If there is a God who is sovereign over all of life, over all of death, and over all pain, and over all disease, and over all illness, and over all sorrow, then what that means is that it is flat out impossible that any pain could ever be without purpose. One of the most difficult situations I've found myself in is when I've learned that someone I care about has been diagnosed with cancer or another illness, and I simply didn't know what to say. Have you ever found yourself in that situation?
Well, R.C. Sproul was given the opportunity to visit MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas and address the doctors and the nurses there about God's purpose in suffering. And although he was addressing the staff, his primary audience was the patients, those who were suffering. Whenever I encounter this question of suffering, either as a philosophical question or as a cry of pain from somebody who's in the midst of that suffering when they're asking it, the question that I hear in my profession inevitably is the question, where is God in all of this? And then the next question is the question that is the one that every theologian dreads to hear. It's this question, why? When I'm afflicted, when you're afflicted, when pain intrudes into your life and the threat of death comes, the first thing that we ask is, why? Why me?
Why has this happened? How could God allow these things to take place? Now, anytime we ask this simple question, why, we're asking a question about purpose. The why questions are the questions about purpose. The why questions are the questions about meaning. We're not asking how, we're not asking when, we're not asking what, we're asking why. And I think there's a reason why we ask the question. It's one thing to experience pain, but it's another thing to anticipate that my suffering and my pain is worthless.
If I'm going to have to go through pain, if I'm going to have to go through suffering, I have to know inside of myself that there's some kind of reason for this, that it's not just an exercise in futility. This came home to me very vividly and very personally just a few weeks ago. My wife, Bess, and I had returned to Orlando after being on the road and had been speaking at, I don't even remember where we were, but anytime that we're away from home and come back home, it's an experience of great joy. I remember as we drove into our driveway, I said to my wife, I said, we're home.
It's wonderful. We pulled into the driveway, into the garage, and as I shut the engine of the car off and got out of the car, came around behind the car, the door to our kitchen opened and my daughter framed the doorway. And as soon as she saw us, she burst into tears and she blurted out these words, Daddy, I just lost my baby. And she came over to me and I just held out my arms and she grabbed me and I held her while she sobbed into my shoulder. And it took a few moments for her to get over the trauma of seeing us on our return and to explain what had happened here. She had just begun her ninth month of her pregnancy, a pregnancy that had been very difficult, that had been one that involved a long period of morning sickness and some difficulties with hemorrhaging and so on. But she had just that day felt the absence of life within her and she had gone to see her doctor and the doctor had gone and put her through many tests and announced to her soberly and sadly that the baby had died. Well, of course, that's always a very difficult thing for any expectant mother to experience, but on top of that, the doctor then explained that the procedure that was necessary for her to follow would be this, that they would bring her into the hospital the next morning and induce labor. And we talked about it and she said, Daddy, they want me to go through labor but my baby's dead. I've often stood in profound admiration at the strength of women to go through the travail of childbirth and I've often wondered after they've gone through it once how they could make the decision to do it again and in many cases again and again.
And as I speak to women about this, I say, how can you stand to go through this process that we call euphemistically labor? And they say because of what we know is waiting at the end of the pain. That is, a woman is willing to endure the pain of childbirth because she looks forward to the moment that a life will be produced. And once that life is there and she holds her baby for the first time then the pain is behind her and for that moment at least she says, it's worth it and I'll do it again. But how do you go into the hospital to go through childbirth and labor knowing that what's at the end of your pain is death? And that's what my daughter and I had to talk about and she looked at me as a theologian and not just as a father and she wanted to get some heavy answers to her question and frankly I didn't have any. And so we went to the hospital the next day, her husband and her mother and I and she checked in.
They induced the labor. We sat there in the delivery room with her, timed the contractions and she was being heroic I thought. I was very proud of her and after several hours had passed she said, Daddy, why don't you go down and get some lunch and come back in a little while because I'm doing fine. And so I excused myself. I was glad for the respite.
I went downstairs and ordered a brief lunch. It only took fifteen or twenty minutes and hurried back up to the floor to carry on the vigil. And as I approached the swinging doors that went under the wards suddenly I was stopped by the sound of a blood curdling scream. And it took a couple of moments for it to sink in but it was my daughter that was screaming like that. And I'll be honest with you, I was terrified to go through those doors and go back in the room and as I approached the room this nurse stopped me and she held her hands up and she said, the baby's coming.
And so I scurried back into the outer corridor for a few moments and then she finally came out and she said, okay, you can go in now. And so I went in and I saw something that I will never forget, my wife will never forget, my son-in-law will never forget, and I know my daughter will never forget as long as I live. My daughter was in the bed and she was holding to her bosom an eight-month-old little girl who had no life. And I wondered about the medical procedure, the policy, why in the world would they leave this dead baby in the arms of a mother?
