Many years ago I attended the very sad funeral of a young Christian couple who lost twins at birth. I was very surprised when I read the poem and message distributed at the funeral that described the parent’s joy knowing that their children were now guardian angels watching over the couple. Since that time I have known of other Christians who said that their grandparents were now angels watching over them. A very quick reading of the scriptures reveals that we do not become angels when we die.
I am not surprised that many people in the world believe that dead loved ones become angels to watch over them. The concept has been popularized in movies, television shows, songs, and books. Many years ago, studies of angels were very popular but often misguided as little has been revealed about angels but the things that are revealed contradicted much of this popular teaching. However, the foundation of a Christian’s beliefs is what is written in God’s word, not popular literature.
The Bible teaches that angels are created beings different from man, Psalm 148:2-5. In describing the superiority of Christ above the angels, the Hebrew writer describes angels as “ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14) In addition, the mission of Christ was not to serve the angels, especially those who fell, but to serve men, Hebrews 2:16. Christ will confess the name of the faithful before the angels, Revelation 3:5. Angels are special beings, different from men and when we die we do not become angels (or demons either). Likewise, angels do not become people.
To speak of our deceased loved ones as angels watching over us is entirely without scriptural authority and the Bible is the only authority on the spiritual realm. As a previous article noted, our dead loved ones do not watch over us as non-angelic beings either. They no longer have a part in this world.
Since you will not be able to help those you love after you die, either as an angel or spiritual being, do everything you can today to express your love and concern for them and especially to share the gospel with those who are lost. Once we have left this earth, we may be greatly concerned about the spiritual situation of people here on this earth but will be powerless to do anything to help them, Luke 16:19-31.
Dealing with the loss of a close relative or friend is one of the most traumatic things someone can endure. We sense the loss of their physical presence and the ability to talk with them frequently. If they were a source of encouragement and guidance their absence will make us yearn for their leadership. In desperate situations, some people have wasted money on mediums and others who claim to communicate with the dead in order to receive some final message or to maintain contact. I fear that many Christians are practicing this in a more subtle way and are, without realizing it, taking glory from God.
Some eastern religions have a custom of lighting candles and preparing food to appease dead loved ones. They will pray to their loved ones for help in their life. Christians have long answered this with an exhortation that such people pray to God who can truly help them. However, I am witnessing more and more Christians asking dead relatives and friends to intervene in the matters of this world. I have heard Christians attributing the strength they had to overcome a certain obstacle to a departed loved one—not that the loved one was an inspiration to them or something they were taught helped them but that the loved one was actively helping them. They may even pray for them to intervene with God on their behalf.
We must acknowledge that nowhere in Scriptures are we commanded or encouraged to ask dead loved ones to intervene with God on our behalf since Jesus is our intercessor and He “ever lives to make intercession for us” (Hebrews 7:25). Nor do we find authority to ask them to watch over us daily or during a special time of need. Again, it is Jesus who can sympathize with our weaknesses and is the only at the throne of God’s grace that we can “receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:25).” We should not make requests to departed loved ones, Bible characters, or other faithful brethren that alone should be addressed to the Father through Jesus.
Since this is the case, if we go to our deceased loved one–or anyone who lived on this earth–to ask help in a time of need, we are not only doing it without authority but it is an unintended insult to God who really can assist us. In the Old Testament God considered it an insult! Isaiah 8:19 says, “… should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?”
Those who are deceased have no power at all in this world. In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Luke 16:19-31, the rich man was concerned about the spiritual welfare of his brothers. However, he could do nothing about them (v.26 says it was impossible for him to return). He could not teach them or lead them to truth. Even Lazarus was not permitted to return to help them. The clear teaching of this passage is that we sever our relationship with the world at death. Ecclesiastes 9:6 says we no longer share in the things of this world. Any person who lived on this earth does not have the power of God upon their death, do not have his divine knowledge, and no matter how much they loved us, God loves us infinitely more!
I do not want to be insensitive and and know firsthand the depth of pain one feels when grieving a loved one, but to say that the dearly departed are working among us reflects an ignorance of God’s word on this subject and takes much deserved glory away from God. We cannot honor our departed loved one by dishonoring God.
In the grand questions of how a good God can permit suffering, sometimes we forget that man can stop or help relieve the suffering of his fellow man. In all suffering, God is present if we will seek Him.
