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Suffering 3: How Long, Lord?


hqdefaultAre your prayers noisy enough? This is the third talk in our series on suffering. It challenges us to give up our peaceful ways!


Daniel 2

Luke 11: 1-10

If you complain about your sufferings, you’re probably lacking in faith. Ever heard anyone say that? Some religious people think that way. They say if you understood what God is doing, you’d be able to trust him in this. You’d have a peaceful spirit.

It’s interesting however that the Psalms are full of tears and cries. In fact they break all those rules religious people give us. King David and co. very rarely ask ‘Why’ or try to understand their troubles – almost never. But there’s a question those guys are always asking: HOW LONG?

We’ve been looking at the questions people ask when they suffer. Why is this happening? How could God do this to me? And the Scriptures’ answer was ‘God did not do this. We did. He has given our world over to evil, because we chose it.’

That left us with the question ‘Is there any hope for us then’?  Are things going to be like this forever? And that’s more the sort of territory the Bible is interested in. We’re starting to ask the right questions now. So let’s focus on this question today. How long, O Lord? Is there any chance of healing for this sick old world? Sin has destroyed and infected so much! Is there a future for us?

The people of Israel thought there was. Come with me back to the world of Daniel in the OT. Daniel’s people the Israelites have been smashed by the superpower Babylon, and carried off into exile. The king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar has this dream, and it sends him feral. He’s going to kill all his wise men unless they guess what his dream was. God reveals the dream to Daniel, and its meaning. So he goes and tells the king. “You dreamed of a huge statue, its head is gold, its chest silver and so on. And a stone, cut out of the hill, rolls down and smashes the statue. It is shattered into a million pieces.

“Now this is what your dream means” – and this is the part to notice:

Your Majesty, you are king of kings. The God of heaven has given you sovereignty, power, strength, and glory.  Wherever people live—or wild animals, or birds of the air—He has handed them over to into your hands and made you ruler over them all. You are the head of gold. Daniel 2:37-38

Let’s pause for a moment at this remarkable explanation. Nebuchadnezzar has this vast empire. How did that come to be? Was he just lucky? Clever? No, the ultimate explanation is that God has given it to him. God handed over all the nations into Nebuchadnezzar’s hands.

What sort of hands are they? We already know, they are a crazy murderer’s hands. This is the guy who smashed Jerusalem and destroyed God’s people. This is the guy who wanted to murder every wise man in the kingdom. Later, King Nebuchadnezzar goes totally insane, and spends seven years living like a wild animal.

It’s shocking to think that God would allow half the known world to fall into the hands of a homicidal maniac like Nebuchadnezzar. But he does. This is what we saw last week: In Romans chapter 1 the apostle Paul uses the same word, handed over, to describe us. God handed mankind over to the madness of our own evil choices. If God was governing the world himself, things would be good and happy. But instead God has given us over to this other sort of rule: dark, corrupt, violent.

Well, is there any way to get back to God’s good rule? There’s more to the King’s dream. There are the lower parts of the statue: another kingdom will arise, “it will be as strong as iron; for iron crushes and shatters everything, and like iron that smashes, it will crush and smash all the others.”

More violence and insanity, all the way down to the feet. The powers that replace Babylon are no solution to the problem: they’re just as bad if not worse. It’s the story of our old world isn’t it? Powerful empires that crush the weak until they are themselves crushed.

Is there any hope for us then, in the long term? Or is our world a basket case? Well, there’s one last part to the king’s dream. It’s that stone:

“v45 This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands—a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. In the time of those kings, the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but God’s kingdom will endure forever.

That stone, the one that smashes the statue, it’s something totally new, a new kingdom which God himself is going to set up. And when he does, all these insane, idolatrous powers who’ve been in charge will be blown away. God will personally take up the reigns of power, down here on earth. The kingdom will no longer belong to Nebuchadnezzar, or to Alexander or Caesar, or to Hitler or America. It will belong to Yahweh, Israel’s God. In the past, whatever Nebuchadnezzar said, went. His will was done. Not so in the future. When the stone strikes, then God will say, and his will will be done instead. And all the people who were given over to suffering will be rescued at last.

That’s the vision, and that was Israel’s hope, what she was waiting and longing for. They called it the kingdom of God.

God’s response to evil, then, is a bit like the story of Alexander the Great and the Gordian knot. The story goes that there was this knot tied in the palace of the Phrygians, in what is now Turkey. A previous king had tied the knot, and no one could figure out how to untie it. When Alexander came to town, he took a look at it, but he couldn’t find the ends of the rope. So he took out his sword and simply sliced the knot in two – thus unravelling the Gordian Knot.

Daniel’s prophecy to King Nebuchadnezzar says that Israel’s God is going to do the same sort of thing. He’s not going to treat evil as a puzzle to unravel, a problem to be solved. He’s going to treat it as an enemy. He’s not going to negotiate with it. He’s going to pull out his big sword, and ‘thwack’. Like Alexander. That’s the stone that rolls down the mountain and smashes the whole statue into dust. It’s God turning up to deal with the evil powers that dominate our world.