Why didn't they just snatch it away and dispose of it however they do? And as I discussed that with the nurses they said the mother needs to see the fruit of her labor. And so she held the baby for 45 minutes for an hour. They came in, they took pictures, a lock of air, gave her a name and did all of these things and my daughter cried and I cried and her husband cried and everybody cried.
But as we've spoken of it now in the last several weeks, she said, Daddy, I had to hold my baby because I had to know that my labor was not in vain, that my pain was not in vain. Just this Monday I received word in my office that the wife of a rather famous sports figure in America passed away. Bob Griese, the all-pro former quarterback of the Miami Dolphins, his wife, young wife, Judy, died this week after battling cancer for ten years. Now I'm not a close personal friend of the Griese family, but I was in Miami a month ago and I was doing a series of lectures and after one of these lectures a woman pressed through the people and came up to me and she said, R.C., she said, I'm asking you to do a personal favor for me. And I said, what's that? She said, I have a dear friend who's been fighting cancer for ten years and she's really down right now. And she went on to tell me something of Judy Griese's story and she said, Judy's been listening to your tapes and all and she knows you, not personally, but through these educational materials and she said, I'm just sure it will mean a lot to her if you would somehow find a time to go and see her.
And I said, sure, I'll go. Well, this lady took me up to the house and we rang the doorbell and Bob answered the door and he took me into the family room and Judy was sitting back there in a chair and I came in and I sat down next to her in a chair and dear friends, I had no idea what to say to her. And she looked at me and the tears started to just roll down over her cheeks and she said, R.C., I don't think I can take it anymore. I didn't know what to say.
I mean, what do you say? Do you say we don't talk like that or do you say you have to keep hanging in there or you have to keep this? And I thought, who am I to tell this woman how much she has to take? So I didn't say anything. I just held her hand and I sat there feeling more and more and more inadequate by the moment as I held her hand for about 45 minutes and just listened to her talk.
And when we were finished we had some prayer and I left. But this woman came to me the next day and she was all excited and she said, oh, she said, you just can't believe how wonderful it was last night when you visited Judy Greasy. And I said, I didn't say anything. I said, I was so embarrassed. I said, I know she was looking to me to give her some words of comfort and of wisdom and to explain the secret counsel of Almighty God, which I'm not equipped to do no matter how much theology I've studied.
And I said, I didn't do anything. All I did was sit there and hold her hand. And she said, but that's all she wanted, and that's all she needed. She's heard all the sermons and she's heard all the platitudes, but she just wanted somebody to show her that they cared. And she said, whether you like it or not because you're a minister, you represent the presence of Christ to her.
I said, hey, it's a poor representation. And I thought at that moment of a statement that Martin Luther once made – he said, it's the duty of every Christian to be Christ to his neighbor, to represent him, to bring his comfort, his peace, his understanding, and not his judgment to people who are in pain. I don't very often get the opportunity to listen to the televangelist, but I did hear not too long ago – I heard one of these preachers.
I couldn't even remember at the moment who it was, but he was standing up and he made this statement to the people out there in television land. He said, I want you people to understand that God has nothing whatsoever to do with suffering, and that God doesn't have anything to do with death. Death is something that intrudes into the creation of God. And then of course this minister went on to say and to assign all pain and all suffering and all illness and all death to the devil.
And as I listened to that, to be honest with you, I wanted to throw something through the TV screen. And now I try to understand what would possess a minister, whether he's a television minister or any other kind of minister, to stand up and tell people that God doesn't have anything to do with suffering or that God doesn't have anything to do with death. And the only thing I could come up with was that this minister somehow wanted to answer the problems that people have when suffering comes upon them because some people get mad at God. A lot of people get mad at God.
They say, hey, you know, this isn't fair. How can you let this sort of thing happen to me? Again, why? Where is God in all of this? And what the minister on television was trying to do so carefully was to absolve God from all guilt and all responsibility forever allowing anything unpleasant to befall one of His dear creatures. Just like the philosophers used to say that if God is really loving and if God is really powerful then He couldn't possibly allow all of the tragedy and the pain and the suffering and the sorrow that happens in this world to happen. And so the minister on television neatly tied it up in a package for us and said God simply doesn't have anything to do with it. Now, I'm sure that what he was trying to do was to make people feel comfortable because they didn't want to have to think about a God who might in fact be involved with their pain.
