Serving Christ and sharing the Gospel

Why we can believe in…a good God in a suffering world (Ps 22)

If you were here last week, you would have heard Mike Dowler speak on the subject of God and Science. If you missed it, please do listen to it on our website, because Mike gave us three great reasons to believe in God in a scientific age. He gave us three compelling reasons to be confident that our cosmos has a Creator:

  • For a start, Mike showed us that the complexity, regularity and beauty of our universe should point us to the great Mind who made it.
  • Mike also took us to the Old Testament to remind us of all the countless ways God has shown himself in history. Through amazing miracles and powerful prophecy, God has made himself known.
  • And thirdly, Mike took us to the New Testament, to show us that God has revealed himself fully in the person of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, our creator literally walked upon the world he has made. In Christ, God could be seen and heard.

The evidence of Creation, of history, and of Christ means we can be confident that God is there. But does he care? We may have a firm belief in God and consider ourselves committed Christians, but may still sometimes wonder whether he really cares for us. These doubts especially arise in the midst of suffering. Whether its due to human evil or natural events, suffering is something everyone experiences in one form or another. And when faced with things like disease, disability or depression it can be tempting to doubt God’s goodness, can’t it? When experiencing such things, even the most committed Christian can sometimes doubt whether God really cares.

Many of you will know that before moving to Gidea Park I lived in Ormskirk, Lancashire, for nearly four years. Ormskirk is a pretty quiet market town that doesn’t often make the national news. But it did briefly earlier this month. An elderly lady called Sheila Fitzgerald was trying to drive home from Ormskirk to Rainford. It’s a journey of only 6 miles that should take about a quarter of an hour to drive. But in thick fog Sheila got incredibly lost, and was eventually found by police 6 hours later, fifty miles from home, having travelled in entirely the wrong direction! Poor Sheila knew where Rainford was, but had been totally disorientated by the fog.

Suffering can have a similar effect on Christians. We can be sure that God is there, but sickness or sadness can cause us to lose our spiritual bearings. In the midst of hardship we can get disorientated and doubt God’s goodness. ‘God may be there’, we say to ourselves, ‘but does he really care?’

Our Psalm this morning describes a man well acquainted with suffering. If we look back at verses 6 and 7 we discover he is “scorned by men and despised by the people”. They “mock” him and “hurl insults” in his direction. In verses 12 and 13 he says he feels encircled by wild animals, by people who see him as their “prey”.

The Psalmist is suffering physically too. In verses 14-18 he tells us his bones are out of joint, his mouth has dried up, and his body has been pierced. Stripped of his garments and of his dignity, he feels “in the dust of death”. Worst of all, in verse 1 he says he feels “forsaken” by God – his suffering is putting his faith under great strain.

And yet his faith does survives. Despite his suffering, the psalmist continues to trust God. He remains confident that God can help and seeks strength from above. He remains convinced the God cares.

This morning I want to give us three truths to hold onto when our own faith is stretched by suffering. I want to draw three truths from the Bible that will sustain us in tough times.

  • Firstly, we can be certain that God knows what we’re going through.
  • Secondly, we can be confident that God always ready and able to help; and
  • And thirdly, in the midst of suffering, every Christian can have hope.

1. When we suffer… God knows what we’re going through

Firstly, when we suffer, God knows what we’re going through. In verse 10 of our reading today the psalmist remembers that God has known him since he was in his “mother’s womb”. He knows that nothing escapes the attention of our Maker. Nothing that goes on in our lives is unknown to God. So our heavenly Father has full knowledge of the illnesses and infirmities that Christians experience. Our Creator is not ignorant when things go wrong for us. He knows our circumstances more fully than anyone else.

Now I know a quite lot about Australia. I can pinpoint its major cities on a map. Many of my friends and family have been there. I’ve seen countless pictures of the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Harbour bridge and Ayers Rock. And as a child I watched enough episodes of Neighbours to last a lifetime! But my knowledge of Australia is all second-hand and intellectual – I’ve never actually been there and experienced it for myself. 

Thankfully God’s knowledge of suffering isn’t like my knowledge of Australia. It isn’t just intellectual, it is also experiential. God doesn’t just look on from afar and express sadness at suffering – he has experienced it personally himself. Because in the person of Jesus, God faced suffering first-hand. During his life Jesus experienced hunger and thirst, rejection and humiliation. And at its end he was killed by crucifixion – probably the most painful form of execution ever invented. When God’s Son came to save us from sin, he chose the hardest route possible, a route that took him to a Cross.

It is astonishing how the words of Psalm 22, written hundreds of years earlier, so accurately echo the suffering of Christ on Good Friday. Like the author of that Psalm, Jesus was also mocked, insulted and ridiculed that day. Jesus was also pierced, like the psalmist, when Roman soldiers hammered nails into his hands and his feet. And Jesus too had his garments taken by his executioners, who then cast lots for his clothing.

