Joy in Heaven

To turn my attention away from the messed up kingdoms of this world, I have been trying to focus on the glorious kingdom of God. The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast illustrate that the kingdom of God will grow exponentially from a very small beginning. The Parable of the Growing Seed shows that God is actively working behind the scenes to grow his kingdom. What is the message of the Parables of the Hidden Treasure and of the Pearl Merchant?

The pair of parables seem to share a similar theme: the kingdom of heaven is so valuable, the person who finds it will give up everything in this world to keep it. If you see yourself as the man finding a treasure in a field or as the merchant finding a precious pearl, this is a logical conclusion.

Parable of the Hidden Treasure. The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field.

Parable of the Pearl Merchant. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.

Matthew 13:44-45

When I searched for commentary on parables about the kingdom of God, I found a series of sermons on the Bible Tools website. Richard T. Ritenbaugh points out that when Jesus used the word “man” in a parable, the man was usually Jesus. In explaining his parables, Jesus said (Matthew 13:37-38), “The One who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world…”

Jesus, the Son of Man, found a treasure in the world and when he found it, he hid it again, then sold everything he had and bought it. In light of John 3:16, this interpretation makes much more sense to me. The truth is, even if I sold everything I have, I could never afford to purchase my salvation. It was Jesus who gave up everything he had to buy the treasure he found. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

Who or what is the treasure? For the meaning of the word “treasure,” Ritenbaugh turned to the Old Testament. In Exodus 19:5, God said: “Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession.” Psalm 135:4 says, “For the Lord has chosen Jacob to be his own, Israel to be his treasured possession.” In the book of Malachi, God’s treasure was the faithful remnant who feared him and honored his name.

Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name. “On the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him.

Malachi 3:16-17

In the New Testament, Peter referred to people who have been called into God’s wonderful light as God’s special possession. We have been adopted into his family. We are the treasure in the field, so precious that God sent his only Son to save us.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Peter 2:9-10

The parable of the hidden treasure says that when the man found the hidden treasure, he hid it again. I never thought about what it means to be hidden in this context. Those chosen by God were hidden in the world. And when Jesus found them, he hid them again?

Ritenbaugh explains his theory about what it means to be hidden in the world. Those who are chosen by God were hidden in the world because before we believed, we were just like everyone else. We looked and acted just like everyone else. How did Jesus hide us once he made us his treasure? He sent us right back into the world. After we are redeemed, we are still hidden in the world, but in a different way.

To explain the concept of being in the world but set apart, Ritenbaugh pointed to the prayer of Jesus in John 17. Jesus said that his disciples are in this world but they are not of us world, just as he is not of this world.

Our Lord and Savior, finding the treasure of His elect in the world, conceals and protects them against all the depredations of the enemy. Remember, we’re hidden. That’s the protection part. And with His own life’s blood, He redeemed us with joy. That’s the lesson of this parable.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh

The pair of parables remind me of the Story of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-31). When the younger son ran off and squandered everything on wild living, he came back to his father to humbly ask for forgiveness. Instead of being angry and treating him as he deserved, the father treated him like a treasured possession. He celebrated. He was joyful!

Each of the parables about the kingdom of God conveys a powerful message and each message generates an emotional response in me. Hope. Faith. Joy. The parable of the hidden treasure brings me joy because it shows how precious we are to God. There is joy in heaven when those who were lost are found. Jesus is overjoyed whenever he finds a treasured person in this broken, messed up world. We are valuable to him, like precious pearls.

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Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22353933

The Mystery of the Growing Seed

Jesus said, “the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” He also said, “the kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation.” You can’t point to it and say, “here it is” or “there it is.” In the gospel of Mark, Jesus explained what the kingdom of God is like by comparing it to a growing seed.

The Parable of the Growing Seed.

This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.

Mark 4:26-29

The parable of the growing seed is found only in the gospel of Mark. It follows the parable of the soils, the one in which a farmer sows seed by scattering it on the ground. As in the parable of the soils, the seed represents the word of God.

Who sows the seed? Those who teach, preach, and otherwise share the word of God with others. The apostle Paul said that those who believe are assigned a task by God. Some plant the seed, some water it. Neither the one who sows the seed nor the one who waters it has a role in making the seed grow. The one who sows does not even know whether the seed will take root.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.

1 Corinthians 3:5-7

The parable of the sower hints at the mysterious ways God works in the hearts of those who hear his word. The sower does not cause the seed to grow. The one who waters does not make the seed grow. Only God can make the seed grow. Only God can change hearts.

