Does God not care about me being in pain?

Q. Hello Christopher,
I am sorry but this is in regards to suicide. Specifically, will I be damned to hell if I have received Christ yet choose to take my own life?
I am suffering from several physical ailments. I have been seeing doctors, going for tests etc, but nothing has helped or would help. I was even denied an operation. In short, I would have to be in physical pain constantly. The pain is killing me. I feel so tired of being in pain I am considering taking my own life. I have been praying to God, to take me home, or to take away the pain, but not much has happened in regards to that. The pain has resulted in the worst of me surfacing, I find it hard to be kind and patient to others. I also wonder why does God allow me to be in constant pain when He loves me. I believe in Him and His powers but I do not know if he is willing to heal me. Some times I feel that my well being is not of any priority to him as compared to His plans. I find that hard to accept. Like I (or my pain) am a tool, for him to use in His purpose. I really do not want to think like that. Are you able to shed some light on this so that I can stop thinking of God as some one who does not care about me being in pain?

Thank you for your heartfelt questions. I do believe I can help you. My wife went through a similar experience of unrelenting suffering. She went home to heaven last year after suffering from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) for 4 1/2 years. She basically spent the last six months of her life suffocating to death. This was so painful for me to watch that I literally got down on my knees every night before bed and begged God to take her home and end her suffering. She lived much longer than anyone expected and so had to endure a greater progression of symptoms than many patients do. At the end the only muscles she could move were in her face.

But she was still using those muscles to smile. This was because, throughout her entire illness, we continually saw evidences that God loved her and cared very deeply about her suffering. I’ve written up our story in another blog entitled Endless Mercies. It begins with this post. The tag line to the blog is, “God’s mercies to you don’t end when you get an untreatable fatal disease.” We certainly found that to be true. My hope and prayer is that you would be encouraged by reading our story and that it would help you recognize in your own story the ways in which God has been showing how deeply he cares about you and your pain and suffering.

I’d also invite you to read and meditate on Psalm 88. That psalm seems to be so filled with suffering and despair that I’ve actually heard some people wonder why it’s even in the Bible:

Why, Lord, do you reject me
    and hide your face from me?

From my youth I have suffered and been close to death;
    I have borne your terrors and am in despair.

But I believe this psalm was made part of Scripture in order to give a voice to situations like yours, where there is no sudden deliverance and we don’t find out in this life how it was all worthwhile. And because God has heard that voice and enshrined it within the Bible, we know that he does love and care for everyone in such a situation.

I don’t want to presume anything about personal circumstances that I’m not familiar with, so forgive me if I’m off base here, but what I’m hearing from you is not really a question about suicide, but about meaning and purpose in life. I think what you’re really after is a reason to continue living, not necessarily permission to die. And as someone who has seen firsthand a situation of desperate, unrelenting suffering, I can testify that God’s personal love and care can be experienced in such a situation. May God open all of our eyes to see where and how his hand has been at work in our lives to help us.

The purpose of your life is not somehow to display certain attributes of God’s character, or of Christian deportment, through uncomplaining suffering. You are not a “tool” in that way. The purpose of your life is to love and be loved, by God and by those closest to you. And I must say, from my own experience, that no amount of suffering can keep us from being loved by God and from loving God in return. No amount of suffering can keep us from receiving the love of those people who care for us and want to help us, and from loving them back. I believe that God has already placed some such people in your life. I pray that you will be able to recognize them and receive what they want to give you. When you do, you will be giving them a great gift in return.

Let me close with the blessing from the Bible that my wife and I used to say to one another every evening before bed. On the last night of her life, she only had enough breath to whisper out the first line, so I finished the rest:

The Lord bless you and keep you.

The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.

The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

 

If the U.S. government creates policy based on biblical principles, aren’t we then a theocracy?

Q. I appreciated your response to the question, “Is Pope Francis right that Christians who chase away refugees are hypocrites?” It makes a lot of sense to me. But I have a followup question. Is Jesus—and more broadly the Bible—talking only to individuals about how they should act, or also to entities, such as government? If the U.S. government creates policy based on biblical principles, aren’t we then a theocracy? I believe that our country was founded on Judeo-Christian principles but I also believe in church-state separation. If I think our government’s policy on refugees—or anything else—should be different based upon my Christian beliefs, aren’t I a hypocrite?

