When God Sheds Tears

"Show that it is not God who causes pain and suffering." -- Ellen G. White.1

Alicia was about a month away from her 16th birthday when Mom and Dad noticed a few lumps on her neck. "Are you feeling OK, Alicia?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"What are those lumps?"

"I don't know."

The doctor didn't know either. He ordered some tests.

Alicia's affliction was lymphoma, a serious illness. As I write, Alicia is suffering terribly from her chemotherapy. Just four weeks ago she felt fine, but her treatment has almost killed her. The physicians hope that it is killing her cancer cells.

Why does Alicia suffer so? Why do innocent people suffer? Most of us could accept it if suffering came only upon evildoers, but good people suffer. Why?

Boethius wrote On the Consolation of Philosophy, a book that influenced some of the most profound thinkers of the Middle Ages. In it he said something like this: "If God is, then why is there evil?" (See John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, rev. ed., p. 11, footnote 1.)

It's God's will

Should Alicia and her parents listen to those who suggest that her lymphoma is God's will? By attributing her life-threatening disease to God's will, they are indicating that God wants her ill. To say "God wills it" is simply another way of saying "God wants it."

According to Hebrews 10:7, Jesus spoke of the purpose of His incarnation as: "'I have come to do your will, O God.'"* Jesus came to do what God willed--or wanted.

And what did Jesus do? Did He inflict leprosy on someone? No, He healed the lepers. Did He strike a person with blindness? No, on several occasions He opened the eyes of the blind. Did He make people go deaf? No, He healed the deaf.

One Sabbath Jesus encountered a crippled woman at the synagogue. For 18 years this woman had been stooped over. Jesus stopped in the middle of His sermon and looked at her with pity and asked: "'Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free?'" (Luke 13:16).

Did you notice whom Jesus blamed for the woman's condition? Satan had crippled her for 18 years. But Jesus came to show us what God wants. And He healed the woman.

Certainly we can assure Alicia and her parents that God is the source of every good gift, but He is definitely not the source of bad things. How can we ever come to detest the mess we find on our planet if we keep projecting the cause of it all onto God?

Those whom God loves, He chastens

Well-meaning Christians have told people like Alicia, "You must be very special to God. God doesn't waste His efforts on useless material. God wants to perfect you. When your heavenly Father has completed His work, you'll be like gold tried in the fire."

Elihu, a friend of Job, said pretty much the same thing. God, according to Elihu, sends suffering not as a punishment (as Job's other friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar had insisted) but as discipline (see Job 33:15-22, 29, 30).

What about it?

Alicia's parents have noticed imperfections in her, and like all good mothers and fathers they've disciplined her so that she will grow up to be an honor to the family name and a benefit to society.

Is that what God is doing to Alicia now?

Suppose just for a moment that Alicia's lymphoma has come to perfect her soul. Is this an apt cause for the desired effect? Ellen White once wrote: "The body must be kept in a healthy condition in order that the soul may be in health."2

That being the case, how can Alicia's lymphoma cause perfection of her soul? A sickly body is not the way to sanctification.

If Alicia's lymphoma has come as divine discipline, why should she undergo chemotherapy in an attempt to cure it? Far be it for Alicia's parents to counter God's loving chastisement in the life of His child! They must not work at cross purposes with God. Indeed, if disaster, disease, and death come to perfect us, every earnest Christian, instead of relieving the pain, should help out God in His work of perfection by causing pain whenever and wherever they can!

Will Alicia come to love more deeply this kind of God?

It does sound, however, like the kind of God Satan would want us to believe exists. After all, what better way to distort our concept of God than to portray Him as an abusive parent!

Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) posed these queries: "God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable; or He is able, and is unwilling; or He is unable, He is feeble" (On the Anger of God, chapter 13, The Writings of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, translated by William Fletcher, vol. vii, 1951).

Caught in the grand experiment

So far, Alicia's suffering from her chemotherapy has eclipsed any suffering caused by the lymphoma itself. Nonetheless, her pain and suffering are terribly real--so real that lately they've had to keep her sedated.