Nebuchnezzar’s dream is absolutely foundational for the Christian view of suffering. Because when Jesus comes, he teaches his disciples to pray for that dream to arrive:

Father, may your kingdom come:

may your will be done on earth,

the way it is in heaven…

do not lead us into trials and troubles

but deliver us from evil.

It’s that dream, you see? Jesus is teaching us to pray the Daniel 2 story: the story where abusive human rule is replaced by God’s good rule, and we get set free from the dark powers.

Of course Jesus’ prayer only makes sense if you realise that God’s will is not currently being done here the way it is in heaven. No, it’s man’s will that’s currently in charge down here. That’s why the children suffer, and the poor have no voice.

But Jesus says, remember the promise from Daniel, remember that stone that falls. It’s a promise of change. Pray for it. Long for it. In your darkest time of despair, remember the stone, and pray, May your kingdom come! May your will be done on earth, the way it is in heaven. Father, smash the whole wicked statue. Take charge down here! Set us free! Come!

So Jesus teaches us to do what the psalmists did: to cry out to God. How long Lord? ‘How long till your blessed will replaces the corrupt will of man. When will you turn up and heal and deliver us from evil? Let it come!”

When you learn CPR, they tell you, you can’t fix a person who’s stopped breathing. All you’re doing is keeping them alive till the real help gets there. You pump, yes. But it’s no use unless you’ve rung 000. There’s no point doing CPR unless help is coming. And once you’ve rung, you keep pumping till the ambos arrive. If you’re doing CPR on someone, there’s only one question on your mind. How long till the medics get here? They’d better bloody well hurry up!

This is what Christian prayer is supposed to be like: not polite, but desperate, noisy: How long, Lord?

Trouble is many Christians don’t know how to cry out to God. Our prayers are so polite! Dear lord, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, if you could possibly give us a tiny bit of help, but your will be done, not mine. That’s not how Jesus prayed on the cross:

My God my God why have you forsaken me? 

Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 

O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;

and I cry by night, but find no rest.

That’s the psalm Jesus prayed on the cross. Psalm 22. With a loud voice! It was raw.  It was real.

Many christians say “It’s all God’s will. So you need to just accept your suffering.” People who think that way won’t cry out, you see. It wouldn’t be appropriate.

But Jesus says, the day of freedom is arriving now, in me. Pray it in! pray for relief. Pray for victory. Cry out!

Have you ever had a tooth ache? Did you go and ask the dentist, please help me to accept my toothache? No, if my tooth is aching, I want it fixed!

So Jesus teaches us to pray, I want it fixed! Let your kingdom come! Paul writes in Romans 8:

the whole creation, and we ourselves, groan inwardly while we wait for the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. We have not yet seen the rescue: but we hang on, waiting for it.            Romans 8:23-25

Christians, then, are not supposed to just have serene, peaceful spirits. Christians have toothache. We are supposed to groan. To feel deeply the misery and injustice of our world. We are the ones who long for the day of healing. We pray and wait for Daniel’s story to take place, for the promise to be fulfilled here and now.

So I want to finish with words of hope. After I left Bible college, a couple of years later, friends of ours from college lost their little daughter. They went into their little girl’s room in the morning, and she was dead. No reason, no explanation. She was 2 years old. It was hard for us all to believe.

Here is part of what her father said in his eulogy:

She was immensely precious to us and we feel like our hearts have been ripped out of our chest. I feel like Humpty Dumpty.  We used to sing this song to her.  And all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can’t put me back together again. We feel broken.  

A great darkness descended on us – it’s pitch black and we can’t find a way out. What life is there for us without our precious little girl?   (he goes on)  A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the Christian answer to suffering. And I said, the Christian answer to suffering is hope. The certain hope that Christ rose again from the dead and that we too will one day rise from the dead. 

This certain hope is our only guiding light.   Amen.

Suffering 2 – a loving God?


boxing-day-tsunami-547917At CCC lately we are feeling like suffering is the right thing to be talking about. If God loves us so much, why do terrible things happen to us? GOOD QUESTION!

Here’s our second study on suffering, from the book of Job and Romans 1.

Suffering and a God of love

Job 2;    Romans 1:18-32

“I felt so angry with God I could hardly pray”. This came through as a text message  from a friend, on my phone. When do people feel angry with God? (chat with your neighbour.)

Last week we asked the first question people ask when they suffer: Why? What answer did we find from the Scriptures? Meaningless. Suffering is given no logical explanation. The tapestry of life that has so many loose ends and dark threads from down here, if you saw it from God’s viewpoint, it still looks like a mess.

This week we’re asking the next question people so often raise: How could a loving God do this? 

“I felt so angry with God I could hardly pray”. I wonder if you’ve ever felt angry with God? This friend who texted me, we had a mutual friend a third friend, whose toddler was killed in tragic circumstances. This friend who wrote the text message was coming to terms with the disaster. “I felt so angry with God I could hardly pray”, she said. I could hear her asking God, “How could you do this?”