I think I’ve addressed many of the concerns you express in another post entitled, “Should Christians try to impose a moral code legally on people who don’t believe?” I invite you to read that post, as I think it will answer many of your questions. In it I basically argue against theocracy, but then note that as a Christian, “If you are a citizen of a democracy, you have an obligation to support and work for legislation, and promote social measures, that will encourage people to live by the most transferable values of the kingdom of God.”

The United States is not governed by explicitly biblical principles. But that doesn’t mean it has been established on no principles. It embodies the ideals of liberty and citizen participation. As Lincoln said, it’s supposed to be “of the people, by the people, for the people.” You are one of those “people.” And so you have a responsibility to make your voice heard and  contribute to the shaping of our nation’s policies and programs, according to your informed conscience and Christian convictions.

Everybody else is supposed to be doing this, and they have a right to be disappointed if you’re not, even if they disagree with you! So get into the mix and don’t worry about theocracy or hypocrisy. We need concerned, compassionate voices like yours now more than ever.

How could God use a man and not save him?

Q. How is it fair to a person born to be put through hell in life because he is used by the devil and God. Is this like the story of Job? How could God use a man and not save him?

I’m not entirely sure what you’re asking about here, but let me reassert, as I’ve said often on this blog, that I believe God gives everyone the opportunity to trust in Him and be saved, and in fact God makes every effort to bring each person to salvation. As the Bible says, God “doesn’t want anyone to be destroyed. Instead, he wants all people to turn away from their sins.” So I don’t believe that God would “use” somebody for His purposes and then just discard that person afterwards. Any purposes God pursues through our lives are subservient to the purpose God pursues for our lives, which is to bring us to know and trust Him and enjoy His presence forever.

In terms of the story of Job specifically, in my study guide to that book I note, “The book of Job has much to say about the ‘problem of evil,’ that is, why there is so much suffering in the world if it’s governed by a good God. But [in the opening story] the Adversary [the name for Satan in the book] begins by raising a different problem, the ‘problem of good.’ If apparent goodness is always rewarded and bad conduct is always punished, how can we ever really be sure that a person is genuinely good, and not just trying to win rewards and avoid punishment? It turns out that the only kind of universe in which genuine good can be known to exist is one in which good people sometimes suffer undeservedly, but still demonstrate continuing loyalty to God.”

This is what God “uses” Job to demonstrate over the course of the book (if we may use that term). And there’s no question that at the end he’s “saved,” that is, fully returned to God’s tangible favor and blessing.

I hope this helps address your concerns.

The Word-for-Word Bible Comic goes gospel

I’ve posted a couple of times about the Word for Word Bible Comic, first when its graphic-novel presentation of the book of Judges was being developed, and then again as Judges and Ruth were released. I’ve been so impressed with the historical and cultural accuracy and compelling visual imagery of this series that I’ve gladly agreed to become a biblical consultant to the project. And now I’m pleased to announce that it’s moving into the New Testament with a Kickstarter, beginning today, to fund development of a presentation of the gospel of Mark.

Let me share one draft image from that book, with the artist’s kind permission, to illustrate its groundbreaking approach. This is a detail from the scene where Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist:

baptism-detail

Contrast this with the type of depiction you may have seen before:

jesus_baptized_by_john_90-252

What are the differences? For one thing, the landscape of the Jordan River is far more accurate in the Word for Word version. It shows how the area is basically desert, sloping down dramatically to the river, with vegetation appearing only near the edges of the water. The river itself is strong and rushing, which it was in the time of Jesus, particularly in that season and location. By contrast, the traditional image shows a verdant scene with hardwood trees and gently rippling water.

Another difference is that in the Word for Word image, Jesus and John the Baptist both look Jewish. Which they were, of course. In fact, readers of  the series may even recognize that Jesus bears a family resemblance to other characters from the tribe of Judah who have been depicted in earlier books, while John the Baptist resembles those from the tribe of Levi. Of course we don’t know what any of the ancient Israelite tribes looked like characteristically, but this series is adopting certain conventions to illustrate how they developed distinctively into clans, and then carrying that distinction forward right through the Bible. What better way to visualize the continuity of the biblical story? This is the kind of subtle attention to detail that’s embedded in every panel of these graphic novels.

