Why Follow a God Who Lets Bad Things Happen?
Yankee baseball player Yogi Berra died on Tuesday. One of my favorite Berra quotes, there are many good ones, referring to some unknown place is, “No one goes there nowadays; it’s too crowded.”
That is how many felt about going downtown this week. So many logistical challenges with the Pope coming. But even if we weren’t one of the masses at one of the masses, there is something profoundly powerful about watching or reading about the Pope here in DC. The regional and national response indicates the curiosity, longing, indeed deep spiritual hunger of Americans for the transcendent.
Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to the topic of pain and suffering. We look around the world and our hearts are broken by pictures of the Syrian infant washing up on a Greek shore. Or of hundreds trampled to death in Mecca. Stories of those who died in war or from disease. Or the cyclist killed by a car on Massachusetts Avenue. Or a cousin killed by a drunk driver. Or a family member assaulted in the Midwest.
We ask for answers, we shout at God, we even blame God. We turn from God when we need God most.
Pope Francis said at the White House this week, “We know by faith that the creator does not abandon us.”
I don’t believe God is in the business of sending bad things at us, there are enough of those in our tattered world. What God does promise is to be with us in our suffering to give us hope that it and we can be transformed. Let us pray.
Over the centuries many have looked at the pain and sorrow in this world and asked, “If there is a God, where is God? Does it all prove that God is useless? How can God be loving and powerful and still allow all the suffering in this world?”
These are important intellectual questions. They are even more powerful when they are personal questions of the heart. As many of you know last week my mother received news of a malignant tumor and goes into surgery tomorrow morning. This as we lost Bridget’s step father to cancer this June. I’ll be in Ohio part of the week. We don’t know how this will go. But we go into surgery tomorrow trusting God. I know I am not alone in asking questions about God’s plan for a loved one. Or presence for a strained relationship. Or a job loss. Or a hurt. When the news comes that someone you love is hurting it makes the questions more real. Indeed, a wise friend has suggested to me that it turns them into prayers.
These are not easy topics to discuss, but the Bible itself wrestles with suffering. The babies who died at the first Passover or the Egyptian soldiers drowned at the Red Sea. John the Baptist was beheaded. Early Christians were persecuted. Jesus was crucified. The Book of Lamentations cries out to God.
The Bible also answers with faith. One of the lowest points in the history of ancient Israel was the Babylonian exile. The temple had been burned, the city destroyed, the people taken away. Yet in that low point Isaiah wrote, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
Paul wrote from prison of all places near the end of his life, “Rejoice in the Lord always. … The Lord is near. …The peace of God … will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Jesus, in Luke 13, rejects the idea that suffering is always the result of unique sin. Galileans were sacrificed and then a construction accident resulted in the death of 18 workers. The thinking of the day was that they must be being punished for specific sins. Jesus disagreed.
God does not cause us to suffer because God is somehow interested in harming us or punishing us for sin. Why would God do to us what we to often already do to ourselves?
For some behavior results in self-inflicted suffering. We know that excesses of food, tobacco, alcohol, sex or money can lead to suffering. This week I went to a worship service at the National Cathedral about climate change. The focus was on the collective sin of environmental degradation and the suffering it causes and will cause if left unchecked.
John Calvin believed that even with God’s great sovereignty, God has still given us free will. If we have a God who gives us freedom, our freedom and the freedom of nature, then good things can happen, but bad things will also sometimes happen. Cars collide, cancer comes, ISIS forms.
God could micromanage all our actions, but for whatever reason chooses not to. I do not agree with my insurance company which chalks some accidents up to “acts of God.” Rather, God is our loving author and creator who has set up a world in which things are born and die. God is involved, but as part of the great mystery of creation, acts like a parent who believes in freedom. I have heard some of you say “We raised our kids to be independent and are kind of disappointed when they turn out to actually be independent.” I know this from my own mixed feelings watching our boys get on the school bus and thinking about our girls joining them next year. To let them go is part of parenting. I don’t care any less about my kids when I give them freedom. In fact I care more.
We need not try and tell people who are hurting that God caused their suffering. When we tell people that it is God’s will that they suffer, even in trying to make them feel better, it can reduce their sense of God’s love. It can limit their experiences of grace. It can be hurtful.
