When Bad Times Come

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[Note: This speech was given at the Xiamen International Christian Fellowship--XICF.]

“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”

Where is God When Bad Things Happen

(by Michael Krigline, www.krigline.com, May 11, 2014)

            The title for today's meditation is “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” or—because my Aramaic is worse than my Chinese--“Where is God when Bad Things Happen?”

            God works in mysterious ways. Early this past week, our beloved pastor took one of his “day-trips” to Hong Kong for medical treatment, expecting to be back here in the evening after a rather exhausting day. Instead, he discovered that his visa had expired, which set about a series of unforeseen events. In the email flurry with our Steering Committee, our African brothers Michael and Kingsley sent Gabe touching messages of support in this time of trial, and I was so moved that I sent them a note suggesting that they preach about this topic someday. (If you were here last week, perhaps you are smiling; but I was teaching at XMU last Sunday and hadn't heard Michael's message about suffering!) When it became clear that Pastor could not get back in time to preach today, he asked me to pinch hit, and this was the topic that came to mind. After that, I realized it was Mother's Day, and I also found out about and listened to Michael's wonderful teaching last Sunday, but I decided that I'd stick with what I was preparing—for I've learned over the years that it isn't wise to “second guess” the leading of the Holy Spirit! So, if you were hoping for a happy Mother's Day message today, sorry, we’re talking about suffering… though I'm sure every mother here knows there’s a connection between mothering and suffering, as well as the truth that we often learn our deepest lessons and reach our highest joys because of these times when bad things happen.

            Just three weeks ago we celebrated Resurrection Sunday (Easter). The history-changing glory of our Lord's resurrection changed everything, but today I want to take us back three days before the Resurrection, to the side of a Man who cries out “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” or, “My God, why have You forsaken Me?” From this most desperate cry, maybe we can find an answer for the times in our own lives “when bad things happen.” This cry is the first line of Psalm 22, and in case you've never noticed it, this psalm is full of prophetic references to our Lord's suffering on the cross, written about a thousand years before the event. 1000 years. As I recount the events of Good Friday, please notice the other references to Ps. 22 on the screen, and ponder the fact that God knew about this—was looking “forward” to this painful experience—for over a thousand years…if not from before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4).

            On Friday morning, they brought Jesus to Golgotha (also called Calvary or Place of a Skull). There they crucified Him by piercing His hands and feet [Ps 22: 16]. As the cross was raised His bones went out of joint [Ps 22: 14]. Then the Gentile soldiers surrounded Him [Ps 12 & 16] and divided His garments, gambling over them by casting lots [Ps 22:18]. With Him they also crucified two robbers, so the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And He was numbered with the transgressors.” [Isa 53:12] And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads [Ps 22:7] and saying, “save Yourself, and come down from the cross!” Likewise the chief priests also, mocking among themselves with the scribes, said, “He trusts in God, let Him deliver him now, if He takes pleasure in him [Ps 22:8]” Even those who were crucified with Him reviled Him. [Ps 22:6-7] Now when 12 noon had come, there was darkness over the whole land until 3 o’clock when Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” [Ps 22:1] which is translated, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”

            (adapted from Mark 15:22-35 & Matt 27:43)

Thoughts on asking “why?”

            “My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  “Where is God when Bad Things Happen?”

            I think it is safe to assume that everyone present today has, at some point in his or her life, asked God “why?”  Take heart, for you are in good company. From the cross, the Son of God asked the same question, quoting from David’s Psalm—yes, David felt this way too—King David “the man after God’s own heart.” (1 Sam 13:14)

            Perhaps I was led to this topic today, in part, because of the “bad things” that are delaying our Pastor's return from Hong Kong, but my wife and I have also had a number of our own reasons recently to ask God “why?” Some “reasons” have been relatively small—I was running late for class on Friday, and I slipped and fell on one of those pretty Chinese sidewalk materials that are kind of deadly in the rain. I hurt my hand, which could make playing the guitar for you in a few minutes tricky, but the experience mostly damaged my pride as a flock of passing high school students came rushing over to help the Lao de Lao Wai (old foreigner). But physical illness IS a major reason for our “why” questions. My wife and I have both been ill enough in recent weeks to warrant that hour-long trek to the Chang Geng hospital.

            Another common cause of our collective questioning is news (or lack thereof) from friends and family far away. We've had to deal with some heart-wrenching issues lately, and the pain is compounded by the distance that makes us feel so powerless to be on any help. Those words betray my lack of faith in the power of prayer, and in the goodness of a God who loves my children, grandchildren and parents far more than I do. Still, these things make me look up and ask “Why?”

