Thoughts on suffering and pain…

 This is from a sermon I preached in January of 2011 at Byron First UMC; it doesn’t specifically address the events of the school shooting yesterday, but maybe it can provide some insight into at least some of my basic ideas around why do bad things happen to good people. Though I don’t specifically cite the book, I believe Adam Hamilton’s book, Why?: Making Sense of God’s Will, helped undergird some of my thinking here.
   This is one of those sermons that seemed a lot easier about three months ago when I came up with a name, title and theme for it, than it was this week when I sat down to really write and figure out what I wanted to say. The big fancy name for what we are going to be talking about this morning is theodicy – it’s the question of if God is good, and just, and loving, and all powerful, then why do bad things happen? It’s a big question, a tough question, a real question; a question we all ask ourselves at some points in our lives – so let me just give the disclaimer right here – I’m not going to answer that question. People of faith, far wiser and smarter than me have been preaching, writing, and wrestling with this same question for thousands of years, and yet we are still asking the question.

   So this morning I’m just going to offer a few of my thoughts, some of what I get out of Scripture when this topic comes up, and there might be a few things you connect with, there might be a few things you disagree with, but I’m trusting that the Holy Spirit will be at work this morning, and help us to mature into a faith that can sustain us even in the midst of crisis, even when the times get tough.
And the crisis will come, it always does – sometimes it’s in the big, national, or global news-worthy events that capture our attention and cause us to wrestle – last weeks violent shooting that claimed the lives of six including that 9-year-old girl born on another tragic day, September 11, 2001; last year’s earthquake in Haiti that devastated an already struggling nation. Sometimes it’s much more personal – the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one, an unexpected diagnosis of a serious disease.

   And what happens when those hard times come? What do we say, what do we think, how do we try to make sense of it all?

   Sometimes we turn to what it sometimes called “folk theology” – we use these little, often repeated statements that seem really well intentioned, but sometimes aren’t all that helpful. Here’s a couple I know I’ve used, and maybe you have, too:
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“It must have been the will of God.”

   Like I said, I know they are well intentioned, and I understand and agree with the theology behind them, what they are really trying to say is that no matter what God is still in control. But here’s the problem with them, when you are in deep, deep pain, when you are in the midst of grief, your mind isn’t really able to comprehend that larger picture, and sometimes, some people get a very different message.

   Sometimes when you hear, “Everything happens for a reason” or “It must have been the will of God” when you are still recovering from a miscarriage, when you are standing beside the coffin of a child or a young adult, when you are wondering what happened to that marriage that seemed so perfect years ago, when you are wondering if you’ll live to see your next birthday, what you really hear is “God made this happen.”

   And that is something I completely and utterly reject. I don’t believe God hijacks airplanes and flies them into office buildings, and I don’t believe that God puts the keys into the hands of the drunk driver. I don’t believe that God sends famine into one part of the world so that people will starve, and I don’t believe that God causes floods in another so that people will drown. I don’t believe that God gives little kids leukemia, just to prove some kind of point, and I don’t believe that God causes strokes and heart-attacks just as people are beginning to enjoy their “golden years.”

   To say that God makes any of these things happen to serve some greater purpose, I believe brings you into some very dangerous ground; in the field of ethics it’s called utilitarianism – it’s the idea that the ends justify the means, and when you really get down to it, it almost makes God into this uncaring, calculating monster, who believes people are expendable. And that just isn’t the picture I get of God when I read in Genesis how he formed us in his image and breathed life into us; it’s not the picture I get from Psalm 139, where it says of God, “you formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made”; it’s not the picture I get when Jesus tells us in Luke 12 that God not only keeps watch over the sparrows, but us too, that even the hairs on our heads are counted.

   I believe God knows us and loves us – love us so much that he sent his Son to walk among us, so that we might have eternal life, which I think means not just life after death, but also a richer, fuller, more meaningful life here and now. But that doesn’t mean that life is going to be perfect or pain-free, and sometimes I think we fail to really acknowledge this part of the story. 

   In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “In the world you will have distress” but sometimes it seems to me that, especially in the church, we feel the need to sugarcoat our pain, cover up, and deny our hurt. And the problem is, that isn’t really biblical. Yes, in the same verse from John, Jesus also says, “Take courage for I have conquered the world”, and in Philippians it says “Rejoice in the Lord always” but the Bible is also filled with long, painfully honest, passages about anger and sorrow and all those feelings we’ve felt when we’ve been down and out and our hearts our simply crying out to God for help. Listen to what it says in Psalm 69,
“Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me.
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God.”

   This is no, “This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it”, this is “God, I’ve had it up to here, I’m stuck in the muck, I’ve cried my eyes out, I’m looking for you but have a hard time seeing you, I need your help.”

   We live in a world that has pain and sorrow. In some instances it’s just the natural order of creation – God formed the earth with a specific geology – the earth’s outer crust – the land we live on, basically floats on a mantle of liquid iron. The very way it’s been constructed it’s what makes is possible for life to be sustained here, it’s also why there are so many examples of breathtaking beauty – mountains, geysers, and natural hot springs; but it also means there are things like volcanoes and earthquakes that bring natural disasters. God created the universe to follow certain specific laws of physics – like gravity, friction and force – so when I’m driving too fast and my car hits a patch of ice – someone is going to get hurt, or something is going to get banged up pretty badly. That’s not God punishing us, that’s the universe simply following the rules God put into place. Biologically, we are beautifully made by God, be we are also fragile – viruses, bacteria, subtle differences in our DNA, and simply the process of aging, mean that we get sick and we die, sometimes far too soon. It is tragic and we have every right to mourn and cry, just as Jesus did when his friend Lazarus died, but it doesn’t mean that God wanted it to happen. The reality is, sometimes we are just at the wrong place at the wrong time; it can be sad, it can be shocking, it can be disappointing, it can make us angry, but I don’t believe it’s about God trying to punish us, or teach us some kind of a lesson.

