A dear Christian woman on our mailing list wrote us a heartrending letter:
"In 1972 we lost a Down syndrome son to pneumonia. He was just seventeen months old. Seven years later, in 1979, we lost our fifteen-year old son. He was electrocuted in our backyard while climbing a tree.
Now our twenty-four-year-old son has diabetes. And I have cancer and am undergoing chemotherapy. I ask you sincerely — is it a sin to ask God, 'Why?' Does he understand our humanness?
Pastor Dave, have you ever been angry at God for a season? I have, and I know its wrong. I feel ashamed for having such thoughts. But I get so confused trying to understand why Christians suffer so much. I know we are no more deserving than others. But I'm shell-shocked at all the suffering we're enduring.
I have fear and anxiety. But I want to replace all my fears with a strong faith, in spite of my sufferings. Still, I keep asking — why so much suffering? How long will it go on?"
I can only imagine the horror of finding a son lying on the ground, dead, after he's been electrocuted. I understand this mother's cry: "Why did I have to bury another son, God? Why are two of our boys dead, with another afflicted by a deadly disease? I have cancer, and I'm sick from radiation and chemotherapy. We've all been struck. Why all this suffering? When will it end?"
I can't explain why this family has endured such great afflictions. But I can tell you — it's not a sin to ask why. Even our blessed Lord asked this question, as he hung in pain on the cross. Jesus himself was called a "man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief" (Isaiah 53:3). I believe Christ understands all of our questioning, because he fully relates to our human anguish.
He hears us when we cry out, "Lord, why are you putting me through this? I know it doesn't come from your hand — yet you're allowing the devil to harass me. Why do I have to wake up every day with this dark cloud hovering over me? Why do I have to endure such pain? When will this nightmare end?"
The secular world demands an explanation for all the pain and suffering in this life. Many non-believers have asked me, "Mr. Wilkerson, if your God is real — if he's truly loving, as you say— why does he allow starvation to continue? Why does he allow floods and famines to ravage poor nations, wiping out thousands at a time? How can he stand by as AIDS kills millions in Africa? Why are thousands being annihilated in war-torn countries that have never known peace?"
"I simply can't believe in your God, Reverend. I must have more love than he does— because if I had the power, I would stop all this suffering."
I'm not going to attempt to answer why the nations suffer — why there is such awful famine, pestilence, flooding, hunger, disease and destruction. Yet, scripture does shed light on the world's sufferings, through its portrayal of God's people, ancient Israel. That nation suffered similar calamities: holocausts, captivity, economic collapse, strange diseases (some of which plagued Israel alone). At times Israel's sufferings were so horrible, even their enemies pitied them.
Why did Israel suffer such terrible things? Scripture makes it clear: in each instance, they forsook God and turned instead to idolatry and witchcraft.
We see the same thing happening in many nations today. For example, for some two hundred years, missionaries have poured into Africa. Yet entire African countries have rejected Christ — persecuting and slaying thousands of missionaries and millions of converts. Tragically, whenever a nation rejects the gospel — turning instead to idolatry and the occult — the result is poverty, madness, disease and indescribable suffering.
This is certainly true of Haiti. Right now, that country is literally going berserk. We received a letter from a missionary couple there whom our ministry has supported. They wrote that their neighbors on either side have been robbed and beaten — and they believe they're marked next. They asked us to pray for their protection.
Why such calamity in Haiti? Satanism rules there, and witchcraft is virtually the state religion. I've witnessed this firsthand, while on a preaching trip to Haiti. I've spoken with witch doctors and seen the results of their voodoo practices: poverty, despair, fear, disease, hunger, corruption.
The world can't blame any of this on God. It is clearly the devil's work — he wants all Christian influence removed from the island. Yes, Haiti has been evangelized — but Haitians are rejecting the gospel, loving darkness rather than light. And the tragic result is deep suffering.
All over the earth, sinful people pollute the land, air and sea. Yet the world blames God for all the atmospheric changes that have caused floods, famines and diseases, afflicting both humans and animals. People insist on the right to promiscuity and having multiple sexual partners — yet God gets blamed for the spread of AIDS. United Nations workers are mocked as they try to teach sexual abstinence in poor countries.
Here in America, an ocean of innocent blood has been spilled. At last count, 40 million babies had been killed through abortion. In Congress, a law is pending that states if a baby survives an abortion procedure, the mother can choose to allow the child to die. The baby is simply set aside — not fed or held, and made to starve to death. Now nurses all over the country are coming forward, claiming they're unable to sleep at night because they hear the cries of these dead children.
