Suffering and the Will of God

Last week we discussed the suffering that seems to be the common element in several prayers, including the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane on the night of His arrest. We questioned whether or not suffering is part of God’s plan, God’s will.

It was evidently His plan for the Egyptians during the period in which the Israelites were held in captivity and enslavement by the Pharaohs. When the Pharaoh refused to let them go, God inflicted a series of 10 plagues on the Egyptian people:

  1. Blood
    This is what the LORD says: … With the staff that is in my hands I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood. The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink and the Egyptians will not be able to drink its water. (Exodus 7:17–18)
  2. Frogs
    This is what the great LORD says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will plague your whole country with frogs. The Nile will teem with frogs. They will come up into your palace and your bedroom and onto your bed, into the houses of your officials and on your people, and into your ovens and kneading troughs. The frogs will go up on you and your people and all your officials. Exodus 8:1–4)
  3. Lice
    “And the LORD said … Stretch out thy rod, and smite the dust of the land, that it may become lice throughout all the land of Egypt.” … When Aaron stretched out his hand with the rod and struck the dust of the ground, lice came upon men and animals. All the dust throughout the land of Egypt became lice. (Exodus 8:16–17)
  4. Flies
    The fourth plague of Egypt was of creatures capable of harming people and livestock. The Torah emphasizes that the ‘arob (עָרוֹב “mixture” or “swarm”) only came against the Egyptians and did not affect the Israelites. Pharaoh asked Moses to remove this plague and promised to grant the Israelites their freedom. However, after the plague was gone, the LORD “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”, and he refused to keep his promise. (Exodus 8:20-32)
  5. Livestock Disease
    This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go and continue to hold them back, the hand of the LORD will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field—on your horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats. (Exodus 9:1–3)
  6. Boils
    Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Take handfuls of soot from a furnace and have Moses toss it into the air in the presence of Pharaoh. It will become fine dust over the whole land of Egypt, and festering boils will break out on men and animals throughout the land.” (Exodus 9:8–9)
  7. Hail and Lightning
    This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me, or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth. For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth. You still set yourself against my people and will not let them go. Therefore, at this time tomorrow I will send the worst hailstorm that has ever fallen on Egypt, from the day it was founded till now. Give an order now to bring your livestock and everything you have in the field to a place of shelter, because the hail will fall on every man and animal that has not been brought in and is still out in the field, and they will die. […] The LORD sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground. So the LORD rained hail on the land of Egypt; hail fell and lightning flashed back and forth. It was the worst storm in all the land of Egypt since it had become a nation. (Exodus 9:13–24)
  8. Locusts
    This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, so that they may worship me. If you refuse to let them go, I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow. They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields. They will fill your houses and those of all your officials and all the Egyptians—something neither your fathers nor your forefathers have ever seen from the day they settled in this land till now. (Exodus 10:3–6)
  9. Darkness
    Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward the sky so that darkness will spread over Egypt—darkness that can be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward the sky, and total darkness covered all Egypt for three days. No one could see anyone else or leave his place for three days. (Exodus 10:21–23)
  10. Death of Firstborn
    This is what the LORD says: “About midnight I will go throughout Egypt. Every firstborn son in Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh, who sits on the throne, to the firstborn of the slave girl, who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle as well. There will be loud wailing throughout Egypt—worse than there has ever been or ever will be again.” (Exodus 11:4–6)

Pharaoh compounded his problems by only pretending to relent. He did this following the plague of blood:

But when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and did not listen to them, as the Lord had said. (Exodus 8:15)

…and the lice:

Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God.” But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had said. (Exodus 8:19)

…and the flies:

So Moses went out from Pharaoh and made supplication to the Lord.  The Lord did as Moses asked, and removed the swarms of flies from Pharaoh, from his servants and from his people; not one remained. But Pharaoh hardened his heart this time also, and he did not let the people go. (Exodus 8:30-32)

and the livestock:

Pharaoh sent, and behold, there was not even one of the livestock of Israel dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was hardened, and he did not let the people go. (Exodus 9:7)

But after the boils, there was a major shift in strategy:

The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were on the magicians as well as on all the Egyptians. And the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not listen to them, just as the Lord had spoken to Moses. (Exodus 9:11-12)

However, Pharaoh was soon back to his old ways even after the plague of hail, hardening his own heart without any help from God:

But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he sinned again and hardened his heart, he and his servants. Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he did not let the sons of Israel go, just as the Lord had spoken through Moses. (Exodus 9:34-35)

So God did it again for him after the locusts:

Then Pharaoh hurriedly called for Moses and Aaron, and he said, “I have sinned against the Lord your God and against you. Now therefore, please forgive my sin only this once, and make supplication to the Lord your God, that He would only remove this death from me.” He went out from Pharaoh and made supplication to the Lord. So the Lord shifted the wind to a very strong west wind which took up the locusts and drove them into the Red Sea; not one locust was left in all the territory of Egypt. But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the sons of Israel go. (Exodus 10:16-20)

…and again after the darkness:

But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he was not willing to let them go. Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me! Beware, do not see my face again, for in the day you see my face you shall die!” Moses said, “You are right; I shall never see your face again!” (Exodus 10:27-29)

…and one more time, after the horrendous slaughter of the firstborn:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Pharaoh will not listen to you, so that My wonders will be multiplied in the land of Egypt.” Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh; yet the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not let the sons of Israel go out of his land. (Exodus 11:9-10)

Can suffering be the will of God? Could it be the result from prayer?

