Ian, Why does God allow suffering?

I was recently given this question in an "Ask the leaders anything" session at a youth event, and thought my answer worth sharing here. As always, this is just my thoughts and understanding in life so far.

Part 1: Pain is Painful

I want to begin by saying that it isn't possible for me to give you an answer that will suddenly make whatever suffering you are going through bearable. Words and understanding won't change the fact that pain is painful. So check yourself; you may be appearing to ask for an explanation, but maybe you are actually demanding a solution. If so, you will be disappointed by any explanation given, and you were asking the wrong question.

If you are reading this because you want to find an answer for someone who has asked you about God allowing suffering, pay attention to whether they are asking because of their head or their heart. Are they asking because they are searching for truth, and are interested discussing philosophy? Or, (more likely,) are they asking because some suffering in their past or present is making them emotionally angry at your belief in a perfect, loving God. One requires facts and references, the other needs emotional help, and the biggest mistake you can make is to get them the wrong way around.

Part 2: The Big Picture, or People and Nature

The cause of a lot of suffering in this world is free will. God wanted to create beings that could freely choose to love Him, so He gave humans free will. Unfortunately that same ability allows others to make choices that can cause you pain, either on purpose or by accident. That risk has to be a part of having free will, because if God intervened in all of our bad choices then it wouldn't be free will at all.

But some suffering, such as earthquakes and floods, is not caused by human free will. In these cases, the cause is that the current world is "fallen", broken compared to what God originally intended. This again was technically caused by (Adam's) human free will, but such a long time ago that it doesn't really compare.

So in the grand scheme of things, why would God allow suffering to exist in the world?  Because his highest priority is not our comfort. A great summary of the book of Job I heard recently was "We live in an amazing, beautiful, complicated world that is designed to show us how awesome God is, but it is not designed to prevent suffering."

Part 3: But what about Me and my Darkness?

Everything so far has been about the general, all-over-the-world scale of suffering that happens. I have given some answers to that. But if you want to ask me why your particular problem is happening, then I'm afraid I don't know. Even if you tell me all the details, and I think of all the possibilities, I still can't ever really know why an individual thing has happened. God knows, and my daily faith includes deciding to trust His plans. But it's not all just plans, God has something important He does in these situations...

I heard a story once of a man who wanted to show God's love to his community by helping them in basic, practical ways. A poor woman said to him "Give me money, I don't have any to pay my electricity bills," but being quite poor himself at the time, he said "I'm sorry, but I can't give you any money." He saw that this response angered her and she was about to respond, but he felt God's spirit prompt him to quickly add "...but I will come and sit in the dark with you after they've turned your lights off." It wasn't the answer she was expecting, but it also achieved something she hadn't hoped for.

God isn't detached from our pain. He experienced pain Himself when Jesus came down to earth in human flesh, and today He is with us through the Holy Spirit. In this period of time when the world is still broken and people are selfish, God won't wave a magic wand to make you comfortable, but He will be with you, He wants to be beside you, even in the darkness.

Not Saying Amen

I was trying to do some morning devotions the other week. Just setting my alarm a little bit earlier, so that I could get out of bed earlier in the morning and spend some time reading the Bible and praying to God as a positive start to my day.

I'm not a 'morning person' so it was a bit difficult, but I managed it for several days. But I realised that it wasn't helpful for me to end my prayers with the word "Amen" when I did this.

This was because I was struggling to stay focused on the task (due to still being quite sleepy) and saying "Amen" when I finished praying was starting to feel like I was finished with the 'talking to God time' in my day and moving on to everything else.

This was obviously not the right way to think of life. God is with me all the time, and I generally aim to pray as soon as I feel like I have something to pray about. Jesus made it clear that we don't need special places or times to talk to Him.

But while the word "Amen" is a useful indicator for finishing a prayer when you are praying with a group of people, it turned out to be unhelpful when I prayed in private. It was like me saying "Goodbye!" to somebody I wasn't actually leaving. So I stopped using it.

Is Happiness the Meaning of Life?

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Agnostics are people who are generally undecided on what they believe in. Or at least, they are people who would not say they have committed themselves to one of the major world beliefs. In western culture this indecision seems to result in them inventing their own belief system, but in a vague kind of way.

