This year’s preaching theme is called Hope Starts Here. After a year like 2020 we needed a year where we can see how God gives us hope in hard times. In our message today we are going to talk about having hope when life seems hopeless. Suffering often presents great challenges to our faith. We can hear all kinds of bad information about the reason for suffering in the world. In fact, some will even use suffering as the argument against the existence of God. If there is God, they ask, then how can there be so much suffering and pain in the world? Sadly, I do not think good answers are often given to this question. Often we have not heard good answers for our suffering as we try to serve the Lord. God does give answers for suffering in his word. He has not left to us to wonder why the world is the way that it is or why we go through suffering in life. God did not promote ignorance as the basis for our worship. In fact, God gives a lot of answers for our suffering. In last month’s lesson called Hope When Crushed By Trials, we looked at Job’s response to trials and these gave us some answers about suffering and how to respond when trials strike us down. In this lesson we are going to look at human suffering and what God says about what is going on. Open your Bibles to the Gospel of John as we will look at what Jesus says about suffering and how he gives hope to the hopeless. Let’s look at two pictures in Jesus’ life from the book of John.
Who Sinned? (John 9)
As we look at these two passages in John, I want to share with you the hope I found these passages for my own life. When I preached through John almost 10 years ago, these two texts that we are going to look at just hit me so hard and helped me greatly in dealing with hardships in life. The first picture is found in John 9. In John 9 Jesus passes by a man who was born blind. But this causes the disciples to ask a question. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). I want us to begin by seeing that we have a person who was born with a condition. It leads to a natural inclination as revealed in the question by the disciples. Who did something wrong? Since this man was born blind, did he do something wrong or did his parents do something wrong? We have the tendency to look at suffering and pain in this light. We want to know why this happened and who is to blame? This seems to be the basis by which the disciples ask this question. Who sinned?
But we need to carefully consider Jesus’ answer. Look at what he says it verse 3. Jesus says that it is not that this man sinned or that his parents sinned. We need to stop there and let this sink in. They did not do anything wrong. This suffering is not a condemnation. This suffering is not the direct consequence of sin. We need to accept this truth about how God runs the world. This is an important truth: all suffering is not the direct result of someone sinning. We could say all suffering is the result from Adam’s sin since there was perfection in the garden before his sin. But this is not we are considering. The blind man’s suffering is not the direct result of his sin or another’s sin. Now it is true that there is suffering that is the result of sinning. We have seen that idea preached by the prophets in our Sunday evening studies. People were suffering because of the wickedness of others. So much suffering in the world does happen as the result of sinning. But that does not solve all questions about suffering. This person was born blind. Can we point to someone sinning as the cause for this happening to this man? The answer is a resounding no. This suffering is not because someone sinned. Since this suffering is not because someone sinned, then what is the reason? Look at how Jesus continues in verse 3.
Jesus said it is not that the man sinned or the parents sinned, “but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” The man was born blind so that God’s works could be displayed in him. The reason for this man’s suffering and pain was so that the activity and power of God would be seen. This is Jesus’ answer regarding this man’s condition. Now I want us to hold this answer in our minds while we look at Jesus saying something similar in another situation. Turn to John 11.
Why Didn’t God Do Something? (John 11)
John 11 presents another circumstance where we have Lazarus on the brink of death. Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, send a messenger to Jesus telling him that Lazarus is sick to the point of death. The message is very simple. “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (11:3). I want you to notice Jesus’ answer and notice its similarity to the answer he gave his disciples about the man born blind. Look at verse 4.
But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (John 11:4 ESV)
Verse 5 makes it clear that Jesus loved Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, allowing Lazarus to die. The explanation for what Jesus is doing is in verse 4. This is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it. In John 9 we saw that Jesus answered the reason for the suffering was so that the works of God would be on display. In John 11 we see Jesus answering that the reason for the suffering was so that the glory of God would be on display in Jesus. Jesus expresses this idea further in John 11:15 when he says that he is glad that he was not there with Lazarus so that this would be a moment for the disciples to believe. I think it is important to see that these are crucial pictures of how God runs the world. In both instances Jesus wants his disciples to know that the reason why he does what he does and the reason why there is suffering and pain in the world is so that God can be glorified.
