The Problem of Suffering and the Answer of Faith

“‘If God were good, He would wish to make His creatures perfectly happy, and if God were almighty He would be able to do what He wished. But the creatures are not happy, therefore God lacks either goodness, or power, or both.’ This is the problem of pain in its simplist form.” – C.S. Lewis 

This argument, described as the problem of pain by C.S. Lewis, and the problem of evil by others, is perhaps the most common argument raised against Christianity. The first time I heard the argument raised was shortly after my own “great awakening,” and, as an infant in the faith, I must admit, it caught me off guard.

My Experience
I was working as intern with Norfolk Southern railroad in Roanoke, and every day I would take my lunch break in a corner booth in a little restaurant on Market Street. Five days a week I would sit there for about 45 minutes with my nose in a book. One particular lunch break stands out because another employee had joined me for the 10 floor descent on the Norfolk Southern elevator. He noticed the book in my hand and asked about it.

The book I was reading was, and still is, one of the most exciting biographies I have ever read. Through Gates of Splendor, is the story of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, along with a team of several other families who were missionaries in Ecuador focused on reaching a tribal village known as the Auca indians. Jim Elliot, and four other men were famously and brutally murdered by this indian tribe in October 1957. These five men are probably still the most well known Christian martyrs of the modern era.

I told my co-worker this story, describing Jim Elliot as one of my heros, and his response caught me off guard. Rather than joining me in my admiration for the Elliot’s sacrifice, he asked me how I can believe in a God that would allow that to happen. He asked how I can believe in a God that would let anyone be savagely murdered by indians. Even worse, in his mind, was the idea that I followed a God who might require my health, wealth, family, and even my life, in service to him. How can I possibly believe in a God like this?

That conversation happened about 15 years ago. Since that time, the problem of suffering has left the pages of a book and has become more than a casual conversation on an elevator. I have watched many of the people I love and respect the most walk through intense suffering, and many of my friends and family are in the middle of inexpresible suffering as I am writing this post.

Because of all this suffering, we are faced with a great temptation. If we aren’t vigilant, we will begin to understand God in light of our suffering, rather than understanding our suffering in light of God. Our suffering will tempt us to deal with the problem, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, by believing that God lacks either goodness or power.

A Model of Faith
I intend, at some future time, to write about how we know that God neither lacks in goodness or power. But that is not my goal here. Certainly, knowing these truths and dwelling on the Bible’s presentation of them is an important part of walking through suffering. But before laying the foundation, I want to look at someone who has already walked upon this foundation. I want to look at Elisabeth Elliot, the woman whose husband was brutally killed in service to God, and see how her unswerving commitment to the goodness and power of God served her and steered her through this unspeakable suffering. My hope is that watching this saintly woman who has walked before us will stir our hearts to pursue God and to know Him as she has.

I will pick up Elliot’s thinking where she addresses the temptation to find justification for God in the circumstances rather than trusting that the circumstances are justified because of the nature of God.

We know that time and again in the history of the Christian church, the blood of martyrs has been its seed. We are tempted to assume a simple equation here. Five men died. This will mean x-number of Waorani Christians. Perhaps so. Perhaps not…. God is God. I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that he act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice. It is the same spirit that taunted, “If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the Cross.” There is unbelief, there is even rebellion, in the attitude that says, “God has no right to do this to five men unless…”  

Those men had long since given themselves without reservation to do the will of God… For us widows the question as to why the men who had trusted God to be both shield and defender should be allowed to be speared to death was not one that could be smoothly or finally answered in 1956, nor yet silenced in 1996. God did not answer Job’s questions either. Job was living in mystery — the mystery of the sovereign purpose of God — and the questions that arose out of the depths of that mystery were answered only by a deeper mystery, that of God Himself.

