Friday, July 22, 2011

Suffering

This is my response to a comment I got by email after my recent post on prayer.  My friend said:
You say you pray for daily bread for people. I have struggled to understand how God - who loves us more than the sparrows and who promised to provide for all our needs, can let so many many people die of starvation every single day.
Here was my response (unpolished and mostly off-the-cuff with my trademark never-ending sentences) in case anyone else has been wondering similar things.

Those are big questions, and ones that I have thought about a lot since getting sick. Not just in relation to myself, but also as I have realised that someone in my condition in at least 1/3 of the world would die of it because resources are so tight where they live.

My first answer is that God didn't want it to be this way. He made us a perfect world that was 'just right', and his plan was for us to always live in that world that was perfect. However, we/Adam and Eve stuffed it up and now there is all manner of suffering. In the book of Romans, Paul talks about all creation 'groaning', and [my friend's close relative]'s sickness and mine, as well as all those people dying of starvation etc., are all part of creation groaning.

My second answer is that God has bigger priorities than ending suffering in the here and now. Martin and I read a chapter or so of the Bible together every morning and in the last couple of years we've mostly been reading from the Old Testament. In our reading we've been really struck by how different God's perspective on mortal life is from ours. It seems to be terribly hugely important to God that people are in a good relationship to Him, but not hugely important whether they stay alive or not. I guess that makes sense in the context of eternity.

So in the New Testament it says that Jesus' death was the first step towards fixing what was broken in the world, but it won't be 100% right until Jesus comes back to live here permanently and everything is made new again. That hasn't happened yet, and I think the Bible says it won't until everyone on earth has had the chance to hear the gospel (e.g. Matthew 24, Mark 13), although I'm not 100% sure that's what those texts mean. Assuming that is the meaning it then seems that, even though he's completely capable of healing all that suffering, God has decided to limit himself and not do so in the light of the greater good of giving people the opportunity of living with him in eternity. I don't 100% see why fixing what's gone wrong in the world would get in the way of that, but it appears that it does.

And my third and final answer is that God has given us the job of dealing with suffering on earth. We (the Church) are the 'firstfruits' of that new world. As I understand it, one of the things the church exists for is to show people what things will be like in the New Heaven/New Earth so that they are attracted to it and want to be a part of it. We are also Christ's body on Earth, so we have to carry on Jesus' work. In Luke 4, Jesus described his work like this:
18 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (NIV)
Because we are his body, that's our calling, too. Perhaps one reason why there is so much suffering, so many people dying of starvation, so many people with chronic and terminal illnesses etc. is because the Church isn't doing it's job.

When I pray for 'daily bread' for people, I'm asking that they will have the resources they need to get through the day. That doesn't always happen, but I still ask! Not infrequently, God then asks me to be the means of answering that prayer: I get a strong sense that God wants me to phone someone up, offer that they can stay at our place, take them muffins or whatever. I also ask God to make them aware of him going through the day with them.

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