The Pastor's Study | Thoughts on Suffering and Our View of God
I grew up on Gilligan’s Island back in the Stone Age (the 1970’s) when all we had were four TV channels to watch. No DVD’s; no YouTube; no Direct TV. No choices—you watched what was programmed. On one of those channels was the comedy, Gilligan’s Island. Everyone in America at the time watched it and was familiar with it. There was the main character, Gilligan along with six other people stranded on an island in the Pacific Ocean somewhere in the vicinity of Hawaii.
Throughout the course of the show, the seven castaways are ceaselessly trying to get rescued, but to no avail. The island on which they are stranded is frequented by “natives” or “head-hunters” who were primitive, dangerous and cannibalistic. As an impressionable little kid, I will never forget one episode that had an indelible impact on my life.
A practitioner of voodoo, a native Witch Doctor, came to the island and found the seven people, including Gilligan and the Skipper. He wanted to torture them so he made little voodoo dolls, that looked just like each of the castaways. He strung them up in a line on a string over a campfire be- tween two trees. He made a Gilligan voodoo doll, took it in his hands, and started torturing it. And every time he tortured the Gilligan doll, the real Gilligan felt the pain. Then the Witch Doctor took fire and began to heat the feet of all seven dolls as they hung on the string, and when he did all seven real people felt the pain.
That’s comical, but that story actually reflects what happens in voodoo religion today. Yet, some people think God is like that—up there in heaven, like a divine puppeteer yanking your chain and poking needles in your body in order to torture you for His pleasure and entertainment; or that God is in heaven poking your doll every time you do something wrong down on earth to punish you. That is a wrong view of God and His relation to our trials, but the world often views God this way and, unfortunately, some Christians occasionally do as well. They think, “God is trying to torture me. He enjoys punishing me.” Or, “He’s against me; He’s my enemy; He doesn’t want me to succeed.” That’s very discouraging.
Not Tempted by God
Perhaps you struggle with thinking that way about God. You need to get that thinking out of your mind. “Yeah, I am in a trial and this trial is horrible!” But it’s not a unique trial. It is a trial you can overcome. The author of Hebrews said that Jesus Himself, while He was on earth, went through every conceivable trial known to humanity (Hebrews 4:15). There is not one trial that you have experienced to which Jesus was not subjected. Jesus was exposed to every conceivable trial imaginable and He confronted them head on as the God-Man; He faced them as real trials, but He overcame them successfully. Jesus met the temptation every time by trusting His Father to lead Him through the Spirit, and He overcame these trials victoriously on your behalf and my behalf, so that now as the Mediator He can be your compassionate High Priest, able to relate to everything we will confront in life.
He understands. The Lord Jesus is the greatest of confidants to which we can go. In light of the truth in Hebrews 4, we need to pray, “Lord Jesus, you know about this trial in my life because you were subjected to a similar trial. Please be my High Priest. Sustain me.” If you pray like that, in faith, then He will answer your prayer. Or you can pray, “God, give me wisdom.” That’s why James 1:13 says, “Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God’; for God can- not be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone.” This is a command. When you are tempted or undergoing a trial and you are emotionally distraught, don’t say, “I am being tempted or tried by God.” In other words, don’t blame the trial on God. He’s not trying to bully us or be mean to us or laugh at us or toy with us. He doesn’t tempt anyone.
Well, what about Job? It’s important to understand that God and Satan were involved in the trials that befell Job, but God was completely sovereign over them. If Satan made a request, God could veto that request because God is in control. He is sovereign. He is all-powerful. He has power over the devil. He has power over all of our trials. This truth is clear when you read the book of Job. God defines the parameters and the extent of your trial. Yes, Satan was involved; Satan did inflict the temptations. But God allowed the trials because He is sovereign. He allows trials, but He never tempts anyone to sin.
We can see this balance in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ temptation (4:1-11). Jesus lived the first thirty years of His life in obscurity. Nobody knew who He was. Everybody thought He was a normal person. And then immediately after His baptism, Jesus began His public ministry. But before He began preaching and healing, we read: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit” (4:1).
To where was the Spirit leading Jesus? The Holy Spirit prompted Jesus to go into the wilderness to face a trial with Satan himself. But note that God the Father allowed this trial to come to Jesus. God the Father was in charge of the trial that the Son was going to undergo and the temptation that He was going to endure. But the Holy Spirit didn’t just passively allow it; the Holy Spirit Himself actively brought Jesus to that place where temptation would occur.
So, where does temptation come from? Well, it doesn’t come from God. God tempts no one to sin. The devil was going to try to tempt Jesus to sin. That’s not God the Father’s fault; that’s not the Holy Spirit’s fault. The temptation to sin came from Satan himself. The same is true with us. Any temptation to sin can either come from Satan, his demons, or from our own sinful hearts. That’s what James tells us: our temptations come from “indwelling sin.” That’s the beautiful balance we find in Matthew 4:1. God is involved in Jesus’ trial in the wilderness, sovereignly overseeing His plan, but Satan is also involved in the trial as well.
Let’s go back to James 1:13: don’t accuse God of bringing you into this temptation. You might ask: Why does temptation occur? Sin. Note verse 14: “But each one of us is tempted when we are carried away and enticed by our own lusts.” See, sin is the problem. Verse 15: “Then when lust is conceived, it gives birth.” It’s a process.
First, it was a neutral test that God allowed. Then, if you cross the threshold and don’t resist the test in a biblical manner through the power of the Holy Spirit, then you cross that threshold into dangerous, sinful territory brought on by your own enticed, intrigued, curious lusts from within. “I want to see how close I can get before I get hurt,” we might think to ourselves. And then you just get sucked in and it’s too late. Note verse 15: “Then lust will conceive in your heart and give birth.” The byproduct is sin, and when sin is accomplished, it brings death or consequence.
Here’s the point: We need to have a biblical view of trials, and the Lord Jesus Christ provides us with the perfect model of how to handle any trial that may confront us. We also need to remember that God does not tempt us to sin; He is in sovereign control of our lives—even our trials. We have the answer in Scripture, for Scripture is sufficient to make us complete, no matter what’s going on in our life (2 Timothy 3:16- 17).