Here is a transcript of “A Conversation on Pain and Suffering with Dallas Willard,” an interview between John Ortberg and Dallas Willard. You won’t regret reading it!
Psalm 23:4; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 2:9
“A Conversation on Pain and Suffering with Dallas Willard” — John Ortberg and Dallas Willard
John Ortberg: I have been looking forward to this weekend for a long time. To let you know about one thing that’s coming up, this Christmas Eve. A lot of you will have seen or know about a book called Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s the story of the remarkable life of a guy named Louis Zamperini. The story of his turning toward Christ is one of the most powerful things I have ever read.
So this year at Christmas Eve we’re actually going to have thousands of copies of that book available.We’re going to give a copy of that book to everybody who comes to the Christmas Eve service and talk some about that.
Then in January following that, we’re going to do a series called Unbroken that’s related to themes from that book. I think it’s going to be a great Christmas and post-Christmas celebration, and you all can look forward to that and be thinking and praying about maybe somebody who could really benefit from that.You’ll hear more about that coming up. So that’s Christmas.Now let me say a little bit about what we’re going to be doing here. Dallas Willard is back with us. Dallas, if you want to come on back up. Let me say a little bit about Dallas. Go ahead and welcome him now.That’s great. Sitting right over there.Dallas, as many of you will know, is a philosopher. He is on the faculty of the University of Southern California, which a few weeks ago lost in triple overtime to Stanford.
Dallas Willard: Right.
John Ortberg: But that’s another pain-and-suffering topic we won’t get into. He has served as the head of the philosophy department. His academic work, as you all will know, is real important. He’s working right now on spiritual and moral knowledge and the loss of that in our world, and you might pray about that project as you think of it.
He is also one of the most influential thinkers and writers about spiritual life, life in the kingdom, how people are formed in our day. For me and for so many of us, God hasn’t used anybody more than he hasused Dallas in that regard. He is scary smart. I’ve told some of you I never get in an argument with Dallas because I’m afraid he will prove I don’t exist. His heart is better than his mind, and he lives in the reality of the presence and kingdom of God like nobody I know.
So today we’re going to spend some time… We spent actually two-and-a-half hours with our staff yesterday, so we owe him many, many depths of thanks. We’re going to spend this time thinking really hard about what’s maybe the primary barrier to faith for people in our day, which is…How can there be agood, loving God when pain and suffering is as bad as it is?
We invited folks to send in questions, and it was real clear real fast this is not just an abstract conversation; there is pain and brokenness all over. We’re actually going to have the time, anybody whowould like it, for prayer at the close of this service because we don’t want this to just be an intellectual discussion, but a time when God is present and healing.
We do want to think really hard about these things, and so I’ll ask some questions and you can respond. I’ll push back. I want to start with a little passage from the book that’s just come out about Steve Jobs’ life. His death has been very much on our thoughts, especially in the Bay Area. There is a tiny little vignette about his brief intersection with Christianity and the church and Jesus.
It says Jobs’ parents wanted him to have a religious upbringing, so they took him to the Lutheran church most Sundays when he was a boy. That came to an end when he was 13. In July, 1968 Life magazine published a shocking cover showing a pair of starving children in Biafra. Steve Jobs took it to Sunday school and confronted the church’s pastor.
“If I raise my finger, will God know which one I’m going to raise before I do it?” Pastor answered, “Yes,God knows everything.” Then Steve pulled out the Life cover and asked, “Well, does God know about this and what’s going to happen to these children?” Now there was a very brief kind of, “Yes, God knows, you don’t understand,” kind of answer, and then it says Jobs announced he did not want to have anything to do with worshiping such a God. He never went back to church.
For so many thoughtful people in our day, Dallas, this issue is such a barrier to faith in God. So I’ll put the question like this…With so much pain and suffering in the world, how can a thoughtful, sensitive person believe in a powerful and loving God?
Dallas Willard: I’m glad to be here. After that kind introduction, this church and this congregation is a wonderful bright spot in my soul and in my mind. This is a question that has to be addressed. Now it is one of those kinds of things that gets kicked around as a kind of intellectual football, but it’s deadly serious.