But probably the biggest difference between the two images is that in the Word-for-Word illustration, Jesus is excited! Something amazing is happening here. Not only has he “fulfilled all righteousness” by being baptized (an overwhelming emotional moment, as any who have experienced it can testify), heaven has opened up and the voice of God has spoken! (Depicted in the full image, shown below.) The crowds are excited, too. Who wouldn’t be, at such a moment? Well, Jesus in the traditional image, for one. And I guess it’s only one, since there are no crowds in that image!

One more remarkable thing about the Word-for-Word image is the standpoint from which the artist views the scene. It’s from the middle of the river, slightly above the action! No human being could observe the scene from there. It’s the visual equivalent of an “omniscient narrator” in literature. By contrast, the traditional image is from the perspective of someone standing on the shore of the river, perfectly possible, but much less remarkable and revelatory of the actions and emotions involved. (As I’ve read through the forthcoming Joshua volume in my capacity as a biblical consultant to the series, I’ve been struck over and over again by the fresh perspectives from which the artist views the story. This often gives greater insights and is a significant contribution that should not be overlooked.)

I hope these few observations on one part of one image from the planned Word-for-Word Bible Comic: Gospel of Mark are enough to give you an idea of the radical and refreshing approach it’s taking. I invite and encourage your support for the project on Kickstarter.

8-baptism

Wouldn’t the sufferings of people eternally separated from God outweigh the sufferings of Jesus on the cross?

Q. We know the price that Jesus paid for sin. He experienced horrible physical suffering and rejection by His own people. But that pales in comparison to Jesus’ separation from the Father as He became sin for us. He cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If those without Christ will spend eternity separated from a loving God, and if one could measure this eternal suffering for millions of lost souls (such a horrible thought), would it really be less than the suffering of our dying Savior on the cross? (I realize that these lost souls would not be paying for sin—Jesus paid it all—but they would be left out of heaven because of their unforgiven sins, the greatest sin being rejecting Christ.) This comparison leads me to believe that those who say we either accept God’s offer in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins or pay for our sins in eternal torment are wrong. What do you think?

Thank you for this heartfelt and compassionate question. I’ve shared some reflections on the issue of eternal torment earlier on this blog, in a three-part series entitled, “Is hell a place of never-ending punishment?” I’d invite you to read it to help answer your question; it starts with this post. But you’re also raising a further issue that I don’t address in that series, so let me speak to it here, after briefly summarizing how I leave things there.

What I explain in my series is that people who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God hold different opinions about what happens after this life to those who accept or reject God’s gracious offer of reconciliation through Jesus. Some believe that all are raised to everlasting life, and that those who have accepted God’s offer will live forever in his presence, while those who have rejected this offer will live forever away from his presence.  Others believe instead in what’s sometimes called “conditional immortality.”  You only live forever if you accept God; if you don’t, your punishment is annihilation: you cease to exist.

My conclusion at the end of the series is that the biblical data does not present a simple, straightforward picture of “hell” as a place of never-ending punishment for those who reject God.  The picture is complicated, and readers of the Bible must understand the Hebrew and Greek terms and ideas behind our English translations in order to reach the most informed conclusion possible about this issue. In these posts, I try to provide useful good background to these terms and ideas to help people in their reflections.

But your question, as I’ve already observed, raises a further issue. If the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is supposed to be sufficient to pay for all the sins of the world, then wouldn’t we expect the sufferings of Jesus on the cross also to be greater than the sufferings of the world, in some such way as to overcome them as well? Jesus’ sufferings were certainly of a unique intensity. Crucifixion was specifically developed by the Persians and the Romans to be the most agonizing death possible. And as you said, for the Son to be separated from the Father after enjoying unbroken eternal fellowship was probably a level of emotional, relational, and spiritual suffering greater than we can imagine.

Still, would these sufferings outweigh the eternal torment of millions of souls? Since we can’t imagine that they would, shouldn’t we conclude that there will actually not be eternal torments?

Let me say first that I don’t picture God deriving any satisfaction or pleasure from the sufferings of people who reject his gracious offer of salvation. Instead, I envision God deeply grieved to see people experiencing the consequences of their choice against him.

