Monday, October 20, 2014

October 19, 2014 Revisiting the Question of Suffering

45 He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous – Matthew 5:45

1 Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.
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.” – Luke 13:1-5

1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. – John 9:1-3

I have to admit that I was a bit surprised this summer, as I read through your responses to the three questions I asked you, at how many had to do with the question of suffering.  My initial response was to think did nobody notice that I preached four messages about this topic back in the spring, as we studied the book of Job?  Didn’t I answer that question?

I read those messages this week, and as I reread them, I realized they were, basically, messages of comfort and encouragement more than they were messages about the theological questions related to suffering.  They were pastoral messages, and those kinds of messages are certainly needed, especially on the topic of suffering and difficulties.  But they didn’t give an answer to the question of why, if it is possible to do so.

In revisiting this question this morning, I hope to give a more definitive theological answer.  In doing so, however, I hasten to add that this question does not have an answer in the way we typically think of answers.  As people who live in the modern age, where science promises to give us either an answer, or the promise of an eventual answer, to every question, we have come to expect a very succinct, definitive, and logical answer to all our questions.

But not every question can be answered by science, or technology, or logic.  Some questions are very simple, such as what is the answer to the equation 2 + 2?  (Although I did ask my 9th grade Algebra teacher why 2 + 2 had to equal 4.  I wanted to know then, and still want to know now, why we can’t assign any value that we prefer to that equation.  That probably explains why I failed the class).  Other questions are much, much more complicated, and though science can answer many questions, from the simplest to the very complex, science can’t, for example, answer questions such as what is great art, what is great music, what is a meaningful definition of beauty, nor can it explain matters of the Spirit.  Such questions, and definitions, fall into a different category, a category generally occupied by philosophy and faith.

So the expectation of an answer to every question is part of the problem when we come to the question of suffering, because it is simply not the way in which the world works.  In spite of the promise of science and technology and logic, there will never be a succinct, definitive, and logical answer to every question.  The universe is so vast, and we occupy and understand such an incredibly small corner of that universe, it is the height of arrogance to believe that science will ever fully answer every mystery of the universe or every question about life itself, because a question such as suffering cannot be placed under a microscope or examined in a laboratory in order to find a satisfactory answer.

But still we ask – what is the answer to the question of why we suffer?  Why do some good people suffer and, conversely, why do some evil people prosper?  Why do innocent children become sick and die before their time?  Why do natural disasters take so many lives?  Those questions gnaw at us and we continue to search for answers, especially to the two big questions – can God do anything about this suffering, and if so, why doesn’t he seem to do more? 

But here is what I believe we must know.

We have to approach the question of why in a very different manner from other questions, and the manner in which we approach that question is to say, first of all, that the question why is the wrong question.  The real question is this – of the two alternatives to this question, which will we accept?

The first alternative is the one proposed by skeptics and people of no faith.  Their alternative says that everything is random and some bad things happen and some good things happen simply because the universe is random and that’s the only explanation.  There are no forces beyond the acts of nature and the laws of physics governing the universe.  Sometimes a planet gets in the way of an asteroid and terrible destruction is the result.  Sometimes an earthquake happens because the layers of rock beneath the crust the earth randomly shifts.  Some people’s bodies have a genetic mutation that causes a disease. 
Within that point of view there has been a bit of progress made to deal with some of that randomness.  Medical science, for instance, has progressed to the point that not every disease is a death sentence, or at least not an immediate one.

We can accept this view that we live in a random universe and that everything that happens to us in life is a result of that randomness and there is no inherent meaning to anything.  If we accept that view we then face the alternative of going through life believing that we are little more than a collection of atoms and molecules and that the electrical impulses connecting the neurons of our brains that give us the illusion that there is some measure of meaning to life, but within that view, there is no meaning.

The skeptic looks around at the universe and sees a collection of planets, stars, and space debris and says let’s hope we can stay out of the way of the randomness of those objects.  The skeptic looks around and puts together an equation that would read if A=a suffering world and B=a loving, powerful God then something doesn’t add up so I’ll jettison any idea of God and live with the randomness and lack of purpose and meaning.