I believe with all my heart that God’s story has a happy ending. Julian of Norwich wrote, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of the thing shall be well…” But not yet, not necessarily yet. It takes faith to hold on to that in the face of the great burden of experience, which seems to prove otherwise. What God means by happiness and goodness is a far higher thing than we can conceive… 

Elisabeth Elliot models the type of faith that I long for. She doesn’t try to justify God. How could she? He is the just and the justifier (Romans 3:26). We are the ones who need to be justified, not Him. How arrogant must we be to ask God to step into our courts?

But this kind of faith is about something bigger than avoiding arrogance, it’s about finding joy. It is about knowing that regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in, we can trust God. We can be confident that, when all is said and done, he has our best interest at heart. Beyond that, we believe that He is able to bring about the greatest good that He has intended.

In another book, Passion and Purity, Elisabeth Elliot again reflects on the years following the death of her husband. She says,

Years after the end of the Jim Elliot story, my mother said something to me about my “suffering” during those waiting years. It came as a surprise to me, for though I would never have denied that the trail was a bit rugged, I had not thought of it as suffering. Shipwrecks, floggings, physical pain, yes those I would call suffering, but not my aching heart. However, it is no use trying to measure suffering. What matters is making the right use of it, taking one’s thoughts to God. Trust is the lesson. Jesus loves me, this I know — not because he does just what I’d like, but because the Bible tells me so. Calvary proves it. He loved me and gave Himself for me. 

This is the kind of faith I want. This is the way I want to deal with the problem of evil when I find it in my life. Jesus loves me this I know, not because my life is free from suffering, but because the Bible tells me so. I believe that this unswerving commitment to the goodness and the power of God is the very heart of what it means to be a Christian. More than that, it is the source from which we can do something that is uniquely Christian; find joy in all of our sufferings.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)


Think of the Bridge!

Perhaps you, like me, aren’t terribly familiar with the 19th century minister named Robert Lewis Dabney. Southern Presbyterians might recognize him as one of the most influential theologians of their tradition. Civil War buffs may be familiar with him as he was a chaplain in the war and, according to Wikipedia, the chief biographer of Stonewall Jackson. Duck Dynasty fans might recognize him as the pioneer that gave birth to Uncle Si’s sense of style.

In Dabney’s later years he suffered from a variety of ailments including the loss his eyesight and extremely painful kidney stones. His biography refers to them as urinary calculus, but for the best I can tell he had kidney stones stuck in his ureter. His doctor tried to pulverize the stones, but with technology as it was in the 19th century, this ultimately caused irreparable damage to his prostrate. Dabney describes his own pain in a letter, saying

Soon after I got through with it, the leading surgeons began to notice that lithotrity was followed in too many cases by hypertrophy of the prostate glands, resulting from the bruising, a permanent and incurable evil. It was precisely so in my case. The evil grew gradually for five years, causing increasing anguish, at times beyond description. Now, indeed, this constriction caused me ‘cystitis’ in good earnest This became worse and worse, until in January, 1890, it brought me to death’s door. One of the physicians gave me over to die at once. In the old States my death was reported, and my obituaries written and published.

The event apparently caused some fear in him because he wrote a letter to a friend named, Clement Read Vaughn. From what I can gather, Dabney’s letter expressed some fear that he would lose faith as he faced his impending death.

Vaughn’s response shows deep theological understanding and pastoral wisdom. It is the most profound, yet surprisingly simple, recipe for developing faith that I know of. I trust that as you and I find our faith assailed by the sufferings of this world, we will return to this sage advice and find refreshment for our souls.

… Do you remember, in the stress of your trial, how faith comes? Let me remind you, although you know it. You know we are sanctified through the truth. Sanctification is just the growth of the particular graces of the spirit, of which faith is one. Just here is where Christians make a great mistake. When they want more faith, or want to know whether the faith they have is the right sort of faith, instead of looking at the things to be believed, they turn their eyes inward and scrutinize their faith. They want to see something in their faith to trust in, something that will certify their faith. Of course, self-examination is all right, but not when it practically substitutes faith for our Lord, grace and righteousness. Even a great theological thinker is as apt to make that mistake when he has come into the practical stress of this awful world as a common Christian.