This wicked generation has a blatant disregard for life. Yet we seem unable to grasp why our children end up killing their school peers. We claim not to understand why five so-called normal teenagers would kill the owner of a Chinese fast-food restaurant for less than fifteen dollars' worth of food. The reason for such tragedies is all too clear: we're reaping what we've sown, through our own shedding of innocent blood.
As the world cries out, "Where is God in all of this?", I respond, "He's weeping over what humankind has done."
Right now, many readers of this message are going through deep suffering — physical pain, emotional turmoil, overpowering temptations — and they're asking, "Why?" Perhaps this describes you. You're tired of feeling lost and condemned, that God is somehow mad at you. You're worn out from constant self-examination. You're weary of all the bad counsel you've received, which has only made you feel worse.
Maybe you're long past wondering why. Now you ask, "Lord, you know I love you. My faith in you is strong. But this trial just keeps going on. I don't know how much longer I can endure this. How much more do you expect me to take?"
The apostle Paul tells us his life is an example of how we're to deal with our afflictions. He writes, "For this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting" (1 Timothy 1:16).
In my opinion, no person other than Jesus suffered so much — in so many ways, at the hands of so many people — as did Paul. At the very point of his conversion, Paul was forewarned of the sufferings he would face: "The Lord said unto him...I will shew (Paul) how great things he must suffer for my name's sake" (Acts 9: 15–16). Jesus himself is declaring here, "I'm going to show Paul how greatly he'll suffer for my name's sake." Likewise, our lives are to follow the pattern of Paul's example.
The most profound trials and sufferings are appointed to devoted servants who receive revelations from the very heart of God. Paul testifies, "Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7).
If you've set your heart wholly on Christ — if you've determined to know him intimately, to seek him ravenously to open his word to you — you're going to be set on a pathway of suffering. You'll experience hard times, deep agonies, great afflictions that cold, carnal Christians know nothing about.
This was true of Paul's life. When Paul was converted, he wasn't satisfied to learn Christ even from Jesus' disciples in Jerusalem. This man wanted to know the Lord intimately for himself. Therefore, Paul said, "I conferred not with flesh and blood" (Galatians 1:16). Instead, he shut himself off in Arabia for three years (see 1:16–17).
Indeed, the revelation of Christ that Paul received didn't come from a person. The apostle testified, "I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1:12).
I thank God for biblical teachers. They open up the scriptures to us, revealing many wonders and mysteries of faith. But the fact is, the revelation of Jesus Christ cannot be taught. It has to be given by the Holy Ghost. And it comes to those who, like Paul, shut themselves up in their own Arabia, determined to know Christ.
This quality separates the two basic kinds of Christians. One kind says, "I gave my heart to Jesus" — but that's all they can claim about their faith. They rejoice they're going to heaven and not to hell. But they don't go any further in their walk with Christ.
The other kind says, "I gave my heart to Jesus — but I won't be satisfied until I know his heart." This servant won't rest until he carries Christ's burden, walks as Christ walked, pleases God as Christ pleased God. Such determination simply can't be taught.
Yet, be warned — if you truly want Jesus to give you his heart, you must be prepared to endure afflictions. Indeed, the revelation of Christ you receive will be accompanied by sufferings and afflictions such as you've never known.
Paul says he received revelations from God that had been hidden from man's eyes for centuries. "Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit" (Ephesians 3:5).
When Paul speaks of receiving revelations (see 2 Corinthians 12:7), the word he uses means "taking the cover off, opening up hidden things." God took the lid off of great mysteries of the faith — and he showed Paul the wonders of his saving work.
Finally, Paul refers to a supreme vision he received some fourteen years before, just after he was saved. He describes being "caught up into paradise [heaven], and heard unspeakable words, which is not lawful for a man to utter" (2 Corinthians 12:2–4). In short, Paul was given an unspeakable revelation of heaven.
What an incredible abundance of revelations Paul was given. He experienced an incredible walk through heaven, seeing and hearing things never witnessed in this world. Yet, no sooner had Paul received these revelations, than he entered into great sufferings.
"Lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh" (2 Corinthians 12:7).