When we experience great suffering, it often creates a faith crisis for us: our trust in God sometimes turns into anger. This is the issue in the second chapter of Job: will Job boil over in anger against God, and curse him to his face? The classic modern example is Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers, when he discovers his hotel is on fire: Basil is left shaking his fist at the sky and shouting, “Oh thankyou God, thankyou so bloody much.” If you push us far enough, we all tend to react a bit like that don’t we. I wonder why?

Athiests sense that we believers have a weak point here. When the boxing day Tsunami devastated the nations around the Bay of Bengal, many newspapers printed articles that said, Here is final proof that there is no God. What sort of God would send such misery? He can’t exist.

And many religious people were troubled too. Why would God send such a thing? In the chapters that follow our story, we learn that Job does blame God for his suffering. Over the following 30 chapters, he repeatedly asks, “How could you do this to me?”

The writer CS Lewis thought a lot about this problem of suffering, his answer to it was: ‘Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’ Get that? The world has gone deaf to God’s word. They need a loud trumpet blast to get their attention. Suffering is that blast. But I’m not sure that makes things any better for us. For if that’s true, if the tens of thousands of little children lying dead on the beaches of Asia, if they were a message from God – then what sort of God is that? Would you construct a megaphone out of dead children? I don’t find C S Lewis’s explanation that reassuring. Indeed later in his life, when his own suffering became intense, C.S.Lewis didn’t find his own explanation that reassuring either. He ended up wondering, like Job, “How could God do this? Could it be that He is evil and sadistic?”

In the West, people have worried over this problem for at least a thousand years. God is good, and all powerful, yet the children lie dead on the beaches in great piles. It just doesn’t seem to fit.

And it’s not just those children. It’s our children. When they are bullied at school, or hurt in car crashes, or rushed to hospital in an ambulance. And we think, why is God doing this to my dear child? Does he hate us? Does he want my little girl to suffer?

How could a loving God do this?

The apostle Paul gives an answer to the question, How can a loving God do this? His answer may disturb you. Take a look with me at his letter to the Romans, chapter 1. He’s describing how mankind turned its back on God, and fell into evil and all the suffering which it brings. It’s the story of Adam and Eve and everyone who came after them, the story of human history.  v.21

Though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.   Romans 1:21

There’s that word ‘futile’ again, do you remember it from last week – the same word we met in Ecclesiastes. “Futility! Everything is futility said the preacher!” Now Paul says, Because people did not honour God, they became futile. The way God made the world, things were rational, things made sense, but then we fell into this evil, this madness: we humans became futile in our minds. Our world became mixed up, chaotic, it lost its sense or purpose.

Let’s hear more of the story: v.25

They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…Romans 1:25.

Three times Paul describes this exchange, this choice humankind made: Truth exchanged for lies, reality replaced with fantasy, the structure of right relationships all broken up, exchanged for wrong ones. This is the crazy world of Ecclesiastes: meaningless. And now Paul shows us where all this chaos came from: we chose it. We made the exchange.

People these days like superhero stories: spiderman, wolverine and so on. And one favourite kind of superhero story is the origin story, where you get to go right back and find out how they began, how they got their super powers. One particularly dark version of this is in the Bourne movies. Jason Bourne is a kind of superhuman, but he’s lost his memory, but he gradually uncovers the truth about himself: He’s an assassin, a kind of monster. Who did this to him? In the third movie he finally learns where it all started. It started when he volunteered for it. He chose to become the monster. Paul here is telling the origin story for futile mankind. How did it all start? Go right back to the beginning of this bleeding world of ours, says Paul, and we chose it. 

Though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.   Romans 1:21

And now that we have plunged ourselves into this, there is no understanding mankind anymore. At the deepest level, our lives don’t make sense. It’s a kind of madness, listen:

Though they know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do those things but even applaud others who practice them.    Romans 1:32

You see? They actually encourage harm and destruction. Senseless. stupid. That’s our race, what we’ve become. Have you ever noticed how much of life is like that? We harm ourselves! We become our own worst enemies.

How did we get to this place? Nobody has done it to us. We chose this instead of choosing God and his order of things: that was the exchange we made.

I heard a story from a neighbour about one of their family members, a young woman. She was attractive and full of life, and the young men were queing up to take her out, and she wanted to get married, and she married a gangster. She married a drug dealing gangster. Instead of one of the normal boys, she chose someone really interesting. How do you think that went for her? She spent a year in hell, no one could help her: she’d chosen this life for herself. Then her parents found her on their doorstep, with her bags packed. She couldn’t take it anymore. We humans were like that, we turned away from God, and chose madness.

Imagine how that girl’s father felt when she married the gangster. He would have done anything to stop her. He couldn’t stop her. What about God then – how did he feel about what humankind did? The passage is crystal clear that God’s reaction is wrath: his strongest disapproval. None of this was God’s intention. It was not the path he wanted for us. What does he do? What can a parent do in this situation? Romans 1:28

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.

