In the previous blog post, we saw that God can have morally sufficient reasons for permitting suffering. We also saw that given the dizzying complexity of how events and choices interact with one another all around the world and throughout history, no mere man is in a position to make a probability judgment as to whether God could have a morally sufficient reason for permitting some event.
Continuing my line of thought that God has good reasons for permitting suffering, I would like to turn now to a different category of reasons that I know for a fact He has. Isn't it the case that immense suffering has lead to many people giving their lives to Christ? Surely you've noticed how many personal testimonies include suffering, and moreover, the suffering was the primary factor in bringing the person to their knees. I can't think of many coming-to-Christ testimonies that don't involve immense suffering that lead up to conversion. Could it be that God uses suffering as a means to get people saved?
The Christian Apologist J. Warner Wallace has noticed the same thing. He wrote "No single explanation will account for every act of evil. There are often several causes involved in explaining any given episode of suffering. But one thing is certain: Thousands of Christian believers tell a story of conversion involving some act of pain or suffering. In that time of crisis, they turned to God for the very first time. In fact, most of these new Christians can recall a number of people who shared Christ with them prior to their time of trouble, but these efforts fell on deaf ears. Only through the prompting of pain and suffering were these people brought to the end of themselves and the beginning of their relationship with Jesus."1
As William Lane Craig put it in his book On Guard, the ultimate goal God is driving towards for humans in this life isn't happiness, but knowledge of Himself. As I said in part 3, we're in a sin situation, we've all fallen short of His moral standard (Romans 3:23), and as a holy and just judge (Psalm 11:6, Psalm 9:7-8, Psalm 10), God must punish sin. As a loving Being though (1 John 4:8), God doesn't want to punish us but desires to forgive us. God became incarnate (John 1:14) and took the punishment on Himself at the cross of Calvary (Romans 5:8). All one needs to do is repent and receive this gift, confessing Jesus as their Savior and Lord (Isaiah 55:7, Romans 10:9). The primary goal in this fallen world is to get as many people saved as God possibly can. God loves you and will do everything possible to get you into His kingdom short of coercing you. The Bible says that God is "not willing that any should perish, but for all to come to repentence" (2 Peter 3:9). If God knows if a person would freely be saved if he endured through an immense amount of suffering, then God will allow suffering to enter that person's life for the sake of their eternity.
Examples Of People Of Coming To Christ Through Suffering
I'm going to show you a few real examples of this. These testimonies were posted online and are available for public viewing. I'm telling you this so that you'll know I'm not violating anyone's right to privacy. Moreover, I'll tell their testimonies in their own words, for the most part, so I won't either violate the fair use doctrine or have to ask for permission.
Example 1: Vanessa
Vanessa shares her testimony on a TruthSaves.org article.2 She opens by saying that she was born to young and violent parents who abused drugs and alcohol, and that she can recall thinking that her mother had a greater love for drugs than she had for her. By the time Vanessa was 4 years old, her mother was sent to prison and didn't get out until she was 7. In the mean time, Vanessa says that she had moved in with her father who sexually abused both her and her siblings. She then says that at the age of 9, she was put into Foster care.
Vanessa then wrote that her first foster mother was a Christian who took her and her two brothers and her sister. She says that they went to church for a year every Sunday, Unfortunately, her foster Dad soon began to molest her. She, like many sexual abuse victims, thought that the reason she kept getting abused must have had something to do with her. It must have been her fault, she thought. She said that by age 13, she had become hateful, angry, and rebellious.
Vanessa began cutting herself at the age of 14. In the article, Vanessa recounts being "on the run", drinking and smoking, and living a wild life, until the police caught up with her and sent her back to foster care. Eventually, she says, she moved in with her boyfriend and his parents. The boyfriend's father was an alcoholic and his mother was a Christian. After living with her boyfriend and his family for a year, the boyfriend's younger sibling was killed in a car accident. She said "I had seen many tears. It wasn’t until then that I started to take notice of my life, past and present." Then she recounts spending many nights walking the streets alone or sleeping in houses that had been abandoned.