A lot of the problem comes from trying to think of it as an intellectual issue only. For example, you argue,”Well, if God is all powerful and all loving, then he won’t do such-and-such, or he will do such-and-such.”Our problem with that, and certainly it begins with a child because children ask these questions and they’re very serious and they have to be addressed, is we don’t know enough about God’s greatness and God’s goodness to draw that inference. So it actually tends to become kind of a response that just turns us off from God but doesn’t lead anywhere else.
See if you reject the existence of a loving, all-powerful God, you still have to go on. You still have to live your life. You still have to deal with suffering, because even if there is no God, you still have suffering.The issue is…What are we going to do with that without God?
Then we can begin to work into how God deals with that, and we can begin to understand, for example, the preciousness of human beings. You watch a little child in the Sudan or here suffering and dying, and it tears your heart. Why? Because people are so incredibly valuable.
That’s you. It isn’t just other people. God looks at each individual and treasures them and actually tries to help us learn how to treasure other people in the way he does. That’s why in the Great Commandment after loving God you turn to loving your neighbor as yourself. So that’s one end of the issue is understanding how valuable people are and how precious they are. They don’t just suffer pain; there is much more to their lives.
John Ortberg: That’s part of what you’re saying, then, that the existence of God helps to explain how precious people are…
Dallas Willard: That’s right.
John Ortberg: …more than if they were just random accidents.
Dallas Willard: That’s right, and one of the things you lose when you run through a little argument and give up on God is your capacity to deal with other people as precious, eternal, valuable souls and persons whom God has, as we like to say, a wonderful plan for, both for time and eternity.
The other side of it is understanding the greatness of God, how great God is. If you believe in the greatness of God, you will believe he will solve the problem and it will be a good solution. That’s where as Christians we come to the problem with an understanding of God that comes from Jesus Christ. He is the one who helps us understand the goodness of God and the greatness of God by his own death and his resurrection and his triumph and his continuing existence. He calls to us and says, “God is good, and God is able.”
If we will accept that, then we have a way of approaching it. If we’re just thrown the problem, the problem is dunked in our lap, and we don’t have any resources to deal with it, the natural response is, “I don’t want to have anything to do with God.” It’s when you begin to understand the greatness of God as it is revealed to us and as we love to sing about these wonderful songs we sing about the greatness of God. See that’s an expression of a God who will see to it that everything comes out right. We have to have that and bear witness to it between us and in our own minds, or we’re helpless with our suffering.
John Ortberg: I want to push this a little bit.
Dallas Willard: Yes, please.
John Ortberg: What about somebody who would say, “But if God is such a great God and such a good God, couldn’t he have made the world and people and little children without suffering and without starving? Couldn’t he have made another kind of world where suffering doesn’t exist?”
Dallas Willard: Well I’m sure he could have made a world like that. You can imagine a world where only minerals exist, for example, or maybe minerals and vegetables and assuming they don’t suffer. So he could have made a world, but could he have made a world with persons of the character we’re talking about here? No, he really couldn’t have, and that’s not a limitation on his power because that idea itself is contradictory.
A contradiction is not something you can fail to do. If I say to my janitor, “You didn’t sweep the room,”well he could have swept the room. But if I say to my janitor, “You didn’t both sweep the room and not sweep the room,” he will look at me like I’m crazy. I would be crazy to ask that question because that isn’t something anyone can do or omit, and when it comes to creating persons without a world roughly like this one, that’s impossible. Not just for you or me, it isn’t the kind of thing that could even be omitted to do.
You have to understand, I believe, and forgive me if I talk like I know what I’m talking about. This takes too much time to say, “Well, I, in my opinion,” but you understand. Suffering is a way of helping us understand what we do really matters. When people are hurt, it really matters. When we care for people and help them, that really matters.
So let me just say over simply no doubt if there were not suffering in the world, nothing would matter. Of course suffering is one part of a whole that includes both suffering and what is good and what is joyful.They come together. God has created a world in which there is suffering and in which what human beings do really matters.