            Vivian and I are also afflicted with those unanswerable questions about the future, which often make mere mortals feel like God has forsaken or at least temporarily forgotten about us. After serving diligently at Xiamen University for the past three years, receiving accolades from students and the wonderful reward of seeing them make significant progress in their English abilities, I received an email in early April saying that my contract with the Economics Department could not be renewed (due to university-wide policy changes). I'll spare you from the many factors at work here, but the bottom line is that we have no idea where I'm going to work, or where we are going to live, after July. We love it here in Xiamen; we love XICF and the Bridge; and we had hoped to remain here for a long time, but now the road ahead is as foggy as a Xiamen morning in the rainy season, and we are tempted to ask God, “Why?”

            On top of our personal issues, many of us are perplexed over man-made disasters like the disappearance of flight MH370 on route to Beijing, or so-called “acts of God” like earthquakes and tsunamis. Add to these all the daily “whys” that come with living and working in a foreign country, and one can really wonder what God is up to in our lives.

            But you know, as I look out over this congregation, I know that many of you are facing challenges that make my petty problems seem insignificant. It has come to my attention many times in recent weeks that so many others are dealing with tremendous burdens, life-and-death decision, crippling depression, pending relocation, serious health issues, and more. They (and maybe you) can easily say with Paul in 2 Cor 1:8-9:

            For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death.

            Before we look for an answer to these “why” questions, or a prescription for these situations, let’s take a minute to look at the question itself. When “bad things happen” people all over the world light candles and hold moments of silence acknowledging a hope for supernatural help, and there is almost a universal tendency to simply look up and ask the question: “Why?” “Why is this happening to me?” “God, why have You forsaken me?”

            First, our tendency to “look up” and ask “why” tells us more than most of us realize. Deep down, the vast majority of us (Christian and non-Christian) still believe that there is Someone "up there" bigger than ourselves and that there is some “purpose” for our lives. We believe this in spite of decades of so-called science and philosophy that have tried to convince us that we are the "height" of some meaningless evolutionary process. After all, if Modern Man is just an accident of nature, and if life has no plot nor point, it is absurd to ask “why?”

            Likewise, if asking "Why?" shows that we believe in a life that is supposed to make sense, asking it of God demonstrates that we believe in a God who is supposed to make sense. We believe this in spite of the many religions (past and present) that present gods with no purpose for themselves nor for their human subjects. These gods are flawed and jealous, they get angry, and they manipulate human lives as a form of entertainment. If that is the character of God, surely there is no reason to ask the question "why?"!


Truth and consequences

            But that is not the character of the God of the Bible. The truth is that our God has a purpose that is being worked out through time and eternity. Ephesians 3:10-11 agrees with Shakespeare that "all the world’s a stage," but there is a plot and a point to the story! According to this passage, God’s "intent" is to make known His "manifold wisdom" to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places (that is, angelic and demonic powers, unseen to us but very real). Commenting on Eph 3, Scottish pastor Eric Alexander said that the history and progress of God's Church is “a graduate school for angels.” Life is not meaningless. God is at work creating a living, spotless Bride for His Son to hold before the throngs of Heaven at the end of time, crying out: "Look what I have done! Isn’t she beautiful? Good has triumphed over evil!"

            I believe that day is coming quickly. And in that day, the people of Adam's race will be separated like a shepherd separates sheep from goats. (Matt 25:32ff)

            On one side will be those who have chosen the passing pleasures of sin over an association with the people of God (Heb 11:24). These are those who have lacked compassion for their fellow humans in times of sickness and need—so, clearly, God expects each and every one of us to help others “when bad things happen.” This group of “goats” will include those who have chosen “not to decide” about the spiritual truths they have heard, as well as those who have raged against God for problems of their own making (see Prov 19:3). By choice and indecision, by word and deed, these are those who have said to God: “If you are the kind of God who must maintain all power and glory for yourself... If your kingdom is a kingdom for humble, obedient, praising dependents, then I don't want any part of it. I'm not broken, I don't need You, and I'll be damned before I surrender to you or anyone else.” And the almighty, eternal God will turn to them sadly and say: “OK, thy will be done.” Then they will be cast into a place prepared for the devil and those who rebelled with him (Matt 25:41); a place of isolation and regret to be tormented by their own sin, pride, shame, and—though realized too late—their own inadequacy.

            However, on the other side will be a vast, multi-ethnic company. Those who have mourned their sin will understand just how far God has removed those sins from them. Those who have humbled themselves before the Lord will be lifted up. Those who have cared for the poor, naked, sick, for those in prison, will hear God say, “what you did for the least of these, you did unto me.” (Matt 25:40) Those who have stretched up their arms, like trusting children to their beloved Father, will be flooded with a father's love. All who have learned obedience through the things they have suffered (Heb 5:8) will be led into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (Matt 25:34). We have Jesus' word on this, for He said, “I go and prepare a place for you... that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:3) My friends, that is the side I want to be standing on, but we each have to make our own choice.