The word of God contains everything a person needs for eternal life. But sometimes the word falls on deaf ears. Oftentimes the distractions and temptations of the world keep the seed from taking root. As a sower of the seed, I don’t know what words will get through to a person who has hardened his or her heart to God. Fortunately, God does.

God does not waste his words. His word will not return to Him empty. His word will achieve the purpose for which he sent it.

As the rain and the snow
    come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
    without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
    so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
    It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
    and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:10-11

This parable gives me hope for unsaved loved ones. It gives me hope for a world that is hungry for the Good News. The kingdom of God is near. God is actively working to build his kingdom. No matter what we do, the seed sprouts and grows. We can trust that God will accomplish what he desires at the right time.

In the parable, I see myself as a sower of the seed, trusting that God will make his word grow. But I also see myself in the parable as one who heard the word and believed. Like a sunflower that turns its face towards the sun, I am drawn to God, the giver of life. The kingdom of God is within me.

You, God, are my God,
    earnestly I seek you;
I thirst for you,
    my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
    where there is no water.

Psalm 63:1

Praise the Lord, O my soul, all my inmost being praise his holy name!

Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Luke 17:20-21

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Photo by Domenico Gentile on Unsplash

The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed

Since reading a book that contrasted the kingdoms of the world with the kingdom of God, I have been reflecting on what Jesus said about God’s kingdom. What is the kingdom of God? I believe that it is a real kingdom that will be established when Jesus returns and that those of us who follow him are to prepare for it now by following his example. What is the kingdom like? Jesus used parables to answer this question, including the Parable of the Mustard Seed. I heard this parable when I was child and I remember being shown how tiny a mustard seed is. The message seemed very simple – great things start out very small. But is that all Jesus was saying?

The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables.

Mark 4:11

Jesus told seven parables about the kingdom of God. A parable is a story or statement that conveys a message indirectly by comparing something to something else. Jesus used parables because he knew that many people were too hardhearted to understand his message. The parable comparing the kingdom of God to the mustard seed is found in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 13. Below is the NIV version from Luke.

The Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Yeast

Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to?  It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.”

Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

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When I read the parable of the mustard seed today, especially considering the parable of the yeast that follows it, Jesus seems to be saying that God’s rule in human hearts will start very small and grow or expand exponentially. This seems like a very positive message.

When I searched for commentary on the parable, I found a couple of people who see a deeper meaning and a hidden warning. In explaining what he calls the parable of the growth of the mustard seed, David Legge made a few points about the parable that I had not noticed. One, he said it is important to consider the context of the parable, the timing of Christ’s message. At that time, the teachers of the law were indignant because Jesus healed on the Sabbath; they accused him of being possessed. The Pharisees were plotting with the Herodians on how they might kill Jesus. Even his own family thought Jesus was out of his mind.

In an environment that was hostile to his message, Jesus told the parable of the sower (Mark 4). As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.

The theme of the parable of the soils is that God’s word will be ignored and rejected. And just as birds came and ate seeds from the path, Satan will come and take away the word from many who hear it. Very few people will hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop.

Keeping this context in mind, Legge made a second point. Mustard seeds grow into bushes not into a tree as in the parable. Some mustard plants could grow into a 12 to 15 foot tree but that would be unnatural, abnormal, unhealthy growth.

Legge then made a third point about something in the parable that never seemed significant to me. He said we have to account for the birds in the branches. In an earlier sermon on parables, Legge said that a parable is not an allegory and that every symbol does not necessarily have to stand for something. But in the parable of the mustard seed, he sees the birds as symbolic because birds were also mentioned in the parable of the sower. Legge suggests that the mustard tree represents “an imitation of a great world power. It aspires to greatness beyond its means, it’s reaching to heaven but it is firmly rooted in the earth, and it is harbouring these birds which already in the context refer to demonic forces.”

I looked at the birds in the parable as God’s creatures who find shelter in a great tree. But Legge points out that birds are natural enemies of the sower. In the context of the parables of the sower and the mustard seed, birds could represent false teachers who keep the message of the kingdom of God from taking root. Legge concludes that from small beginnings, the kingdom of God would succeed, in worldly terms, by growing unhealthily and abnormally “to an empire in which its enemies could even shelter and nest.”