Last evening service some spoke to me afterward about how they’re caring for people. If there were no suffering, there would be no caring. Would you like a world like that? I don’t think so. We could talk about how much suffering there is and how there might be a good deal less, but that’s where we run into a lack of understanding of what God is doing. God is operating in a great world, and in that world there are resources. There are things going on we don’t understand. In that world God cares for every person and will see to it they are cared for. If God cares for the sparrows that fall, he cares for us.
One of Jesus’ little jokes was, “God cares for the raven and all the birds,” and he says, “How many birds are you worth?” You ever try to prize someone in birds? His point is simply that God cares for the birds.He cares for everything. He cares for you. Now he has the resources to do that, and that’s where we have to understand not only the preciousness of people, but the greatness of God.
John Ortberg: How much does this have to do with the idea of having an eternal perspective as opposed to if somebody lives for a year or 50 years or 80 years? That’s real different than if they live for eternity.Where does that come in?
Dallas Willard: Well eternity, of course, is a part of the picture. The child who is starving to death in the Sudan this very moment, when it dies it enters into the presence of God, and it will affirm the goodness of its existence because now it lives in the presence of God and will do so forever. God’s life is eternal, and he gives that to others. A little child who dies is in his care. Without eternity, there is no solution to this problem, and that’s just one dimension. The short thing you have to say is the greatness of God is what sees to it that eventually everything comes out good and comes out right.
John Ortberg: I was thinking as you were talking, when our first daughter was born, Laura, Nancy was in labor for almost twelve hours.
Dallas Willard: Mmm.
John Ortberg: It was excruciatingly painful….
Dallas Willard: Yes.
John Ortberg: …and she blamed me.
Dallas Willard: Yes, no doubt it was your fault.
John Ortberg: If that was all there was to Laura’s existence was twelve hours…
Dallas Willard: Yes.
John Ortberg: …of horrible pain…
Dallas Willard: Yes.
John Ortberg: …that would just be awful. But now given a life, looking back on the pain of birth, it was pain, but relative to the goodness of having a life…
Dallas Willard: Yes.
John Ortberg: …the perspective is totally different. I was thinking if you think about people as eternal beings, it’s even a bigger gap between eternity and whatever the length of a human life is.
Dallas Willard: Yes, that’s right. We get a little taste in this life of how, when we move into the future and the future is good, the past, which was unbearable when we went through it, now takes on a different quality because it’s a part of the larger whole. It’s the greatness of God that matters, and even David Hume, who is well known as a skeptic or critic, just says, “If your God is big enough, there is no problem of evil.” That’s the key. Jesus affirms that in our lives, and we can go from that and experience the goodness of God as we go on.
John Ortberg: Eternity relates to this question. This actually was sent into Dear Abby: “Abby, I’m a middle-aged woman who is Baptist by faith. I believe when I die I will go to heaven. My problem is if going to heaven means being reunited with my parents and other family members, then I don’t want to go.The idea of spending eternity with them is more than I can stand, but I don’t want to go to hell either. Any thoughts?”So how should we think about the afterlife, and how does that relate to…? Well this really is a serious question because for a lot of people there are cartoon pictures of heaven, but we don’t think about it in a very adult way.
Dallas Willard: Yes, that’s true, and it would be wonderful to see how Dear Abby answered that one,wouldn’t it?
John Ortberg: She said they should consult their minister.
Dallas Willard: Oh!
John Ortberg: So yeah, that’s why I’m asking.
Dallas Willard: She does give good advice. Well we want to understand we will be transformed in heaven. A lot of things that might make someone say, “I don’t want to get stuck with that person forever,”will be changed. Another thing is there is lots of room in heaven, and probably God can arrange your quarters in a different way.