            So, we see that our choices have eternal consequences, and that our questions themselves reveal a lot about what we inherently believe. In asking God “why” we affirm our belief in a sinless God of order who is at work in a sinful and demon-filled world to produce a beautiful Bride/Church, over which the angels themselves will marvel. When we are tempted to accuse God for our troubles, may Ephesian 3 remind us to point the finger of blame at the mostly unseen conflict between good and evil, and not at the God who offers purpose, forgiveness and eternal life to all of the foot soldiers in this conflict.


(continued in the next column)

(continued from previous column)


God’s Answers

            Next we move to God’s answers to the question “why?”  You know, the Bible actually gives a couple answers.

            One is found in Habakkuk. The prophet asked the question pretty much like we ask it: "Why do You tolerate wrong? How long, O Lord, must I call for help, but You do not listen?" (Hab 1:2,3). God’s answer is basically ‘don't worry about it,’ or more accurately: "The Lord is in His holy temple; let all the earth be silent before Him" (Hab 2:20). God tells the prophet, "Look and be utterly amazed! I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told!" (Hab 1:5). So, perhaps God doesn’t tell us “why” because we wouldn’t believe or like the answer (as was the case in Habakkuk’s time).

            Another answer is given through the prophet Haggai. God told him the people had planted, earned and expected much, but had little to show for it. Why? Again, you probably won’t like the Bible’s answer. God told Haggai it was because those who claimed to be God’s people were so busy tending to their own lives that they were neglecting the real purpose for their existence. This may or may not be the case in our trials, but the lesson still applies: (as Jesus put it:) "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you" (Matt 6:33 ESV).

            The passage I quoted earlier from 2 Corinthians (1: 8-11) also gives a partial answer to “the problem of suffering.” As Michael E. pointed out last week, God sometimes allows suffering to strengthen our relationship with God, and to humble us before Him. After Paul says that they had experienced great affliction “in Asia...so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself,” he goes on to say:

            9b But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. 10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again. 11 You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many.

That is, Paul was saying that (at least in this case) God allowed the suffering in order to make us rely on God (not on ourselves), also hinting that it was supposed to build hope and to show the power of prayer.

            To review the “four purposes of suffering” Michael E. taught about last week:

God uses suffering:

      1. to create/restore a love relationship with us.

      2. to humble his children.

      3. to display His grace.

      4. to protect His children (and to accomplish His own aims).


            Yet I think that my favorite Biblical passage on the problem of suffering is where  Jesus himself answers the question in Luke 13. He deals specifically with the false notion that "bad things only happen to bad people." A couple of tragedies had recently occurred. The first was a man-made tragedy: a wicked ruler had killed some people from Galilee, Jesus’ home area, for no apparent reason. The second was (perhaps) caused by an earthquake, or maybe poor workmanship, but either way it was NOT the fault of the victims: a large building had collapsed, killing 18 innocent people. Some of the witnesses were troubled and approached Jesus with their questions. Jesus answered, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, NO! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them--do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, NO! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." To me, Jesus was saying, “You’re asking the wrong question; repentance and eternal life are important, not ‘why did these bad things happen’.”


            So, we see that the Bible addresses these questions, but it doesn’t exactly give us a complete answer. Yet maybe this is the point. Maybe the answer is not as important as the question itself, for in just asking it we are pointed “up” to the Answer.

            Fast forward 40 days to Ascension Day. Perhaps as Jesus’ disciples were "looking up" at their departing Lord they remembered His promise: "I will not leave you as orphans . . ." (John 14:18). Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit whom He would send to those who believed in Him--the same Holy Spirit (or Comforter) whose name means "the One who walks beside us." In our times of grief that is what we really need: a Comforter-friend who will walk beside us. Maybe heaven’s solution for our times of trial and tragedy is not an answer, it is simply a relationship with the Answer God promised to “send down” before the question was ever asked.


            Singer Michael Card put it this way:

Could it be You make Your presence known

so often by Your absence?

Could it be that questions tell us more

than answers ever do?

Could it be that You would really rather die

than live without us?

Could it be the only answer that means anything

is You?!


The prescription of praise

            Finally, having considered the question “why” and the Bible’s answers (which I think of as more like a call to relationship than answers), let us conclude by returning to Psalm 22 to find one of the Bible’s prescriptions for our times of pain. That prescription, in a word, is “praise.”

