Monday, 5 February 2018

Epiphany 5- Suffering


The next theme for our Epiphany sermon series is inspired by three questions:
“If God is so loving, why does he allow all the hate and suffering of so many of his people?” 
“How do we know that Jesus is with us in our darkest hours (especially when we don’t feel it)?"
And, “We know that God is our lighthouse- but sometimes the waves in our lives toss us about and hide that light- I need help to keep my sight on that lighthouse.”

The first question is more philosophical. It is about the compatibility of a loving God with a world that has suffering. The other two are much more experiential regarding feeling God’s absence in the midst of suffering.

I just want to point out that when we ask these questions we are surrounded by numerous Biblical voices.

Think about Job, who lost everything and cries out to God for a reason for his suffering.

Imagine Joseph who is sold into slavery by his own brothers. He does well as a slave and works his way up the ladder, but then his master’s wife tries to get him into bed with her. He resists her advances out of loyalty to his master, but his master’s wife accuses him of trying to rape her and he is thrown into jail. I’m sure that Joseph has moments where he felt God’s absence in the midst of his suffering.

I’m sure Paul could relate to this experience. There’s a part of his 2nd letter to the Corinthians that I sometimes remind myself of when life gets hard. Paul is talking about what he has suffered while trying to follow God’s will. He says- 
“Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:24-28).

Tradition tells us that all the Apostles suffered for their dedication to Jesus. Most are said to have been martyred, and John was said to have been exiled.

There are people like Mother Teresa who spend their lives serving God in incredibly difficult circumstances, while also feeling a tremendous absence of God’s presence.

Of course, we think of the psalmist who wrote Psalm 22- 
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest. (Psalm 22:1-2).
We can hardly hear those words without hearing them on Jesus’ lips as he is dying on the cross. Our Lord suffered. In some mysterious way, looking into the eyes of Jesus was to look into the eyes of God. Jesus suffered on the cross and chose to speak those words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He entered deeply into human suffering. Suffering, in some ways, is quite at home in Christianity.

If you are anything like me, though, this is easy to forget. I can enter into a difficult time and I can start wondering what I’ve done wrong. It’s natural for us to suddenly wonder where God is when we suffer. We wonder why God isn’t protecting us. Or, we wonder if we have done something wrong that has put us outside God’s protection.

Suffering can be one of the most difficult issues we deal with as Christians. I have found it helpful to deal with suffering on two levels. One level is a theological reality where I try to understand why suffering exists in the world. The other level is our emotional reality as we experience suffering.

On a philosophical/theological level I find it helpful to ask the question, 
“Is the goal of human life happiness in this life?”
 … If we answer with anything but a “yes” we open the door to suffering of some kind. …

Thinking about suffering can leave your head spinning. It is one of the major dilemmas that troubles theologians. There is a whole realm of philosophy/theology called “theodicy” that is exclusively dedicated to this issue. So, we shouldn’t treat this complex problem lightly or dismissively. We might not be able to completely solve the problem of suffering, but it is important to look for answers that might help us. But, we should be careful to not dump our reasons on people who are suffering.

The most foundational Christian explanation for suffering and evil in the world has to do with human beings misusing their free will represented by the Adam and Eve story in Genesis.

The main way I deal with why God allows suffering to continue to exist is this. I believe that God cares more about us developing a holy kingdom character than he cares about us being comfortable in this moment. If delaying healing will bring some development of holiness to me, I suspect God will choose that over healing me in that moment. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 12, 
“a thorn was given me in the flesh … to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:7-10).
 So, for Paul there was some suffering that was allowed in his life that he understood to have a holy purpose. I believe that God can transform suffering to good ends. What was meant for evil God can transform and use for good (Gen 50:20). 

It also seems that a world where suffering and evil exist is important for the development of human character (which doesn't mean every instance of suffering leads to this betterment).  For example, to learn to be courageous people we probably need a world with some danger. To be patient people we need a world with annoyance. To be compassionate people we probably need a world with people whose suffering we can share. It seems like a world with a certain amount of suffering can help us grow in virtue. … Now, I should say that I don’t believe God causes suffering, but I do believe that God is in the business of bringing good out of it. So, when I am dealing with suffering I ask myself how this can help my soul develop.

When my mom was in the midst of her cancer treatments, someone asked me how I can believe in God when someone I love is suffering. … I told them that in Christianity we believe that one of the places when God was most present in the world was when Jesus was dying on the cross. I have to believe that, while we feel like God is absent in the midst of suffering, the cross tells me exactly the opposite- God is incredibly present in the midst of suffering. Incarnation can be understood as God come to suffer with us.