The perspective of faith is the other alternative.  From the perspective of faith we must understand that sometimes we have the expectation that because we are people of faith our lives will somehow be exempt from the sufferings of life.  We learn from the book of Job this is certainly not true. 

From the perspective of faith, we acknowledge that suffering exists; that is the simple, sometimes brutal fact.  Nothing is going to change that fact.  Nothing is going to exempt us from suffering. We can buy every insurance policy available, every security device, and seek to insulate ourselves in every way possible from reality but we cannot escape some measure of suffering, and that is the reality for people of faith and people of no faith.  The believer and the nonbeliever face that same reality. 

But the person of faith looks around and says we live in a world that is not random but is the result of the hand of God, and just because A and B do not add up in any way that I can see I will continue to see meaning and purpose in this great universe and in my own life.  I will believe there is a greater purpose, even when it is a purpose I can neither see nor understand.  I will hope even when it is difficult to hold onto hope, even in the face of suffering because the only alternative is despair.  I will believe even when it is hard to hold on to faith in the face of suffering because the only alternative is no faith and that leads me nowhere and to no answer. 

If faith cannot answer every question with the specificity we desire then we must also know that skepticism offers no answer at all except emptiness and hopelessness and its only promise is a few years of whatever experience we can grab and then an eternal lights out and we become nothing but fertilizer until the universe implodes and then we become that to which such a view ultimately leads – nothing.
I don’t know about you, but I find the choice between these to alternatives to be an easy choice. 

So the first question is, which of those two alternatives will we accept, and the next question becomes because suffering will come our way and is unavoidable, what will we make of the suffering that comes our way?

As people who follow Jesus, we believe in a God who suffered.  In that sense, Christianity is absolutely unique among religions, in worshipping a God who is not far off and immune to and callous toward suffering, but he has walked through suffering and he has suffered.  As people who follow Jesus we are a resurrection people and we believe there is something on the other side of our suffering and resurrection is always ahead for us.

I closed the first of my messages on Job with a story about the oldest couple I married.  I’ll close this one with a story of another couple, who were much younger.  Early in the first Gulf War, I was in the attic of the church I was serving at the time, working on some insulation.  I was dirty and sweaty and had been up to my elbows in the work when someone called for me to come down.  A young couple had walked into the church and asked if there was someone who could marry them.  The young man was in the military and in a few days he was going to be sent to the Middle East.  I told them I could do the wedding, but would need to go home and get cleaned up.  They didn’t want to wait, it didn’t matter to them how I looked, and I looked pretty bad.

As we talked for a few minutes before the brief ceremony, they told me they wanted to get married in case something happened to him.  I remember thinking, wouldn’t it be easier to wait?  Why put yourself through all the sorrow if something does happen?  Don’t you want to provide yourselves with a measure of insulation from the possibility of loss and grief?  But they were determined, and I performed the ceremony, and I never saw them again, but have wondered about them a number of times over the years.

I find something wonderful in their determination to get married just days before he was sent to war, with no guarantee that he would come home.  I find something encouraging about the fact that they did not decide to break up in order to insulate themselves from the potential of sorrow and heartbreak.  I find it wonderful and encouraging because that is life.

We can’t live life in an insulated bubble.  I could get used to a life of sitting on the porch, taking vacations, doing only the things that will make me happy.  I find that to be very attractive, actually.  And even though it won’t insulate me from all of life’s sorrows and difficulties, it would insulate me from a lot of them.

But that’s not the way I am meant to live.

Why is there suffering?  I will tell you that is the wrong question.  The real answer to that question is that we have a choice between only two alternatives – one of a random, empty universe that has no answer, or one that tells us that God has created this universe, and for whatever reason that suffering is a part of it, he is not only with us in our suffering, but he has also suffered, and has entered into our suffering, he asks us to enter into the suffering of others.

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