There are two kinds of suffering among believers. First, there are the afflictions and temptations common to all of humankind. Jesus says the rain falls on both the just and the unjust (see Matthew 5:45). He's referring to the given problems of life — marriage struggles, worries over children, battles with depression and fear, financial pressures, sickness and death — things common to saints and sinners alike.
Yet, there are also sufferings that afflict only the righteous. David writes, "Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the Lord delivereth him out of them all" (Psalm 34:19). Notice, David doesn't say our deliverance will be sudden or immediate. In many cases, our healing may come over time, through prayer, trust and faith.
This is the kind of suffering Paul endured. The great revelations he received quickly set him on a path of deep affliction that would last his entire lifetime. Think about it: at the time Paul wrote this letter to the Corinthians, he'd been a Christian for fourteen years — and he still hadn't been delivered from the thorn he describes. He knew he would probably live with his affliction until the day he died.
We don't know exactly what Paul's thorn was. Biblical scholars speculate it might have been an eye problem, or a speech defect, perhaps a stutter. One commentary goes to great lengths to prove Paul's thorn was a character flaw — in particular, a quick temper. Other speculations range from carnal cravings, to harassing demonic thoughts, to even an abusive wife. Yet all these guesses remain mere speculation.
In any case, Paul admitted to a great battle going on in his life. He was saying, "When I emerged from that great revelation of paradise, a thorn appeared in my flesh. A messenger of Satan buffeted me." The phrase "buffet me" here means "slap my face." Paul is stating, "God allowed the devil to strike my face."
So, what was this messenger of Satan that buffeted Paul, slapping his face? I don't believe it was a physical affliction, such as failing eyesight or a slur of speech. Nor do I believe, as I once did, that Paul's buffeting was a demonic barrage of lies and reproaches meant to discourage him.
No, I believe we get a clue from Paul's phrase, "Lest I should be exalted above measure" (2 Corinthians 12:7). I believe Paul is speaking here of self-exaltation — a private pride. You see, Paul had been a Pharisee — and all Pharisees were proud. A superior attitude was ingrained in them: "I'm glad I'm not like the masses of common sinners." Moreover, Paul had reasons in the flesh to be proud. He was highly intelligent, as well as abundantly gifted by the Holy Spirit.
I believe the devil knew this pride was Paul's primary weakness — and he attacked it. He flattered Paul, stroked his ego, hit him with one proud thought after another: "You're the only one who has received this revelation." What greater thorn could there be than to have Satan feeding daily our most vulnerable spot? Paul had to go to the cross constantly, laying down his giftedness, in order to mortify his pride.
Satan also knew that David's inclination was lust. He fed that godly man's weakness by having a woman bathe right in front of his eyes. Likewise, at every turn, the devil slaps our faces with opportunities and temptations that feed our pride, lust, ambition, fear — whatever our primary weakness may be.
Yet the devil couldn't buffet Paul without first obtaining God's permission. We know, for example, that God permitted Satan to test Job. And now God had a purpose in allowing Paul's thorn. He knew that the greatest threat to Paul's witness wasn't sensuality, or greed, or the praise of men; no, Paul was oblivious to the things of the flesh. Rather, his weakness was pride, which came from receiving great revelations.
Paul writes, "I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me" ( 2 Corinthians 12:8). He's saying in essence, "I had sought the Lord diligently, with all my heart — and he revealed himself to me and in me. He even showed me his glory in heaven. Yet, in that very moment, I began to experience a throbbing reminder of my human frailty.
"I pleaded with the Lord, 'Remove this thing. Enough of this weakness, this demonic harassment. How long must I be humbled by these attacks? How long do I have to endure this suffering? Please, Lord, deliver me.'"
God didn't bother to explain anything to Paul. And he didn't grant his request for an end to his sufferings. Nor did he remove the thorn and drive away the messenger of Satan. Yet, God gave Paul something much better. He revealed to Paul how he would make it through each with victory: "He said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9)
God was saying, in essence, "Paul, I'm going to give you grace for every day's trials. And that will be sufficient for you, in everything you face. You don't need to understand all that you're going through. So you might as well stop asking why. You've got my grace — and that's all you need."
We receive letters from people who lead lives of incredible suffering. Young people write of being raised in homes filled with witchcraft — of being beaten, abused, neglected. One sixteen-year-old wrote that his parents started him on drugs. These people cry out, "I love God — I've prayed and sought him. I've put all my trust in him. But every day, I still face powerful enemies — and I see no sign of deliverance."