On the other hand, that is something that often troubles people. Will there be growth in heaven? I believe there will be. I don’t think people will slowly stop lying or torturing people or anything of that sort, but we will continue to grow in our abilities, in our sensitivities, in our knowledge. So much that is unpleasant in personal relations comes from being focused on the wrong things, simple things like not realizing how valuable this person is that I live with. Those things I think will be adjusted, and we don’t need to worry about being stuck in heaven.
John Ortberg: You said a moment ago, “Without suffering there wouldn’t be caring.”
Dallas Willard: That’s right.
John Ortberg: So will there be suffering in heaven? Will there be caring in heaven?
Dallas Willard: There will be caring in heaven, but it will be released from suffering into the glory of producing what is good. See when a mother prepares a wonderful meal for her family, that isn’t just to relieve suffering; that’s good. Caring expresses itself in a world free from suffering in terms of producing what is good. We all know that in our lives here. That’s one of the most delightful things we ever do iscaring for what is good.
John Ortberg: This is a question that gets to my relationship with God. This person writes, “How do we know if an event of suffering or disaster is God’s punishment or a test? In case of a test, how do we know our score?”
Dallas Willard: Well to speak to the last part, probably better we don’t know our score. You think about how we’re trained to boast on our scores here, and that’s a real problem. This is a theologically deep question because many people do believe God causes suffering. Personally, I don’t believe that. There is an enemy in the picture, and on the larger scene we know that.
The book of Job is so important. The reason the book of Job is in the Bible partly is to help us understand we’re in a battle. You might think if you read the book of Job it would be a good idea not to call the devil’s attention to yourself by being too good, but testing does come. In the time of testing, we want to cling to God, not doubt him, but cling to him. The reason I say that is precisely because Jesus comes to let us know what God is like. God is not a torturer, and he does not send suffering upon his people. Sometimes he allows them to experience suffering because they’ve walked away from him.
You want to understand that sometimes the suffering doesn’t come for that reason; it comes because there is an enemy who wishes to make you doubt God. In the overall picture, that is the meaning of the book of Job. That remarkable statement, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” Your trust in God is what matters.
Now no matter what the difficulty is, and sometimes they’re extremely hard to bear, in those things we do not want to doubt God; we want to cling to God. If we think, Well, he is testing me, we’re apt not to focus on him. Let me point out to you God does not need to test you to find about you. I have to test my students to find out about them. God doesn’t have the problem.
John Ortberg: He already knows.
Dallas Willard: He already knows. So just understand now testing comes, but it’s not God’s work to test in the sense of suffering. He knows who we are, and he knows what we can bear. When trouble does come, the important thing is to understand God is against it. He is not for it.
John Ortberg: Another question, and I’ll give you this one in clusters. “Do miracles still happen? What is a miracle? Should I expect a miracle when I pray? Do I have less chance of getting a miracle from God if I have secret questions and doubts about getting one?”
Dallas Willard: A miracle is an act of God that breaks into the regularities that characterize nature. What you would expect to happen in the course of nature does not happen because God has intervened. Now you can help, I think, understand that just by looking at how human beings intervene in the course of events in their family lives or with their pets or whatever. How things would go if they didn’t intervene is the natural course of events, but they step in and make a difference. That’s a miracle.
You should pray with expectation that God will intervene. Now you have to leave it to him. It’s his business, but I encourage you to expect God’s intervention in your life. I pray that way, and if that doesn’t come to pass then I say, “Well, God may have something better in store for me.”
You will see miracles happen if you pray expectantly. They won’t happen every time, and they won’t happen the way you think it will happen possibly, but it’s a really difficult life to live where you think God does not break through and it’s right.
We should pray with that expectation.We should stand in the place of prayer as Jesus taught us repeatedly, that we should persevere in prayer.As he says, I think it’s Luke 18, “Men ought always to pray and not give up.” You stand in the place of prayer. I often say to people, “When I find something better to do than pray, I’ll do that.” There isn’t anything better to do than pray and stand in the place of prayer.
God who created the universe has no problem invading it. That’s why in the biblical record you’ll see so often in the context of prayer they mention creation, because after all if he set the thing up, he can do something about it.