She was shortly after invited to a church retreat. There, she says, "I met the God who died for all my sins, which were many. The God whose forgiveness gave me strength to forgive. The God whose LOVE left me speechless. I cried and cried and cried. God’s glory was so strong and real it filled the room. I knew He had always been there. I wasn’t the same broken girl I had been just three days earlier. By His love and embrace I had become a new creature. To my surprise my heart of stone had become one of flesh."3
If Vanessa hadn't been allowed to go through all that she had been through, then she never would have found herself in the circumstance in which she had a personal encounter with God, and therefore she might still be dead in her trespasses and sins today (Ephesians 2:1).
Example 2: The "The-Last-Night Girl".
In 2006, Skillet released an album called "Comatose". Track 2 is a song called "The Last Night". The song is about a suicidal girl who God speaks to through her friend John Cooper (Skillet's frontman). Cooper said "It's a song about a girl who wants to end her own life. She has been told ever since she was small by her parents that she was never going to be good enough. Never pretty enough, never smart enough, wished she had never been born, can't do anything right, and so on and so forth. And she says 'you know what? I hate myself. I hate what I see in the mirror. I hate going home at night. I don't have a single reason left to get out of bed tomorrow morning.' And in this song, I have a chance to tell my friend how special she really is, and I get a chance to tell her that her life is not a mistake. I'm telling you this story not just so you know what this song is about, but because I meet people like her at every single concert that I play. ....I came here tonight to tell you there is a God, His name is Jesus Christ....if you give Him one chance, it will be the very last night you spend alone"4
John Cooper wrote this song about someone who was suicidal: "You come to me with scars on your wrist." When John sings, the lyrics are directed towards the girl from God's perspective. When Korey sings, the lyrics are from the girl to God. In the story that this song tells, God saved a girl from suicide through John. God used her suffering, and the abuse that she went through, to draw her to Himself. Now, the identity of the girl in the song is unknown. Some have speculated that the girl in that song was the singer's wife Korey way back in the day, but only God and John know for sure. The point is, this is another example of suffering being used to bring about salvation.
Statistics Show That The Acceptance Of The Gospel Spreads In Places With The Most Suffering
Statistics coming from the book “Operation World” by Patrick Johnstone shows that in countries that have endured the most evil and suffering were also countries where the gospel was most widely accepted. Just look at these reports – from Johnstone’s Operation World:
"China: It is estimated that 20 million Chinese lost their lives in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Christians stood firm in what was probably the most widespread and harsh persecution the Church has ever experienced. The persecution purified and indigenized the Church. Since 1977, the growth of the Church in China has no parallels in history. Researchers estimate that there were 30 to 75 million Christians by 1990. Today, it is estimated to be somewhere between 90 million and 100 million. Mao Zedong unwittingly became the greatest evangelist in history.
El Salvador: The 12-year civil war, earthquakes, and the collapse of the price of coffee, the nation’s main export, impoverished the nation. Over 80% live in dire poverty. An astonishing spiritual harvest has been gathered from all strata of society in the midst of the hate and bitterness of war. In 1960 evangelicals were 2.3% of the population, but today, they are around 20%.
Ethiopia: Ethiopia is in a state of shock. Her population struggles with the trauma of millions of deaths through repression, famine, and war. Two great waves of violent persecution refined and purified the Church, but there were many martyrs. There have been millions coming to Christ. Protestants were fewer than 0.8% of the population in 1960, but by 1990 this may have become 13% of the population."5
Tons more examples like this could be talked about. When you examine human history, you see that it's been a blood soaked one, however, it also been a history of God's Kingdom advance.
Rousing A Deaf World
So many people have come to Christ because of immense suffering. The data and evidence talked about in this chapter were only a measly sampling. Testimony upon testimony could be compiled to show that the majority of people who become born again Christians actually have, in part, immense suffering to thank. Moreover, one day while I was reading The Bible, I discovered something interesting. In Jesus’ “Parable Of The Prodigal Son” recorded in Luke 15:11-32, we find that the prodigal son didn’t return home to his father until he had lost everything and became so hungry that even the pig’s food looked appealing to him. It was only until The Prodigal Son hit rock bottom that He “came to his senses” and returned to his father.