   Now there is another source of pain and suffering that needs to be addressed, and that is those that aren’t attributable to natural events, but to human choices. God has given us free will, and that is a grand and glorious thing. God has given us reason, intelligence, creativity. God gave us the ability to think for ourselves, to make our own choices – we aren’t robots, we aren’t helpless puppets dangling from a string, and I believe that is a good thing. I think God knew what he was doing when he made us this way. Because of free will great works of art, poetry, and music have been created to glorify God; because of free will, doctors have found new ways to treat disease, and scientists have helped open our eyes to the wonder of God’s creation. But we all know the down side too – free will means there is room for wrong choices, ones that bring suffering on ourselves, and others.

   A man decides that he can beat a train to a crossing… and he misses by only one second, but he misses.

   A teenager on a dare decides to try drugs and over time becomes an addict… and he suffers and his family and friends suffer and our world suffers.

   A young man, wrestling we inner demons we still don’t understand decides to make some sort of statement by wildly firing into a crowd intent of killing a respected congresswoman.

   Free will, gives us the opportunity to turn toward God, or turn away from God, to choose the darkness to enter into sin. We can choose to love or choose to hate, and our choices have serious consequences. And that’s really the story of Bible, too. Time and time again it’s a series of story of God speaking to his people, making his will known, the people turning away, and God reaching out to restore them, to fix the mess we’ve made.

   And it’s really important that you hear this point before any of you start writing letters to the Bishop, I believe that God is still intimately involved with his creation, and I know God sometimes enters in and even makes miracles happen, but sometimes in the face of suffering – caused by people or caused by natural events – God’s greatest gift is simply making his presence known.

   In today’s reading from John we are told something really important about the nature of God through Jesus. Earlier in the chapter Jesus gets word that Lazarus, a close friend, and brother to Mary and Martha is very ill. Jesus stays where is a preaching and teaching for another two days, before going to see Lazarus, and on the way there, Jesus informs his disciples that Lazarus has died. Martha meets Jesus on the road coming into Bethany; they talk about Lazarus’ death, how Jesus might have prevented it, and how he is the resurrection and the life. Martha confesses her faith in Jesus as the Messiah. He then meets with Mary, and listen again to what happens:

   “When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’”

   In those few verses there is a lot that is happening that I believe is really important. First Mary goes to Jesus with total honesty – speaking with grief and maybe even a little anger, she says, “You could have changed this.” But notice this, Jesus doesn’t get angry or defensive; I believe God welcomes our honesty, even if it means shaking our fist at God. Then notice what happens next: Jesus weeps. I believe what we have here is a picture of Jesus’ humanity and the depth of God’s love for us.

   William Sloane Coffin, former pastor of Riverside Church in New York, former chaplain at Yale University, lost his son in a accident. At the funeral, the minister was conducting the ceremony and made some feeble statement about the boy’s death being God’s will. Before he could finish, Coffin stoop up and yelled at the preacher, “The hell it was! It wasn’t God’s will at all. When my son died, God was the first one who cried!”

   In retelling the story Tony Campolo says, “We always ask the question, ‘Where is God?’ when troubles come our way. Like William Sloane Coffin, Martin Luther also lost a son. His wife, Katie, shouted at him, ‘Where was God when our son died?’

   “Martin Luther answered, ‘The same place He was when His Son died. He was there watching and weeping!”

   When bad things happen, it is natural to ask that question, why did God let this happen? But it’s not the real question we need to be asking, the real question is, “Where is God in all of this?” And I believe the answer is, “Right here beside us, weeping with us.”

   There’s more to the story, of course. In the story of Lazarus, Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away and he commands Lazarus to come out of the tomb. All this happens, Jesus explains, so that God might be glorified. In that action is not only the source of our ultimate hope as Christians, the God has power over death, and one day we will all be raised by the grace of God through Christ Jesus, but I think there is something more. I think there is a message in there that even when bad things happen, redemption is possible. And while I don’t think God causes bad things to happen, I believe God can enter into our pain, our suffering, our loss, and help us to grow, and makes new life possible, and I also believe we all have an opportunity to play a part in that redemption and restoration.
The most obvious example of that this morning is in our commissioning of our Volunteers in Mission team – year after year – they have worked, given of their time, talent and resources, to bring hope and healing to people who are struggling.

   A few years ago I came across this cartoon, in the first panel two men are talking and the first one says, “I’ve always wanted to ask God why he allows so much war, why kids go hungry at night, why so many people don’t have a home.” In the next panel the second man says, “Well why don’t you? Ask him in prayer.” In the third panel, the first guy speaks again and simply says, “Because I’m afraid he’ll ask me the same thing.”

   In Genesis, in part of the story of creation, God says that we, as his people, made in his image have dominion over the earth. In other words, we’re responsible for what goes on here, we’re responsible for taking care of each other. We can ask God why, we can cry and be angry, and it’s entirely appropriate to do so, but at some point we’ve also got to start trusting in God’s will, seeking his wisdom, council and strength, and recommit ourselves to simply serve him. Instead of sitting around cursing the darkness, we need to make ourselves available to help carry his light into the darkness.

   Jesus says, “In this world you have distress. But be encouraged! I have conquered the world.” That is the Good News. May we carry it in our hearts all our days. Amen.