God doesn’t will bad things to happen or that we suffer. Yet I believe God is able to use bad things sometimes for good.
One writer in Christian Century put it this way, “Instead of making us bitter, suffering can make us tender, and help us to focus on others who are going through comparable experiences.” We learn from experience and we are wiser the next time. As Kelly Clarkson sings, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” A wise friend used to say of learning from one’s mistakes, “It takes more strength to hold the hurt than to bury it.”
I was talking with a member of our community earlier this month about the relational challenges this person is facing in life. As we talked, it became clear to us both that suffering helps strip away all our less important obsessions. There are many distractions of this world. When something serious happens, we stop obsessing about the less essential issues and focus.
Rather than demanding answers from God this person eventually discovered that God is our answer. For I believe that God will not allow us to face so much suffering and challenge that it is beyond the ability of God to have a relationship with us. The clarifying focus of our suffering can lead us to the God who wants to be found.
The Book of Job has often been held up as one of the most powerful and insightful for this subject. Nowhere does the Bible deal with the issue of suffering more honestly than in Job. The person of Job loses everything and comes to God angry and confused. He is an honest and good man—he wants to know why has he suffered? Three friends try to console him and express the conventional wisdom of the day. Job must have done something bad to deserve this. Not surprisingly this does not make him feel better.
But Job knows he’s innocent and asks God, “Why?” As we heard from the final section of the book in our lesson, God responds by reminding Job of the greater mysteries of creation.
Job finally acknowledges that there is mystery that he does not comprehend, that there is not going to be a simple answer to the question of why he suffered, and finally confesses, “I had heard of you (God), but now,” in the mystery and in the pain, “I see God (you).”
Sometimes all we can do is see God in the questions and in the challenges and then look to what comes next.
In his book For Those I Loved, Polish Holocaust survivor Martin Gray writes about his how in 1970 his wife and children were tragically killed in a forest fire. Some suggested that he focus on the investigation and ligation into and about who or what had caused the fire, but Gray thought that would have focused him on the past. Instead, he began an effort to help prevent forest fires in the future. Harold Kushner wrote that, “The goal was living for something and not just against something.”
Last June, after joining a Bible study with parishioners at the Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, 21-year-old Dylann Roof killed nine black church members. Fed by Internet propaganda, Roof had grown to despise African-Americans and decided to act heinously.
Roof was captured the next day and charged with murder. This act of hatred shook America to its core and reopened some of our country’s oldest racial wounds.
The family and friends of the victims gathered in court for Roof’s hearing. The message they offered was amazing.
“You took something very precious away from me,” said Nadine Collier, who lost her mother. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
Bethanie Brown’s sister was killed and she said, “My sister taught me that we are the family that love built. We have no room for hating.”
Pastor Anthony Thompson, whose wife was a victim cried, “I forgive you and my family forgives you.” “We would like for you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the one who matters the most — Christ. So that he can change it.”
It was clear to me in those statements that Christ had already changed the heart of those who had lost so much in the shooting. They had internalized God’s forgiving grace within the suffering of a broken heart.
We cannot always prevent bad things from happening. We cannot always make the pain go away for ourselves or others. We don’t have all the answers to the mysteries. We can look forward. To accept God’s presence and comfort. To be transformed.
Our faith does not answer every question, but it does show me that God is in the midst of the suffering. The Bible does not have a direct answer to why bad things happen, but it does offer a path for who we can be because of who God is.
Immanuel, God with us. Because of God’s love, Jesus died for us, rose for us and reigns for us. Near the end of his life, Jesus told his friends, “I will send the comforter.”
These are things we have the chance to relearn every time we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
When we ask “Where is God?” we have to give up the expectation that the role of God is to take things back to the way they were. If the thought is that God either makes everything perfect or doesn’t exist that doesn’t work any better than if we say that unless our parent can fix any problem that our parent can’t help or doesn’t love us.
I know from my own experience and from my own observation that God is watching over us. I can, and perhaps you can, think of so many people who have suffered in whose faces I have seen courage and strength and an ability to look forward. They keep going through in the darkest of nights with strength and grace, and there is no other possibility except that God was there. We follow a God who started a loving relationship with us in the beginning. And nothing in life or in death can separate us from that love.
May it be so. Amen.