It is easy to see how man, through his greed for power and material wealth, ignorance, or acting based on “acceptable risks” creates situations that brings suffering upon himself and others. Some suffer terrible diseases or physical problems because they do not exercise, eat properly, or continue in other bad habits that have been proved to hurt the body. Man clearly has a hand in much of the suffering in this world.
Where Were You When Others Suffered?
However, man also can be a power to relieve suffering or provide comfort in a time of need. In the face of disasters some ask “Where was God?” but a question equal, or perhaps of greater significance is “Where is man?” In every suffering there is an opportunity to be compassionate and responsive. During the Judean famine of the first century churches throughout the world who were not suffering famine were able to provide assistance. In 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, 13-15, the wealthy brethren helped their needy brethren to provide food during this time of deprivation. Involved in this action is the understanding that the Judean Christians would have the opportunity to repay that kindness when they helped other Christians during their suffering.
I have forgotten the source of this great quote: “In some kind of suffering that befalls man, I am afraid to ask ‘Why didn’t God do anything about it’ for fear that he will ask the same thing of me!” A story told by Stanley Jones illustrates this well:
A wealthy farmer prayed in his family circle that his unfortunate neighbors might not starve. When they arose from their knees, his little girl said to him, ‘Daddy, you needn’t have bothered God with that, for you can quite easily keep them from starving’
The question is less about what can the church, government, or society do to address a problem to the practical “what can I do to address this need?” He who curses the darkness could light a candle
Be Careful Not To Blame God
We have to be careful about the role we assign to God. Unless He explicitly states through His word what He has done, we are only speculating–and often terribly–about His actions. Sometimes people try to account for God during sufferin in a way that opens up more criticism. For example, an email that circulated after the September 11th attacks said that God “held up the towers while the people escaped.” If your loved one was one of the 2,830 who died, would you not be angry and wonder why God held it up long enough for many to escape but did not continue holding it up until all could escape? Why did He let it go when He did? Why not create obstacles for all the people (cancelled flights, etc.) so no one had to die? When we begin down this road, we come to some illogical and unscriptural conclusions.
I see this type of ignorance when people try to explain the death of a child. A well-meaning person tries to comfort the sibling by saying God wanted his little brother so much that He took him to heaven. In a misguided effort to provide comfort they terrify a kid and make him scared of God. Who knows when He’ll be back to get another one of us? Good intent; terrible approach. Better to understand that death is just a part of life and enjoy the comfort that while the death of the child was unfortunate, that God is comforting and caring for the child now.
Similarly, we must not assume that suffering on an individual or national level is the result of the judgment of God. We do “reap what we sow” and “our sins will find us out.” However, sometimes we suffer as a consequence of the action of others or being in the wrong place at the wrong time. God allowed Job to suffer many things as the devil sought to lure him away, but Job’s friends falsely claimed that he was suffering as a result of some sin. When Jesus and the apostles discussed some Jews killed by Pilate and eighteen people killed when a tower collapsed He did not blame their fate on sin, but told them that the dead were no worse sinners than anyone else (Luke 13:1-5). In John 9:1-3, Jesus rebuked the foolish question of whether the sin of a man or his parents led to his blindness. It is better not to blame God for suffering that may be simply the result of chance or natural consequences of one’s actions.
Where is God When Others Suffer?
It is easy to find God during suffering if we will open our eyes. He has entered the suffering with us and can strengthen us. God in the flesh had compassion on the lepers, forgave the immoral who repented with broken spirits, groaned in His spirit at the sorrow of Lazarus’ loved ones and wept with them, suffered rejection and violence at the hands of wicked men, was spat upon, beaten, and mocked, abandoned by his friends, and died a slow agonizing death on a cross of shame. Hebrews 5:5-9 tells us that Jesus learned obedience through suffering and is sympathetic to our pain.God can make “all things work together for good” for those who love Him, Romans 8:28. People find strength in suffering. Some learn compassion and become selfless. Some learn humility. Sometimes a small tragedy energizes a community to create laws or systems that prevent greater tragedies in the future. All suffering helps us to look forward to an eternal home where suffering is absent.
