t have it, then hope teaches you to wait patiently for it.
What is it that we are waiting for? Paul calls it “our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” We’re waiting for the day when our bodies will be redeemed, when we can turn in the old model and get a brand new one from the Lord. In that day we will be adopted as sons–that is, we will enter into our full legal standing as the children of God. Right now–in this age–we are children of God living in decaying bodies. You can’t tell by the outside who we are on the inside. We look like everyone else. We get sick, our bodies decay, we eventually die. But because we are related to Jesus Christ, we will someday be given a body like his–incorruptible, immortal, undying. We don’t have it yet, but we’re eagerly waiting for that day to come.
Our bodies wear out, they sag, they expand, they wrinkle, the joints get creaky, the arteries harden, the heart slows down, the eyes grow dim, the teeth fall out, the back is stooped, the arms grow weary. Our bones break, our muscles weaken. The body bulges in the wrong places. It happens to all of us sooner or later.
There is coming a day when your body won’t need changing. You won’t grow old and you won’t get cancer. Jesus Christ will give you a brand new body. Until then we live in hope, waiting patiently for that day to come.
That perspective explains so much that happens to us. God is weaning you away from putting your hope in the things of this world so that your hope will be in him alone. The only way he can wean you away from the things of this world is through suffering and difficulty. He brings you to the place where you must say, “Lord, it’s you and you alone.” He’s teaching you to wait on God. Right now some of us are trying to scheme your way into a better situation. But eventually you’ll say, “Lord, if it takes forever, go ahead.Take your time. My hope is in you.”
III. Our Suffering is Beneficial 26-27
“Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings. And he that searcheth the hearts, knoweth what the Spirit desireth; because he asketh for the saints according to God.”
It sounds strange to say that our suffering can somehow be beneficial to us. Some would say it even sounds un-Christian. How can cancer or muscular dystrophy be beneficial? How can the loss of a job be beneficial? How can a broken marriage be beneficial? How can a loss of a child be beneficial? How can tears at midnight be beneficial?
Our text explains it this way. Our suffering reveals our infirmity...our weakness. It strips away the mask of self-sufficiency and reveals our utter helplessness. It forces us to confront our own inabilities. It makes us say, “I’m not as strong as I thought I was. I’m not invincible.” Verse 26 says the Spirit “helps” us in our weakness. The word translated “help” means “to come to the aid of someone in desperate need.” You are in the stands watching a race and you see a runner faltering in the final turn. He stumbles and is about to fall. Seeing that he is not going to make it, you rush from the stands, come to his side, put your arm around him, and say, “Brother, I see that you aren’t going to make it. Let me help you to the finish line.” That’s what the Holy Spirit does for us. He sees when we are in trouble and he comes to our aid.
How does he do it? Paul tells us that the Spirit “intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” The Holy Spirit prays for us. The Spirit who is himself the third member of the Trinity prays to the Father (the first member of the Trinity) in the name of the Son (the second member of the Trinity) for us in our moment of weakness. It is God praying to God on behalf of God’s children! What an amazing thought this is.
Have you ever been in a situation so desperate that you couldn’t pray? Have you ever been so emotionally exhausted that you tried to pray but the words wouldn’t come out? Have you ever been so frightened that all you could do was cry out, “Oh God"? You try to pray but you can't. All you can say is, “Have mercy. O Lord, have mercy.”
That leads me to make this observation: The more you care about something, the harder it is to pray for it. The reason we can pray so easily for others is that we’re not that deeply invested in them. It’s easy to pray for people you don’t know because it doesn’t matter that much whether or not your prayers are answered. The more you care, the harder it is to pray. When it comes to those things in your life that really matter–your husband, your wife, your children–those things are hard to pray for because they are close to your heart.
Paul is telling us that in your weakness, when you feel desperate about the things that truly matter to you, and you don’t know what to say, and all you can do is cry out “Oh God!” the message is, “Don’t worry. That’s enough because there is someone inside you who is praying for you.”
We know that Jesus is in heaven praying for us. We know that their are Saints in heaven praying for us. We have those around us who are praying for us. But Paul goes a step beyond that. When you come to the moment of complete exhaustion and can no longer frame the words, you don’t have to worry. The Holy Spirit will pray for you. In your weakness he is strong. When you cannot speak, he speaks for you.
When we lean against the wall of desperation, crying out to God, when we whisper, “God, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know how to pray about this,” the Holy Spirit comes alongside and says, “Don’t worry. I’ll pray for you.” And he does.
Does it mean our prayers are in vain? Not at all. Does it mean we shouldn’t pray? Not at all. It simply reveals our inherent human weakness and the limitation of our perspective on life. We see the part, the Holy Spirit sees the whole. We see one little piece, the Holy Spirit sees the big picture. We pray according to the little bit that we see, the Holy Spirit prays according to his perfect knowledge.
Three Final Thoughts
1. Suffering is a necessary part of the Christian life.
2. God uses our present suffering to prepare us for future glory.
3. In the meantime we know that our suffering can never separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
If in all that I have said you can’t find any comfort, hang on to this: God still loves you. He loves you as much in the darkness as he does in the light. Nothing you are going through can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
With that thought, let us keep on going for the Lord. Be encouraged. He loves you even in the midst of your pain. He loves you when you feel utterly alone. He loves you with an everlasting love. Your suffering can take many things away from you–your health, your happiness, your prosperity, your loved one. But there’s one thing suffering can’t do. It can’t take away the love of God.
When we finally reach heaven, we will discover that God himself was with us every step along the way. We will stand in his presence redeemed and glorified. Every trace of this decaying world will be left far behind. The sufferings of this life will be but a dim memory, fading into the mists of a forgotten yesterday. Until then, since we cannot see the face of our God, let us trust under the shadow of his almighty wings.