Now, suppose a traveler comes to a bridge, and he is in doubt about trusting himself to it What does he do to breed confidence in the bridge? He looks at the bridge; he gets down and examines it. He don’t stand at the bridge-head and turn his thoughts curiously in on his own mind to see if he has confidence in the bridge. If his examination of the bridge gives him a certain amount of confidence, and yet he wants more, how does he make his faith grow? Why, in the same way; he still continues to examine the bridge.

Now, my dear old man, let your faith take care of itself for awhile, and you just think of what you are allowed to trust in. Think of the Master’s power, think of his love; think how he is interested in the soul that searches for him, and will not be comforted until he finds him. Think of what he has done, his work. That blood of his is mightier than all the sins of all the sinners that ever lived. Don’t you think it will master yours? Think of his great righteousness; will it not avail for all you hope to gain? That great work is enough; it needs not to be supplemented; it meets every demand. It warrants you to come into the King’s very presence, assured of welcome, because you can come in the name of the King’s Son. That work of Christ is like a bankrupt for ten thousand dollars allowed to draw on the revenues of an empire to pay out. Think of the Master when you want your faith to grow.

Now, dear old friend, I have done to you just what I would want you to do to me if I were lying in your place. The great theologian, after all, is just like any other one of God’s children, and the simple gospel talked simply to him is just as essential to his comfort as it is to a milk-maid or to a plow-boy. May God giye you grace, not to lay too much stress on your faith, but to grasp the great ground of confidence, Christ, and all his work and all his personal fitness to be a sinner’s refuge. Faith is only an eye to see him. I have been praying that God would quiet your pains as you advance, and enable you to see the gladness of the gospel at every step. Good-bye. God be with you as he will. Think of the Bridge!

Your brother, C R. V.

* For more on Dabney you can read The Life and Letters of R. L. Dabney as a .pdf. You will find this letter on page 479, (512 of the .pdf file)

Reflections on the Death of a Loved One

Last Friday I went to my uncle’s funeral. It was a wonderful ceremony and a fine memorial for a fine man. My uncle, Rick, suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, which made the end of his life very difficult. He was diagnosed with the disease in August of 2003, and it quickly began to exact a devastating curse on his body. For the next 9 years my uncle and his family experienced a long and devastating death.

The funeral itself was a happy time. Rick’s life before the disease was outstanding. His life was marked by a profound love for God and for others. The church was full of people eager to testify the how he was a blessing to them. When it is time to bury a loved one, it is so encouraging to know that they loved the Lord, and more importantly, the Lord loved them.

Yet, there remains a question that seems heavy on many of our minds. Why would God allow this kind of suffering, especially in a family who loves Him so dearly? I don’t claim to know the specifics of why God chose to allow my uncle to suffer, but I do think I can make two claims with confidence.

1. Suffering is not necessarily the result of a specific sin. Certainly, suffering only exists because sin has entered the world. Without sin there would be no suffering, and this is one of the things that makes heaven so exciting. Yet Jesus makes it clear that specific instances of suffering should not necessarily be linked to specific sins. Jesus makes this clear in an interaction with his disciples in John 9:2-3.

And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parent, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:2-3)

When my uncle died, no one there believed that his sickness was a result of his sin. His life was characterized by obedience and love for God. Yet, he lived in a fallen world and the effects of sin affect the world indiscriminately. There is no point in tracing every instance of suffering back to some sin which produced it. Instead it is enough to know that a fallen world is a hard place, liberally offering pain and suffering to all its inhabitants.

2. Suffering is not without purpose. While the effects of sin are indiscriminately distributed, it does not follow that they are without purpose. Jesus explained that the suffering of the blind man was so that God might be glorified in him. In that story, Jesus proceeded to heal the man, demonstrating himself master even over the effects of sin. Yet many other times, in fact more often than not, healing is delayed until after death so that the believer and those around him or her can experience a different aspect of the glory of God.