“He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
Where is God? He has entered into our suffering and grief and can give us strength to endure and use us to relieve the suffering of others until the day when we rise to live with Him in a world without suffering.
Before we look at man’s role in his own suffering, let’s examine God’s power. Some theologians take the approach of Harold Kushner, a Jewish rabbi who lost his son at an early age to a cruel and debilitating disease. God is infinitely good, Kushner concluded in his immensely popular book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (1981), but He is not all-powerful. We do know God cannot do anything that is inconsistent with his nature (lie) nor that is contradictory or absurd like create square circles. However, the powerlessness Kushner describes is not the God revealed in the Bible.
Though God could relieve all suffering, certain characteristics of man would suffer: loss of free will (if no opportunity to rebel—which brings suffering), weakened faith and hope, and little desire for heaven. Parents often exercise this restraint of power when they allow their children to suffer accidents, etc. so that they may learn on their own and develop character and perseverance. The world was created with the possibility of suffering and allows it to take place in the natural order: he does not decree it. As one author noted, “If I give my boy a pair of roller skates, I immediately make it possible for him to get a bad bump. That is a very different thing from taking him by the neck and banging his head upon the ground.” (Weatherhead)
Sinful People Inflict Suffering On Others
God has created a world capable of blessing and cursing, compassion and hatred, ease and suffering, benevolence and malevolence, good and evil. In His power God created a good world but when man sinned the world was corrupted and pain and suffering were introduced into the creation.
Suffering was a byproduct of sin and rebellion, not a product of God’s positive creative action. Much suffering is brought about because man has used the good things of earth to oppress and subjugate his fellow man or has amassed control over these good things to the destitution and poverty of his fellow man.
Those who have moved a lot are very familiar with U-Haul trucks and have been glad to rent them to move to areas of great opportunity.Fertilizer is a great substance which allows us to enhance our food production and feed many who would otherwise starve. However, Timothy McVeigh filled a U-Haul truck with fertilizer and some other chemicals and blew up a federal building in Oklahoma City killing many and injuring many others. We would not think the U-Haul company or fertilizer manufacturers diabolical nor think they are not good because someone misused their products to destroy others.
God commands us to live holy lives. Standards such as described in Galatians 5:19-21 explain how God wants us to live:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Think how this world would be if everyone did what God wanted them to do as expressed in Galatians 5
Would we have murder in the world if people would not hate their fellow man or be bitter or malicious?
Would we have the sexual diseases that have killed so many if people were pure until married then faithful until death?
Would we have the pain and suffering of broken homes if people remained faithful and truly loved one another as Christ loved the church?
Would we use locks and burglar alarms if no one was covetous and there were no thieves?
All of the chaos of our world is brought on by those who reject the law of God and will not submit themselves to Him. We have to live in such as world so we may directly or indirectly suffer at the hands of wicked people. It would be unfair for God to force people to do what is right; it would take away from our humanity. We must not implicate God for the product of men’s evil arising from their free will.
Man’s Role in Natural Disasters
Sometimest he decisions of people create suffering associated with natural disasters. Many natural disasters have become tragedies due to short-sighted or negligent decison making.
Hurricane damage to property on barrier islands such as Santa Rosa Island (Gulf Shores and Orange Beach). Barrier islands exist to absorb damaging waves and surges.
Many have lost their lives and more have lost their homes and businesses because they built on flood plains—large expanses of land that contain and absorb excess water from rain and runoff.
Volcanoes erupt and houses built close to them will be destroyed.
Forest fires are a natural way in which forests are cleared of underbrush and allow new growth to emerge yet when men build close to the forest they may suffer from this natural occurrence.
Sometimes the political wranglings of nations create tragedies. In the Asian Tsunami of 2005 a record earthquake was recorded so one should expect a large tsunami. The tsunami ravaged areas that were built right up to the coastline and destroyed shanty towns that were built on the coast because financially other options were closed to them. People had suggested and proposed building a tsunami warning system for the Asian nations but no one funded it or started it. The Asian nations, many of whom are hostile to one another, did not seriously pursue building warning system until this disaster.
People know that making certain decisions can increase their chance of being in a situation that can lead to suffering, pain, and even death. It is no secret that Japan exists on a major earthquake fault zone (as does California). However, the residents of these areas choose to live there because they consider the benefits outweigh the higher than normal risks of disaster. To their credit, these cities have tried to build structures to resist all but the most violent earthquakes and provide tsunami warning systems. But, as the events of 2011 have shown, sometimes events occur that overwhelm these preparations and people suffer.
