Witnessing Christ through Sorrow and Pain
As an apologist, questions of pain and suffering are among the toughest I have attempted to address. It is one thing to respond to an atheist making an argument like the one commonly attributed to the Greek philosopher, Epicurus:
Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from whence comes evil?1
This objection challenges the internal coherence of the biblical claim that God is both all-powerful (Matthew 19:26) and all-good (Psalm 100:5). At its core lies the presupposition that evil exists, and that it is incompatible with the Christian God. Such an objection can be refuted simply by demonstrating that God in his sovereignty may possess good reasons to permit the pain and sorrow we see in the world. As William Lane Craig explains, “as long as this is even possible, the atheist has failed to show that the existence of God and the existence of evil are logically inconsistent with each other”. The logical version of the objection falls apart.2
The burden of proving the incompatibility of God and evil is something that the atheist must shoulder. Believers like Paul have long held that God has his reasons for permitting suffering when he declared: “we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4). Thus, there is simply no reason to assume that the existence of suffering and evil disprove God.
However, a much greater difficulty arises when addressing the emotional aspect of this objection. When faced with a mother who has just lose her child, a family who have lost their house in a fire, or the thousands losing their jobs due to the pandemic, the answer provided above may seem inadequate. After all, those grieving often seem more concerned with the goodness of God than the power or existence of God. As ambassadors of the gospel, we do have joy to offer in the face of sorrow. However, there are three things I believe we should avoid when presenting the gospel in the context of sorrow.
1. Do not Speculate
In encountering a man who was born blind, Jesus’ disciples ask: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (John 9:2). Behind this innocent question is an unbiblical speculation: that the suffering of this blind man was a result of either his own sin or his parents’ sin. Jesus was quick to dismiss this conclusion, instead attributing his suffering to a greater purpose: “that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3).
Likewise, in witnessing to those in sorrow, we must avoid speculating the causes of their suffering. For the most part, God has not given us specific reasons why certain people encounter hardships while others do not. Those desiring to witness to Christ must confine themselves to the revelation that God has provided in Scripture, if they desire to faithfully present the gospel. False speculations lead to false remedies, and false remedies point away from Christ and his gospel. Recognizing that we neither have nor need the specific reasons for suffering, causes us to rely on the gospel. If there is one thing of which we can be certain, it is that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11-12).
2. Do not let God off the Hook
When doing apologetics, it is easy to forget our call to witness to Christ and to merely offer excuses to dismiss the objection. In a debate between Christian apologist Frank Turek and atheist David Silverman, Turek appealed to the free-will defense in an attempt to remove all responsibility for evil from God.3 The response from Silverman was brutal. He pointed to specific instances of evil to demonstrate that God was in some way responsible for evil, in that he could have prevented it if he wanted to. In this case, we see that the atheist is raising good questions and instead of engaging the objection, Turek appeared to be offering excuses to let God off the hook rather than to address the objections head on. He appeared dismissive and that did not help him to present the gospel persuasively.
To be clear, God is in no need of excuses, and neither are those in sorrow looking for one. Providing excuses for God does the gospel a big disservice. Rather, to paraphrase the argument of philosopher Phillip Cary, Scripture demonstrates that God is ultimately responsible for the evil and suffering in the world, although he is in no way culpable for it.4 What that means is that God in his sovereignty is in control of human sorrow and joy and is free to exercise his freedom over creation as a potter is over his clay (Romans 9:21).
In the book of Job, we see Job’s friends letting God off the hook by blaming Job for his sufferings. They ask: “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (Job 4:7). Little did they know, that central to the plan of God in salvation, was the message of an innocent man who perished and an upright man who was cut off for the sins of others. By removing God’s responsibility for the sorrow, they were neither pleasing not glorifying God. On the contrary, God rebuked them saying: “My anger burns against you and against your two friends, for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:7). Only Job rightly attributes the sorrow to God “for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11) by demanding: “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10).