Three times here Paul tells us God’s response was to ‘give them over’ to their wickedness. Get the hang of this, this is our human story, we need to understand why there’s so much suffering and evil. Paul gives us a window here, a lense through which to look at human history, at our own lives too. So much nonsense is spoken about God’s wrath: here is what God’s wrath is really all about. Mankind wanted a world without God in charge: God let us have one: he let us reap what we had sown. He let us go our own way. That, says Paul, is God’s wrath. God effectively says to mankind, If you are determined to live that insane life, I will let you live it. God’s wrath isn’t about something nasty he’s cooked up for us to suffer. It’s when he says, “This is not what I want for you, but I will allow you to choose it. To choose for yourselves.” He gives us over. That’s his wrath.

It’s also his love. This is what a loving parent ultimately does, isn’t it. They don’t keep controlling a rebellious child forever. They let go.

What did it look like, this giving over, this letting us go? It looked like suffering: here’s how things ended up, v.29

They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips,  slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents,  foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.    

When I read this description, I can’t help thinking of zombies. There’s a bit of a zombie culture fad around the world these days. Why are people so fascinated with zombies? I reckon they remind us of us! Of each other. You know, the person is a friend, then suddenly they turn, and next thing we know they’re attacking us, like Zombies trying to eat our brains. Crazed. Dangerous. That’s the picture Paul is painting here isn’t it. And it’s what we experience every day. People who would like to hurt us. Mankind has turned. We’ve been infected, and lost our humanity. This is the nightmare we’ve fallen into, this is what it’s like to be given over by God. This is his wrath.

So when Christian people see a Tsunami or a famine or a cancer or a child brain-damaged, and they say, this is God’s will, or ‘it was meant to be’ – we have to say, that’s not quite the story the way Paul tells it. All that evil and suffering, whose idea was it? Who made the exchange? Paul hammers this point: it wasn’t God, it was us! True, God allows us to make the choice, but it was never what he wanted for us: it wasn’t God’s will – it was ours! Beware of those slogans people use to cope with suffering, saying It’s all God’s will when something happens. The story is not that simple is it. And don’t be too quick to blame God and get angry with him, and curse him. Because we live in the world we chose – a world that has been given over to futility.

When Jesus was training his disciples in the ways of God’s kingdom, he started saying something that upset them all. He taught them, The son of man will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him.” 

They didn’t want to hear it, it made no sense to them. Jesus – handed over to violence and injustice? The words, handed over, are the same ones Paul uses over and over. We were handed over to madness. And now the Messiah, God’s son, comes and he is handed over to the same madness. Our madness. He who had never done wrong, never chosen evil, Jesus who never deserved it. God hands him over to suffer like a sinner. To suffer our fate. To stand in our place. To enter our nightmare. Wrongly condemned, publically shamed and murdered.

Now this is extraordinary. If even Jesus gets handed over, then that changes everything. Our whole way of thinking about our troubles gets turned upside down. We can’t look at suffering anymore and say ‘God hates us’ or ‘God is against us’. Would you really say God is against his own son, that he hates Jesus?

And now that Jesus has come and entered into our misery, we can’t say, God has abandoned us in our time of trouble. No, because in Jesus we find God has come right here next to us, into the thick of it. Suffering the wrath with us and for us. God has not washed his hands of us. He has rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty in our mess.

In fact, when we look at the cross of Jesus, we start to realise that in all our suffering, something else is going on here. Something full of hope. This chaos, this pain, it’s not the end of the story. God is at work, even through his wrath, even through this misery. Now because of Jesus it’s heading somewhere. Through death comes resurrection.

So what the gospel has to say about human misery is not simple. It is surprising. It is unexpected. It is deeply challenging. Simple explanations like ‘it’s God’s will’ don’t capture it. Beware of slogans and cliches. People who get angry with God and want to curse him, haven’t quite got the hang of it either. Instead of a slogan we need to keep telling the story, the story Paul is telling in his letter to the Romans : How suffering and evil was never God’s plan: but that he is allowing it for now, in hope, and that he has come near to deal with it in Jesus. More about that hope next week.

So the take home message from Romans ch. 1 is God is not the author of your misery. When these evils come against you and your loved ones, God is not over there lobbing bombs at you. God is not against you, hurting you. He’s over here, actually on your side. It’s right to get angry with the world. But not with our Father.

I want to suggest two implications of this. First it leaves room for you to pray. There’s nothing harder than praying to a god who’s over there lobbing bombs at you. It’s a bit alienating! But if there is someone over here on your side who loves you and who will listen: you can talk to that person. And the gospel tells us, that’s where God is. The proof of it is in Jesus. The one who stands with us in our grief. The one who carried our load of trouble. The lower you sink down into the pit of misery, the closer you come to the one who reached the bottom: Jesus our sin bearer. Get close to Jesus when you’re hurting.  Tell him all about it. He knows! He knows.