This interpretation of the parable of the mustard seed is certainly intriguing. Richard T. Ritenbaugh makes a similar argument in his sermon on the parables of Matthew 13. He notes that a seed is the means by which a plant grows and that “it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say that the Kingdom of God grows by means of the Kingdom of God.” In other words, the mustard seed represents an agent of the kingdom of God and not the kingdom itself. The mustard seed represents the church, the few people who are chosen to spread the Good News.

Ritenbaugh continues by repeating Legge’s point about the unnatural growth of the mustard seed in the parable. Something happens to make the mustard plant grow beyond its natural limit. Then the birds of the air, which symbolize demons, find a home in the tree. Ritenbaugh suggests reading Daniel 4:19-27. It tells the story of King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream about an enormous tree. Wild animals found shelter under it and birds lived in it branches. He also saw a messenger from heaven who said, “Cut down the tree and trim off its branches…” Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar that he was that tree. God humbled Nebuchadnezzar to force him to acknowledge God’s sovereignty.

This not only shows the rise of the great false church, but it shows the tendency of the church, at all times, to become large, great, and worldly.

Richard T. Ritenbaugh

I am on the fence about whether to believe these interpretations of the parable of the mustard seed. I still see the parable as an encouraging word from Jesus. First and foremost, the purpose of the parable was to explain what the kingdom of God is like, not the church. The parable of the yeast that immediately follows in both Matthew and Luke has no hidden meaning. The kingdom of God will grow exponentially from small beginnings. Finally, I think that Jesus was quite explicit when he warned people about false prophets. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.  See, I have told you ahead of time.

Regardless of whether Legge and Ritenbaugh are correct about the meaning of the parable of the mustard seed, I give them credit for making an important point about the unhealthy growth of the church. When churches promote false teachings like the prosperity gospel, when they are more concerned about entertaining people and making money than about souls, when they become too worldly, Satan has made a home in the branches.

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Photo by toinane on Unsplash

Keys to the Kingdom

Reading The Myth of a Christian Nation (Gregory Boyd) affirmed my belief that Christians should not put their hope in politics because politics tends to corrupt religion. What I really loved about Boyd’s book though is that he reminded me that the hope of the world lies in a kingdom that is not of this world. So I am taking a deeper dive into scripture to remind myself of all the things Jesus said about the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ was sent to proclaim the good news of this kingdom and he promised to give us the keys!

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

Matthew 16:19

The kingdom of God and kingdom of heaven were mentioned frequently in the New Testament, 68 times and 32 times, respectively. Mark and Luke used the phrase “kingdom of God,” while Matthew wrote exclusively of the “kingdom of heaven.” Some people think that the terms have different meanings. Got Questions Ministries notes that Jesus used the phrases interchangeably and both phrases were used in parallel accounts of the same parables.

I searched the gospels and made a list of seven keys to the kingdom.

  1. You must be born again.
  2. Repent and believe the good news.
  3. Receive the kingdom of God like a little child.
  4. Understand your spiritual poverty.
  5. Do not pretend to be righteous.
  6. Practice what you preach.
  7. Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.

1. You must be born again.

When Jesus said you must be born again, Nicodemus did not understand what Jesus was saying. Nicodemus was thinking in anatomical terms and Jesus was speaking in spiritual terms. Flesh gives birth to flesh and the Spirit gives birth to spirit.

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.” (John 3:3 and 5)

2. Repent and believe the good news.

The dictionary defines repent as “to feel or express sincere regret or remorse about one’s wrongdoing or sin.” True repentance is more than just remorse. It means completely turning away from your sin and surrendering your life to God.

Although being born again means believing in Jesus and surrendering your life to him, believers must continue to confess their sins and repent because even those who are born again struggle with sin. We may even struggle with unbelief.

The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1:15)

3. Receive the kingdom of God like a little child.

Little children are innocent. They have not yet been conformed to “the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2). The world places too much value on money, possessions, power and social status. Children have none of these things. They have not yet become jaded and cynical. Because children are powerless, they are more trusting. They are more humble because they have not yet convinced themselves that they have all the answers.

Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. (Mark 10:15)

4. Understand your spiritual poverty.

The first of the ten Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount is blessed are the poor in spirit. Billy Graham said that if you want to understand what this means, substitute the word humble for the word poor. When we approach God with a humble spirit, we understand our true spiritual poverty. We see how much we need God.

Jesus also warned that wealth makes it nearly impossible to enter the kingdom of God. It is not that there is anything inherently sinful about financial success or wealth. The rich are more likely to become overly proud and self-satisfied. Solomon said, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.” Wealth can easily become an idol. You cannot serve both God and money.