I’d also add that we don’t get a consistent picture from the Bible of people suffering specific physical torments in hell. It’s sometimes called “outer darkness” and sometimes called a place where “the fire is never quenched.” It’s hard to see how it can be both at the same time, literally. So I believe that these are actually word pictures that point to the spiritual reality of hell: it’s a place where separation from God leads to isolation, disorientation, confusion, decay, disintegration, and the like—everything opposite to the order, harmony, clarity, and growth that characterize life in fellowship with God.

In other words, as you also observe, the worst thing about hell is what it represents by definition: separation from God. However, ironically, I don’t believe that this will constitute suffering for the people who are their by their own choice. If you’ve decided that you don’t want to be with God, then you don’t mind not being with God. But this only means, tragically, that you don’t know what you’re missing. You think that looking out only for yourself in a world of broken relationships is normal. You think you’re just fine—in fact, you’re one of the best people who’s ever lived—just the way you are, and so you miss out on the transformation you could experience through personal and spiritual growth. And so forth.

One corollary of my understanding of this issue is this: “No one will be in hell who doesn’t want to be there.” I simply can’t imagine God keeping a repentant person forever out of his presence by saying, “Sorry, you had your chance on earth and you didn’t take it, too late now. I realize you would have accepted me if you’d known then what you know now, but too bad, that’s just how it works.” I can’t give you all the details for how God might extend a welcome to someone after their death, because I don’t believe the Bible tells us enough about that for us to come to any firm conclusion. But I think we have hints of it in passages like the one in 1 Peter that says Jesus “went and preached to the spirits who were in prison” and the one in Ephesians that says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives.”

(I should specify that I’m not necessarily a universalist; I don’t assume that everybody will sooner or later accept God’s salvation. I think human freedom is so radical that the possibility always remains open that some will continue to choose against God. But I do believe that God’s offer of salvation is universal, open to everybody. As Peter writes in his second letter, God is “not willing that any should perish,” and so I don’t think that God ever gives up on anybody.)

But my final observation has to be most directly about your main point: I don’t actually think that Jesus’ sufferings on the cross need to outweigh all human sufferings, the way his sacrifice needed to be great enough to pay for all human sin. Instead, the Bible encourages Jesus’ followers themselves to “fill up . . . what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church” (in other words, for those who already believe in him and for those who will come to believe in him). The reign of God—the sphere in which God’s will is done without resistance—advances in the world through suffering. Jesus’ followers, who now constitute his body on earth, are called to join in his sufferings so that God’s reign can continue to spread.

In other words, while Jesus’ sacrifice was indeed once-for-all (“Jesus paid it all,” as you say), Jesus’ sufferings continue to this day through his body (the community of his followers) and as they do, the effects of what he accomplished on the cross become a reality in more and more people’s lives. We who are his followers are not “saving” others ourselves through our sufferings, but we are serving as channels through which Jesus’ salvation spreads.

I hope this is helpful!

Did God want Abraham’s descendants through both Isaac and Ishmael to share the promised land?

Q. I’d always thought of the promise of the land to Abraham as applying to his descendants through Issac. But now I notice that this promise, “To your offspring I will give this land,” comes prior to the birth of either of his sons, Ishmael or Issac. I also notice that when God later makes the conditional covenant of circumcision and reiterates the promise of the land, Abraham asks that God would bless Ishmael: “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” In response, God reiterates that he will establish his everlasting covenant with Issac and his descendants, but then adds, “As for Ishmael, I have heard you: I will surely bless him.” My thought is that since the land that had been promised is now being shared by the descendants of Issac and Ishmael, perhaps the promise of land has already been completely fulfilled. Is this a reasonable interpretation of the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis? Thank you for your thoughtful reflection.

You are not alone in reflecting on this promise and wondering how God wanted it to be fulfilled. The New Testament authors have much to say about this, and I would turn to them to help answer your question.

The author of the book of Hebrews, for example, comments on something very significant along these lines that he finds in Psalm 95. He quotes from the psalm, beginning with “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” and ending with the place where God says of the disobedient exodus generation, “I declared on oath in my anger,They shall never enter my rest.'” The author then argues that the opportunity for members of God’s covenant community to “enter his rest” (that is, to settle in the promised land) must still be open: “If Joshua had given them rest” (that is, if the conquest and occupation of the land of Canaan had fulfilled the promise), “God would not have spoken later about another day.” But “God again set a certain day, calling it ‘Today,’ . . . when a long time later he spoke through David.”

