By Francis Frangipane
It seems every couple months there is a major disaster or conflict somewhere in the world. With regularity, the images of human suffering explode into our consciousness and we are confronted, not only with our frailty, but also with deeper questions about the nature of God.
Some, to be sure, file every natural disaster under the label, "wrath of God." The perception that the fist of an angry God is purposefully causing untold agony, destroying the righteous together with the wicked, is an acceptable reality to them. In my opinion, such thinking tends to keep people somewhat aloof from the calamities themselves. Such analyses, however, are not easily assimilated by those whose hands have lifted the decaying bodies of the dead and whose ears still ring with the wail of the stricken.
Consider the repetition of suffering in our world just since the end of December, 2004. First we were deluged with images of the great Asian tsunami. Roaring into unsuspecting villages, in a few horrifying moments it swept almost 250,000 souls into eternity. Over the following months more earthquakes rocked Sumatra, then Iran and elsewhere, killing additional thousands. We've repeatedly seen the face of starvation in Africa and other third world counties. Then recently, we struggled to comprehend the gut-wenching destruction caused by storms, especially Hurricane Katrina. As the tide of terror ebbs into our memory, we ask: Where was God in these disasters? Did He cause them? Is He angry?
Beyond the Visible
Modern technology has enabled us to become aware of our world's reoccurring natural disasters. It is our awareness of human pain that disturbs us and moves us to pray, give or help. But the fact is our world is constantly harvesting heartache and sorrow, but it is unreported. Yet God sees it. Each year over 57 million people die worldwide from various causes. God sees every death, even those who vanish forever into eternal darkness without Christ. Globally, another 50 million babies are brutally aborted each year, and every muffled cry enters our Father's ears and descends into His heart. He sees the horrors of murder, rape and abuse; He is conscious of the starving, the diseased and the victims of accidents and wars. He is not the author of these particular deaths, but He is conscious of the collective suffering rising from our world.
However, the question is, where is God in all this? In ancient mythology, "gods" were portrayed as supernatural beings seated above humanity, luxuriating in a sensual "heaven." Not only were they indifferent to human suffering, causing pain was something like sport to them. They were capricious, given to sudden and unaccountable changes of mood or behavior.
When I hear people connect terrible storms, earthquakes or disasters with divine wrath, I feel that, as Christians, we should at least be cautious lest we unconsciously draw upon pagan imagery and misread the activity and heart of God. Pagan gods caused calamities; they were without compassion in their unrestrained affliction of mankind. Yet, the Spirit of God is united with us during hardship. His promise is that He will never leave us nor forsake us.
Yes, He abides in eternity in a "high and holy place"(Is 57:15c), but He also dwells in the realm of time "with the contrite and lowly of spirit" where He seeks to "revive the spirit of the lowly" (Is 57:15c). The true God "is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist" (Acts 17:27-28). Paul spoke these words to unsaved Greeks; God was close even to them. The Spirit of God is consciously involved with every aspect of our lives, even to numbering the hairs on our head. Hebrews tells us that "There is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do" (Heb 4:13). Jesus said that the Father not only "sees in secret" (Matt 6:4,6,18), but even a sparrow will not "fall to the ground apart from [our] Father" (Matt 10:29).
If we are seeking to know the relationship of God to human suffering on planet earth, we need to accept this primary truth: God is not separated from human sorrows. The idea that the Almighty is removed from mankind"s sufferings, I believe, is a deception rooted in paganism.
But let us probe deeper into God's nature. The Lord is not only conscious of mankind's suffering, a dimension of His heart is also wounded with our wounds and pained by our sorrows. Consider, even while Israel was suffering the consequences of its sin, God was united with them. Scripture reveals that a time came when the Lord "could bear the misery of Israel no longer" (Judg 10:16). What an insight into the God's heart! He was not sitting in heaven watching from a distance, measuring how much suffering His people could endure - He was with them, actually experiencing their accumulative misery!
Why should this idea of God suffering be strange to us? Throughout the Bible we read that one aspect of the divine nature is that He is "longsuffering" (Ex 34:6, Ps 86:15 KJV). His wisdom may be all knowing and His power fully capable, but His heart feels our pain. God suffers. He does not, like pagan gods, "harden His heart" to human pain.
When Israel had been enslaved by Egypt, the Lord told Moses, "I have surely seen the affliction of My people . . . and have heard their cry." He said, "I know their sorrows" (Ex 3:7 KJV). God saw, He heard, He knew their sorrows, and thus was moved with compassion to help. When I see, hear and know personally of human suffering, I am troubled deeply; I desire to help. This is exactly the heart of God! Our desires to help relieve suffering are not merely human traits, but a replication of the likeness of God Himself (see Gen 1:26).
When wickedness fully corrupts a culture, yes, it forces the Lord to execute judgement. However, it is a task of last resort. He feels "no pleasure in the death of the wicked" (Ezek 33:11). Even then, the idea of God causing pain must be balanced with the reality that He feels the pain He causes.
Those Whom He Loves
This is not a message about divine wrath, but about the vulnerability of God's heart.
I am not saying the Lord does not correct us. I have known the discipline and correction of the Lord, even when it seemed severe. I agree with the Psalmist who wrote, "It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes" (Ps 119:71). Those whom God loves, He reproves and disciplines. Yet, it is not an angry God who corrects me, but a loving heavenly Father who disciplines me for my own good. Indeed, this is the great revelation that the Messiah brought to mankind: the Almighty God is not distant. He is our Father.
Several years ago, I had suffered through a particularly difficult time. I sought the Lord about the pain that I endured. He answered simply, "I have been as gentle with you as possible." Suddenly, I saw that it was the devil who caused most of the pain; people and my own poor reactions caused the rest. Yes, the Lord was involved redeeming a bad situation, turning it toward good, helping, restoring me and teaching me discernment and wisdom through it all.
God is our Father. It causes me pain to discipline my children. I do not enjoy it. As a child, before my dad would spank me, he would always say, "This is going to hurt me more than it does you." Is this not the way of God with us? Is He not our Father?
What God Himself Seeks
Yet, why does the Lord tolerate the grief and suffering that abounds on planet earth? Jesus explained it this way. He said, "The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine pearls, and upon finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it" (Matt 13:45-46).
God is looking for something valuable, something costly. Yes, the Father found one pearl of great price in His Son, but there is something else the Father seeks, and that is the replication of His Son in us. Romans 8:29 reveals His glorious purpose: He has "predestined [us] to become conformed to the image of His Son."
The pearl of great price, Christ, is not only the payment for our sins, He is the pattern for our lives. Even as the life of Christ flooded the Father's heart with pleasure, so our conformity to Christ justifies the sorrows and suffering of our times. God is using the pain of these days to conform us to His Son. In spite of the sorrows and sufferings of this present age, something precious is being born. Jesus called these difficult events "birth pangs," divine contractions forcing us into conformity to the Pearl of Great Price.
As I write, Hurricane Rita is bearing down on the American Gulf states. As my editor reviewed this message, she informed that Rita actually means "pearl." Beloved, God is with us in our heartache, let us be with Him in the transformation of our lives. Let us give to God His own reward for creating man.