The apostle Paul highlights this very point as he introduces his letter to the Ephesians. Three times in the first 14 verses of Ephesians 1, the apostle Paul declares that God’s operation in the world is for the praise of his own glory. In Ephesians 1:6 we learn that God predestined us as his children to the praise of his glory. In Ephesians 1:12 we learn that we have obtained an inheritance so that we might be to the praise of his glory. In Ephesians 1:14 we learn that our belief in the Lord and being sealed with the Holy Spirit until we obtain our inheritance is for the praise of God’s glory. Jesus is saying the same thing. The reason things are going to way they are going is so that all things will be to the praise of God’s glory. In fact, Jesus is going to speak about his own death as his glorification in the Gospel of John (John 7:39; 12:16; 12:23; 13:31). Now this all sounds counterintuitive. How can suffering and pain be to the praise of God’s glory? Wouldn’t a lack of suffering and pain cause God to be glorified? Where am I going with this idea?
All For God’s Glory
Jesus said that the man was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him. Jesus also said that the death of Lazarus was going to be for God’s glory so that the Son of God might be glorified through it. We might think that Jesus is only referring to the miracle of healing the blind man and the miracle of raising Lazarus from the dead. While these miracles certainly glorified Jesus, the necessity of these miracles is saying something about the world of suffering and pain. Let me lead you a little bit to where I am going. Why did Jesus have to glorified through a man being born blind so that Jesus could heal him? Why did Lazarus have to die for Jesus to be glorified? Why didn’t Jesus find glorification by flying around like a bird in the air so that all would believe in him? Why wasn’t Jesus glorified by doing something else that humans cannot do? Why wasn’t walking on water enough? Why wasn’t feeding 5000 enough? Why is Jesus glorified through pain and suffering?
The key reason for sin and suffering being allowed in the world is so that Jesus can suffer and die by the hands of sinful people to save us from our sins. Jesus hanging on a cross only happens in a world of sin and suffering. Jesus would not be crucified otherwise. What the scriptures are repeatedly telling us is that God’s glory is observed in its greatest way through the cross. Consider the following scriptures.
For while we were still helpless, at the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. For rarely will someone die for a just person—though for a good person perhaps someone might even dare to die. But God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. How much more then, since we have now been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from wrath. (Romans 5:6–9 CSB)
Now think about all the ways God has shown his love for us. God has shown his love for us in the creation. All things were made for us. God did not need an earth. God did not need a solar system or galaxies or anything in the physical creation. God shows his love in the creation. God has shown his love for us by giving us life. God has shown his love for us by giving us provisions so that we can eat, drink, and live. God has shown his love for us by giving us relationships. He made us seek to desire relationships with others so that we could experience love and friendships. God has shown his love for us through worship so that we can seek and find him. God has shown his love for us by letting us be called his children. God has shown his love for us in all kinds of ways.
But think about what the apostle Paul says here. God proved and demonstrated his love for us by dying for us. God’s greatest display of love and glory is the cross while we were still sinner, enemies, and helpless. God dying for the ungodly is the greatest expression of love that he can show to us. This cannot happen without a world of pain, suffering, loss, and sin. Let me state this another way so that we can be moved by what God has done for us. The reason for suffering is so God could suffer for us. The reason for suffering is so that God could suffer for us, showing his glory, and through that suffering bring us to glory. The reason for death is so God could die for us. The reason the innocent suffer is so that the truly innocent one, Jesus, could suffer for us. Jesus said that no greater love can be displayed but to lay down your life for another (John 15:13-14; 1 John 3:16).
Hope When Hopeless
Hopeless is a horrible condition to feel in life. Jesus’ answer to the disciples about the man born blind was that this was to display the works of God. Jesus’ answer to his disciples about the death of Lazarus was that it is for the glory of God. We cannot be saved unless there is suffering, pain, sin, and even death. So we endure suffering, pain, loss, and death with the knowledge that life has not gone horribly wrong. Rather, the world must be this way for God to save us and show his glory.
So what are we to do with this knowledge when we feel hopeless? We seek the glory of God in our suffering. We look for God’s glory to be on display in our pain and in our loss. We look for God to be glorified through our death. We do not waste our pain. We do not waste our suffering. We do not waste our loss. We look to see how God will be glorified through these circumstances and seek his glorification in whatever we experience. This is what Paul said of his own uncertain life circumstances.
My eager expectation and hope is that I will not be ashamed about anything, but that now as always, with all courage, Christ will be highly honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:20–21 CSB)
So we have hope when we are hopeless. First, we understand that nothing has gone wrong but God continues to rule over the earth. God has made a world of suffering, pain, and death so that our salvation could be achieved. Second, we look to see what God may be doing in our painful circumstances so that God is glorified. Third, we do not waste our pain and suffering, looking for ways that God can be highly honored in our bodies, whether by life or by death.