We know that a high number of injuries and deaths result from car accidents. Yet most of us consider it an acceptable risk to drive anyway. I have a thirty minute commute to work–which increases my chances of an accident–because the benefits of living in my community outweigh those risks. If I am involved in an accident it would be foolish to blame God for my suffering since I made the decisions that increased the likelihood of the accident.
Suffering is just part of the human condition. In the final article we’ll examine where God is during times of suffering and where we should be.
Earthquakes and tsunamis devastate Japan. An earthquake in Haiti brings widespread death and suffering. Hurricane Katrina and other disasters disrupt people’s lives and destroy communities. Diseases such as cancer and viruses cause suffering and death. Some people see or experience these events and cry out “Where is God?”
Suffering is a part of every generation. According to Job “man who is born of woman is of a few days and full of troubles,” Job 14:1. To the atheist, suffering is just a characteristic of the world. For the Christian suffering is more complex because the suffering of the world appears to be at odds with the characteristics of God.
The Bible teaches us that God is all good and all powerful. This introduces an ancient dilemma: If God is good and is all powerful He would not let these things happen; therefore, His is either not good or not all powerful. Some theologians have suggested that God is neither infinitely powerful nor infinitely good, but only in the process of acquring these attributes. This would be insufficient for if God is neither good nor omnipotent, He is unworthy of our worship.
Judging God’s Goodness
The first problem we encounter when we try to evaluate the goodness of God is our own limited standards.
As sinners, we are poor judges of a good God, Romans 3:10-18
Many conflicts arise between parents and children when the children want to do something that the parents, through wisdom and experience, forbid. Older children realize the wisdom of their parent’s decision and thank them for not allowing them to do something that they, at the time, thought was a “good” thing to do. The degree of wisdom that separates parent and child is much less than the degree of wisdom that separates us from God.
Finite beings are poor judges of an infinite God, John 40:2, 8
God can see the chain-reactions of all actions and can bring about ultimate good from any situations. God was able to convert the apparent defeat in the life of Jesus on the cross to a victory for all men. Many people credit their greatest moments of growth and strength to the greatest trials in their lives. Paul conforts believers, in Romans 8:28, that “All things work together for good to those who love God.”
We only see the limited view of a life that is like a vapor. God is eternal and can see how all things fit together and how events interconnect with other events. We get wrapped up in the events of our lives and often do not realize the far reaching implications of our actions today on future events. But God knows.
Questioning is sometimes a matter of degree
At what point of suffering do we feel justified in questioning God’s goodness or feel that God should intervene to prevent suffering? What number of lives lost in an incident allows us to question God’s goodness? 2,000,000? 200,000? 20,000? 2,000? 200? 20? 2? What about loss of property?
At what point to we go beyond feeling sad about a tragedy and move to questioning God’s power or goodness? There are many problems and trials that occur in people’s lives. We were not created to live pain-free lives. We were not created to live forever in the flesh. We live in a natural world with consequences for all of our actions. If we fall from a large height or are involved in a high speed accident, there is a good chance that our physical body will not survive and, if it does, it will suffer great pain. Pain, suffering, and death is a part of life. To complain that the suffering and pain of life is unfair is immature. It is unpleasant, and perhaps we feel we do not deserve the pain, trials, and suffering, but they are part of life.
We must realize that one cannot draw a line that separates “acceptable” suffering and “unacceptable” suffering. If the death of 200 people in a tragedy leads us to question God, why would we mourn the loss of 150 without questioning God? Why would the death of even one not cause us to question God? It’s only a matter of degree between what we accept as a part of life and what leads us to question God. This is an arbitrary judgment.
Often we judge God’s goodness based on our hapiness or ease–never a standard for good with God. The greater good for man is not ease for his spiritual life often languishes when he does not endure trials. The muscle grows when it is torn and stretched. Iron is made hard through fire and hammering. Gold is purified through fire. We develop character and perseverance through trials and suffering, Romans 5:1-5.
As we will examine later, instead of blaming God for suffering perhaps we should see the opportunities to grow in our faith and in our trust in God.