At Gateway Church in Austin, we continued our series called Why Is Life So Difficult?
In a society that has reduced many of life’s hardships through modern medicine, social justice, technology, and democracy, we’ve become more sensitive to the suffering we can’t escape. We find ourselves crushed by it, sometimes because of trivial things and other times because of true tragedy. If God offers us resilience, joy, and redemption by trusting Him, are we willing to take those steps of faith?
Work through the following questions and Scriptures on your own, and get together with your running partner, life group, or friends and family to talk through what you are learning.
Message Notes from John Burke:
Today we’re talking about how suffering defeats evil.
Too often we blame God for evil and suffering.
- God is with us in our suffering (when we invite him in).
- At the same time, we can trust that God is bigger than our suffering and can bring good out of our suffering in this life and remember there is way more beyond this life.
- Too often we get stuck in our pain and suffering asking “Why?”
- But in this life, we don’t often get a direct answer to that question, but an even more important question is “How?”
- “How can I take more from this suffering than it takes from me?”
- We can get answers to help us grow through and overcome the worst of Evil Suffering.
God is bigger than the pain, suffering, and evil we face, and He can help us develop a faith bigger than our circumstances.
We can also trust that if God allows suffering, it is only for a time and for a bigger purpose—a bigger story that ends well for all who love God because God is defeating evil.
In the Gulag
Boris Kornfeld was a well-educated, Jewish Doctor living in Russia during the time of Stalin—an evil dictator who many think rivaled Hitler in the number of murders of his own citizens.
At first, Kornfeld saw communism as the path of historical necessity.
As a Jew living in “Christian Russia” which had persecuted the Jews by the Czars orders, Atheistic communism offered hope.
We don’t know exactly what political wrong Kornfeld did, but it got him in a heap of trouble. In Stalin’s Russia, suggesting Stalin was fallible was enough to warrant death. All we know is that Kornfeld committed some bogus political crime that landed him in the Gulag – a Russian Concentration Camp.
There behind barbed wire, Kornfeld was cured of communism: the senseless brutality, the waste of lives, the trivialities of the criminal charges made Kornfeld doubt the glories of the system. It was there that Kornfeld came in contact with a devoted Christ-follower. A well-educated, kind prisoner who spoke of the promises God made to the Jewish people of a Messiah, a Savior. One who would deliver all people from the grips of evil that hold our spirits in prison.
As a Russian Jew, Kornfeld hated Christians. After all, centuries of Jewish persecution in Russia had come at the hands of people who claimed to be Orthodox Christians (though their actions betrayed them). Yet this prisoner seemed different—kind, loving, compassionate, smart. As they labored together, Kornfeld would overhear this man saying the Lord’s Prayer over and over, “your will be done on earth as in Heaven, forgive us our sins and we forgive those who sin against us”, and he would hear him talk of the sufferings of Jesus and how Jesus responded to suffering.
Kornfeld’s resistance to God began to weaken during a surgery he performed.
- He was working on one of the Russian guards he had come to hate.
- The man had been knifed and an artery cut.
- While suturing the blood vessel, the doctor thought of tying the thread in such a way that it would reopen shortly after surgery. The guard would die quickly and no one would ever know.
- The process of taking this particular form of vengeance gave reign to the burning hatred Kornfeld had for the guard and all like him. How he despised his persecutors! He would gladly slaughter them all.
- Then Suddenly, Boris Kornfeld became appalled by the hatred and violence he saw in his own heart. Yes, he was a victim of hatred and evil as his ancestors had been. But that hatred had spawned an insatiable evil hatred of his own. What a deadly predicament! He was trapped by the very evil he despised! What freedom could he ever know with his soul imprisoned by this murderous hate? It made the whole world a concentration camp.
As Kornfeld began to retie the sutures properly, he found himself almost unconsciously repeating the words of Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done…Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” And as he saw the evil all around him in his own heart, he had to pray for cleansing. He prayed to one who had suffered as he had: He prayed to Jesus.
Kornfeld began to experience a new freedom in the months following.