This was certainly the case with Paul. Consider Paul’s own testimony in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

God allowed Paul’s suffering, and I believe my uncle’s suffering, for the same reason, to serve as a reminder of our need for Him. Rick’s life served as a sign pointing people to Christ, his death was no different. It reminded us of our frailty and our overwhelming need for God’s mercy. It reminded us that we are weak, but God is strong.

John Newton – I Asked The Lord That I Might Grow
Perhaps the greatest poem on this topic was written by John Newton, the author of the famous hymn, “Amazing Grace.” His hymn, “I asked the Lord that I might grow,” explains in excruciating detail how God uses suffering to accomplish His purposes.

I asked the Lord, that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know;
And seek more earnestly His face.
Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust has answered prayer;
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair!

I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining power,
Subdue my sins–and give me rest!

Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry powers of hell
Assault my soul in every part!

Yes more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe!
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds–and laid me low!

“Lord, why is this!” I trembling cried,
“Will you pursue your worm to death?”
“This is the way,” the Lord replied,
“I answer prayer for grace and faith.”

“These inward trials I employ,
From self and pride to set you free;
And break your schemes of earthly joy,
That you may seek your all in Me!”

There is no doubt that Newton understands that suffering has a purpose. The only question left is, “is it worth it?” Newton asks for grace and faith, but the price he pays for it is dear.  What reward is worth the suffering that Newton describes? What reward is worth the long and devastating death that my uncle and his family endured? The reward must be, and most assuredly is, greater than the suffering.

John Newton only hints at the great reward. He is taught to seek his all in Christ. Paul explains the reward much more explicitly in Philippians 3:8-11.

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

The reward of suffering is Christ. This is why we can count it pure joy when we face trials of many kinds, because it leads us to Christ. The process is certainly long and hard. We must be taught to persevere. We are taught the painful lessons required to learn character. But at the end, there is hope (Romans 5:3-5). There is Christ. The suffering that Newton describes and the suffering that my uncle and his family endured are not worth it if we expect some cheap reward. If the reward is something small, a better job or better friends, the price would indeed be too steep. But this is no small reward. The reward of suffering is Christ. For Him, no price is too high.

My uncle knew Christ and is today in heaven, free from the suffering that characterized the last ten years of his life. Yet, I cannot escape the conviction that he perhaps endured suffering for more than himself. Perhaps, his suffering can be our tutor as well. My prayer is, I believe, the same as his would be. That as we remember how his body failed, we will learn not to trust in our own bodies. We won’t rely on our strength or our wits. We won’t presume to have many more years before we must face our creator. Instead, we will begin now to strive for the great reward, the surpassing worth of know Christ Jesus.

Is God Good? A Wise Response From Psalm 73

Truly God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart. (Psalm 73:1)

Is that true? Is God good to the people who love him and follow Him? What about missionaries like Jim Elliot who are brutally massacred by a savage South American tribe? What about godly people like Job who loses his family, his health, and all his money? Or what about more modern examples like my two friends who have both been left by unbelieving husbands while they struggle to be godly single mothers to their three children? What about my seminary professor, Steve McKinion, whose son was recently diagnosed with a rare form of Leukemia? What about the countless other stories of people who love Jesus and are living through enormous amounts of suffering and pain?

In Psalm 73, Asaph considers the suffering that God’s followers go through and he says, “But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped” (Psalm 73:2). He knows he should say that God is good, but the evidence is making him question whether it is even true. And to make matters worse, he points out that those who don’t believe in God, those who reject God and set themselves against him, seem to be much better off. Consider his complaint.

