The evil in the world may cause us to question whether God understands our pain, but this holiday is a reminder that he truly does, and he has a plan.
“I don’t think God knows everything all the time.” She wouldn’t look at me while she said this.
“Well, I’m pretty sure the Bible says he does,” I said slowly because I was a socially awkward nineteen-year-old at the time, and she’d been a Christian and served on missions trips for longer than I’d been alive. Also, we were supposed to be praying for some missionaries Central Asia who were being threatened by government officials. “What about the psalm that says, ‘Where shall I go from your Spirit? If I ascend to heaven or make my bed in the depths, you are there’?”
“Then God doesn’t have power over everything, even if he does know about it,” she said more emphatically. “What about missionaries who get persecuted or killed? Or someone innocent dying because a robber broke into their house and shot them? How do you explain a believer getting hurt from domestic abuse?”
I was starting to feel like this wasn’t a purely intellectual debate about God’s omniscience or omnipotence. Also, all the polite biblical answers I’d been taught in church were sounding more and more flimsy in my head. “But…the Bible says God establishes our steps, and he made all of us and the world, so I think he knows what’s happening anywhere, at any time.”
“What about children who get raped by a family member? Does God know it’s going to happen? Was he watching and just didn’t do anything to save me?”
What do we say in the face of this kind of pain? How do we make sense of lives and experiences like this while also trusting in verses like those Paul wrote in Romans 8: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, ESV). For those who have suffered grotesque acts of betrayal, injustice and violence, Good Friday is where many of us find answers. We find a God who saw and weeps with us. We find a God who shows us a way forward.
Betrayed by His Friends
‘Good’ Friday really seems like anything but good when we examine its story. Jesus went through some of the most viciously stressful and unfair circumstances possible before he was brutally murdered. Before the story even gets to most of that, however, Jesus’ friends either turned on him or failed him.
Despite some popular culture attempts to paint Judas as sympathetic or a misunderstood antihero, the Bible unambiguously states otherwise. Judas hung out in Jesus’ closest group of followers for three years and spent countless hours with God incarnate. Nevertheless, he was stealing from the ministry, sold Jesus out to people who hated him, and betrayed Jesus in person just to ensure that the mob caught the right guy.
If having one friend betray him weren’t enough, Jesus experienced the rest of his friends abandoning him (see Mark 14:44-50). Peter denied even knowing who Jesus was when he was questioned; it’s generally agreed upon that John watched Jesus’ initial questioning with the high priest, but he didn’t seem to speak up at any point for Jesus. The rest of the disciples were nowhere to be found.
Quite a few of us have probably had friends bail on us or even attack us when we badly needed their support. Some of us may have even experienced appalling duplicity at the hands of someone whom we called friend. Some have lived through abuse while friends and loved ones knew but looked the other way.
Those situations pack a unique kind of anguish, frustration and anger. Good Friday shows us God who has been on the receiving end of terrible unfaithfulness and understands our pain. As we see how he treated his friends who failed him or denied him, though, we see a staggering graciousness and gentle firmness. This Lord leads us in how to forgive someone seventy-seven times, as many times as the painful memory resurfaces.
A Victim of Misjustice
Miscarriages of justice are an all too real experience for many people. Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy, starkly illustrated this reality as he wrote about his path to becoming a lawyer for wrongfully convicted clients. His sympathy and aspirations were set after his grandfather’s murder, which gave him the passion to expose abuses of power within the judicial system. Many more individuals both currently and throughout history, however, have not had the benefit of someone to stand up and defend them in the face of unjust authorities.
Jesus stood wrongfully accused before multiple government officials, his own people’s religious leaders, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate and the local tetrarch Herod. We’re outright told, “Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward” (Matthew 26:59-60). Herod couldn’t find any justifiable reason to punish Jesus, so he and his soldiers mocked the Son of God (see Luke 23:6-12). Pilate didn’t want to deal with a riot, so he refused to defend a man he knew was innocent (see Matthew 27:15-26).
Now Jesus was not helpless throughout all of this. In fact, he told his disciples, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:53-54). Jesus endured misjustice because he knew God had a plan. As frightening and infuriating as this type of situation is, God invites us into a wider perspective that takes in the pain and purpose.
When Paul wrote to his young protégé Timothy about having grace for enemies, one can’t help but wonder if he was thinking about his own past as an unjust authority figure: “The Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:24-26).
Abused and Murdered
Read through any of the gospel’s descriptions of Jesus’ Good Friday, and count the number of times he was slapped or struck with fists, sticks and whips. He was mocked multiple times, and people spit on him. He’s stripped of his clothes in public. The cruelty shown to him would make anyone’s skin crawl long before the gruesome crucifixion.
For anyone who has experienced abuse, who has been tormented by someone with power over them, Jesus not only has the tenderest compassion for you but also some strong words for the abuser. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6).
For those who have died for their faith, scripture paints the picture of a righteous God who will grant them justice one day. “I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, ‘O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’ Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer…” (Revelation 6:9-11).
The one who died on a cross to bring salvation does not ignore the suffering or death of his people. While God does allow humanity to choose evil, with all its horrific impact on others, he will eventually punish those who do not repent. While he does permit some to be martyred for his name, he does not ignore the distress of their last moments. Eventually, there will be a reckoning.
The Evil that God Turns Good
Good Friday acknowledges the great and terrible evil that many of us have experienced. It does not shy away from how desperately unfair and despicable our circumstances or some people in our lives have been.
Rather than leave us there, though, Good Friday underlines God’s judgment that does not casually dismiss the casualties sin inflicts among individuals and relationships. Good Friday invites us to see how Jesus suffered greatly in order to offer us hope. When we see all that Jesus forgave, we can see his order for believers to forgive in a new light. In his understanding of our pain, in his love and desire for who we could grow to be, he gives us the ability to forgive and mend.
One good example of this type of moving forward is Joseph in Genesis. He endured some terrible betrayals, miscarriages of justice and years of unfair incarceration; but when he met his brothers who sold him into slavery, he said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:20).
Whatever evil has been done to you can never be too much for God to understand or handle. He will never been at a loss for how to restore you and turn the pain into a blessing.
What has been unjust will be set right. What has been desperately ill or wounded will be tenderly cured. What has been broken seemingly beyond repair, what seems beyond hope, will be restored.
This is why the day of Jesus’ suffering and death is still called good.
We recognize that the issue of abuse or suffering is not a simple one, certainly not one that we could cover entirely with a single article. Here are some resources that may be useful if you want to learn more.
Redeeming Heartache by Dan Allender and Cathy Loerzel
A Path through Suffering by Elisabeth Elliot
The Problem of Pain by C. S. Lewis
Why Does God Allow Evil? by Clay Jones