Yes, I absolutely believe that pain and suffering is one of God's ways of drawing us to Himself.
As C.S Lewis once put it, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: It is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world”6
And as venerable archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once said “Sometimes the only way the good Lord can get into some hearts is to break them.” 7
Now, the atheist may object that God is a jerk if He would allow suffering just to get people to bow to Him, but consider this: Let's suppose you wake up in a room somewhere strapped to a chair, and consider someone set in front of you, two buttons: one button would cause you the worst pain you could imagine for 5 minutes. The other button would cause you that same pain for 50 years. You can only be freed from the room if one choose to press one button or the other. If you had a true dichotomy of suffering extreme, agonizing pain for 5 minutes or suffering that same pain for 50 years, which would you choose? Obviously, you would choose to suffer the pain for 5 minutes. It's done and over it. Suffering extreme agony for 50 years would be far worse. Now, let's suppose you unwittingly go for the button that causes pain for 50 years, but I quickly intervene and push the button that causes pain for 5. I brought about misery for you in the short term, but in doing so, I prevented it in the long term.
Or to give a less sci-fi illustration, think about when your parent took you to the doctor to get vaccinated. I remember when my mother took me to the doctor when I was 3 years old to get a flu shot. For some reason, shots hurt a lot more when you're a little kid. I don't know if it's a placebo effect (i.e we see the sharp needle so we just assume it's going to hurt a lot) or if children just have a lesser threshold for pain than adults. In any case, I remember getting it and I remember that it hurt. I cried all the way to the car. Now, was my mother unloving for taking me to get the flu shot? No. She knew it was better for me to get a flu shot and not get the flu. Even though the shot hurt, it would be a lot less painful and less dangerous than getting influenza. In the same way, is God unloving for letting people suffer if that suffering leads them to eternal life? No. In fact, one might argue that it would be unloving if He didn't.
Kevin, Vanessa, and The-Last-Night girl don't begrudge God for using suffering to save them. They praise Him for it. What right does the atheist have to cast judgment on God for what the Christians praise Him for?
And, here's something else to consider: God didn't just use their suffering to bring them salvation, He used His own suffering to bring them salvation.
"Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed." - Isaiah 53:4-5
By the wounds of the Christ, came the healing of mens' souls. The God of the universe took on human flesh (John 1:14) with the primary purpose of enduring physical suffering (something impossible for Him to experience if He only had a divine nature).
As J. Warner Wallace said in the citation near the beginning of this blog post, no one explanation will account for every instance of suffering. But the saving of souls is certainly one reason God has for permitting suffering that is well documented. In light of the Christian doctrine that the primary purpose in life is not happiness, but the knowledge of God, we can say that the Christian God's existence in light of suffering is not at all improbable. Quite the opposite, it is probable.
In the next three blog posts, I will go further to show why suffering fails to render God's existence improbable, and after that, I will finish up this series by dealing with the emotional version of the problem of suffering.
1: J. Warner Wallace, "Would God Actually Use Evil To Draw Us To Himself?", January 22nd 2016, http://crossexamined.org/would-god-actually-use-evil-to-draw-us-to-himself-1/
2: TruthSaves.org, Vanessa's Christian Testimony, http://truthsaves.org/christian-testimony/vanessas-christian-testimony/
4: I transcribed this from a YouTube video of John Cooper explaining the song's meaning live on stage. The video can be watched here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6s86R1-6JC0
5 Patrick Johnstone, Operation World, 5th ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1993), pp. 164, 207-8, 214.
6: C.S Lewis, "The Problem Of Pain", HarperCollins, page 3.
7: Quote By Fulton J. Sheen. (n.d.). Quotery. Retrieved August 8, 2017, from http://www.quotery.com/quotes/sometimes-the-only-way-the-good-lord-can-get-into/