Sunday, October 13, 2013

God and Suffering

         When I was in a student in Europe, I took a midnight train from Paris to Zurich.  I was too cheap to pay for a sleeping car, so I ended up talking all night with a man named Yacov.  Yacov described himself as a secular Jew.  He grew up in Israel, where he was educated in the Jewish faith.  
However, when he saw a documentary on the Holocaust in middle school, he became an atheist.  He said to himself, “There is no such thing as God or the chosen people, or else this would not have happened.”
Yacov is not alone.  How can a good God allow so much suffering?  The Jewish prophet Habakkuk had the same question.  A few centuries before Jesus, the Greek philosopher Epicurus was wrestling with the problem of thinking of a good and strong God in a broken and bruised world.  A few centuries after Jesus, St. Augustine was still asking the same question.  He had some different answers, but he was still kicking the same can along the same street.  
How can a loving God allow so much suffering?  This question never goes away.   Everyone seems to ask this at one time or another.  Without a doubt, this is the single most common theological question voiced in movies.  “Why, God?  How could God let this happen?”

----  Let’s make this personal.  At the end of each row, you'll find some cards and pens. Take a minute and write down on the card one instance of serious suffering.  It can be global or hyper local.  You can make it as personal or impersonal as you want.  I’m not going to ask you to show it to anyone.
Now, hold those up.  Hold up your example of suffering.  Raise your hand high.  This is why we are talking about this.  These cards are why we have to talk about this.  We know suffering.  We need some answers for why there are all these cards in the air and why there is so much suffering in the world.

Let me give a few disclaimers before we really get started here. 
1.  The Bible does not give a complete answer to this question.   The Bible is more focused on how to overcome suffering rather than focusing on why there is suffering in the first place.
2.  There is no way that I can give a complete answer today.  You and I both will probably leave here feeling a little unsatisfied with the answers we talk about today.  However, I hope that I can at least make this issue more manageable for us.

When we face the problem of suffering in the world, it can be overwhelming.  Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, murders, poverty, starvation, cancer.  It all piles up, causing us to wonder how a loving God could allow so much suffering.  Sometimes, the mountain of pain gets bigger and bigger, and we get smaller and smaller, until we can’t see anything else but the pain.  One thing I hope to do today is to shrink that mountain so that we can move past it.  

 For the next 15 minutes or so, I’m going to talk about different kinds of suffering and their sources.  When I get to the kind of suffering represented on your card, try to listen closely to see if my explanation adequately explains how God can still be a loving God even though that bad thing happened.  
O.K., lets break this down into bite size pieces and look at different kinds of suffering.

First, let’s look at self-inflicted suffering.  Some examples of this are liver failure due to alcoholism, STD’s (most of the time), and failing a test due to not studying. This category covers the bad things that come upon us because of our own bad choices.  It is obviously not fair to blame God for stuff that we brought on ourselves.

Next is suffering caused by the bad choices of others.  This would include a long list of personal crimes or wrongs committed by one person against another.  It also includes large scale suffering caused by wars or societal crimes like racial discrimination.  Again, is it really fair to blame God because we hurt each other?

The third category of suffering is poverty related suffering.  Things like starvation, lack of medical care, and other ills that go along with chronic poverty fall into this category.  Often the victims of this kind of suffering didn’t do anything at all to bring this upon themselves.  They were just born in the wrong place at the wrong time.  There also aren’t any obvious culprits like there are personal crimes.
However, the hard truth is that almost all of the suffering in this category could be prevented if people would share.  The United States alone has the capacity to feed the entire world.  The resources are available to humankind to prevent almost all poverty.  We don’t have a resource problem; we have a distribution problem.  Simply put - the suffering in this category isn’t God’s fault; it’s ours.

The next category is accidents.  Some examples are no fault car wrecks, electrical shorts, and athletic accidents.  The accidents are basically random, yet the accidents were a known risk.  We know that electricity can cause fires, but we take that risk.  We know that people can fall off horses, but we take that risk.  This comes down to human choice in relation to human risk.  