Of course, those who are actually poor may be tempted to envy those who are rich. No matter how much material wealth you have, it is important to store your treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21).

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:3)

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24)

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? (James 2:5)

5. Do not merely pretend to be righteous.

Jesus called out hypocrites for the impostors they are (Matthew 23). God sees our hearts and is not impressed with outward displays of piety. On the inside, hypocrites are unclean. On the inside they are full of greed, self-indulgence, wickedness. “Do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, pay attention to your heart. Pay attention to the words of your mouth. Focus on your own sin and stop worrying about everyone else’s. Clean the inside of the cup and dish.

For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:20)

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 7:21)

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Matthew 21:31)

6. Practice what you preach.

When asked to name the greatest commandment of the Law, Jesus said, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And the second greatest command, he said, is “love your neighbor as yourself.” Nevertheless, Jesus said that we should not set aside any one of the least of the commandments because if we do, we will be least in the kingdom of heaven. We should take sin seriously and do whatever we can to not stumble or to cause anyone else to sin.

Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:19)

And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell. (Mark 9:47)

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions  and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:22)

7. Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness

I thought about putting this one at the beginning of my list because Jesus said “seek first his kingdom” and how can you find the kingdom of God unless you seek it? Like repentance, seeking God and his righteousness does not stop when you become a Christian. I seek God because I understand my spiritual poverty. I know that I do not always practice what I preach.

Many people are too busy worrying about day-to-day life to seek God’s kingdom. Jesus said we should not worry about the things we need for life, like food and clothing. Life is about more than food; we are not just physical beings. Make seeking God and his righteousness your first priority and he will take care of everything else.

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. (Jeremiah 29:13)

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I find it hard to even define the kingdom of God. Got Questions says “broadly speaking, the kingdom of God is the rule of an eternal, sovereign God over all the universe…More narrowly, the kingdom of God is a spiritual rule over the hearts and lives of those who willingly submit to God’s authority.”

Gregory Boyd says that “in seeing the kingdom, people see what God is like.” Simply stated, the kingdom of God looks like Jesus. So if we want to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, look to the example of Jesus.

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Why would a loving God allow pain and suffering?

I had the opportunity to see Vince Vitale,  co-author of Why Suffering?: Finding Meaning and Comfort When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, when he visited my church. I first reflected on this challenging question a couple of years ago and was interested in how Vitale’s insights meshed with those of C.S. Lewis and others who have tackled this question.

Skeptical theism

I have a niece who is an atheist. She says that she can’t stand it when people say that bad things happen for a reason. I understand her reaction. The people who say this have good intentions but this ambiguous answer provides little comfort in the face of suffering and grief.

In C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain, he said that Christianity creates the problem of pain (in an apologetic sense). We Christians believe in an all-powerful God who is both loving and righteous and yet we live in a world where people experience great pain. How can you reconcile the reality of pain, suffering, and senseless tragedy with belief in a loving God who has the power to make life easier for us?

In Christian Apologetics, Douglas Groothius asks: if evil appears to be pointless, is it? If you can’t conceive of a reason for pain and suffering, does that mean there is no reason for it? Vitale introduced me to the term skeptical theism, “the view that God exists but that we should be skeptical of our ability to discern God’s reasons for acting or refraining from acting in any particular instance.”

Just as a child cannot understand the reasoning of an adult, we as limited human beings cannot understand God’s reasoning. His thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

What kind of love is this?

Many people reject the Christian God because they question how our God can love people and yet allow them to suffer. How can our God be good if he lets people feel pain? If he is really all-powerful, why doesn’t he do something to prevent suffering? Why should anyone trust a God who lets people suffer?

Vitale asked an interesting question: if it is evil to create a world where pain and suffering exist, then how is it good to bring children into this world? We know that children will experience pain and suffering in their lives but we still choose to have them.

The love of God is analogous to the love of a father for his child. It is the love of the Creator for the created. We are an expression of God’s love and creativity. I believe he loves us more than we can fathom. He forgives us over and over again, even as we reject him. He does not enjoy seeing us in pain but he is present to guide, protect, and comfort those who love him.

Vitale writes, “The loving parent is not the one who never allows suffering in a child’s life. The loving parent is the one who is willing to suffer alongside their children. And in Christianity this is exactly what we find.”

Christians believe that God became human to redeem mankind from our sinfulness. No other religion makes this claim – that God became fully human and experienced human suffering firsthand. Jesus subjected himself to temptation, rejection, ridicule, pain and death. He understands our suffering because he experienced it himself.