The other implication is: since God is not behind your troubles, you don’t have to be ashamed about them. They are not a judgement on you in particular. Sometimes good people suffer. Sometimes wise, competent people fail. Christians in particular, I believe suffer more than most. And it’s not a shameful thing. As we face the wider world, we don’t need to put on a brave face and pretend to be healthy wealthy and wise. We can admit, we’re struggling. We suffer along with Jesus the sufferer. Don’t be ashamed of Jesus crucified, and don’t be ashamed of your troubles either.

Well, the woman who married the gangster packed her bags and went home to Dad. Next time we’re going to ask, Can we do that? Any way we can get out of this mess and back to our Father? As we will see, the news is good!

Why do we suffer?


XIR84999 Job (oil on canvas) by Bonnat, Leon Joseph Florentin (1833-1922) oil on canvas Musee Bonnat, Bayonne, France Lauros / Giraudon French, out of copyrightAt CCC we’ve started a series on Suffering. Here’s the first talk.


Suffering 1: Why?

Job 1

Also Romans 8:18-25

Boxing day, 2004. An earthquake size 9 on the richter scale struck off the coast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia. No one was warned, no one was prepared for the tsunami that followed. Over the following days and weeks, we heard of those who had perished. Thousands, then tens of thousands, and finally hundreds of thousands of lives snatched away by the waters. Whole islands flattened.

The chaos that followed was like a hell on earth, piles of corpses littering the beaches the injured and the survivors desperately searching for lost loved ones. Many of the corpses were those of small children.

When something like this happens, when terrible disaster strikes, people naturally have a question they ask: they ask ‘why?’

Over the following weeks many answers were offered, often by Christian people. One pastor wrote that ‘this tsunami is God’s plan at work, we cannot question it.’ Another wrote, ‘we cannot tell how guilty people might be, what punishment they might deserve’. God is always just in his works. So they got what was coming to them.

Another wrote that the suffering of these innocents ‘will bear spiritual fruit for themselves and all mankind’ It will all turn out for good.

It’s very common for people to respond like this when faced with disaster.

‘Que sera, sera’.

‘It’s fate. It’s all fate’.


‘It’s his karma’.

People like to believe that the events of their lives were not random – they were in some way part of a cosmic plan. Especially when it comes to their sufferings and misfortunes. Hence all the sayings. All these sayings are trying to answer the question ‘Why?’ We want reassurance that what has happened, however painful, makes some kind of sense.

It’s not only catastrophes on the news that have us asking why? – our own lives are full enough with disasters too. The one thing everyone I know has in common is: the all suffer. Suffering is very present and very real for all of us.

I could tell you so many stories. A family friend, Kevin a young man, intelligent, kind, gifted, a Christian man, a school teacher –  eight years ago he was struck down by a mystery illness. Now he spends his life in bed. He’s lost so much.

People suffer in so many different ways. Some suffer chronic pain. Others know the tortures that go on where there is mental illness.

Then there are those who suffer because of loved ones and friends. Broken relationships I think bring the most acute suffering of all.

Yes suffering is real for us. And we struggle to make sense of it. For the past six months I have thought of the story of Job nearly every day. Because I often feel like I’m living a similar story. Job lost so much so suddenly. And he struggled to make sense of his suffering. Why had this disaster come upon him?

How can we make sense of a world where so many children suffer so terribly, where we ourselves suffer so much?

When people say ‘It’s his karma’. or ‘it was meant to be.’ they are trying to find some meaning, some purpose, behind seemingly meaningless events. If we knew the whole story, we would see the point of it all.

This is sometimes illustrated by the idea of a tapestry being woven. If you look at the under-side of it, it’s all loose threads and random blotches of colour. Strands interwoven without any apparent pattern. But if you look from the top, you see the design. From above it all makes sense. What appears from below as ugly and pointless, from above is beautiful and, once it is finished, it is satisfying.

We live below the tapestry of life, says the illustration. It’s not very satisfying from here. Downright ugly at times. But if we could see the big picture, what God can see, from above – we would see that all of these dark and messed up threads are part of a masterpiece of breath-taking beauty taking shape: God’s plan for the world. All the pain and misery and terror and trauma – nothing is left out, nothing unnecessary, it all contributes to the finished tapestry. It all has a reason. It’s all for our ultimate good.

I don’t know how you feel about this story. For some people it seems to bring comfort. But sometimes it can bring the worst suffering of all.

If you are a young mum who’s just lost her child, could there be anything worse than being told, ‘It was for the best.’ ‘He’s in a better place.’ ‘It was meant to be’. ‘God knows best.’ I think this might just be the worst suffering of all, to have to hear this heartless denial of our pain. It’s hard to believe anyone would say those cruel things to a grieving mum. But I’ve heard them. I’ve heard all these things said by well meaning friends and family. Often by Christian people. In these ways we torture the sufferers.

