You may be thinking, why start a series on knowing God through suffering with the most abstract and difficult doctrine known to Christians? Why not start with something simpler, like mercy or faithfulness? All in due time.
I start with the Trinity because who God is in his fullness of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is the starting point for all our understanding about God. If we skip who God is at the very essence of his being, we may get off on the wrong foot. But even more importantly, the triune nature of God in his three persons is a gold mine for understanding the riches of God and his reasons for allowing his creatures to suffer.
Christians worship one God, and it’s a good thing, too. In the religions of the ancient world, and in Hinduism today (and in some ways the system of saints in Roman Catholicism), you couldn’t just go to one source for all your problems. Each god had its own realm over which it exercised dominion. As a result, you had to offer sacrifices at the temple of the god connected to your problem. If you wanted to pray for your wife to get pregnant or your crops to succeed in the Canaanite religion, you would appeal to Baal. If you wanted healing in the Greco-Roman world, you would offer a clay replica of your diseased body part at the temple of Asclepius. None of the gods were sovereign over it all.
In Christianity, however, we have one God who is sovereign and absolute over all creation. He controls all that happens, from the expansion of the universe to the mutation of a gene. No matter what your source of suffering, whether it be an oppressive spouse, antagonistic boss, metastasized cancer, or crippling arthritis, the LORD, whose name is Yahweh, alone can help you. There are no lesser gods through whom you must go to get to the most powerful god. There is only the one true God who rules space and time.
On the other end of the spectrum is the god of Islam and the god of Judaism. Allah and the Jewish concept of God are what we call monistic gods. That is, there is no internal distinction within them. Both deny the persons of the godhead that Christians embrace. Why is this important? It is important because it means that inherently these gods are not relational. Before the world began to exist, these gods existed by themselves in relation to no one. They simply existed in a state of silent self-consciousness or were inactive substances.
This impersonal nature shows in the vision of each religion when they address what happens to a follower when he dies or in the eternal state at the end of time. Judaism is diverse, so its vision of life at the end of time varies, but regardless the god of Judaism was in relationship with no one until he (or she) created. Similarly, in Islam the vision of the future includes a world of pleasure, but not one where followers enjoy a relationship with Allah, ever growing in their knowledge and delight of him.
Contrast this to Christianity. Before Yahweh created anything, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit existed outside of time in relationship to one another. The essential nature of this relationship was loving, giving, and knowing the other. In other words, the essence of God includes loving and enjoying another. God did not need to create the world to express love or have a relationship with another person; he already had that perfectly and infinitely within himself. Because the trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is eternal and by its very nature personal and relational, the Scriptures can rightly say, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Unlike the gods of other religions, God is personal at the very essence of who he is.
What does all this have to do with suffering? In the midst of suffering God can seem far away. The immediacy of IV’s, ventilators, catheters, heart monitors, and medications can seem like the only reality. When you are constantly being stuck, injected, scanned, and stitched, the physical reality of your illness pushes God and his presence to the periphery of your sight. God seems unreal and the suffering of your body or heart seems like the only reality.
Alternately, God can seem impersonal and heartless. Who has not begged God for relief, even if no more than for a few drops of water on a parched tongue, only to hear the silence of heaven? Maybe the deists are right. Maybe God wound up the clock of this world and walked away. Maybe no one answers because no one is there.
This is where the truth of God’s triunity shows us God’s personal, merciful, healing care. To that we return in Part 2.
Reposted from Apolotheo.
Mark Farnham is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Pastoral and Pre-Seminary Majors at Lancaster Bible College in Lancaster, PA. Previously he taught systematic theology and apologetics at the seminary level for eleven years. Prior to that he served as senior pastor in New London, CT for seven years. Mark earned a PhD in Apologetics from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He also holds a Master of Theology degree in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Master of Divinity degree from Calvary Baptist Seminary.