Recent days have given us too many sad images of suffering under the hand of ruthless dictators and under the weight of natural disasters. Predictably we are left with many questions. The question that makes it to the surface most often is, “Where was God when all this went down?” or “Why would a loving God allow this to take place?”
Jesus actually spoke to suffering brought about by ruthless dictators and natural disasters. Luke writes about a time when, “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1).
Clearly he is speaking of needless and unjust suffering (murder!) brought about by a despicable ruler.
Jesus’ answer? “And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (vv.2-3).
But don’t get hung up there, just yet. Jesus went on to raise the matter of suffering in what might have been a natural disaster: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them …” (v.4a)
We have no word about just why the tower fell. Was it from an earthquake or tremor? Was it from faulty building materials? Was it from human error in the construction process? Was it something else? Was it simply what insurance companies would today call “an act of God”? We don’t know the cause. We do know the outcome—18 people died.
In the face of it, Jesus went on to ask, “… do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (vv.4b-5).
Again, the “Huh!?!” rises to the surface pretty quickly.
There is much to ponder here. But perhaps it tells us this much: The great wonder is not that bad things happen to “good people,” but that anything good happens to all us rebellious people.
Jesus teaches us that our natural starting point and orientation to life is inverted. We simply don’t naturally think about the events of life in a way that accords with reality. Naturally, we take as our starting point our own lives (or those of people we deem to be very much like us). We are oriented toward life from a human perspective. We’ve written God out of the script, except as a supporting actor—existing only for the advancement and blessing of us who are cast in the starring role. God is teaching us that the starting point for thinking in line with reality is Himself. God is the Star standing in at center stage upon whom the spotlight is to be fixed. We are cast in the supporting role, living and moving and having our being to honor Him and facilitate His Story as it unfolds in history. But, the Bible teaches us, we all (by inherited sinful nature and by chosen sinful acts/thoughts/words/attitudes/motives) have rebelled and demanded to the star of the show!
Jesus’ response is not uncaring. In fact He does not weigh in about the plight of the sufferers at all. He simply turns to the living and insists that we draw no conclusions about the wickedness of the dead, but rather to ask questions about the undeserved mercy we as the living have received … and to question how long that can continue if we persist in demanding God perform up to our expectations.
Ah, but you see, this exposes the very point Jesus’ is making, doesn’t it? We don’t see ourselves (or almost anyone else) as sinful and in rebellion against God. So we frame our questions incorrectly from the start: “Why do good people have to suffer like this?”
The real question, Jesus demands, is not: Why do some good people suffer? It is rather:
- Why did this temporal disaster not befall me?
- Why do some sinful people (like me) continue to find mercy?
- And how long will this last?
- And will they (I) avoid the final judgment coming upon all who persist in their rebellion and sin by turning in repentance to God through Jesus Christ?