Most religions go for this tapestry approach to suffering. It all works together for good in the end. You can see why people like this idea of a cosmic plan. Pain is scary and confusing. It makes us question whether life is good. If there is a sense that our pain is worth it, that it is achieving something, it’s easier to bear it. If I have pains in my legs I may become discouraged. But if I know that they are the result of the half-marathon I ran yesterday, all part of my fitness plan – that’s different. I can embrace that pain: no pain, no gain. But the thought that I might be suffering, not for any good reason, but just as an accident in a meaningless universe – that’s pretty hard to take. And so when disaster strikes, we find ourselves talking about fate, or God’s purposes.

The Bible has some surprising things to say about evil and suffering. It paints a bit of a different picture from the one we’re used to. We’re going to try and give it a hearing over the next few weeks. And I want you to be deliberate about this: let the Bible challenge your view of suffering and evil. Be open-minded and willing to rethink this.

There are two bible books that tackle this issue: the largest is JOB. Job is a happy and prosperous man, a good man. But disaster strikes, and he loses everything: wealth, liverstock, children, health, everything. And he spends the rest of the book asking ‘Why’?

Job’s ‘friends’ come and sit with him for a whole week in silence. But when Job starts asking Why, they can’t help themselves. These are deeply religious people, and like most religious people, they have an answer, they can find a logic in Job’s misery. “God does not do anything without reason. Job must in some way deserve the disasters he’s suffered.” That’s what they say. Or they say, ‘It’s all God’s plan. Stop complaining about it.’

But we the readers know what’s going on behind the scenes. We know that the cause of the misery is this Accuser, this Satan character. He wants to destroy Job’s life, and God allows it. Why does the Accuser hate Job? Why does God let him ruin Job’s life? We are never told. Nobody ever finds out. After 40 chapters meaning never emerges. Not much logic to all that! We are never given a satisfactory because to answer the why. Job’s suffering remains a mystery.

The other book that deals with suffering is Ecclesiastes. It is much blunter. Solomon the wise conducts an investigation into the problem of human suffering: what he calls ‘life under the sun’. He finds it to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. What does it all mean then, all this labour and toil, this blood, sweat and tears in which we live our brief lives? Solomon the wise is painfully upfront about his conclusion:

‘Meaningless, meaningless!’ says the Preacher. ‘It is all utterly meaningless!’

Solomon repeats this word meaningless no less than 38 times in his book: it is his major finding. The Hebrew word havel can be translated ‘vanity’ or ‘futility’. It speaks of the non-logic, of the absurdity of human misery. Solomon looks for a ‘Why’ – and concludes that there is no Why. Human suffering is cannot be explained raltionally. It is senseless. Ecclesiastes is a very dark book!

But surprisingly, when when turn to the New Testament, we find the apostle Paul agreeing with Solomon. Paul summarises Ecclesiastes in his letter to the Romans. He says:

The creation has been subjected to futility        Romans 8:20

Futility. The word Paul uses here is the same word, the signature word from Ecclesiastes: futility! Meaningless! Paul confirms the findings of Solomon the wise. The creation has  fallen into chaos. That’s why things are so bad down here.

What this means is that suffering and evil are worse than we might have thought. They are meaningless, and therefore enemies of everything God has created. There’s no good in them at all. They are truly evil.

To return to our illustration of the tapestry, this Scripture view would seem to say, SHOW ILLUSTRATION  ‘When seen from below the tapestry of life is shot through with dark and ugly threads. It’s covered in loose ends. The whole thing is a bit of a mess. And when viewed from above – it looks pretty much the same. In fact, it’s a sucky tapestry however you look at it.’

Well, what about Jesus? The great sufferer. The man of sorrows. Jesus watched his movement, everything he had worked for, dissolved, his flock scattered. He died in shame and defeat, in agony. His enemies had won. Jesus’ story is full of suffering.

The Scriptures tell us that what God’s Son submitted to was not really his own suffering: it was ours. It was a suffering he didn’t deserve. It had no claim on him – but he came and claimed it. It wasn’t for himself that he suffered, it was for us. In fact those things that happened to Jesus were God’s way of dealing with our suffering:

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, Christ himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil. Hebrews 2

What did God do about our suffering? He didn’t give us a lesson. He came near. Jesus Christ didn’t come to explain suffering. He came to endure it. To sit with us in it. Like Job’s friends did at first, before they opened their mouths and started lecturing. Jesus doesn’t lecture us. He joins us.

You might think this has been a pretty grim assessment of our human condition. We suffer, and it’s pointless. But when we see how Jesus has entered in to our misery, that makes all the difference. We get this totally new perspective on pain: human suffering is not a puzzle to be explained, it is a burden to be shared. And suddenly there is hope. In the coming weeks we’ll be learning more about the hope that the gospel brings to sufferers.

So how does the Bible’s unique view of suffering actually help us? 3 ways:

1. First, you don’t have to understand or feel good about pain and suffering. And that’s a relief!

Often sufferers – especially religious ones – have a double burden: firstly the trouble itself, and secondarily the pressure to find some positive meaning in it, to somehow feel good about it, to not cry out or complain. I suffered Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for 4 years, and a well-meaning friend asked my during that illness, what has God taught you through this? And I didn’t know! And I felt so guilty, this sickness was for me, it supposed to teach me something, and I hadn’t learnt anything. Not only was I sick, I’d failed at being sick! This double burden makes our trials so much harder to bear.