But two things jumped into my mind at that point. The first thing I thought, I wonder if this man has ever read the Old Testament. I wonder if this man's ever read the New Testament because the God of Judaism, the God of Christianity is a God who majors in suffering. It's not by accident, ladies and gentlemen, that in the New Testament Jesus is identified as a man of sorrows who is acquainted with grief and He is called the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah's future expectation of one who would be known as the suffering servant of Israel. So far from the idea that God doesn't have anything to do with death or God doesn't have anything to do with suffering is that God is the Lord of life. He's the Lord of death. He's the Lord of pain. He's the Lord of suffering. And rather than that being bad news to me, that's good news because the simplest of all theological lessons that we can learn from this is that if there is a God who is sovereign over all of life, over all of death, and over all pain, and over all disease, and over all illness, and over all sorrow, then what that means is that it is flat out impossible that any pain could ever be without purpose. If God is, then there is no such thing as meaningless suffering. I don't know what the individual suffering means or why a particular person is called to suffer in a particular way at a particular time.
I don't know. I cannot read the mind of God, the secret counsel of God, but I do know something about the character of God, and I know that He is sovereign. And when pain comes and when disease comes, that sovereignty suddenly becomes more than an abstraction, doesn't it? Because that's where the struggle is.
Can I trust God in this or not? Now, I was talking with one of the members of the staff here of MD Anderson about problems that people experience when they are afflicted with cancer. And when the diagnosis is first made, there are all kinds of human emotions that are expressed. There's anger. There's fear. But one of the stronger emotions is surprise, because we like to think that these kinds of diseases and this kind of suffering can never or will never come into our lives. And that surprise becomes all the more accentuated when we hear ministers out there telling us that, you know, if you believe in God and you believe in Christ, you never have to worry about pain and suffering.
That's just not true. That does not comfort us when we need to be comforted. I have a little grandson that's three years old, and he's, you know how kids are. They're so oblivious to all of the sorrow that's in the world.
They're enjoying life. But then all of a sudden they bang their fingers with a hammer, or they fall down and they scrape their knees, and this little one will come in, and he's crying crocodile tears. And I'll say, what's the matter, Ryan? He says, I have an ouch. And I'll say, well, what can I do when he says, well, I want an aid band.
Or he says, he wants me to kiss it, because if I kiss it, then the ouch will go away and it'll be all over. And that's the way a lot of the pain and sickness and disease in children turns out, not for everyone. We can go here to the pediatric ward at MD Anderson and see children whose illnesses cannot be kissed away. But for most people, our childhood diseases are over as quickly and as suddenly as they came upon us. And we sort of distance ourselves from more serious pain. But as we grow older, then when we have indigestion, we're not sure it's indigestion. When we have a headache, we're not sure it's a headache. Now, the life-threatening diseases become clear and present dangers.
And for some, they hear the announcement that their disease may be terminal. And at that moment, the surprise hits. Even though we've spent our lives being prepared for this possibility, it is still a surprise. And theologically, it's the worst surprise because we're still forced back to this question, why?
How could God allow this to happen? And that's why I just for this first segment, I want to leave you with one statement from the New Testament. When St. Peter wrote to his people in the first epistle of Peter in the fourth chapter, he makes this statement, dear friends, think it not strange that you are suffering a painful trial as though some strange thing were happening to you. Isn't that interesting?
Think it not strange. That's because by this point in his life, Peter understood that God was intimately involved with suffering and that for a person to be called upon to suffer is not surprising once we understand who God is. Now, that may seem strange to you, but I want to explore that as we look at a case study in vocational suffering in our next meeting together. You can certainly hear his hope and his confidence and the compassion as he was addressing those going through great suffering.
That was R.C. Sproul speaking at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, and thanks for joining us today for Renewing Your Mind. The teaching you heard today really became a classic of Dr. Sproul's, and many Christians have returned to it time and time again to help them as they're walking through life's challenges and difficulties. But this series also has a companion book, Surprised by Suffering, The Role of Pain and Death in the Life of the Christian. When you give your gift at renewingyourmind.org, we'll send you this hardcover edition as well as give you digital access to all of the messages in the series and the study guide. Dr. Sproul really intended that this series would help Christians who are walking through those difficult seasons. So whether that's you or you're walking alongside someone that's going through a season of suffering, this is a resource that was designed to help you understand suffering from a Christian and biblical perspective. So give your gift today by visiting renewingyourmind.org or by calling us at 800-435-4343. Your generosity today will help countless people hear the truth that God has a purpose in our suffering. So thank you. As we turn to the pages of Scripture, we see there are those whom God has called to a life of suffering, but not for suffering's sake, for the glory of God. So join us tomorrow here on Renewing Your Mind. Thank you.
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