My wife was a wee bit disappointed that the arc of this series meant the topic for today would be on hell…who goes there and why? Happy Valentine's Day, everyone.
But two weeks ago, I realized things needed an adjustment. There was more to be said about suffering.
First, the brutal honesty. We live in a world of unending calamities. Natural disasters are relentless in their devastation. We are in the midst of a pandemic. There has been untold personal and economic hardship. Last summer, flooding in China left millions homeless. Seventeen years ago, a day after Christmas, a tsunami in Thailand killed 230,000 people, leaving behind mind-numbing destruction. Who in the United States can forget Hurricane Katrina? Since 2011, hundreds of thousands of civilians in Syria have been killed in their civil war, including 50,000 children.
Then there are miseries visited upon the living. More than 20 million adults
and children are bought and sold each year as slaves for sex and labor. About 15 million women are living in forced marriages. China, Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Indonesia, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines and Russia – these 10 nations comprise 60% of all the people living in modern slavery, as well as more than half the world’s population, according to the Global Slavery Index. People's desire to treat others with such inhumanity is staggering.
And to make sure we don't respond to these calamities as if they were an aberration to normal human experience, let's not forget that, worldwide, over 50,000,000 people die every year. That's over 6,000 per hour…over 100 every minute. And most of those deaths aren't among people who lived to a ripe old age and drifted off to death in their sleep. Just last month an advice columnist urged a reader to have a will in place. Her reasoning? "In the event something should happen to you." I thought that was funny. You may or may not need a will. Who knows? It's like saying, "You need a will in case you die."
I told you, one way or another, today was going to be a long way from a Hallmark card.
If there is to be any Christian joy in this world, along with love, it will be joy mixed with sorrow, brokenhearted joy, sometimes joy and sometimes hardship, and it will always feel like too much of the one and not enough of the other. Are you with me on that? Tears of joy and tears of loss.
So we ask, "Why, Lord, why? Why is the world you made like this? Why is your world so full of terror and trouble?"
It's good to revisit an observation from the Book of Job. It's something you might want to write down:
Job never saw why he suffered, but he saw God, and that was enough.
In our imperfect way, we're going to now look at why we live in a world like ours. Remember, Paul said that in this life, we live as if looking in a mirror dimly. I think that's a perfect way of putting it. In His Word, God tries to help us understand such things, but there's only so much our boxy little brains can understand. To paraphrase what I like to say, God can explain it to us, but He can't understand it for us.
So here we go.
First, things are like they are because God permitted sin to enter the world.
I love how Paul puts it in 2 Timothy 1:8-10:
Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death
and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.
In other words, before the world existed…before we existed…before any
sin in the world that needed grace…God planned saving grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That means God knew all about original sin. He knew all about the fall of Adam and Eve. God knew all about our sin and our need for a Savior. And so, because of that knowledge, God was already planning how He would save us. Amen?
Adam's sin was no surprise to God. My sins certainly are not hidden from Him. Permitting that sin was part of God's plan so that He could reveal His mercy and grace and justice and wrath and patience and wisdom in ways that never could have been revealed had there been no sin and no Savior and no history of salvation.
Next to that, what was God's purpose in permitting sin? Why allow it? Free will, of course. Now, understand, free will and freedom are two separate things. Outside of Christ, we are slaves to sin, and when you are a slave, you have no freedom. By allowing us the exercise of free will, God
preserved the integrity of love. If I can only do what you have forced or willed me to do, then when it comes to love, it can only be that I have been forced or willed to love you, and that is not really love. Who wants that kind of love from anyone? Perhaps a tyrant. But not a God of love. If it is forced or compelled, it is not love.
God's aim in a fallen world is that He be known more fully than He could have been known any other way. That is, to know God freely. Knowing God freely and fully is what it means for us to be most fully loved. It you turn to Christ, you will discover in God more wonders of grace and justice in this fallen world than can be imagined in any other world.
Second, our terrorized and troubled world exists because God subjected the natural world to futility.
In other words - and remember, God permits sin - God allows our world to be under the curse of sin so all the horrors we see will paint a vivid picture of how horrible sin is. Physical evil is a signpost to the horrors of moral evil. After first reading Romans 8:18-21, we'll clarify what that means:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
Paul really dives deep.
Here's his point:
God disordered the natural world so we could see and feel how repugnant sin is.
While we understand at an intellectual and philosophical level that sin is real and it disorders the moral and spiritual world, we cannot see or feel how repugnant sin is. Our sin. Oh, there are times when I know how repugnant your sin is; we're all good at recognizing sin in others; one of my truisms is we condemn in others things we excuse in ourselves. Paul's point is that the only way we could see and feel how repugnant sin is would be to see it and feel it in this broken and fallen world. Without seeing the futility and bondage to decay and misery and death in the
natural world, we would be blind to it in our own lives.
Here's something else you might want to write down:
Hardly anyone in the world feels how horrible our sin against God is.
But we do feel physical pain. Physical pain is God's loud warning that something is wrong in the world. All of the horribleness and ugliness we see in this world are pictures of what sin is like in the spiritual world. A man cheats on his wife and thinks he's gotten away with it because there are no visible consequences, and so he cannot feel the weight of his sin. But calamities are God's previews of what sin deserves. These are warnings that sin is judged, and that judgment is magnitudes worse than anything we could ever experience here in this life.
God opens our eyes so we see and feel how ugly, how offensive, how horribly nasty it is to treat our Creator, our Maker, our Holy and Loving God with contempt, to ignore Him, to distrust Him, to demean Him, and to give less attention to the spiritual health of our hearts than we do our physical health.
As we look around at the threats, dangers, and snares of our physical
world, we must feel and see the consequences of our sin or else we won't turn to Christ for salvation from the ugliness of sin. These things we see and feel drive us to the foot of the cross. It's imperative that we see and feel the ugliness of sin. Are you with me on that?
Wake up! Revelation 9:20-12 says:
The rest of mankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands nor give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk, nor did they repent of their murders or their sorceries or their sexual immorality or their thefts.
Also, Revelation 16:9-11:
They were scorched by the fierce heat, and they cursed the name of God who had power over these plagues. They did not repent and give him glory.
The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its
kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in
anguish and cursed the God of heaven for their pain and sores. They did
not repent of their deeds.
The horrors of the natural world put to death the assumption that sin is no big deal. It is a devastatingly big deal. The pain of this world is a signpost to that truth.
Third, our troubled and terrorized world exists so we can live out of the truth that Jesus Christ is more precious and more satisfying than all the pleasures and comforts and treasures of this world.
In Philippians 3:8 Paul says:
Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.
In all of Paul's troubles and hardships, he has experienced Jesus Christ as all-satisfying. All those things pale in comparison to the worth of Christ. Again, pain and loss drive Paul to the foot of the cross. It's there where he knows that Jesus is greater than anything this world has to offer.
Anything he's lost is nothing compared to all he has in Christ. We'll end here, and pick things up next week… Soli Deo Gloria - To the glory of God Alone!