So in the understanding of this inspired Scriptural author, the opportunity to “enter God’s rest,” that is, to settle down in the promised land, is perpetually open to all who trust God by faith: “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his.” (I don’t have the space to develop this theme here, but the author of Hebrews is echoing the close connection that the Old Testament draws between Sabbath rest and the settlement of the land. To give just one example, in the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.“)

This is just one of the many passages in which the New Testament understands the promises to Abraham to be fulfilled in a spiritual sense, not a literal one, and to all of his spiritual descendants, not just his physical ones. Paul explains to the Galatians, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” He tells the Romans, a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, “The promise comes by faith, so that it may be by grace and may be guaranteed to all Abraham’s offspring—not only to those who are of the law but also to those who have the faith of Abraham. He is the father of us all.”

We see this same understanding in the book of Revelation, where a vision that’s initially of a finite number of people of a single ethnicity (“144,000 from all the tribes of Israel“) opens up to embrace “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language.” (See my discussion of this passage in this post.) This is the fulfillment of another of the promises that God makes to Abraham in Genesis, “You will be the father of many nations.” Paul cites this promise in Romans right after saying, “He is the father of us all.”

This, too, is a spiritual fulfillment, as Abraham is not the physical ancestor of these “many nations” (though the nations themselves are literal enough). As such, it helps us understand how the promise about the land also needs to be fulfilled more spiritually. It wouldn’t be possible to fit “every nation, tribe, people and language” into the small land of Israel! So the promise that Abraham’s offspring would possess this land is now fulfilled as those who place their faith in Jesus through the new covenant enter God’s spiritual “rest”—a life settled in God that is characterized by security, trust, dependence, and co-operative activity to advance his purposes in the world to reach out to every nation.

So then what about the land within the borders of the present state of Israel? My belief is that under the New Covenant, God’s purposes for the physical descendants of Abraham are the same as God’s purposes for every other group on earth. God wants to draw them into that great multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language who follow and worship Jesus as the one who brought all of God’s saving purposes throughout human history to their culmination.

This means, in my view, that the modern state of Israel should seek to fulfill God’s purposes for itself the way any other nation should: by providing the same full rights and privileges, including rights of property and land ownership, and expecting the same civic responsibilities and contributions, from all of its citizens, regardless of their ethnicity, background, language, or religion. I believe that it is in the context of such equality and freedom that people have the best opportunity to hear and understand the good news about Jesus and to respond to it honestly, without threats or rewards.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you as you continue to reflect on God’s promises to Abraham and their fulfillment.

An image of Ishmael and Isaac growing up together. (I have not been able to determine the artist and I would appreciate any leads so that I can give credit. Thank you.)
An image of Ishmael and Isaac growing up together. (I have not been able to determine the artist and I would appreciate any leads so that I can give credit. Thank you.)

Follow-up to “I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity.”

I began to respond to this question here. This post is the promised follow-up.

Q. Hello sir. I wish you are doing well. I have a question. I’m a Muslim and I want to understand Christianity and how the Bible works. How can I read the Bible? How do Christians believe in God? Can you suggest some books that can help me, please? Thank you sir in advance.

One thing I didn’t mention last time is that Bible Gateway allows you to read the Bible online in a large number of different languages. I’m not sure what your native language is, but on Bible Gateway, just to the left of the orange-yellow “Search” box at the top of the page, you’ll find a pull-down menu that lets you choose a Bible translation. For example, if your language is Arabic, you’ll find, second from the top in this menu, two Arabic translations, Ketab el Hayat and the Easy-to-Read Arabic Version.

Another good resource is the site maarifa.org. It offers basic Bible studies in Arabic (I’m hoping you know that language).  It has staff available for live chat for those who study the Bible from their website and have questions.

An excellent basic introduction to Christian beliefs can be found in the book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense by N.T. Wright.

But I think the best way for you to start getting answers to your questions is, as I said last time, just to begin reading the Bible (I recommend starting with the Gospel of John) and then find a knowledgeable, respectful Christian who can talk things over with you. I hope the questions and answers on this blog, Good Question, will also be useful to you.

Thanks again for your sincere interest. In one of the psalms (songs)  recorded in the book of Psalms in the Bible, the writer says to God, “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.” May this be your experience as you read and reflect on the Bible.