But you know, Jesus didn’t feel good about suffering on the cross. To hear that the evil afflicting you is truly evil and you don’t have to see it as good – this can come as a great relief.

2. What the gospel tells us is that when we are in distress we are not alone. There is someone right there with you: Jesus. He understands how much it hurts. He knows what it is to feel the confusion, the misery. Jesus feels what you feel. He doesn’t make the mistake of Job’s friends, talking too much, trying to explain it all to you. He doesn’t tell you to feel good about your pain. He simply sits with you. No matter how deep into the pit of suffering you go, you will find Jesus has gone ahead of you, and he is there beside you. No one else knows your sufferings the way Jesus does.

We are not alone. And that is the best thing of all.

3. What Jesus has done for us, you can do for others. 

The gospel of Jesus gives us cues for how to help others when they suffer. We can be Christ to our neighbours by sharing in their meaningless sufferings.

Job’s friends started off just sitting with him. They sat with him in the dust, a long time, not saying anything. That was good. It was when they opened their mouths that things went bad. When people are hurting, and they ask ‘Why?’, they don’t need an answer. There is no answer. What they need is you. You with them. Beside them in their pain.

We can be Jesus to other people by entering their troubles the way Jesus entered ours. Being present is good. But we need to learn – and this is the difficult thing for us Christians – we need to learn to shut up. Take time to listen to people. Let them talk to you. Express an interest in what they are going through. And you’ll find that people will start opening up, start sharing with you. Because pain is very lonely, and what people most need when they suffer, is someone there.

And when you bear people’s burdens with them like that, in the name of Jesus, you actually bring Christ into their situation. He comes close, through you.

And having someone there with you, someone who cares, sitting by you in the dust – so that you’re not alone – that’s better than all the explanations in the world.

What’s the use of God’s kingdom?


I was talking with my kids about how Jesus when he returns will finally fix things and heal all sickness and wipe away every tear, and establish God’s kingdom on earth.

They weren’t that impressed.

They said, “What’s the good of him bringing it later on, when we need it now?!”

Good question, kids. Good question.


It brought a few passages of Scripture to mind:

“and you – you have not rescued your people at all.”

“Let the groans of the prisoners come before you;”

“How long, O Lord?”

Religion and violence


bloody handsThis has been so much in the media lately that I think it’s good to see that the Bible has a lot to say about it. Here’s our bible talk on Acts 26 from last Sunday.

ACTS 26;  also   ISAIAH 1:10 – 2:4;  MATTHEW 12:9-14

Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do everything I could to fight against the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  And that is what I did in Jerusalem: with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death.

By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.

This is Paul’s confession before the court. He has been accused by his enemies of stirring up trouble in Jerusalem. His response? “Once I was a trouble-maker; a violent man; a religious fanatic, bloodthirsty, angry, driven to hurt others by my zeal for God. That was when I worked for you.”

So we’re going to talk about religion and violence. It’s a pretty hot topic isn’t it. For thousands of years humans have killed and hurt each other in the name of God. did you know that in many ancient cultures people would sacrifice children on altars to their gods? Since those times, people have confiscated property and land, mutilated children or stolen them, put people in prison, burned them alive, tortured them, and done it all in the name of God.

The crusaders marauded across the Middle East with the cross on their shields. When the Spanish went to South America they took with them the sword in one hand and the cross in the other. In England in the past if you were the wrong religion you were barred from university.

And today religious extremism is fuelling war, terrorism and bloodshed in many places. Most obvious is in the Middle East, from Syria to Iran and down to Saudi Arabia. People do these horrific things and they say, God is telling us to do it.

So religion easily becomes a cloak to cover up wicked things. Whether it’s greed and fraud, or child abuse, religion looks so holy on the outside, but underneath it’s oppressive and harmful.

The prophet Isaiah indicted Israel for this very thing: Yahweh said through him, “You lift your hands to me, but they’re covered in blood!” That just about sums up many people’s experience of religion today: they see hands of prayer lifted, but those are red hands. Blood red.

We can see in the story we heard before (Matthew 12) how dehumanising religion can be, how it turns us into hard hearted monsters. The synagogue leaders only cared about one thing: keeping the rules of the sabbath. Never mind about the man’s hand. They just didn’t care. And when Jesus healed his hand, well how shameful, now they want to kill him. Why? For breaking the sabbath rule. That’s what religion can do.

And people look at this and they think, well, religion is simply evil. I don’t want my children to grow up to hate people in the name of God. So I’ll keep them from even hearing that name. Many people in the West have said that over the past 200 years. They’ve thrown away religion because of its violence. There have been secular prophets like Karl Marx and Richard Dawkins who said if we can just get away from the scourge of religion, the world will be peaceful and beautiful, everyone will be friends again.