One of the most common things I hear agnostics say or imply, if they are ever talking about belief, is that life is all about happiness. This may be dressed in phrases like "follow your heart" or "be true to yourself". The core thing that decisions come down to, says this belief, is that I should be happy.

Unfortunately, there are issues with this belief.

Swearing

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I wouldn't claim to have the cleanest sense of humour, but I do have cleaner-than-average language. I try to avoid swearing whenever possible, and generally succeed. The reason for this when I was a child used to be simply "because I am a Christian" but this isn't actually a very clear reason so as an adult I eventually had a think about my choices with the language I use.

When I gave it some thought, I realised that the question of "Is it OK to swear?" isn't going to have a single answer because there are two different types of swearing, and I need to answer this question for each of them separately.


Bad Christian Jokes

Sometimes it's fun to laugh at how bad something is, including jokes. So I have created the following list of jokes, which are common jokes given a rubbish twist by some imaginary Christian with no sense of humour...

Why did the chicken cross the road?
To convert the unbeliever on the other side.

What is black and white and rolls down a hill?
A zebra that God smited because it was proud of being on top of the hill.

Doctor, doctor, I feel like a pair of curtains!
I worry about the state of your soul.

An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. The Englishman points out that three men going into one place bears some resemblance of the Holy Trinity, but the Scotsman warns that such a metaphor would be heretical, and the Irishman prays for the Englishman's soul.


Christianity and Homosexuality

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Christianity and Homosexuality is a big topic.

This post, more so than many of my others, is for the benefit of myself; I am attempting to organise and summarise my own thoughts on the issue so far. I do not intend or expect that I will bring anything new to the debate.

I am heterosexual, but I have known friends and colleagues who are gay. If you are a Christian living in this culture you are going to be questioned about your views on this eventually. It is a question of when, not if, that question will arrive. So it is worth calmly thinking about it beforehand.

The Vanity in My Novelty

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Each of us has many different characteristics, opinions, hobbies and interests. Stereotypes, or sometimes weaker but still present links, are formed in all of our minds about which of these naturally link together. For example, we aren't surprised when someone with a quiet personality turns out to be an avid reader, or when someone tall and muscular turns out to be a regular sports player.

But I have spotted myself trying to avoid falling into such predictable categories and groups. I think that this is due to some fear of being predictable. As a teenager I considered the adjective "predictable" as the worst one that could ever be applied to me; I was determined to be spontaneous, mysterious, or interesting to everyone I met.

Short Story: The Husband Who Drank The Sea

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Once upon a time on these islands there was a man who loved his wife. Just like today, these islands were small, but there was one main island that the man and his wife lived on.

But one day the wife got lost and found herself on a seperate island. She did not know how she came to be on that other island, so she did not know how to get back to her husband, and in her heart she missed him.

Now you may think that she could have decided to swim back to the main island. Or you may think that if she was strong she could have cut down trees and built a boat. But she could not do either of those things, because in that age the sea was not made only of water but also of fire.

The sea had always burned with bright orange flames that would burn any boat foolish enough to set sail on it. The water was cool and smooth underneath but bright and hot on the surface. The fire kept all of the islands apart.

Despite the fire and distance, the husband could see his wife on the other island, for he was a strong man. He knew what he would do because he loved his wife.

The husband went  down to the beach of the main island. Then he waded into the sea until the water was up to his neck. The flames were burning all around his head.

Then he put his mouth in the water and began to drink the flames that were on top of the sea. He drank and he drank, and his throat became so hot but the flames from all of the sea began to shrink.

Eventually there was only a small amount of sea flame left. The strong man drank this last part of the flame, and then he died with the fire in his belly.

The sea was now cool and blue like it is today, so that the woman was free to swim back to the main island. But she was not sure if she wanted to swim back to the main island because she had seen her husband die in the water and had mourned him.

But the strong man had both died and not really died. He appeared again, full of life, at the center of the main island. He was whole and healthy, but his lips were now as red as fire.

The woman saw her husband alive on the shore of the main island and was full of joy. She went into the sea and swam back to him, and thanked him for drinking the fire for her sake, and their love was strong.

Now, think of this; if I told you that you are the woman in this story, do you know who the man is?