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Trust and Obey: Loving God Through Suffering

By Chris Carpenter Program Director -“Even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you are blessed.” – I Peter 3:14a

Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people?  This is an age old question that paupers to politicians to great philosophers and theologians have pondered.  Yet for all the effort that has gone into coming up with a clear response the answer still remains unclear.

For all the debate and hyperbole, one thing remains certain.  The Lord will come through for us even if He doesn’t change our circumstances.

In his new book, “For Those Who Suffer” (VMI Publishing), author Sean Nolan examines a solution to this troubling question that doesn’t depend on the transformation or relief of our circumstances. Program Director Chris Carpenter recently sat down with Nolan to discuss why God allows his children to suffer, whether Christians truly believe Jesus Christ is the way to abundant life, and whether it is important for people to understand suffering even when they are not.

A simple but direct question to start: Does God truly care for those who are suffering?

That’s a good question, and obviously the academic answer is “yes.” But on a practical level, when it’s one o’clock in the morning and you’re really going through a hard time, here’s the answer on a real level, yes. And I think for a lot of people the answer to that is not, “I feel God doesn’t care about it.”

But we’ve learn from the Bible that He does. And I’ve come to realize over the last seven or eight years of my life, having gone through a lot of suffering. I’ve come to a place where I realize that God’s love is not made void by the suffering that we all go through, and that the greatest act of love in the history of mankind was also the greatest act of suffering which Jesus encountered on the Cross. And it was, ironically, the greatest producer of blessing. And so we get almost an equation that suffering does produce blessing, and it is a revelation of God’s love in a deep way. And that really helped me come to a practical not just an academic understanding, but a practical understanding, that God loves me in this situation, and my understanding of God’s love needs to be linked to the Cross, not my circumstances.

Why do people who suffer often seem to view the situation through a human lens or a human perspective?

I think because the suffering produces pain and pain is what does that. Because if you think about it, if suffering didn’t produce pain, then you probably wouldn’t actually have a problem with it. But because it produces pain, then we start to look at the instigator of that pain, which might be disease, and then you look at it through a human lens. But I think, when you go through it for maybe a bit longer of a period of time, that’s when you start to have time to just let it settle in your mind and go, “You know what? How does God fit in to this?” And our initial response, I think, is, “God is just going to take it away.” But then when that doesn’t happen, “Well, how do I reconcile my understanding of God with my situation?” And I think that’s where it goes a bit deeper onto that spiritual level.

What is your perspective on why God allows such suffering?

I think my first response is slightly academic, but you have to say it, that God didn’t create suffering, but like you have very profoundly said, He does allow it. And there’s a strong distinction, but it’s an important distinction. And I feel that we learn from the book of Job and other places, that suffering produces a fruit in our life as Christians that no other emotion, no other experience can. It makes us interact and press into the Lord and come to know Him in a deep way like no other experience can. It is the most powerful motivator for an experience with the Lord. And I’ve come to understand that—I think that’s why God does allow it, because He knows that it will bring forth a positive fruit. It probably won’t bring forth a physical fruit, but it’ll bring a spiritual fruit. And I think that’s where, especially when we all live in an affluent society, just like America, it’s hard to really latch onto that. But I think that becomes, what’s God’s goal for our life? It’s to make us like Christ, not to make us physically comfortable.

In your book you describe suffering as a “tree.”  What do you mean by that?

I came up with that analogy to help people try and understand that suffering produces destruction in our life. But when you inject God into it, it can actually construct our lives, our spiritual life. And I use the analogy of the same tree that bears a different fruit. So you have an apple tree, and all of a sudden it starts bearing oranges, and that’s the miracle. Suffering is a tree that bears bad fruit. But when you inject God into the equation, suffering plus man equals destruction, suffering plus man plus God scan be a tree that bears a good fruit.

What I love about this book is that you’re very honest and forthcoming in it, sharing from your own experience. Do you think that most Christians believe that Jesus Christ is truly the way to an abundant life?

I think that most Christians believe He’s the only way for salvation. If I was to say to a group of mature Christians, “God wants you to suffer for your faith,” they’d grit their teeth, they’d um and ah, and they’d probably end up saying, “You know what? Fair enough. Jesus suffered.” But if I say to them, “God wants you to suffer, but He also wants to bless you, have an abundant life, and He loves you,” that’s where a lot of people go, “I can’t accept that. And there’s this amazing block that comes up that people don’t realize is here, where they’ll accept bad from the Lord, but they won’t accept the fact that God loves you regardless of your circumstances and He loves them in this situation.

Is it important for people to truly understand suffering, even if they’re not really going through it at the time?

Yes. I would say that suffering comes to us at any time in our life. And some people might get to the age of 50 and never go through anything. Someone might be young. I’m 29, and I’ve gone through a lot. And different people have a different journey. It’s not a respecter of age. It’s not a respecter of status. It’s not a respecter of anything. The way I answer that question is by saying that the best way to prepare for suffering is not to study suffering, but to have a deep relationship with the Lord so that when the storm comes, you can have something to hold on to, and you don’t just have your money and your cars and your status. Because what’s that going to do? But you find the strength of God that goes beyond our circumstances, because it’s from out of this world, and it’s stronger and deeper than anything this world has to offer.

Obviously it’s important for people to have hope in something. For those who suffer, why is it so critical to hold onto hope when everything around you is just pain, pain, pain?

There isn’t one example of a situation of suffering in the Bible where God didn’t come through for that person. Sometimes He used going to the next life as alleviation. And I always say in the book that only God can decide that. But He always did come through for His people. He never left anyone high and dry. Some people, like Job, it took a long time, but God did come through. And I always say that God, from my experience—this isn’t in the Bible, but my experience—God’s perfect timing is always the absolute last minute. And that’s just my little anecdote I’ve come up with that it seems to be that way.

You’ve hinted at this already, but what in your personal experience enabled you to write this book?

I grew up in a very bad domestic violent situation. And we were a classic Christian family as well, where we’d go to church on Sunday, but then the rest of the week it would start the second you drove out of the church driveway. At about the age of 21, my father, who was the instigator of a lot of that, had a number of strokes and was put in a wheelchair. And my mother got cancer around that time and has cancer again now. And so for the last couple of years I’ve been still living at home with them as long as I can before I get married to help care for them. And caring for someone who has been an instigator of so much pain and abuse in your life, you can imagine the dynamics there.

After people have read this book, as an author, what do you want your readers to take away with them to apply to life?

Love is the most foundational thing of the Christian faith. And if we do not have an understanding of God’s love, then we cannot trust Him, we cannot have faith, we can’t believe Him. Because you cannot have faith in a God that you think doesn’t love you. It’s illogical, it’s ludicrous, to think that. And so my purpose is to lay a foundation that God loves you regardless of your circumstances. Secondly, to come a place of trust in Him. Because trusting brings peace, it brings sincerity, it brings calmness in the most worst storm. Like Peter on that water, when he trusted Christ, he had peace. And that’s really the place in my book, I say that trust isn’t a queue up, but it is a coping and conquering mechanism. And if you can come back to a place where you trust God—because when we go through hardship, that’s what gets ravished. Our trust in the Lord gets ravished. And we still have to trust Him because of what we’ve gone through. But coming back to that place where you can trust the Lord again, it will bring in your peace in your life.

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