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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see” (Acts 3:16).
The Bible’s accounts of the signs and wonders that accompany the growth of the early church are inspiring.
They’re also exasperating. If God really exists, and if he heals the sick, why doesn’t he do this all time?
Why are there intensive care units? Why is there a special row of graves for young children in my small town’s cemetery? If God performs miracles, why do some of the most wonderful people we know linger for years as their bodies are gradually claimed by cancer or ALS or any number of other merciless diseases?
More than anything else we want to know: Why doesn’t God tell us why?
Author and journalist Philip Yancey wrote Where is God When it Hurts? – his bestseller on the problem of pain – when he was 27 years old. When he was well into his 60s, he wrote a sequel. It’s called The Question that Never Goes Away. That title says it all. Yancey admits that the answers he hears most often from Christians only seem to make things worse.
Why are you suffering?
God is punishing you.
No, it’s Satan!
Neither: God has afflicted you out of love, not punishment, for you’ve been specially selected to demonstrate faith.
No, God wants you healed!
In his book Hating God, Bernard Schweizer, a professor of English at Long Island University in Brooklyn, describes “misotheists” – people who admit that God exists, but who refuse to worship him. God may be there, but he’s doing a lousy job of running the universe. Therefore they despise him.
Scripture, amazingly, never seems to come to God’s rescue.
Job, the central character in the Bible’s most extended discussion of suffering, never learns why his life is falling apart – even when he has a private audience with God in the closing chapters. We never learn the “why” of pain in Ecclesiastes, the Old Testament’s tortured reflections on the apparent meaninglessness of life. Paul, the New Testament’s preeminent theologian, never gets around to answering the question that never goes away. Nor does Jesus. Even though he exudes God’s healing power like no one else – restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, mobility to the lame, and restoration of life to at least three people who have died – he never tells us why such gifts aren’t given to everyone.
Instead of tackling the Why of suffering and the Why Not of universal healing, the Bible’s authors tend to direct us to the What Next.
Our call is to weep with those who weep. To come alongside those who are hungry, in prison, and mistreated. To intercede for the widow and the orphan. To care for the sick and the dying.
That’s not to say we don’t find powerful hints about the meaning of supernatural interventions on the pages of Scripture.
“Signs and wonders” tend to happen at four critical junctures in Bible history. The first accompanies God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt. Then come the ministries of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, when spiritual unfaithfulness threatens Israel’s very future. Next we see healings and miracles associated with the life of Jesus, culminating in his resurrection. Finally, there are the dramatic events that fuel the rapid growth of the first century church, which is exemplified by Acts 3:16. When God is doing something new, in other words, he is – at least for a while – spectacularly visible.
Missionaries have long noticed that supernatural events tend to cluster around the opening of new mission fields. One source suggests that as many as 90% of the conversions to Christianity in China within the past 50 years (which comprise what may be the greatest evangelistic explosion in church history) have been influenced by a healing or a miracle.
But what about the fact that that so many of the people for whom we fast and pray don’t seem to receive the healing they seek? If God can sweep all their suffering away, why doesn’t he do so?
Despite the confident claims of certain preachers, there is no biblical teaching that God is obligated to eradicate all our pain in this world.
But we do receive God’s assurances that all our pain will be redeemed.
Author and professor Douglas Groothuis (pronounced GROTE-hice) distinguishes between meaningless suffering and inscrutable suffering. Meaningless suffering has no point. When Cambridge biologist Richard Dawkins, one of the so-called New Atheists, says that the meaning of life is that “some people get lucky and some people don’t,” he’s describing suffering that has neither purpose nor explanation. Inscrutable suffering, on the other hand, is pain that we simply don’t understand. At least not yet.
Yancey declares, “We have only the stubborn hope – so different from naïve optimism – that the story of Jesus, which includes both death and resurrection, gives a bright clue to what God will do for the entire planet.” He adds, “Faith, I’ve concluded, means believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse.”
Groothuis knows deep pain from personal experience. His wife, Becky, has suffered for years from a degenerative neurological disease called aphasia – the same condition currently afflicting actor Bruce Willis. Doug was once asked, if he were God, whether he would immediately heal Becky. Here’s his answer:
“That’s fallacious thinking. God is perfect, and he acts accordingly. If I were God, I’d be perfect – and therefore I’d act in the very same way he does. We might not understand why he does what he does, but it’s folly to think we’d do things better.”
Ultimately, we have to make peace with the fact that we don’t always hear the Why we so desperately want to hear.
But we do hear something else. We hear God’s own Son crying out on the cross, “Why, why, why? My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
No other religion or philosophy offers anything like this. God doesn’t just notice our pain. Or acknowledge our pain. God shares our pain. God understands why we ask why – because Jesus himself asked why. Yancey points out that God has chosen, for whatever reason, to respond to suffering and evil not by waving a magic wand and making it disappear, but by absorbing it in into his own person. On this cursed planet, even God has suffered the loss of a child.
Dame Cicely Saunders, the founder of the modern hospice movement, adds, “God does not prevent the hard things that happen in this free and dangerous world, but instead shares them with us all.”
That means, in the end, the questions that swirl around Acts 3:16 can only really be addressed by the verse that launched our whole series – John 3:16, which we’ll consider at last on Good Friday.
In his book The Case for Miracles, which we cited yesterday, Lee Strobel asks Doug Groothuis what he would say if a student ran into him on campus and said, “Hey, Professor Groothuis, how are you doing?”
“Well, of course I’d tell them the truth,” he replied.
“I’m hanging by a thread. But fortunately, the thread is knit by God.”
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