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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

08 September 2006

Why Suffering and Death?

Nine-ElevenOn this fifth anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks and one year after Hurricane Katrina, I thought it appropriate to return to this perpetual question with a slightly shortened version of a response I wrote five years ago. Christians believe in a loving God. We know the Scripture, “His mercy endures forever.” Yet we sometimes wonder, “Where is God’s mercy?” Some even ask, “Where is God?”

Many horrors lead people to ask God, “Why?” Expectant parents plan and dream for a child’s future, then experience miscarriage; we ask why. Children endure cancer or are crippled from birth; we ask why. Young people are run down by drunk drivers or paralyzed by sports accidents; we ask why. Parents, spouses, or friends are taken away from loved ones by disease, disaster, and death; we ask why. We complain with special bitterness when open, unrepentant sinners live long and prosper while believers face and trials and difficulties.

Searching Scripture for answers, we find more questions. His life in ruins, Job asked, “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? (Job 21:7)” The Psalmist said, “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? (Psalm 2:1)” Jacob questioned why Joseph was taken from him, apparently torn apart by wild animals while Joseph must have wondered about his brothers’ hatred that led them to sell him into slavery. Moses furiously questioned God, wondering why he’d been burdened with leading such a stiff-necked, sinful people as Israel.

Sometimes God grants restoration in this life. Job received even more than he lost. The widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17) found God sending His prophet to eat the last of her food, then saw the Lord keep replenishing the supply. When her son died, she cried, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son! (v. 20)” The Lord then raised the child to life through Elijah’s prayer.

Often, God doesn’t answer why. He basically told Job, “When you’re God, you can demand an answer.” He’s never spelled out why He created the angels, only to see so many of them fall into sin, or made mankind, only to watch the rebellion of our race unfold.

Hurricane KatrinaAt other times, God reveals His purposes. He sent Joseph away to save Jacob’s family. He sent invaders to chastize Israel for its sins and call the people to repent. Jesus used the fall of the tower of Siloam (Luke 13:4-5) to warn others that their fate would be the same without repentance. When the disciples asked why a man was born blind, Jesus didn’t blame the sins of the parents or those of the man. He said, “It was so the works of God would be shown in him,” and then restored the man’s sight (John 9).

When Lazarus was deathly ill, his sisters sent for help. Jesus intentionally stayed away. When He finally got to Bethany, Lazarus was dead and Martha wondered why He was not there sooner, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus used this incident to evoke Martha’s confession of faith in the resurrection and to show His mastery over death. He called Lazarus from the tomb and the dead man heard and was made alive (John 11).

This very miracle of life took Jesus to His own suffering and death. The leaders resented and feared His popularity: “If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. (John 11:48)” This led to their plots against Him. However, God planned things to happen in this manner because it was only by the death of His Son that death would be defeated. Only by our sins being crucified along with His flesh would we be forgiven. Only if Satan struck Him down could Jesus deal the devil’s deathblow. In all of this, God is pleased to reveal much of His will and His “why.”

In many other events, however, He hides His purposes. He calls us to accept His will and trust that He works for our ultimate betterment. Paul said, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.... For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:28, 38-39)”

Apart from “Christ Jesus our Lord,” the “love of God” is impossible for us to receive. Without Christ, we are children of wrath and enemies of God. In His eyes, mankind is a band of terrorists bringing chaos to His order, lies to His truth, betrayal to His blessings, and death to all that He gives life. God could rightly blame each and every one of us for every evil that has ever happened.

CrucifixionInstead, God blamed His innocent Son. God “made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)” In agony on the cross, Jesus cried out, saying, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)” He identified Himself with every person who has ever been devastated by loss. No one was ever more innocent, yet no one ever suffered more severely both the attacks of Satan and the holy wrath of God. The greatest miscarriage of justice was also its highest expression, for in Christ’s holy, innocent, bitter suffering and death, He forgives us and invites us to become citizens of the heavenly kingdom.

Simply knowing that God knows best and that all things work out for good doesn’t take away our pain. But the pain Jesus felt sanctifies and gives purpose to our suffering. Christ’s resurrection doesn’t immediately call the dead to life but it guarantees that the dead in Christ will rise to live forever with Him. The Christian still asks, “Why pain, suffering, and death?” God still answers, “Because I love you and desire to make My strength perfect in your weakness.” He weakens us through tragedy that He might strengthen us by Word and sacrament for life everlasting.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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Blogger DRB said...

In the memory of those who lost their lives in the attacks, a website on the theology of the cross was released today.

11 September, 2006 00:44  

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