How has that gone for them? Since Europe and the West gave up on religion, has the time of peace arrived? Nothing could be further from the truth. In that time we have had 2 world wars, tens of millions killed – a thing never known before in the history of the world. The Nazis, without the help of religion, tried to destroy all the Jews and Gypsies and several other minority people-groups. We developed nuclear weapons. We used them straight away. The Soviet empire murdered 50 million of its own people. Since then we have invaded country after country and dropped millions of tons of bombs on them. We’ve done it in Korea, Vietnam, Afganistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, the list goes on. And we know in our hearts that we will do it again in the next place. We are addicted to violence.

Nothing has changed. The secular prophets turned out to be just as false as most of the religious prophets were. With religion or without religion, the hardness of heart that upset Jesus so much, it stays the same. We don’t love our neighbour. Sometimes we hurt him, or if we are provoked, we might even kill him. Like Paul did.

And so Jesus’ disciple Paul stands before his judge, King Agrippa and admits, I used to be just like that. I was a violent man. A tormentor. I hated in the name of God. When I worked for these guys, my accusers.

But things changed for Paul. That’s why he’s standing here, accused in court. At some point he switched from being the hunter, and sided with the hunted. He went around healing people, and fundraising for the poor.

So we want to know what happened to Paul and why he changed. And in fact Paul loved telling that story. He told it over and over, we get to hear it at least 3 times in Acts. If we can grasp it we will have to key to this man – and maybe the key to our worries about religion also.  v.12-16

It’s not that Saul had a new idea. No one re-educated him. He wasn’t sent to a correctional facility or a shrink. He didn’t receive counselling to de-radicalise him. No, Saul just met someone. On that road to Damascus Saul met Jesus. He saw Jesus, alive from the dead. Spoke with him. And he realised, God has raised him up. He’s the one God has chosen! All my religion was wrongheaded and foolish. From now on I’m following Jesus.

And so Saul stopped preaching hatred and started preaching Jesus. Telling people “we have to change. We have to stop the hating and violence. We have to welcome strangers.” To use his words, he started ‘preaching that we must repent and turn to God, doing the good works that go with repentance.’ And he started doing those good works. In particular he started collecting money for the poor. Saul the furious became Paul the fundraiser.

And Paul looks at his accusers and he says, I used to be a violent man. But that’s not why they are after me today: they’re after me because I stopped.

You see, what happened when Paul was baptised into the name of Jesus, was he got a fresh start.  A new spirit came into him, the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit of compassion. The Spirit of healing. The Spirit of peace, not violence. When Paul got to know Jesus, it just turned his life around.

It’s like this: imagine a jug, you fill it up with water and it starts pouring out. Saul was full up and overflowing with hatred. Religious hatred. Jesus tipped that jug upside down, and emptied him right out. Then he refilled him with his Spirit. Now new things started pouring out of him. It was like Jesus had promised: springs of living water welling up and bubbling over with eternal life.

That’s what Jesus does. Takes angry, divided communities, and turns then upside down, makes them into places of love and fellowship, of help and compassion. That’s what he’s done for us here in Canterbury. We used to be the divided, angry, prejudiced ones, full of resentments, suspicions. I remember in the past how I used to look at people whose skin was a different colour. How I used to distrust and dislike them. Religion can so often be a divider. A bringer of darkness and superstition, of hatred and fear.

But Jesus is making us new. He’s making us into a new family, open to everyone. A new community where all are welcome. And now in the place where I used to feel disgust, now I find love and friendship starting to spring up. I’m not afraid of those people any more. And I feel that I’d like to know them. I’d like to hear their stories. Try their food. Sit in their home. That’s what Jesus does.

And so Saul became Paul. He probably had the two names all along, but it’s a handy way to tell his story of before and after.

Saul the violent-became Paul the peaceful man

Saul the extremist – became Paul the sober man, speaking reasonable words.

Saul did works of destruction – but Paul did the works of Jesus

The prophet Isaiah, after that indictment about Israel praying with bloodstained hands, went on to tell of a vision he had in which everyone took up their swords and beat them into ploughs. They hammered their weapons into a new shape, so that instead of taking life those tools could sustain life. And they said ‘We’re not going to study war anymore.’ What a wonderful picture of the difference Jesus makes: swords into ploughshares.

And now you and I need this same transformation in our lives too. So I want to commend to you Jesus. For you and your family. Religion can’t stop the violence, can’t bring in peace. Atheism can’t stop it. You might think you’ve got clear of it, but it’s inside us all. Only Jesus can stop it. The new life he brings is peace and healing and a fresh start. Peace with God, all our sins forgiven. No more shame or guilt or hiding away. And peace with each other, all our hatreds melted, all swords beaten into ploughshares.

Let’s pray:

Lord Jesus as you did with Saul, so open our eyes also so that we may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that we may be released from our sins and, by trusting you, find a place among the people who belong to you. Amen.

Love Nepal dancers in action


We were mesmerised by the grace and beauty of these dancers, their colour, their energy and personality. We could have watched all night!

All from local Nepalese dance schools!blue girl dancing girls sabita's group girls on stairs1