For I was envious of the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.
For they have no pangs until death;
their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness;
their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
and their tongue struts through the earth.
Therefore his people turn back to them,
and find no fault in them.
And they say, “How can God know?
Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease,
they increase in riches. (Psalm 73:3-12)

The obvious question that Asaph is facing is, “if God is so good, why do his followers suffer while those who oppose him get all the rewards?” As adults we ask why non-Christians, who lie and cheat, and refuse to pay all their taxes, seem to make all the money. As a student at a Christian high school I used to wonder, why do the public schools have better sports programs that we do? Either way, the question was the same, is there any reward to following God? Is God truly good to those who love Him?

Asaph really struggled with this question. He began to think:

All in vain have I  kept my heart clean,
and washed my hands in innocence.
For all the day long I have been stricken
and rebuked every morning.

If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed the generation of your children.
But when I thought how to understand this,
it seemed to me a wearisome task, (Psalm 73:13-16)

He knows that he isn’t supposed to say that obeying God is all in vain, but the evidence seems stacked against him. The more he thought about it, the more tired and defeated he became. How in the world can he agree that God is truly good?

Then something happened that changed Asaph’s perspective for the better. He steped into the sanctuary of God (Psalm 73:14). It’s here that he gets perspective. It is when he steps into the sanctuary of God that he becomes wise. And he shares with us three ways to wisely respond when we see suffering among Gods people.

A Wise Person Expands Their Frame of Reference
What Asaph had failed to realize is that he was only looking at a small part of time. He forgot that there was an eternity before him. He forgot that while God doesn’t promise immediate judgment, he does promise complete judgment in the end. He forgot that God will always handle his business.

until I went into the sanctuary of God;
then I discerned their end.
Truly you set them in slippery places;
you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
swept away utterly by terrors!
Like a dream when one awakes,
O Lord, when you rouse yourself,
you despise them as phantoms. (Psalm 73:17-20)

God is eternal, we are but phantoms. We are like wisps of smoke that appear briefly and fade away. We may think our little times on earth are long, but they are but a blink of an eye in the mind of God. Asaph’s wisdom is that he moves his thoughts from the now, to the eternal. What happens now is a small thing, what matters is the end. An eternity awaits us. The wise man does not covet the temporary successes of today, instead he longs for the treasures that moths and dust will not destroy.

In our foolishness we think of Jim Elliot as a Christian who suffered a tragic, violent death and we question how a good God could allow this. However, Jim Elliot did not share in our foolishness. Instead he famously stated, “he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Jim Elliot was wise because he, like Paul, did not consider the sufferings of this present time to be worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Romans 8:18).

A Wise Person Repents of Their Lack of Faith
Several times I have heard someone offer the dangerous advice, “it is okay to be angry with God, He can handle it.” Certainly that was the initial response of Asaph. However, that was Asaph’s response when he was acting a fool. Watch what he says after he met with God.

When my soul was embittered,
when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you. (Psalm 73:21-22)

Asaph realizes that our lack of faith isn’t natural or to be expected, it is sin. When someone we love gets sick or dies, it is not okay to be angry with God. When someone we trust hurts or betrays us, it is not okay to be angry with God.
It may be that you and I have already become angry with God for the hardships he has allowed in our lives. In this situation it is helpful to consider God’s interaction with Job in chapters 38-40. God concludes by asking Job, “shall a fault finder contend with the Almighty” (Job 40:2)? Job, who like Asaph, had a encounter with God responded,

Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice by I will proceed no further. (Job 40:4-5)

If we are wise, our response to suffering will look like Job’s and Asaph’s. Our fear of God will keep us from being angry with him (Proverbs 1:7). If we have become angry, rather than seeking to justify our anger, we will quickly repent of it, confessing that we have become brutish and ignorant. Repentance is the response of a wise person.

A Wise Person Seeks a Better Reward
The root of Asaph’s troubles, and ours, is that he misunderstood the rewards of the Gospel. Asaph thought that the reward of following God was that he wouldn’t suffer as much as if he didn’t know God. He thought knowing God should bring money, success, and peace. When I was in High School, I thought it would bring our soccer team more wins. How foolish we were to think that the rewards of the gospel were so meager.