It is the unique claim of the Christian faith that God has lived among us. It’s the great truth that we will celebrate at Christmas in a month’s time. As Christians we know that God isn’t a distant deity, aloof from the suffering of his people. Because in Jesus he has had first-hand, personal experience of pain and suffering. Christ can empathise with us in every way.

The New Testament book of Hebrews puts it this way: “we do not have a high priest who is unable to feel sympathy for our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet did not sin.” Christ cares when his people suffer, because he’s been through it himself.

2. When we suffer…God gives us help

On Wednesday this week we learnt of the sad passing of Jonah Lomu, the great New Zealand rugby player. Many of us will remember watching him in his prime about 20 years ago. An immensely strong, fast and powerful player, he almost single-handedly carried the All Black team to many victories in the late 1990s. If you had Lomu on your team, you could cope with almost anything the opposition could throw at you – you knew the most powerful player on the field was on your side.

As Christians, we can cope with anything that life throws at us, because we have the most powerful person in the universe on our side – we have a relationship with God himself. The author of Psalm 22 certainly believed this, because in verse 19 of our Psalm this morning he says: “O my Strength, come quickly to help me”. He has great confidence that the Lord can give him the strength he needs to endure his suffering. He has great faith that God can help him through the trials he is facing.

Thankfully, every Christian can have the same confidence today. God still provides ways to help his people persevere through hardship. He can still give us what we need to endure suffering.

And one obvious way we access God’s assistance is through prayer. When we pray we invite God’s Spirit to get to work in our lives. God’s Spirit can provide the courage, strength and perseverance we need in the face of suffering. Psalm 22 today is actually one great example of such a prayer – a prayer that God will strengthen and sustain a suffering believer. And its a type of prayer that God loves to answer – listen to this promise from Philippians chapter 4: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”.

 Jonah Lomu was no doubt an inspiring example to the rest of the New Zealand rugby team. If you were an All Black player at the same time as Lomu, his strength and determination must have encouraged you to do your best, to give your all against the opposing team.

As Christians we have an even more inspiring example than Jonah Lomu was to his New Zealand teammates. Whenever we face trial and tribulation we have the example of Jesus to inspire us. We can look to Christ as a model of courage, perseverance and determination in the face of suffering. Listen to these words from Hebrews chapter 12: “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

As well as Jonah Lomu’s sad passing, the other big sporting news story this week was the England-France football friendly at Wembley. In an act of solidarity following the events in Paris last Friday, the English players and supporters joined with the French team to sing their national anthem, La Marseillaise together. It was a sign to the French people that they are not alone. It was a sign that our nation stands with theirs in their hour of need.

In a similar way, God wants his people to stand shoulder to shoulder with each other when we suffer. One of the reasons why Christ created his Church is for mutual support and compassionate care. That’s why the Bible tells Christians to “carry one another’s burdens” and to “encourage one another” – as a congregation I hope we are willing to provide practical, emotional and spiritual support to one another when times are tough. We are all part of God’s plan to help those who suffer.

3. When we suffer…God gives us hope

Our psalm this morning raised the question “God is there, but does he care?” As we’ve reflected on the sufferings of Christ and considered the help he offers to Christians today, I hope we are persuaded that, yes, God does care. But if God cares so much about the suffering in the world, why doesn’t he just stop it? Why doesn’t he just intervene – publicly and powerfully – to end it once and for all? Well one day he will. Because the Bible is clear that God will one day judge evil, raise the dead and renew our fallen world. When Christ returns all things will be made new. One day God’s kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.

I know several of us here today are eagerly awaiting the release of the new Star Wars movie next month. Over the past year its makers have been releasing short clips from the film to whet our appetite and increase our anticipation and excitement. These “teaser trailers” as they are known, give a quick glimpse of what the movie will be like. If you piece them together you get a good impression of what the whole film will include – its basic plot, its key characters, its most dramatic scenes. These teaser trailers give us a reminder of why its is worth waiting for!

As we look at the life of Jesus in the Gospels we are given a wonderful “teaser trailer” of what God’s future kingdom will be like. What Jesus did once on a local scale, he will one day do on a cosmic scale. When Jesus healed the sick, gave sight to the blind and calmed a storm, he was showing what he will one day do globally. And his glorious resurrection from the dead was a prototype of what every Christian can look forward to. As the apostle Paul says: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.”

It will be a wonderful day. And if we want it to come sooner, there are two things we can do. Firstly, we need to make sure we’ve personally come to Christ. The New Testament is quite clear that only those who have come to Jesus in repentance and faith will share in his coming kingdom. You can’t be a citizen of Christ’s kingdom if you reject its king. And secondly, we need to tell other people about Jesus. Because the reason God hasn’t yet wrapped up this present world is that he is being patient. He is patiently waiting for people to come to Jesus to receive the forgiveness and friendship with God they so desperately need. We need to tell people to make Jesus their king so they are ready to receive his kingdom. A kingdom where sin and suffering will be no more.