- He stopped signing medical papers that falsely reported a prisoner could withstand being sent to a torture cell.
- While making his rounds, he came upon a patient dying from Pellagara – a perverse form of diarrhea that caused victims to starve to death, when all it took was a strict diet of chalk, white bread and herring to cure them.
- The man was beyond hope – his face a dark, deep bruise. As he walked away with that image burned in his conscience, he came upon a hulking orderly bent over the patient’s loaf of bread and herring. The orderly looked up shamelessly with cheeks stuffed full.
- Kornfeld knew about the stealing, and that it was the reason his patients didn’t recover, but to report an orderly was like signing your own death certificate. Orderlies were prisoners who were traitors – informants to the guards, given special privileges.
- It was ridiculous to stand on principle, but Kornfeld felt compelled to fight this evil. His new beliefs were making a difference. He reported the orderly, and the orderly was locked up.
Though Kornfeld was not a brave man, paradoxically, after this he felt a new freedom to live.
He no longer turned his eyes from cruelty or shrugged his shoulders at injustice. He said what he wanted and did what he could.
He soon realized that the anger and hatred and violence in his own soul had vanished – he was free!
Kornfeld wanted to tell someone of this new freedom bursting out of him. He began to with a patient who had just been operated on–a young man whose face reflected a depth of spiritual misery and emptiness Kornfeld had rarely seen.
So the Doctor began to let spill out all that he had discovered about his soul, and the freedom he had found. All through the afternoon and late into the night he described his process of recognizing his own evil tendencies, so hidden before, and his process of accepting Christ’s forgiveness and freedom. The patient knew he was listening to an incredible confessional.
The next morning, the young patient awoke to the sound of running feet and commotion. He looked for Dr. Kornfeld, but didn’t see him.
During the night, while the Doctor slept, the orderly bashed in Kornfeld’s head with eight blows from a mallet. Kornfeld died, but his story and what he learned impacted the world.
The young patient pondered the impassioned words, and as a result, he gave his heart to Christ amidst the evil of that camp. Jesus changed him. And this young patient, named Alexander Solzhenitsyn, survived the prison camp and went on to become a famous author and told the world through his writings what Kornfeld and he and many others learned.
Here is how Solzhenitsyn summed up the paradox of how God defeats evil.
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” – Solzhenitsyn
Why is Life So Difficult?
Because God loves us, and he’s allowing suffering to defeat evil in us.
I know this may not make sense at first, but follow. God allows evil and suffering for 2 reasons:
First to lead us into the Love we long for. We were created for God.
- We are all intended to be his beloved sons and daughters, his works of art–his masterpieces.
- We were created to love God, and do his will freely out of a sense of love and trust –
- To submit our wills to His will, freely not by force, to allow him to mold us into His work of art.
But love depends on choice –our ability to choose to love God and follow his ways freely, means we must be given the equal and opposite ability to reject God and go our own way.
And we see a huge capacity for both – love like Mother Theresa’s (who said she was God’s instrument to care for the forgotten and dying of India) or evil like Hitler or Stalin (who thought they were God and their will should determine who lived or died).
What Solzhenitsyn and others discovered later reflected on is that we are not just imperfect people – we are quiet rebels who like our ways better than God’s ways. Rebels who must lay down our arms against a loving Creator for evil to ever be defeated.
Solzhenitsyn spent 50 years studying what happened in the Communist revolution and concluded:
“if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous Revolution that swallowed up some sixty million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God….” – Solzhenitsyn
What does he mean?
When things go our way, most of us will happily ignore God our whole lives – yet blame God if it doesn’t go our way.
As Former Oxford scholar, C.S. Lewis noted: “the human spirit will not even begin to surrender self will to it’s Creator as long as everything is going fine.”
So God allows pain and suffering as a reminder that something’s wrong—first, to lead people away from self-rule, self-will, playing God and to turn back to God and let God be God.
Unfortunately, it usually takes the painful realization that I’m not God, life and people do not obey me, and in fact, the very things I hate and call evil, I’ve done too. I too need forgiveness and help.
