Study Guide: [Suffering] Happens

Sunday March 13, 2011 | Greg Boyd

Focus Scripture:

Brief Summary:

In this world, there is a lot of suffering. Even as Christians, we sometimes ask “Is God even in control?” In this sermon, Greg addresses how we react to suffering and also how God is in control of the situation. He ends with some practical advice on how to follow God amidst suffering.

Extended Summary:

We’re starting a new adventure series called “Crap Happens” this week. It is a take off the famous bumper sticker, but some things we’re not allowed to say in church. Our first sermon on this topic addresses how an all-powerful God could “allow” suffering to happen. In order to fully appreciate this sermon, think of the one thing in your life that causes you pain or frustration. The one thing, if it wasn’t there, your life would be much better. When studying this sermon, take all the theological questions back to that situation and apply it. In this way, this adventure series won’t be about theological analysis, but founded upon God working in your life.

God is all-powerful. The bible talks about how nothing is impossible for God and that he has good plans for us. However, we look at the suffering around us and in us, and we can begin to ask the question, “Is God in control?” We know that God is good, but if God is also all-powerful, why doesn’t he just end the suffering? And the heart of the question is, if God doesn’t end the suffering, does he condone it, or even want it?

Whenever we encounter this question, it is important to remember that Jesus reveals God. The bible tells us that Jesus is the true revelation of God, and that if we want to see God, we should look to Jesus. We can then apply our thinking about God to the life of Jesus. Did Jesus go around kidnapping children? Did he orchestrate murder? Did he give cancer to people? Did he start earthquakes that wiped out parts of countries? Did he cause marriages to fail? Did he ever condone any of it or not act to stop these things? We can see from the Gospels that Jesus acted against suffering in many different ways. So we know the character of God is to act against suffering. Yet, we see suffering happen everyday. So, is God in control?

In our modern world, we’re conditioned to think that power=control. Power is the amount of control we have over our lives, other people, and situations. If God is all-powerful, then he must control everything, right? But in order to understand God’s power in this world, we must take a look at the different types of power in this world, specifically four. The first type of power is what Greg calls Neanderthal power. This type of power is the “club them over the head” kind of power. In this type of power, it’s all about how much brute strength we have to accomplish a task. This type of power, in God’s hands, would look like a god who pulls puppet strings and has complete control over every aspect of everything. “Time to trigger that earthquake” or “time for that child to get kidnapped” or “time to heal that person” would be thoughts of this type of powerful God. Now, God does sometimes do things that show this type of power, but through Jesus, it is a benevolent power and not harmful to us.

The second type of power is Machiavellian power. This type of power is the manipulative power. Machiavellian is a term to describe someone who manipulates others for personal gain. This type of power seems to be present in some systems around this world, especially in political arenas. This type of power, in God’s hands, looks like a God who is deceitful and manipulates his subjects for his own purposes. Yet, when we look at Jesus, we see a God who speaks truth and serves his people.

The third type of power is wisdom power. This power is using wisdom to have control of a situation. Having a budget is having wisdom power over your finances and control over whether your bills get paid or not. Jesus exhibits lots of wisdom power, although his wisdom contradicts the world’s wisdom at times. Jesus’ wisdom says we should love our enemies. God uses a lot of this type of power when dealing with his people, showing them the way to live a life that is honoring to who they were created to be.

The final type of power is agape power. This type of power seeks to serve, love, and make others greater than oneself. It is other-oriented power, and it is not what the world thinks power is. In fact, it seems like we’re giving power away when we serve others. Jesus shows us that God lives and dies in this type of power. God could use Neanderthal power to subjugate this world to his will; however, God “gives up” his power to show his love to his people.

There are two main ways in which we must apply this understanding of power to suffering in this world. The first is that we shouldn’t read the world’s events as God’s will, but rather, look for God’s will in the events. If God is an agape power in this world, then we must look for where he is working because it won’t look like Neanderthal power. The second is looking at our own lives and trying to sense where God is. God is always present, but he’s not a puppet master. He influences this world through his agape power, but he won’t club the world over the head until the time is right. He also won’t club us over the head. Be always looking for how God reacts to the suffering in your life, and in that way, you will be able to find the peace that transcends whatever you are going through. Even if all you find is God weeping with you.

Reflection Questions:

  1. What additional questions and comments did you have about the sermon and supporting texts?
  2. Do you think the four models of power in this sermon are accurate? Do you agree with Greg’s assessment of these powers?
  3. In what ways do you see God operating in the different powers? In your own life, what ways does God’s power show up?
  4. Do the different types of power help you to look for God’s power in different ways? How so?
  5. In the areas of life where you have power, in what ways can you be more agape power oriented?