But when Asaph meets God, he becomes wise. It’s then he realizes that his reward is much greater.

Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. (Psalm 73:23-26)

Who needs money, or life, or more wins for your soccer team, or anything else this world can offer when you have God? Asaph explains, “there is nothing on earth I desire but you!” This completely redefines what it means to say that God is good. Why would we measure God’s goodness by such small things as money, friends, spouses, or even our own lives when we have been given something that is so much more valuable than all of this? WE HAVE GOD!

John Piper once asked a great question that helps reveal if we have begun to understand this truth. He asks.

Would you be satisfied to go to heaven, have everybody there in your family that you want there, have all the health and restoration of your prime, and everything you disliked about yourself fixed, have every recreation you’ve ever dreamed available to you, and have infinite resources and money to spend, would you be satisfied…if God weren’t there?

If so, you have missed the Gospel. Heaven isn’t great because we are reunited with our loved ones. Heaven is great because we get to be with God. The Gospel isn’t great simply because we get our sins forgiven. It is great because when our sins are forgiven we get to be reunited with God. God is the great reward of the Gospel.

Being Wise When We Suffer
Suffering is a real thing. Christians really go through it, often in truly devastating ways. We must not underestimate suffering or trivialize it. At the same time, we must approach it with wisdom. If we are wise, we will expand our visions. We will not simply think of the present, but believe that all suffering fits into the eternal plan of God. If we are wise, we will not allow ourselves to become embittered against God. Instead, we will humble ourselves and repent of the arrogance of thinking that we know better than he does. Finally, if we are wise, our suffering will move us even closer to the only one who can provide true, eternal satisfaction. In Hosea 6:1, the prophet gives Israel some perspective for their suffering.

Come, let us return to the Lord;
For he has torn us, that he may heal us;
he has struck us down, and he will bind us up.

When we face suffering we must be wise. We must not waste it. We must use it as an opportunity to be healed and sustained by God.

What do economics and suffering have in common?

What do economics and suffering have in common? Your first response might be, “a bad economy makes me suffer.” Or, you might say, “if I had more money I would suffer less.” While those may be true (though I am not so sure that they are) I was thinking that economics and suffering are both nearly impossible for us to fully understand.

Justin Taylor recently posted a blog titled “Economics in One Lesson.” In his post he discusses a book written in 1946 by Henry Hazlett called Economics in One Lesson: the shortest and surest way to understand basic economics. Taylor explains that the basic premise of this book is that a good economist cannot merely look at the immediate circumstances and results to understand the economy but must always be taking in the larger picture.

He quotes Hazlett, saying:

Economics in One Lesson: The Shortest and Surest Way to Understand Basic EconomicsThe bad economist sees only what immediately strikes the eye; the good economist also looks beyond.
The bad economist sees only the direct consequences of a proposed course; the good economist looks also at the longer and indirect consequences.
The bad economist sees only what the effect of a given policy has been or will be on one particular group; the good economist inquires also what the effect of the policy will be on all groups.

     To illustrate, he articulates the famous “broken window fallacy”:

A young hoodlum, say, heaves a brick through the window of a baker’s shop. The shopkeeper runs out furious, but the boy is gone. A crowd gathers, and begins to stare with quiet satisfaction at the gaping hole in the window and the shattered glass over the bread and pies.

After a while the crowd feels the need for philosophic reflection. And several of its members are almost certain to remind each other or the baker that, after all, the misfortune has its bright side. It will make business for some glazier. As they begin to think of this they elaborate upon it. How much does a new plate glass window cost? Two hundred and fifty dollars? That will be quite a sum. After all, if windows were never broken, what would happen to the glass business? Then, of course, the thing is endless. The glazier will have $250 more to spend with other merchants, and these in turn will have $250 more to spend with still other merchants, and so ad infinitum. The smashed window will go on providing money and employment in ever-widening circles. The logical conclusion from all this would be, if the crowd drew it, that the little hoodlum who threw the brick, far from being a public menace, was a public benefactor.