So God first allows the suffering and pains of life to overcome the greatest evil that separates us from the very Light, Life, and Love we were created for and long for.
Second, God overcomes evil through his children following His will even through the suffering of this life that still goes against God’s ways.
Because Jesus’ followers can still cooperate with evil if we’re not careful.
We must realize that all evil starts with a simple idea “my will is best.”
So Jesus prayer: “Your will be done on earth as in Heaven” But that can only start with me. So God can only defeat evil one willing heart at a time.
And pain and suffering is where we are most willing.
This is what Solzhenitsyn understood from the bowels of evil:
“the meaning of earthly existence lies, not as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul.” – Solzhenitsyn
But to understand why it takes pain and suffering to overcome evil, we have to understand evil and our own hearts better.
Evil is not a thing.
It’s a privation. Like darkness is not a thing—it’s the absence of something, Light.
Evil is the absence of God and His ways.
- Evil is anything not of God.
- So evil is the absence of God’s loving will and ways, God’s perfect Kingdom rule.
- And evil can rear its ugly head in hidden ways, like being mean or jealous, greedy or lustful, or it can show it’s full-blown hideous self in systemic injustice, the Gulags, and concentration camps.
But the core is the same–human pride and self-will, ignited by that spark of evil all around us, causes us to put ourselves as the center of the universe, and God and others as our servant, there to do our will, or be discarded.
And this is the river of human thought that we all float in–no one sees it as a problem personally–we naturally float downstream away from God. God says it’s the root of all evil.
From God’s perspective, he knows what we are. He created us, so he knows us better than we know ourselves. And God knows Only he can make us eternally happy—the joy we long for is found with God. But we have this tendency to put all our hope and trust in this world, in the things of this life rather than in God. But it’s not more stuff, and it’s not more money, and it’s not a position or piece of property or a new relationship we really need – it’s constant connection to the God who knows us. Yet without suffering and pain, we wander away from God.
So God allows pain and suffering for 2 reasons—to call people to salvation in Christ when they realize I’m not God, and I need God’s forgiveness and leadership. But then he allows it for his children, but for another purpose—to overcome evil in us and through us more and more.
Peter writes to the suffering Christians across the Roman Empire that God rewards when you lean into him, follow His will, in unjust suffering:
For God is pleased when, conscious of his will, you patiently endure unjust treatment. 20 Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you.21 For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. 22 He never sinned, nor ever deceived anyone. 23 He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly. 24 He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. 1 Peter 2:19-24
How can we defeat evil in our suffering?
1). Hate Evil, Love God.
So many people respond to the crises in this world by blaming God and hating him. But you are hating the wrong thing. Evil is the absence of God and his ways. If you hate God because of the pain and evil you face, all you’ll be left with in the end, is evil. Apart from God and the good he brings, there is nothing good. Whatever the “Whys” of the pain and suffering, God wants you to look to him – to put your hope and trust in him. To pursue understanding and grow in Love through this—and God IS Love. So it’s o.k. to hate the crisis or hate the pain or hate the evil you face. But let it push you to love God more, knowing he hates evil too and is defeating it as you love God more.
2). Don’t Confuse Life with God.
Philip Yancey wrote an incredible book called “Disappointment with God.” If you are struggling through suffering and pain, two books I highly recommend are Disappointment with God by Phillip Yancey or A Grace Disguised by Sitzer.
But Yancy talks about the closest thing to a modern-day Job, was a guy he met named Douglass. Douglass left a lucrative career to start an urban ministry. After that his wife discovered breast cancer. They removed her breast, but two years later, it spread to her lungs. Douglass took over the household chores and parental duties as his wife battled with hair loss and nausea due to chemotherapy.
One night, in the midst of this crisis, as Douglas was driving down a city street with his wife and 12 year old daughter, a drunk driver smashed head-on into their car. His wife and daughter survived with broken arms and cuts, but Douglass took a massive blow to the head. After the accident, he was continually struck with severe headaches. He could not work a full day, and sometimes would become disoriented and forgetful. One eye wandered at will, and he developed double vision so bad that he couldn’t make it down the stairs alone. Douglass learned to cope with his disabilities, all but his inability to read – his passionate love.