I don't want to discourage anyone. But, like Paul's, your affliction may be the kind that befalls God's most righteous ones. If so, you may have to go through each day leaning wholly on his grace. Your deliverance won't be sudden, one-time experience — but a day-to-day walk.
I tell you again: it's no sin to ask God why — why all your suffering, why all the never-ending pain? Yet, I also say, you might as well quit asking — because God doesn't answer that kind of question. He doesn't owe us any explanation for our sufferings.
David asked sincerely, "Why art thou cast down, O my soul?...Why hast thou forgotten me? Why go I mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?...Why art thou [my soul] disquieted within me?" (Psalm 42:5,9,11). We know God loved David. Yet scripture shows no record of God answering David's questions.
Jesus asked, "Why can't this cup pass from me? Father, why have you forsaken me?" (see Matthew 26:39, 27:46). Yet nowhere in the Bible do we read an answer from God to his beloved son's questions.
I personally have asked these same questions throughout my life. At age twenty-eight, I brought my family to New York City so I could work with gangs and drug addicts. Then one day, just a few years after we'd moved, my wife, Gwen, doubled over in pain. We rushed her to the hospital, and she underwent emergency surgery. Then we heard the awful word: cancer. She had a tumor in her bowel the size of an orange.
I remember my questions to God then: "Why, Lord? We've forsaken everything to follow your leading here. We've given our lives to minister in these streets. So, why are we going through this now? Are you mad at me for something? What did I do?"
I asked the same questions five more times — every time Gwen was stricken with another cancer. I also asked them through each of her twenty-eight surgeries.
I asked God why again in Houston, Texas, when our daughter, Debbie, lay curled in a fetal position, in agony from cancer. She had a tumor in the same area as her mother's. I cried out, "Lord, Gwen was enough — now, this is too much. Why?"
I asked why once more when our other daughter, Bonnie, lay in a hospital in El Paso, Texas, undergoing radiation treatment for cancer. She was surrounded by physicians wearing lead suits, her body bombarded for three days with deadly radiation. The doctors gave her a 30 percent chance of survival. I cried, "God, you have to be angry with me. There's no other explanation. How much do you expect me to take?"
Finally, I drove out on a quiet road alone — and for two hours I screamed at God: "Is there no end to this? I give you everything of myself, every day. Yet the more I seek you, the more suffering I see."
I also know what it's like to be buffeted by a messenger of Satan. I've been grievously tempted and enticed. I've had enemies stirred up against me on all sides. I've been slandered by rumors, accused falsely, rejected by friends. In those dark times, I fell on my knees, crying, "Why, Lord? All I want is you. Why do you allow Satan to harass me? How long do I have to struggle with this weakness?" Yet, just as God explained nothing to Paul, he has never once answered my questions.
I believe that once we're in heaven, the Lord will explain all to us. We'll have an eternity to have our questions answered. And, once he reveals it all, we'll see that everything was part of a perfect plan — orchestrated by a loving father who knew what it would take to keep us on our faces, moving forward in him.
We've often heard grace defined as, simply, the unmerited favor and blessing of God. Yet I believe grace is much more than this. In my opinion, grace is everything that Christ is to us in our times of suffering — power, might, kindness, mercy, love — to see us through our afflictions.
As I look back over the years — years of great trials, suffering, temptation and affliction — I can testify that God's grace has been enough. His grace brought Gwen through. And it also brought Debbie and Bonnie through. Today, my wife and daughters are all healthy and strong — and for that I thank the Lord.
His grace has also brought me through. And that's enough for today. Then, someday in glory, my father will reveal to me the beautiful plan he had all along. He'll show me how I obtained patience through all my trials; how I learned compassion for others; how his strength was made perfect in my weakness; how I learned his utter faithfulness toward me; how I hopefully became more like Jesus.
We may still ask why — yet it all remains a mystery. I'm prepared to accept that until Jesus comes for me. I see no end to my trials and afflictions. I've had them for over fifty years now, and counting.
Yet, through it all, I'm still being given an ever-increasing measure of Christ's strength. In fact, my greatest revelations of his glory have come during my hardest times. Likewise, in your lowest moments, Jesus will release in you the fullest measure of his strength.
We may never understand our pain, depression and discomfort. We may never know why our prayers for healing haven't been answered. But we don't have to know why. Our God has already answered us: "You've got my grace — and, my beloved child, that's all you need."