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19 December 2014

Why Suffering? An interview with Ravi Zacharias

To celebrate the launch of his book, Why Suffering? the Alliance's Danny Webster interviewed the Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias on how Christians can respond to suffering.

What has been your response when you've personally struggled with questions of doubt and confusion?

I came to my belief and trust in Jesus Christ from a culture that was predominately of a different worldview, a pantheistic worldview. I wasn't really looking for answers in the person of Christ. But having found that then, I say to myself how do I explain all that happened? I wasn't going hunting after this, but when I found Christ on a bed of suicide, my life was changed so dramatically. Do I have questions? Yes. Do I have doubts? No. And I think there is a difference.

How should Christians respond when they don't have the answer?

Many people back off and end up becoming fideistic: I believe because I believe. Then at that point it sounds like an escapist system. The question has to be answered clearly along two tracks: one is the intellectual side of it and the other is the pastoral side, and it is the intellectual side that most Christians are nervous about beginning to respond. My answer when I come to it intellectually is a pretty straightforward answer and it is what thinkers would call explanatory power: can naturalism explain good for example, can naturalism explain noble acts, don't they have to explain the problem of good if the theist has to explain the problem of evil? 

Ravi Zacharias was interviewed by Danny Webster.

If someone raises the question of suffering as an argument against God, what's your first response?

My first response is I understand –I sympathise, it is a very credible concern. But I then have to, as CS Lewis would say, examine where a question makes its assumptions and where the question leads to in and of itself. So if the question assumes we have moral reasoning and capacity, I'm not sure the naturalist can justify that. The second thing I would say is, isn't it interesting that in the Western world, we take assumptions such as that –of the reality of evil –and say therefore there is no God. There is a mindset issue we have to deal with, not just a case of the data and the conclusion.

There are of course such different degrees of it too, what I may consider suffering, the person in a hospital with rheumatoid arthritis may say: "Yours is a cake walk." You're complaining about your car being stolen or you bank account being raided or something. There's no doubt about it. That leads you to the pastoral side of it, how do you find the strength to deal with it.

First you must always put it in perspective. Recently we had a flood in our home. It damaged all of our furniture downstairs, and even some of my valuable notes, notes I'd collected for years –years of research were gone, but I'd just come back from one country where a man had asked to see me whose daughter, in her late twenties or something, had jumped off the thirtieth floor of her apartment block and killed herself. And I remember sitting with my family and saying what is the real problem –is it that we've lost our furniture, or I have lost some of my notes? Or is the real problem the man who doesn't know how he is ever going to survive the death of his daughter?

But number two, what is it that the Christian message has to offer us that endeavours to carry you through the, 'cost of living and the cost of life', and there are numerous people who have written and have demonstrated what it is that Jesus offers in the indwelling presence that enables you to transcend the moment and look beyond it.

How can church leaders equip their congregation to understand suffering in their own lives?

One of the most important things in the book of Job is the failure of the friends. The friends came and started piling verse upon verse, and theological proposition upon theological proposition. Job was thoroughly offended by it all and was in deeper pain. I think the Church needs to be a community that reaches out to its hurting and makes it possible for people to share their doubts, their struggles, their aches, friendship and community help is the best way of showing that God cares.

How can church leaders equip their congregations talk to non-Christians about suffering?

I think that's the hard part, because suffering is no respecter of persons. The most important thing, before even giving answers, is to be a good listener and a good person present with the friendship. And then when the questions are asked, determine the right time. Philosophical answers by a graveside are not exactly helpful, but an arm around the hurting can be helpful as they work through in time what it is that they are ready to listen to and when. I've seen people go through the heartache and go through the pain and at the end of it say they were able to come to conclusions through my suffering that I would never have come to before. James Stewart said in one of his books: "Conquer not despite the dark mystery of evil, you conquer through it'.

How you bring a person to that is going to be critical. You can quote hymns, you can quote verses, you can quote friends, but being present and waiting for the right time to unpack the issue;virtually everyone I have known who has gone through that period says I am better for what I have gone through.

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries are holding a Reasons for God training day in London on 24 January to help equip Christians respond to common objections to the Christian faith.



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