            We started today with the agonized words of Jesus, who, dying one of the cruelest forms of death ever devised by mankind, found the strength to quote Scripture. It was a common practice in the time of Jesus for a teacher to recite the first verse of a Psalm, and then his disciples would recite the rest of the passage. If Jesus was doing this, imagine the amazement of his disciples as they realized that much of Psalm 22 foretold the details of the crucifixion (as we saw earlier). But if the disciples continued to the end of the Psalm, they might have realized that Jesus was calling them to think forward, past the “why?” question, past the prophecies and horrors of His crucifixion. King David’s situation obviously seemed just as hopeless when he penned those words. But in spite of the pain and loneliness, in spite of the natural tendency to look up and ask God “WHY”—David does not end his Psalm in a note of despair, but with praise.

            Now, in times of pain, praising God is not easy—it is not like swallowing a candy-coated pill. It is more like the way my son used to take liquid cold medicine. My wife put the little cup of red liquid on the dining room table, and called our son to take his medicine. All of a sudden he had a thousand things to do—he had to look for his slippers, he washed his hands (slowly), he dried them (carefully), he poured himself a cup of water, and when he could delay no longer he picked up the cup, put it a foot in front of his turned up nose, and tried to convince his lips to open (unsuccessfully). He counted to three (forward, then backward). He did everything he could to postpone the inevitable moment when the “gosh awful medicine” hit his tongue, coated his throat, and wound up in his little body where—wonder of wonders—it started to make him feel better.

            It is not always easy to praise the Lord, especially when “Bad Things Happen.” But it is a prescription for deliverance; not necessarily immediate deliverance from the trial, but deliverance from the powers that bind and cast down your soul! If you can think of nothing to say to God in that moment—no way to praise Him—just turn and recite Psalm 22. That is why God has given it to you! Mark it now in your Bible (bookmark it in your phone)—if you do not need it today, trust me there will come a time when you will! Begin with its loud, lamenting initial cry: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” But as you continue reading, let the Holy Spirit remind you of the One who suffered on the cross, when men pierced his hands and feet, waged their heads at him, gambled for his clothes, and even His Father turned His Head and brought Jesus to the dust of death [Ps 22:15]. But do not stop there at verse 15. Follow David to the end, when—through praise—hope is reborn.

            Join me now in reading together part of the end of Psalm 22 from the English Standard version (starting in verse 23):


23    You who fear the LORD, praise him!

      All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,

      and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!

24    For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted,

      and he has not hidden his face from him,

      but has heard, when he cried to him.

25  From you comes my praise in the great congregation;

      my vows I will perform before those who fear him...

27    All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD,

      and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.

28    For kingship belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.

                                    --From Psalm 22


            If Jesus was indeed drawing the disciples' attention to Psalm 22, He not only wanted them to see that the cross was a part of God's eternal plan, but Jesus was also calling His disciples to think forward through praise to the time when “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you.” [22:27] You see, to Jesus the cross was never “the end.” The cross was where life would “begin”—for us and all who would one day bow down before a risen Savior whose shed blood alone could provide the power to forgive sin and restore a fallen race into a relationship with God the Father—to the utter amazement of heaven’s powers and principalities.

            So Jesus’ dying question (“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”) stands to offer hope for all of us in our times of despair. And it can just as accurately serve as a statement of faith—a faith that was full of praise and which looked into the future to see deliverance, pardon, restoration, and the unstoppable expansion of the Kingdom of God.

            According to the writer of Hebrews (from Heb 12:2-11--NKJV):

            2…For the joy that was set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

            3 Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.... 11 For the moment, all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.


            Where is God when “bad things happen”? He is right here, within us, suffering with us; He is only a praise away. Praise is part of heaven’s prescription for any difficult situation here below, and God’s answer to man’s deepest need is not the removal of evil but the offer of a relationship with our Maker. As you and I look up and ask “why,” God is looking down and drawing us to look ahead. He calls us to pick up our cross and follow Him, not simply to death but to the joy that waits on the other side of the cross. For as Resurrection Day reminded us, the tomb is empty! The cross is where life begins.


I closed by singing the following song, written after being touched by the centrality of the cross in the life of a church in Cote d’Ivoire.


Where Life Begins        (by Michael Krigline 1992)


Take me to the cross where life begins anew

Lead me to the battles, Lord, I’ll win through You

Fill me with the righteousness that conquers sin

Take me to the cross where life begins


Find me when I’ve fled away from Satan’s roar

Place me in Your hands and let me flee no more

Guard me, let me live to be Your slave and friend

Take me to the cross where life begins



Help me to follow the steep, narrow way

Make me more like Jesus, Lord I pray

Filled with Your power, humble and kind

Living beyond the veil of death, Your  joy to find


Show me how to love the way You first loved me

Use me to lift up the Lamb of Calvary

Send me to the harvest of souls trapped in sin

Take me to the cross where life begins

All scripture from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (2 Co 1:8–9). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

© 2014 Michael Krigline, all rights reserved. Permission granted to print/copy for personal use.  (see Website Standards and Use Policy)

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