Pastor Ariel: What is suffering? Jesus said that if anyone wants to come after Him, let him take up His cross. So what is the cross? Should I pray for leukemia? Or is suffering that which we experience when our selfishness and pride are wounded, when we are humiliated and have to ask for forgiveness, when we reconcile with a brother who has wronged us? In that sense, our suffering is the will of God.

Don: Gethsemane is the garden of sorrow. There is something that requires us to be awake in the garden of sorrows. We ought not to sleep during the suffering of others—we ought to witness it. Sleep is a preventive against the temptation to do bad things, so this cannot be the kind of temptation Jesus wants us to avoid. It seems that Jesus recognizes the “educational value” of witnessing suffering in others, and anticipating thereby something beneficial in the longer term. By falling asleep, the disciples missed the suffering that Jesus went through in Gethsemane and days later found themselves undergoing similar suffering as they were hunted and persecuted.

But why is prayer beneficial or even necessary in such situations?

Pastor Ariel: Prayer perhaps helps in the interpretation of what we witness, especially something that is stressful. Prayer helps mitigate our shortsighted presuppositions of the meaning of an event. We may comfort someone with the words “It was God’s will” but are we certain of it? Prayer might help us arrive at a more definite interpretation of a painful event.

Donald: I am uncomfortable with the idea that God might cause suffering. Last week this was posted in my church: “Surely Christ took up our pain and bore our suffering.” It seems to be true that we navigate through life trying to avoid suffering, but we live in a sinful world, and sin is the source of our suffering.

Pastor Ariel: My young daughter “suffers” when I tell her it’s time to get ready for bed. The rich young ruler “suffered” at Jesus’ “cruel” suggestion that he give up all his wealth. He walked away in sorrow. Perhaps there’s a difference between what God regards as suffering and what we regard as suffering.

Donald: We’d love to eat fried food all the time but we know we will suffer for it.

Jeff: These are childish things that are open to debate. A painful death, in contrast, is universally recognized as suffering. There is no debate about it. Suffering of this sort is universally linked with prayer for relief, whether or not one believes in God.

Pastor Ariel: We pray in the Lord’s Prayer for our daily bread, yet there is starvation in the world. Is it then God’s will that we have our bread daily? It is a guilty relief to know that it is human freedom, not God’s will, that causes starvation. We discard stale food from our pantries knowing that people are starving somewhere in the world. Our free will is what causes starvation, not God’s will. We pray that God gives “us”, not “me”, our daily bread. Should we only minister to the needy at Thanksgiving, or should our ministry and community service be ongoing all the time? That will not happen without the Cross in our lives, but with it, then those crying to God for relief from starvation could have their prayers answered by God through us.

Dewan: Jesus promised His followers many things, but a pain-free life on earth was not one of them, because our selfish and sinful desires can lead us down painful paths.

Jay: In our fallen condition, we need contrast to understand. We can’t know peace without pain, love without hate, light without dark, and so on. There is no contrast in heaven—no night, no predation (hence, the lion and the lamb lie down together), no pain, no fear, and so on. There is complete experience of God. Is it possible that in a fallen state we cannot experience God without contrast?

Pastor Ariel: We are already in darkness. There is starvation in Africa in part because of corruption. Jesus is the Light which we would not need if we were not already in darkness. We know evil, but we need God to show us good, and we then have the option to accept good over evil.

David: The message I get from Gethsemane is that we should not turn our back on the pain and suffering of others. Daoism too espouses acceptance rather than avoidance of the Way. As a postscript, I would add that the Daoist Way reminds me of the path walked by the traveler in the beautiful 23rd Psalm. It is a path which winds not only through green fields and beside still waters, but also through the valley of death.

Donald: Is it my responsibility prevent the suffering of others?

David: I think our responsibility is not to turn your face away from it. It sounds awful to say so, but suffering in others is spiritually enriching—it has the “educational value” Don mentioned. The disciples were offered this enrichment in Gethsemane, but would rather sleep than experience it.

Jeff: I think the answer is Yes. The conundrum is that it seems it is not God’s responsibility. His failure to alleviate suffering when He has the power to do so suggests that He does not accept responsibility.

Pastor Ariel: We all want to snap our fingers and make things happen. God does not snap fingers; He touches and changes hearts, but leaves it up to our fingers to bestow our worldly goods on the poor—or to clutch our wealth in selfish possession.

Donald: Some people find themselves continually in various binds because they have no self-control. But there is no doubt that they suffer. What is our responsibility toward such people, knowing that the more we give, the more they will demand?

Jay: We want to define suffering, the will of God, and God’s love. In our fallen state, I don’t think we can, no matter how “in tune” with the spirit we feel. Our biases lead us astray. God proved a point in Egypt: He inflicted the plagues so that His “wonder would be known.” What was that wonder? it seems to be that He was God and in control of all things, that the Israelites were His people and He would alleviate their bondage in Egypt.

But it ignored the Egyptian slave girl whose firstborn son was slaughtered.

Pastor Ariel: Some Egyptians heeded God’s message and left with the multitude in the Exodus. God revealed to them the wonder of His mercy.

Jay: One thing that is becoming clearer from the Egyptian plagues and from Gethsemane is that suffering has value. Yet we remain troubled by that.

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