It all seems so senseless, so absurd. But in the face of this insanity, defenders of God have proposed the metaphor of a cosmic experiment between good and evil as a means of making sense of what on the face of it seems terribly pointless.

Alicia knows that God didn't create evil; He created only that which was good. Lucifer (also known as the devil and Satan in his post-rebellious state) invented evil. And she understands that according to the concept of the great cosmic conflict, God could have destroyed Lucifer at the first sign of disaffection, but then the universe would have served God from fear--not love. So He has allowed Lucifer to embark on a grand experiment of evil.

Alicia believes that when the entire universe and all the world have become convinced that God is right and that Satan is wrong, then God will call a halt to the experiment. Meanwhile she and billions of others eke out a tortured existence on this globe--like so many white rats in a science lab.

What's happening inside this laboratory of evil is not pleasant, but it all contributes to some greater good.

Yes, she recognizes all this, but can you imagine how all this must sound to Alicia now? Probably something like this: God has set out to prove something--Himself. Satan has said that God is selfish, that God is arbitrary, that God is demanding, that God is not truly good. So God is giving Satan the opportunity to make his case.

And Satan's true nature is showing. We see it in the disasters, the diseases, and the deaths around us.

Clearly, the great controversy theme has tremendous explanatory power. Of all the explanations for the existence of suffering, it is probably the most effective. But we must not let it make us complacent.

If we accept the great controversy theme as one of the better explanations for the evil that has infected our planet, we must not slough off Alicia's suffering as something that is acceptable because it is supporting a good cause--the vindication of God's character.

Besides, how much suffering does it take to prove to the intelligent and unfallen beings of the universe that God is right and Satan is wrong?

And doesn't it seem rather self-serving of God to let all the atrocities of this world be perpetrated on billions of His creatures for thousands of years just to make the point that He is right and Satan is wrong? What kind of God would allow what has gone on for the past 24 hours--let alone for the past 6,000 years--simply to demonstrate that He--not someone else--is right?

When we resort to the great controversy imagery to vindicate God in the face of diseases such as Alicia has, we simply cannot pass off this suffering with a few glib figures of speech. If we do, we're dabbling in diabolical methods, doing the devil's work.

"It is better . . . to remain without an answer than to accept an inadequate one" (Arthur J. Bachrach, Psychological Research: An introduction, p. 17).

Et cetera

Other possible explanations are also commonly proffered to sufferers. And like the few we have briefly explored, they too have serious flaws, especially when applied to individual cases. The existence of disease, disaster, and death remains an absurdity. In the face of such flawed responses, maybe no solution is better.

So, what is the bottom line about evil?

We have explored some of the explanations that have been offered for evil's dastardly presence. Each has its merits, but each is also seriously flawed.

How can we avoid doing the work of Satan when we attempt to defend God in the face of disaster, disease, and death?

First, when we explain the purpose of suffering and God's relationship to it, we must remain sensitive to the enigma of evil. When we spin theories of why people suffer, the very process itself tends to encourage apathy on the part of those doing the theorizing. Defenses of God that try to deal with the existence of evil must never be allowed to desensitize our moral sensibilities. Evil, whenever it erupts, must outrage us. Suffering, wherever it strikes, must elicit our most tender emotions.

Second, in order to maintain our moral sensitivities while defending God and His relationship to evil, we must constantly do two things. One, we must ever empathize with those in pain. We must try to put ourselves in their place. We must hurt with them. It is not always easy to project ourselves into someone else's situation, but if we do not attempt to do so, callousness sets in. And sooner or later callousness evolves into coldness, and given enough time coldness, evolves into cruelty.

Two, we must ever critique our theories. We must not become so enamored of our theoretical theodicies that we lose sight of their inherent weaknesses.

Third, we must remember that God does not need our puny attempts to defend Him. Christians frequently remind themselves that God does not need their money--even though these same people insist on the importance of faithful stewardship. Similarly, we need to recognize that God does not need human beings to rationalize His relationship to the universe.