Remember that Jesus wept (Jn 11:35). And Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane also seems to imply a prayer that was unanswered. Jesus says to the disciples, 
“My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:34). Then it says, “And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, ‘Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’ (Mk 14:35-36).
 Jesus suffered, even before he went to the cross. … God, through Jesus, knew suffering.

Most people aren’t bothered by suffering in an abstract philosophical and theoretical way. Most of us are bothered by suffering in an emotional, experiential way. It might be when we are suffering, or (what is often worse) when we are watching someone we care about suffer. … I remember being with my son, Seth, in the hospital when he was 2 years old and praying for him to be healed and being incredibly impatient with God. It felt like, if Seth is healed God is here, if Seth is still sick God is not here. … In the midst of that kind of suffering we start to wonder where God is in the middle of it all- but it is an emotional question that refuses to be addressed by a theoretical answer.

When dealing with suffering I have often thought about Jesus’ mother, Mary, watching her son die on the cross. On that Friday, is there anything that you could have said to Mary that would have made her feel better? What if you were standing next to her as she watched her son dying, what might you say? “Mary, don’t worry, God is going to use this to do something great”; "Don't worry. It'll all be okay"; "God has a plan". Wouldn’t she just be offended if you said something like that to her? … Even though it’s true, it probably wouldn’t be appropriate and probably wouldn’t help her in that moment.

I think suffering can be transformed to good ends, just like the cross was transformed into resurrection. I don’t believe God causes suffering, but I think God can transform suffering. I think from the point of view of eternity, our suffering will be viewed the way we view the cross now. We will look back on it as something God has overcome and redeemed in unexpected ways.  But, that is not necessarily something we can say to someone who is suffering, just as we couldn’t talk to Mary about the good that will come from the cross as she watched her son dying on it.

So what does Mary need in that moment? She doesn’t need some answer to explain suffering. She needs someone to share her tears. She needs someone to suffer with her. She needs someone to hug her. She needs a listening ear and a quiet presence. … Often that is God’s presence with us when we are hurting. God is there looking at us through the eyes of a friend, and silently putting an arm around our shoulder. AMEN

Recommended reading:

C.S. Lewis has a couple interesting books on suffering.
The Problem of Pain was written from a theoretical standpoint.
I would recommend reading this with
A Grief Observed, which is written after the book mentioned above and is a collection of reflections on grief based upon Lewis' own experience of grief after his wife died. 

Where is God when it hurts? by Philip Yancey
The next two are written by theologians and are therefore a bit more challenging.

Lament for a Son by Nicholas Wolterstorff 
This is written by a quite renowned theologian who experienced the sudden death of his 25 year old son. The following are couple quotes from that book, 
“I cannot fit it all together by saying, ‘[God] did it,’ but neither can I do so by saying, ‘There was nothing [God] could do about it.’ I cannot fit it together at all. I can only, with Job, endure. I do not know why God did not prevent Eric’s death. To live without the answer is precarious. It’s hard to keep one’s footing.”
“Eric is gone, here and now he is gone; now I cannot talk with him, now I cannot see him, now I cannot hug him, now I cannot hear of his plans for the future. That is my sorrow. A friend said, ‘Remember, he’s in good hands.’ I was deeply moved. But that reality does not put Eric back in my hands now. That’s my grief. For that grief, what consolation can there be other than having him back?” 
“to the ‘why’ of suffering we get no firm answer. Of course some suffering is easily seen to be the result of our sin: war, assault, poverty amidst plenty, the hurtful word. And maybe some is chastisement. But not all. The meaning of the remainder [of suffering] is not told us. It eludes us.” 
“Suffering is down at the centre of things, deep down where the meaning is. Suffering is the meaning of our world. For Love is the meaning. And Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning of history. But the mystery remains. Why isn’t Love-without-suffering the meaning of things? Why is suffering-Love the meaning? Why does God endure his suffering? Why does he not at once relieve his agony by relieving ours?”

We cannot tell Wolterstorff that the death of his son Eric is “not really so bad.” (These are his words again) “because it is [bad]. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench”. 
God, Medicine, and Suffering by Stanley Hauerwas
Hauerwas has an interesting approach to this question saying that we are asking the wrong theological questions when we deal with suffering.

Doors of the Sea, The: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart
This is a reflection on the Dec 2004 Tsunami that killed 250- 280,000 people.

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