Interview with Tim Alford
We caught up with, Tim Alford, who heads up Limitless, Elim’s national youth ministry, for a tough chat on why, when we look at the world, we see so much bad stuff.
God didn’t invent suffering. He created a world without pain, sickness, suffering and death. So how did we end up with a world that is so full of suffering? I understand that in three ways.
1. Our human error. God entrusted his world to us. He asked us to look after it, to steward it. It’s clear to see we’ve neglected that responsibility. We pollute, burn and consume, so much so that we’ve made a hole in the ozone layer, we fill land with our waste and we’ve caused the temperature of our oceans to rise. As a consequence we have flooding and major climate events that devastate communities. We’ve neglected our responsibility to our world, and many are suffering as a result.
2. Our human selfishness. There are more than enough resources in this world for everybody to have enough. Experts suggest the world already produces 1.5 times the amount of food needed to feed the global population, yet millions of people are malnourished and live in poverty. Wars are fought, land is taken and profit is made at the expense of the poor. Millions suffer because of our human greed and inability to share what we have, and as consumers of products from all around the world, we are part of that problem.
3. Our human disobedience. This is the more difficult one to understand. Diseases, pain, death, illness – none of these things are directly caused because we didn’t care for the world or because we tried to take advantage of somebody else. Instead the Bible teaches that human disobedience comes down to the choice of Adam and Eve to eat some fruit from a forbidden tree (Genesis 3). They disobey God and, as God forewarned, that disobedience introduced death, sickness and suffering to the world. It’s easy to sit back and say ‘They were stupid, it’s just a fruit’, but it’s equally our disobedience and our choice to go our own way and not God’s that cause sin, pain, death and suffering.
But, despite all this, God is in control. At any moment He could answer our prayers and remove all suffering. But the problem is, where would He stop? To end all suffering He must stop the causes of suffering. And at some point in our lives, all of us are responsible for causing pain and hurt to others. We know God is in control and that He could end all suffering and all the causes of suffering, but the truth is, that means He would need to end me, and everyone else too – there would be no-one left.
Rather than doing that, God chooses to be with us in our suffering. He chooses to work out of the mess – all of the stuff He never wanted (and we never wanted) – to bring something good. He can use those situations of suffering to bring us closer to Him. And one day, He will end suffering. Revelation 21 holds a promise that God will make everything new, and there will be no death, no sickness, no mourning and no pain. But, the only way we get to enjoy that promise is to acknowledge and realise that we are the cause of the suffering and pain in the world now, and that only through Jesus’ death and resurrection can those things be truly dealt with.
In many ways the world is getting better. Medicine is improving, charities continue to do wonderful work, in many places we see tolerance increasing and divides decreasing. I see too much hope and too much good in the world to give a broad view of the world as becoming worse. But, due to the internet, social media and 24-hour news reporting, we are more aware than ever of many of the tragedies happening in the world, though many do still suffer in silence, without media attention (including the persecuted church). There are places, circumstances and situations where the world is getting worse, but there are too many signs of life and hope and progress to say the world is on a completely downward spiral.
I think God’s heart breaks at injustice and suffering, we know his heart breaks particularly for the poor, the prisoner, the widow because we see that throughout scripture. The response for us, as Christians, is to be the body of Christ. We’re to be his hands, meaning we bring healing and food and help to those who need it. We’re to be his feet meaning we walk to and alongside those who are the poorest. We’re to be his voice, meaning we’re the means by which people hear about the good news of Jesus.
Though we would never choose it, suffering can be where we find our deepest intimacy with Jesus
I think it’s pretty true that our deepest, most heartfelt prayers come out of trials. Though we would never choose it, suffering can be where we find our deepest intimacy with Jesus, often because we’re forced into a place of dependency on him again. When everything is going well, the bank balance is full, relationships are good and our bodies are healthy, it’s easy to become self-sufficient and not need God. But when we find ourselves in the midst of pain and suffering we find ourselves on our knees again. The old healer and revivalist Smith Wigglesworth said “Great faith is the product of great fights. Great testimonies are the outcome of great tests. Great triumphs can only come out of great trials.” While I would never choose adversity, I know that when you go through trials you can find a new and different intimacy with Jesus.
When we face tough times, we have a choice, we can either walk towards God and see the trial as a trigger for greater intimacy with Him, or we can choose the opposite and walk away. But the thing is, it’s not what we do in the trial that will help us make the choice to keep following – it’s what we do before. Just like how a marathon runner needs to build up reserves and muscle before a race, if we’re to be sure of sticking with God through suffering, we need to build up reserves when all is going well. In the good times we need to be intentional about building a relationship with Him – reading the Word and storing up truth for ourselves. We’ll need those spiritual reserves to help us keep going in the hard times, it’s about developing deep roots.
So far, we’ve been looking at this theologically, but actually suffering and trial isn’t theoretical, but deeply personal, and an academic response isn’t going to be helpful to anyone experiencing pain and hurt. What anyone going through trials needs to know is that God is with them, that God hasn’t left them or forsaken them. He still loves them, He’s not punishing them and he is not angry with them. In these times I’d encourage people to seek the presence of God’s Spirit, the comforter. We need to know that God is there even when we can’t perceive it or feel it. He loves us and never gives up on us.
For me, I’ve found that stories from persecuted Christians give me a different perspective too. There are many who give up so much for their faith in Jesus. These heroes of the faith inspire me to keep going through the trials I face (which in comparison to their struggles seem pretty insignificant). I’ve no certainty that I would keep my faith under the pressure that they face, but they inspire me to keep going with Jesus and commit again to try and follow Him with all I have no matter what I face.
We support people who are beaten, tortured,
imprisoned, falsely accused, and hated simply for following Jesus.