The Laws of Nature Versus the Power of God

Death and destruction are part of the natural world. According to Darwin’s theory of evolution, the process of natural selection weeds out the weak. Forces of nature like floods, fires, blizzards, tornadoes, famine and drought cause pain, suffering, death and destruction. So with or without a supernatural creator, we accept the destructiveness of nature. As Groothius writes, if you believe that the natural world is full of evil, then you must have in mind a supernatural ideal as the basis for your belief.

The rejection of the Christian God based on the problem of pain presupposes that God lacks the power to make things right. For those of us who believe that God is omnipotent, we believe that God is capable of suspending the laws of nature to prevent pain. We believe in miracles and that on occasion God changes the course of events. But we don’t expect God to break the laws of nature.

If I did something dangerous like drive my car straight into the path of another vehicle, I believe that God could intervene to prevent an accident. He could instantly change the mass or velocity of the vehicles to lessen the impact. He could make my car fly over the other car and land gently on the other side. But if God interfered with natural laws, they would not be laws. We couldn’t count on nature to behave in predictable, measurable ways. If we expect God to prevent the suffering that nature and free will make inevitable, life, as we know it, would no longer exist.

Vitale challenges us to imagine living in a world where there is no suffering. Everything and everyone would change. You wouldn’t be you. Think about a great person that you admire. If you subtracted out all of the pain and suffering that this person ever experienced, they would not be the person you admire. In a world with no suffering, there would be no heroes. There would be no courage, no compassion, no empathy, no determination -qualities that make people admirable.

The Cost of Free Will

As difficult as it is to understand the cruelty of nature, it is even harder to understand the pain humans inflict on each other. As C.S. Lewis noted, we cause pain when we’re born, we inflict pain on others while we’re living (and suffer on the receiving end), and we often experience pain and suffering in death. Humans have a long record of committing crimes, abuse, and other unspeakable acts against each other. We intentionally hurt each other physically and with words. We can be extremely cruel and indifferent to the pain and suffering of others. What’s worse, because we have the ability to reason and to feel, we understand the pain we cause.

God created us as intelligent beings with the free will to choose. That free will came with a risk – the risk that we would choose evil and reject God. The biblical story of Adam and Eve describes the first sin as an act of disobedience to God – the choice to eat fruit God had specifically forbidden. This was a choice to turn away from God and turn to the self. C.S. Lewis said that as soon as we become aware of God as God and self as self, we have the option to make God or the elevated Self the center of our universe.

God’s Power is Made Perfect in Weakness

The apostle Paul wrote that he was given a thorn in his flesh to prevent him from exalting himself, to keep him from becoming conceited about all the amazing things that had been revealed to him. We don’t know what this affliction was but Paul pleaded with God to take it away. God said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul said that he was delighted in his difficulties and hardships (which included being beaten, stoned and imprisoned) because “when I am weak, then I am strong.” He knew that there is purpose in suffering. Suffering leads to perseverance, perseverance leads to character, and character leads to hope.

Pain is God’s Megaphone

C.S. Lewis said that pain is God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” When things are going well, we have a tendency to push God aside and to put ourselves at the center. We live with an “illusion of self-sufficiency.” God reveals what we lack by letting our lives become more difficult. Sometimes our illusion of self-sufficiency must be shattered to save our souls.

Sometimes our surrender to God takes pain. Many people call on God when they are at their lowest point, perhaps struggling with loss, a crippling addiction, or a broken relationship. The good news is God is merciful. He has what Lewis called “divine humility.” He is not proud; he does not mind our choosing him as a last resort. His love never fails. He heals hurting souls.

As a Christian, I can see for myself that bad things happen to good people and that the world I live in is often cruel and unjust. As much as I try, I cannot fully explain the reasons for pain and suffering. But I have seen a glimpse of the purpose of pain in my own life and in the lives of others. When we look back through painful experiences, we see that they made us stronger. We see the building of character, the smoothing of our rough edges. We learn humility in our struggles. We see the light in the darkness. And we see the goodness of humanity in the face of tragedy and adversity.

Sometimes it takes the healing hands of time for us to see the big picture. When we’re in the midst of pain and suffering, we see the puzzle but we don’t necessarily see how the pieces fit together. In this life, we see only in part, but someday we will know fully.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:12

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Vitale’s response to the question of pain and suffering is summarized in an article he wrote on the RZIM website – If God, Why Suffering?