John Ortberg: It sounds like you’re saying God can do miracles, we should pray for them, we should believe they can happen, but we shouldn’t base our faith in God on whether or not a particular one happens.
Dallas Willard: I would certainly agree with that. On the other hand, if you live this way your faith is going to be tremendously stronger because of what you will see. You pray expectantly, and you watch what happens. Many people don’t stay around long enough to see the answer come. No, they’re out with something else. You want to watch.
So I encourage people when I pray with them or I do this myself. I make a point of watching to see what happens. I like to even say, “Now let something happen tonight,” and say, “Now watch for this.” I’m not at all worried about people being disappointed. Not at all. That’s a part of what you go through by living this way. If the answer you’re hoping for or expecting for does not come, your faith in the goodness of God will secure you.
John Ortberg: So interesting because I think a lot of times we don’t pray for that because we’re afraid it won’t turn out well or we’ll be disappointed. We don’t want to have our faith shaken up by the disappointment.
Dallas Willard: Yes, that’s true. In my younger life, which now is at some distance from me…
John Ortberg: Eighty or 90 years?
Dallas Willard: Yeah, 80 or 90 years ago. I suddenly realized when I was praying, I wasn’t praying; I was worrying about whether I would get an answer and what would that show about me? So I have had to learn with joy to lay all that aside. I do not matter. What happens with me, that’s up to God. What matters is my loving prayer for the thing that is before me, whatever that might be.
John Ortberg: Somebody wrote, “Why do we feel so alone and forsaken when bad things happen to us through no fault or our own? How can we feel closer to God instead?”
Dallas Willard: Well we have to recognize a part of the strategy of God’s enemy for destroying you is to make you feel isolated and alone and to push you off and say, “God does not care. It does not matter.” See Satan had a round with God some long time ago, and he lost badly. Ever since then, about all he can do is try to work on God’s project with human beings and defeat that project by getting people to disbelieve in God’s presence and God’s goodness.
He will work on you. If something bad happens, then he will use that to make you think God does not care and you’re alone in your life and you don’t have any resources from God’s point of view. That’s where your affirmation of the presence of God in your suffering is important.
Now it’s really an important point here. See dealing with suffering is something you don’t want to have to do when you’re in suffering alone. You need to be prepared. So often some tragic thing happens, we rush to help people in that, but they haven’t been prepared. We need to practice the presence of God in our lives when we’re not suffering. We need to praise and understand God so when suffering comes that will occur in a context with which we are very familiar.
It is keeping the greatness of God before our mind when we’re not suffering that allows us to take suffering, as it were, in a walk because we know who is walking with us. It’s God being with us that turns the suffering into something that can even be received gladly with hope because we’re confident of God.
You know that passage in the twenty-third Psalm. “Yes, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…” Why? “…because you are with me.” See it’s the presence of God with us.Now that’s what we need to be cultivating constantly, practicing the presence of God, in a famous phrase.That means we are turning our minds toward God. We are keeping him in our thoughts. We are invoking him in our actions. We are watching his intervention in our lives. As we do that, then we know God is with us.
When something bad happens, that’s already there. It isn’t something like we have to run and get some of that now like we might run to get water when something catches on fire. We’re already there, and that is,of course, the role of the gospel, of fellowship, of songs, and living together with one another, because certainly God being with us is also in large part others being with us.
There are times when that doesn’t happen, and of course when you begin to walk down into the valley of the shadow death, you go alone as far as human beings are concerned. But if you have lived your life with Christ, he is with you. He goes with you.
He even suggests the person who keeps his word will never experience death. That’s John, chapter 8. You can look that up. Suggestion is perhaps they won’t even know they’ve died until later, and they’ll figure it out because they’re in such good company. You really are a spiritual being, and God is spiritual. Being with God is a matter of personal communion between you and God.
John Ortberg: That brings up one last question we have time for, and that has to do with Jesus and suffering because we’re told Jesus is God in human flesh…
Dallas Willard: Right.
John Ortberg: …and yet he suffered.
Dallas Willard: Mm-hmm.