Now let us take another look. The crowd is at least right in its first conclusion. This little act of vandalism will in the first instance mean more business for some glazier. The glazier will be no more unhappy to learn of the incident than an undertaker to learn of a death. But the shopkeeper will be out $250 that he was planning to spend for a new suit. Because he has had to replace the window, he will have to go without the suit (or some equivalent need or luxury). Instead of having a window and $250 he now has merely a window. Or, as he was planning to buy the suit that very afternoon, instead of having both a window and a suit he must be content with the window and no suit. If we think of him as part of the community, the community has lost a new suit that might otherwise have come into being, and is just that much poorer. The glazier’s gain of business, in short, is merely the tailor’s loss of business. No new “employment” has been added. The people in the crowd were thinking only of two parties to the transaction, the baker and the glazier. They had forgotten the potential third party involved, the tailor. They forgot him precisely because he will not now enter the scene. They will see the new window in the next day or two. They will never see the extra suit, precisely because it will never be made. They see only what is immediately visible to the eye.

The point seems to be that because thing happen in a community, all economic decisions have a nearly unending consequences. While there are some things we can know (i.e. creating of new goods is better than not creating new goods), it is nearly impossible to take into account all the ramifications of any economic event, much less to understand how a limitless number will work together in reality. Our minds are simply too small and our perspectives are too limited.  It seems that in the world of economics, the best we can do is understand some of the principles and act in faith that it will all work out.

Suffering is much like economics in this way. Who can possibly conceptualize all the good or bad that comes from any event? Our minds and our perspectives are so small that we could never possibly be aware of all the effects of any one instance of suffering, much less many instances of suffering. This makes us no different than the crowd, pontificating about the economic effects of tossing a brick through a window, while only being able to see the event from a limited perspective.

The good news is that there is one who has an infinite perspective and infinite wisdom. God is able to look at every single instance of suffering and know its every dimension. He knows the pain that it causes and He knows the good that it brings. He knows how it affects you and he knows how it effects everyone else. In the domain of suffering, God is the good economist. By placing God in Hazlett’s criteria we get a glimpse of just how good he really is:

The bad economist sees only what immediately strikes the eye; only God can also fully look beyond.
The bad economist sees only the direct consequences of a proposed course; only God can also fully look at the longer and indirect consequences.
The bad economist sees only what the effect of a given policy has been or will be on one particular group; only God can also fully see what the effect of the policy will be on all groups.

While God stands as the only master economist in the world of suffering, He has revealed some principles to help us work through suffering wisely. We may not be experts on suffering ourselves, we can still wisely follow the advice of an expert.

1. God is sovereign – Nothing, absolutely nothing, happens outside of the plan of God. Even the greatest evil of all time, the murder of God himself, was the express plan of God to bring the salvation of all the world. “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him, he has put him to grief… the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Is. 53:10-11). Therefore, no suffering is outside of the plans and purposes of God.

2. God is good – When Israel faced persecution the prophet Isaiah sought to refocus their attention on the truth of who God is saying, “I will recount the steadfast love of the LORD, the praises of the LORD, according to all that the LORD has granted us, and the great goodness to the house of Israel that he has granted them according to his compassion, according to the abundance of his steadfast love” (Is. 63:7).

3. Suffering offers us a chance for self-reflection and repentance – Sometimes God uses suffering to discipline us as His beloved children. In these cases suffering is the “rod of correction” that trains us to live righteously. While not all suffering is a direct response to a specific sin that we committed, all suffering is a result of sin. So whether suffering is caused by a specific sin we have committed or if it is a consequence of living in a sinful world, we are always wise to say along with Hosea, “Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up” (Hos. 6:1).

4. We must rejoice even in the midst of suffering – When we suffer we must constantly return to the first two points. Only God is big enough to control all things and good enough that we can trust Him to control all things. Therefore we can be confident that any suffering that God allows will work out for His good, and for our good. Thus James says “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)