Yancy met with him over breakfast to interview him for his book, Disappointment with God, so he started by asking “Could you tell me about your own disappointment with God?”
- Douglass was silent, looking past Philip, for a long time. Yancy thought he was having a mental “gap” when he finally said, “To tell you the truth, Philip, I didn’t feel any disappointment with God.”
- Yancy was startled, he knew this guy was no “Turn your scars into stars” types.
- Douglass said, “The reason is this. I learned, first through my wife’s illness, then especially through the accident, not to confuse God with life. I’m no stoic. I’m as upset about what happened to me as anyone could be. I feel free to curse the unfairness of life and to vent all my grief and anger. But I believe God feels the same way about that accident… We tend to think life should be fair because God is fair. But God is not life. And if I confuse God with life, I’m setting myself up for crashing disappointment. Life’s not fair – on purpose, but God is.”
See, God takes the unfairness of life, and uses it for our good. And there was not a greater example of this truth than in what we celebrate every Easter. When things don’t go our way, people say “God be dammed.” For all the evil we see. When Jesus hung on the cross – He was!
God gave us his answer to how he ultimately feels about the evil and suffering of this life.
As Yancy states, “The cross that held Jesus tortured body, pierced with bloody nails, exposed all the violence and injustice of the world. At once, the Cross revealed what kind of world we have and what kind of God we have: A world of gross unfairness, a God of sacrificial love.”
As I mentioned during our Q&A Sunday a few weeks ago, God did do something about evil. He took it on personally.
- Jesus’ death on the cross was defeating evil and paying the price of our rebellion.
- Through His sacrifice, God made a way for us to experience forgiveness.
- He takes us back as His eternal children. But he doesn’t do it against our will—so the pains and sufferings of this life can turn us back to God and overcome Evil (the absence of God’s love and life).
- God took on the payment for evil on the cross so that he could destroy evil without destroying the people he loves.
All it takes is a willing heart. Have you told him “I want what Jesus did to count for me—I want your forgiveness and leadership?”
Overcome Evil with Good
Romans 8 says:
“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.” Romans 8:28
Bread is good – molded bread is bad – but what have humans done with breadmold? Made penicillin – which is good.
If we can use something bad and turn it into good – how much more can God work all things for good?
Think about all the senseless crisis and pain in life.
- Without God, it remains senseless – it counts for nothing.
- But with God we can Redeem it.
- With God, it all counts!
Kornfeld’s suffering for doing right in the Gulag counted! It wasn’t senseless because God sees and it counts in the bigger story of eternity. And when you go through trials and suffering that seems senseless – seek God and His will and it will count. He will use it for good in your life. He hates it too, but he will use it to grow your soul and it counts! It counts. That’s what the verse goes on to explain…
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son….” Romans 8:28-29
To be conformed to the image of his Son. That’s the good God is doing.
The suffering is not good, it does not mean circumstances will turn around, but when suffering turns us to lean into God, trusting God’s will and ways, God makes you more like God–which defeats evil.
We become more like the One who overcomes evil with good—and that’s how God is overcoming evil, one willing life at a time.
And it does defeat evil—when people are mean, unjust, unloving or plain evil toward you, but you seek God’s will in the pain, suffering—God forms your character and produces in you His love, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, self control and a Joy that’s indescribable and unaffected by this world. We’ll talk more about that joy next week.
But it’s also how God overcomes evil, like Kornfeld saw in another, and Solzhenitsyn saw in Kornfeld, the people around you will see God’s light and love and God will convict them that you’re acting like God would, and God will overcome evil in them if they’re willing.
Solzhenitsyn reflected this in his memoirs:
“It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years … this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel…In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts…. That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I…have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn
As you lean into God to let him grow and shape you, you’re overcoming evil and God’s producing something good in you.