Fourth, we need to recognize that the existence of suffering is as inexplicable as the existence of sin. Most Christians believe that disaster, disease, and death somehow naturally follow on the heels of sin. It is not easy to detect a direct cause-and-effect relationship between eating a single piece of fruit in Eden and the baleful events that daily mar existence on our blue planet. But if there is a connection--as our tradition avers--then the answer to the question Why sin? ought to shed some light on the question Why suffering?

The problem is that sin has no logical explanation. It just does not make much sense. That's why Scripture calls it a mystery--the mystery of iniquity

(2 Thessalonians 2:7). "Sin is an intruder, for whose presence no reason can be given....Could excuse for it be found, or cause be shown for its existence, it would cease to be sin."3 Truly the physical evil around us is as bizarre as the moral evil that has devastated our planet. Like it or not, our planet has become a theater of the absurd. If we are genuinely honest with ourselves, others, and Scripture, we must admit that our explanations lack conviction and persuasiveness. Evil is an enigma that defies explication.

Goethe once said, "If I were God, this world of suffering would break my heart" (cited by JonTal Murphree, A Loving God and a Suffering World, p. 85).

When God sheds tears

Alicia is still in the hospital. Her fever still rages. Her infection still runs rampant. The chemotherapy still keeps her teetering on the edge of life itself.

But what about the God of the Bible? Where is He at this time of tragic suffering? What is He doing?

We can take a clue from the experience of Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus died. Where was Jesus? We find Him standing by Lazarus' tomb. And "Jesus wept" (John 11:35).

By the door of Lazarus' tomb, God (in Jesus) joined Mary, Martha, their neighbors, their friends and acquaintances in shedding tears.

And we find the same situation in the Old Testament. "The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain" (Genesis 6:6).

Isaiah records that "in all their affliction he was afflicted" (Isaiah 63:9, KJV) I like the NIV rendition: "In all their distress he too was distressed."

Jeremiah recorded the same response on God's part: "Therefore I wail over Moab, for all Moab I cry out, I moan for the men of Kir Hareseth. I weep for you, as Jazer weeps" (Jeremiah 48:31, 32).

Not only does our plight move God, but also we are encouraged to cast "all your care upon him; for he careth for you" (1 Peter 5:7, KJV). And Paul is emphatic, "I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:38, 39).

Alicia's illness does not imply that God has abandoned her. In her pain she need not worry about God being disaffected. "Often your mind may be clouded because of pain. Then do not try to think.... Jesus loves you. He understands your weakness. You may do His will by simply resting in His arms."4

As Alicia suffers, God Himself sheds tears.

That's comforting, but is that all God does? Is He a compassionate but impotent God who wrings His hands in frustration while He weeps in sympathy? No.

Let's return to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. "'Take away the stone,'" Jesus said (John 11:39). Then after a short prayer, Jesus, who is God incarnate, commanded: "'Lazarus, come out!'" (verse 43).

And "the dead man came out" (verse 44).

God did more than shed tears. He beat back death.

John Bowker, Lecturer in Divinity in the University of Cambridge, noted: "The sense that no suffering can separate the Christian from Christ (because his own suffering did not separate him from God) is extremely strong in the New Testament" (Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World, pp. 73, 74).

Our afflictions move God, move Him emotionally but also move Him to show His intent. We may not always see the evidence of His power today as we face disaster, disease, and death. We may, instead, merely sense His tears. Nonetheless, the New Testament makes God's purposes clear. Ultimately God will make everything new (Revelation 21:5).

One day "'he will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away'" (verse 4).

And as God blots the tears from our eyes, I rather imagine He'll dab at His own eyes, too, one more time. Then the God who sheds tears will throw away His divine hanky forevermore.

Richard W. Coffen is a book editor at the Review and Herald Publishing Association, Hagerstown, Maryland. He is the author of many articles and books, including When God Sheds Tears (Review and Herald, 1994), from which this article is excerpted.

*Unless otherwise stated, all Scripture passages are from the New International Version, with italics supplied by the author.

Notes and References

  1. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, p. 280.
  2. White, Evangelism (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1946), p. 261.
  3. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1950), p. 493.
  4. White, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1942), p. 251.