Many of you in our congregation know Thomas Higgins. For those who don't, he previously attended our church and is now a student at Olivet Nazarene University. He still comes back to visit on breaks and even did a lesson on sanctification on a Sunday night here several weeks ago. Recently, he posted the following note on facebook and asked for a response from several friends including myself. I thought it might be worthwhile to post Thomas' question and my response here.
Here is Thomas' initial note.
I have had a turbulent few months and have at many times questioned why I've been met with the circumstances I've had and what possible good could come from them. I've no doubt that everyone reading this has experienced first hand how unfair and cruel this world can be.
Classically, the problem of evil is... If God is infinitely powerful AND infinitely good, than why is there evil and suffering in the world??????
Ok, now that I have said that, there are about 3 dozen theodicies (answers to this problem) that I've heard of before. None of them are entirely adequate for someone who is suffering i.e. not good funeral icebreakers. However, as a Christian I have a rather large stake in what the character of God is and I've been wrestling with a theodicy lately that I've found immensely comforting, but have rarely heard talked about. Suffering is sanctifying. As a believer, my ultimate goal is to become more like Christ. To sanctify means to become like Christ. To understand that my suffering makes me more like my Savior is extremely comforting to me. It means that when I am miserable it is not meaningless. My suffering has purpose, not necessarily for a grander, strategic, universal good, but for me, for my life, today.
But I would like to hear from you. Like I said there are literally dozens of attempts at answering this problem. How do you understand it? What do you believe?
Here is my response.
Hey Thomas. I'm a little slow in getting to this but it is a weighty question so I hoped to carve out the time for it that it deserves.
I think that your idea of suffering being sanctifying has considerable merit, especially in a very practical sense for the American church today. In a culture where the prosperity gospel runs rampant, it is exceedingly important that we be reminded that being Christian does not equal being continually blessed and free of suffering. The idea that suffering will often make us more Christ-like since, after all, Christ himself was holy and suffered tremendously, is a message that needs desperately to be preached, taught, and embodied in the Church today. Furthermore, if this idea brings you comfort at this point in your life, then that too is significant and meaningful.
What I think would be an error would be to offer this particular theodicy as the answer to all suffering and evil. In fact, I think that is probably where a lot of theodicies go wrong. We tend to take one explanation and try to apply it to other situations where it really doesn't belong. In reality, I think we need a variety of ways to address the many different forms of suffering that we encounter in the word. Some suffering maybe sanctifying for the individual, some may be due to some larger plan that God has, some may be the result of our own personal choices or disobedience, some may be the direct result of another's sin, or most often it is probably some combination of all of those things.
I think this is how we actually see the Bible answering the question when we look over the entire story rather than picking a verse here or there to prove our point. The story of Joseph is an example of God using suffering for a greater plan or purpose. There are many stories of people suffering precisely because of their own sin. The prophets call out to God because of the suffering others inflict on them and the disadvantaged around them. Then there is Job who suffers through no fault of his own but purely as a test, almost a game, between God and Satan. As others in this discussion have mentioned, Paul even takes another approach to suffering as an opportunity to glory in Christ. It seems to me that the Bible itself refuses to answer this question in a one dimensional way and we would probably do well to follow that example. As the history of the theological and philosophical discussions regarding theodicy shows, the evil that exists in our world is complex.
I think ultimately God's answer to the complex problem of evil is the resurrection, which is really kind of a non-answer or more than answer, depending on how you look at it. In other words, the resurrection doesn't really answer the original question of "How can a good and all-powerful God allow evil and suffering to exist?". Instead, it almost ignores that philosophical question and answers the question we really need answered which is "What is God going to do about the sin and evil that has marred his beautiful creation?" The answer: The one who had the power to create life in the first place has the power to breath new life into it and make it new once again.
In other words, I think that it is important for us as Christians to seek to understand what God is doing in the world and it is important for us to find ways to offer comfort to those who are hurting. However, I think it also important that we not always feel the need to have the answer or the reason or an explanation for each existence of evil and suffering. I think we have to accept that God allows enough freedom in his creation that sometimes genuinely evil, tragic events happen for which there is no reason or explanation. God himself would have rather that they did not happen. God may be able to bring some good out of every tragedy but that doesn't mean that God planned or intended the tragedy in the first place. I believe that ultimately, the answer to all of our suffering is not an explanation of its existence but the promise, through Christ's resurrection, that one day it will be completely overcome.