John Ortberg: He was tired. He was hungry. He wept.
Dallas Willard: Mm-hmm.
John Ortberg: He experienced pain. He bled. He died on a cross.
Dallas Willard: Mm-hmm.
John Ortberg: Could you talk a little bit about Jesus and talk about Jesus in suffering and what difference does it make that Jesus himself suffered?
Dallas Willard: This is, of course, central to our understanding of God. He came in the flesh, and he suffered all of the things people suffer in the flesh. He does this so we can go with him to the cross, and we can participate in the brokenness of this life so we can see and enter into the resurrection of Jesus and be a part of that.
Paul, for example, in Colossians 3 says, “If you then, being risen with Christ, seek those things that are above where Christ sits on the right hand of God…” You see it’s through death we enter into the victory that is beyond death. As Hebrews 2 says, “He tasted death for every person.” Every one. That’s so we can be a part of that, and we celebrate that with the Lord’s Supper. The Eucharist is an occasion where we celebrate the brokenness of the flesh and the suffering.
The cross is central to our faith, but only because that’s the door to the resurrection. If you’re going to have a resurrection, you need a death. That’s one reason why Jesus put it on such display on the cross. He said,”If I be lifted up on the cross, I will draw all men unto me.” He made a point of dying in that way, I suppose as difficult a death as one could imagine. He did that so we would see through that the life that is eternal that comes with resurrection.
So we are living beyond death now as we identify with him. That changes everything because that helps us see the larger picture in the light of which suffering and pain become something we can live through with joy. We can devote ourselves to helping others who are suffering.
John Ortberg: We are living beyond death now.
Dallas Willard: That’s right. That’s the picture you see from the teachings of the Scripture: Jesus, Paul,and John. Eternal living is what we’re doing now. We are living a life that is eternal because it is participating in the life of God himself. He gives that to us.
Then we’re taken care of, so that releases us to care for others. Now there is a lot to be done in that regard,and we look out on the broken and bleeding world and we say, “What can we do to help?” Now that’s a big challenge, and the church has a really important part in that in rising up and leading humanity. The church is meant to lead humanity, and if we don’t do that then the grief you see in the world is the natural result.
John Ortberg: Well I hate to do it, but we’re going to have to stop there. A fabulous charge for us. Can we thank Dallas for being with us this weekend?
Dallas Willard: Thank you. Thank you.
John Ortberg: Dallas, as you look at this congregation, there will be people who have suffered, are suffering from loss, from hurt, from disappointment…
Dallas Willard: Mm-hmm.
John Ortberg: …from failure, from illness.
Dallas Willard: Mm-hmm.
John Ortberg: We would love a blessing.
Dallas Willard: Mm-hmm.
John Ortberg: So would you say a word about what it is to bless someone…
Dallas Willard: Yes.
John Ortberg: …and then would you close this service by blessing us?
Dallas Willard: Mm-hmm.
John Ortberg: Then after that, if anybody would like to have prayer, we will be down here and available to pray with you.
Dallas Willard: When you bless someone, you will what is good for them under the invocation of God.No human being is capable of blessing on their own, and of course we were never meant to be like that.We were meant to live in union with God so we can come to others and speak what is good to them and perhaps even bring it to them in our own bodies because we are living under God. So when you bless, you bless by giving what is good in your words in faith under God.
Let’s stand together for the benediction.
Now Lord, we affirm your goodness and your greatness far beyond anything we can understand, but we affirm it because we have tasted of it and we have seen it. I ask now for each person here, just where they are in their world, whatever that includes… That may be something like aging. It may be some particular affliction. It may be a personal issue with family or work. Now I am asking your touch to go right into their bodies and souls now. Bring the healing presence of your life to bear on the specific issues they are facing.
Send us forth from this with blessing for our world. Let it flow from our belly, as you have said, rivers of living waters. So let that blessing flow now over this congregation through everyone here and out into the world so desperately in need. We pronounce it is so in the name of Jesus Christ, the master and Lord of all. So let it be done this very moment.