It is purely because God is in control over the pain and sorrow in the world, that His saints can cry: “How long, O Lord” (Psalm 13:1) and trust in God to replace the present sorrow with eternal joy. The one witnessing Christ must be reminded that the gospel contains an answer to the question of sorrow by promising, “for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). Such an answer is only meaningful if God is not let off the hook.
3. Do not let Humanity off the Hook
Sorrow and pain are a direct consequence of human sin. When Adam and Eve sinned in Eden, God judged them saying, “I will surely multiply your pain” (Genesis 3:16). Hence, when dealing with a sorrowful person, we must help them to realize that their suffering is a result of the fallen world. Some studies have suggested that the richest people in the world have more than enough wealth to cure world hunger. The very existence of hunger is a tragic testimony to the reality of sin. Why don’t we see them helping the needy? Perhaps for the same reason that most people reading this do not typically go out of their way to combat the homeless issue that exist all over the world. We are accustomed to evil and suffering in the world. After all, one may argue that the reason some people are homeless is because of poor choices made in life. Whether that is true or not, we cannot escape the reality that sin produces pain. Instead of shaking their fist against God, the one enduring suffering must be taught that the cure for pain is the eradication of sin.
This leads to a deeper question, how can one overcome sin? More importantly, where does sin come from? Jesus identified the problem when He said, “out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts” (Mark 7:21). As one Christian writer put it, “the heart of the problem is the problem of the heart.” Scripture described this “problem of the heart” in the opening chapters of the Bible: “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). The apostle Paul further expands on this problem: “I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:18-19). According to Scripture, humanity is not merely desperately sinful but are enslaved in bondage to sin.
When the one in pain can see that suffering arises from sin, while sin emerges from the condition of the heart, the focus will shift from external solutions to an internal remedy. This is where the gospel offers hope to the one in suffering. The cross of Jesus Christ is both the symbol of pain and the emblem of hope. Christ resolves suffering by removing the curse of sin which produced pain. As the old Christmas hymn goes: “No more let sins and sorrows grow; nor thorns infest the ground. He comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found.”5 It is no wonder that the Apostle Paul, who was no stranger to suffering himself, could declare: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us… And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:18, 28).
In conclusion, there is living hope to be found in the gospel for all who face sorrow in this life. To effectively witness Christ in the context of suffering, we must first resist the temptation to speculate the cause of one’s sorrow. We must also not remove God from the big picture, because He is ultimately in control of all pain and suffering. Finally, we must address the problem of the heart, which produces sin and which in turn produces pain and suffering. This leads us to the gospel which promises the greatest comfort of a world without sin, a whole new creation, filled with saved people who have been purified by the work of Christ on the cross.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God”~ 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
This article was repackaged from a short talk delivered at the the Godly Sorrow Godly Joy conference. Click here to view the full conference and get free access to the keynote and first segment.
1 Cited by David Hume in Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779).
3 A recording of the debate can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RzP07nEwNP8. The section where Turek and Silverman engage discuss the problem of evil and the free-will defense begins at the 1:25 hour mark.
4 Phillip S. Cary, “The Classical View” in God and the Problem of Evil: Five Views, Ed. Chad Meister, and James K. Dew Jr. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017), 132-137.
5 An excerpt from the hymn “Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts (1719).
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Samuel Nesan graduated with a Masters in Christian Studies (Seminari Theoloji Malaysia) while serving as an Associate Pastor at Pantai Baptist Church. Prior to that, he graduated with a Bachelor of Theology and a Diploma in Counselling Studies (Bible College of Malaysia). Samuel left his pastoral position in 2018 and went on to start and work full-time by faith in Explain Apologetics. Samuel is a regular speaker at schools, colleges, universities, and churches across denominations. He has also participated in a plethora of interfaith dialogues and debates. Apart from ministry, Samuel enjoys Badminton and was a match commentator for Astro since 2014 having coached professional shuttlers both locally and abroad.
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