A lesson on suffering from the Batman

January 26, 2015

this_american_lifeYesterday’s sermon on the Lord’s Prayer dealt with the petitions, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” My sermon ended up being mostly about God’s sovereignty. After all, we don’t pray, “God, what can we do to bring your kingdom to earth?” Or even, “God, how can we accomplish your will on earth?” We trust that God will ultimately see to both of those things, regardless of whatever role he wants us human beings to play in it. The inescapable conclusion—which so many Methodist clergy resist saying, for some reason—is that God is in control.

But to say that God is in control is to risk being misunderstood. I referred to this recent interview with physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose biggest objection to belief in God is human suffering. If God is in control (and good), and everything that happens is enfolded into God’s sovereign purposes, then he thinks that we theists must believe that everything that happens—even evil things—must somehow be good. He said he’s not willing to go there.

And I’m not either. As I said in my sermon, there’s an important difference between God’s permitting evil and God’s causing it or approving of it.

But we still have to deal with why God permits evil and suffering to occur. After all, we believe God has the power to grant our petitions in prayer. If we pray for God to give us something—even for God to enable us avoid suffering—and God doesn’t grant our petition, do we say that God is capricious in answering our prayers, or that God has his reasons? And if God has his reasons, we can only trust that those reasons are good—that he’s using our suffering for some good purpose.

Daniel Kish is blind, yet he rides a bike.

Daniel Kish is blind, yet he rides a bike.

To help illustrate this, I used the story of Daniel Kish, who was featured in this intriguing This American Life story. Daniel lost both his eyes to cancer when he was an infant, but using “echolocation”—the same ability that bats have—he has learned to find his way in the world without assistance. He can—amazingly—even ride a bike! As I said in my sermon,

Daniel learned to do these things because, for whatever reason, his mother wasn’t afraid to let him get hurt—she wasn’t afraid of her child getting bumps, bruises, scrapes and even broken bones if these things helped him find his way in the world. Most parents of blind children, by contrast, are afraid to let their kids experience this pain; they want to protect their children from suffering. According to one blind man who uses echolocation to get around, this desire to protect their kids from suffering ends up hurting them.

The reporter of the story kept saying that the parents’ love gets in the way of their blind child’s ability to overcome their disability. But I disagree. Maybe fear and ignorance get in the way, but not love. Because love doesn’t always mean protecting children from pain and suffering—not when pain and suffering would help us grow and become everything we’re capable of becoming.

God our heavenly Father loves us perfectly, which means he loves us enough to let us experience pain and suffering sometimes. Because it’s good for us.

Anyway, I hope you’ll listen to Daniel’s story. It’s astonishing.

11 Responses to “A lesson on suffering from the Batman”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, this is a great story. It brings to mind the primary illustration I use when discussing my Doctrine of Competing Principles. A mother does not want to see her son skin his knees, but more so she wants to see him ride his bike, so she chooses bike-riding when those two desires collide. Daniel’s story ramps that illustration up a notch.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Exactly. Yet I read and hear many Christians speak as if pain and suffering is necessarily evil in all cases. That’s ridiculous.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    Our big mistake is when we think we would be “kinder, more loving, nicer” than the God of the OT. We say “Trust God”. We sing “Amazing Grace”. But, too often, we don’t really understand what those concepts mean.

    • brentwhite Says:

      What drives me crazy is that we pastors speak as if we have no answers whatsoever to the problem of suffering except to say, “It’s a mystery,” and “God hates that you’re going through it”—as if God has nothing to do with it! As if God can only watch from a distance and feel bad for us! What kind of Deistic god is that?

      This is completely unbiblical. We go through what we go through because God wants us to. Indeed, everything happens for a reason. In a world without sin, he would want things to be different from the way they are now (and one day they will be), but given that we live in this sinful, fallen world, this is what he wants. Right?

      I find the doctrine of God’s sovereignty immensely comforting.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Yes. I would be in complete panic mode if I thought that what happens does not, at a minimum, get “sifted” through God’s fingers before he lets me have to go through it, with his “goodwill” toward me as a lodestar for that “allowance.” My caveat, if it is one, is that what God allows takes into account the “type of person” that he knows me to be, such that what he allows varies depending on the “state of my heart.” Just like a parent deals differently with his children based on what each child is “like,” so God does as well. So, if I want really “blessed” things to happen to me (which does not equate to “comfortable”), I need to keep working on that “state of my heart.” As one verse along that line, I would reference, “Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.” But I would add as modifying caveat to the verse, based on scripture as a whole (as I see it, anyway), that generally the “correlation” for a believer is such that the “reaping” is somewhat more “gracious” or “merciful” than what we actually deserve in that respect.

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Amen, Brent! God’s SOVEREIGNTY. First, why to we question it, and second, why do we second guess it? I believe the metaphors about refining metals, removing dross, and separating wheat from chaff are quite helpful if one allows for the absolute sovereignty of GOD.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Why do we question it? Because we’re afraid of being perceived as Calvinist—as if Wesley himself didn’t have a high view of God’s sovereignty. (Also, we’re a bunch of wimps who don’t like to think that pain and suffering could be good for us.) See the sermon I’ll post tomorrow, I hope. What if we viewed every difficult crisis we face as an opportunity to serve the Lord? That the Lord has placed this trial in our life for a good reason, and he wants us to endure it with trust, hope, and confidence?

      • brendt Says:

        As a former Calvinist, I think that’s a valid fear. 🙂

      • brentwhite Says:

        Ha! Well, try being United Methodist for a while! I can hardly emphasize enough that God is in control. And, no, that doesn’t mean that God is like a puppet-master. But given that we live in this fallen world, God permits things to happen for a reason, according to his sovereign plan.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      As I indicated earlier, I concur in God’s sovereignty, and would be panicked without it. However, I do think we have to be careful with the doctrine. Paul says, “For whom He did FOREKNOW, He did predestine….” In other words, God directs, but he does so based on the foreknown states of people’s hearts. By that I mean, God’s sovereignty is not “willy-nilly,” but specifically “tailored” to individuals based on what they are like. As a primary example, I would take David. God directed his life to proceed well in general; yet, after he sinned with Bathsheba, things went “downhill.” God knew that David would fail that particular test, so he directed events based on that foreknown failure. So, we can’t necessarily get too “comfortable” with God’s sovereignty–it still remains true that “whatever a man sows, that shall he reap.” (With the same caveat as to grace in that disposition.)

      • brentwhite Says:

        Yes, a biblical vision of sovereignty is that God still enables human freedom. Confusion on this point is why many Christians don’t like discussing the doctrine. God responds to what we do (knowing what we’ll do, of course, through foreknowledge). As punishment or discipline, God may let all manner of bad consequences follow sinful actions, as he did with David. Still, the fact remains that David could look at the circumstances of his life and say, “This is happening because God wants it to happen—given this particular set of circumstances. God wants me to endure these events.” So he’s reaping what he’s sown, both because of his own choices and God’s sovereign will.

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