In almost all of the types of suffering we’ve talked about so far, the root issue is the freedom of choice.  C.S. Lewis, a famous Christian writer, estimated that 80% of all suffering is due to human choice.  So if we take that mountain of suffering, then the top 80% is because people are stupid and do stupid things.
Why did God give such free reign?  Why did he give us free will?  God could have made us all robots, so that everyone always did what is right and no one ever got hurt.  
To understand why God didn’t make us like that, think back to that movie The Stepford Wives.   Imagine that as a real possibility.  Someone begins marketing the perfect spouse that looks and feels like a real human being.  He or she would be exactly what we like and would do everything exactly the way we like it.  The house is always clean; omelets in the morning; always wants to cuddle however long or short we want to; always looks and acts like the day you were married; no chance of unfaithfulness; no fights, no arguments; no headaches.
It sounds kind of tempting; doesn’t it?  But would you do it?  Some of you are thinking about it.
In the movie, Nicole Kidman finally convinces her husband to keep her human with one line - the most powerful line in the whole movie: “How will you know if I really mean it when I say, ‘I love you’?”
If she was a robot, if she had no choice, there could be no real love.  Everything would be fake - the companionship, the kindness, the interest in our stories, the sex, the  expressions of love.  Love isn’t possible without choice.  Love requires risk.
Most of us in our heart of hearts would still choose a real live person for a spouse, even with all the risks and the work that entails.  We want real love and genuine companionship, not something that can be created in a factory.
We are like that because God is like that.  The Bible says he made us “in his image.”  God wants real love and genuine companionship, too.  That’s why he made us.  That’s why he gave us free will, the ability to choose between right and wrong, the ability to choose to be with him or not.  
He knew that involved a lot of risks for us, but the value of relationship out weighs all the risks on God’s scales.  He isn’t selfish in this either.  The value of relationship is a two way street.  Freedom of choice is worth the risks for us, too.  We reap the benefits of relationship with God and our fellow humans.  
This says a lot about relationship.  Human suffering is vast and weighs heavily on the scales, yet the value of relationship outweighs all of that risk and pain.  Relationship with God and relationship with each other must be immensely important! 
The last category is the hardest to explain.  It is natural disasters and diseases.  However, even some of this suffering is due to human choice.  
Some people choose to live in dangerous areas.  Nobody has to live in Florida or California.  We could make room for them.   However, some people are forced to live in dangerous areas.  Why do people live in southern Bangladesh where they know the next cyclone could kill their whole family?  National boundaries kind of hem them in.
Another factor is that we could be unknowingly causing our own diseases.  Who knows how many of our diseases are due to technology or medicines or additives?  We didn’t know about asbestos or Phen Phen.  Cell phones and power lines could be major carcinogens.  Scientists now say there is a chemical in deep fried foods that causes cancer in lab rats.  Not only do French Fries clog our arteries, they may give us cancer, too.  Great!
A more traditional theological answer to suffering because of natural disasters is that sin disrupted the way the entire world functions.  Not only did Adam and Eve’s sin have personal consequences in terms of human thinking, but the entrance of sin into the world was so dramatic that it disrupted the atmosphere and the working of the earth itself.  The idea is that there never would have been earthquakes and tornados if no one had ever sinned.  I’m not sure I completely buy that, but it’s possible.

I am not completely satisfied.  There are other questions and issues relating to this topic that we don’t have time to get into, but hopefully we’ve made some progress in getting perspective on the size of the problem.
How big is the problem?  Everyone raise up your cards with statements of suffering.  There is a lot of suffering in the world, and we are witnesses to it.  Now, after what I’ve said so far today, if you can see how God can still be a loving God and allow that particular suffering on your card, put your hand down.  If you still feel like I haven’t answered the question for you, keep your hand up.  (It’s really OK to keep your hand up.  We’ll talk about the unanswered questions in a minute.)
Now, look around the room.  How many of the cards are still in the air?  Fewer than there were at the beginning.  The problem of suffering is real, but it is not as big as it sometimes seems.

But what is God’s response to human suffering?  What does God do, or what has God done about all of this?
First, God teaches us to minimize suffering.  Following the teachings of the Bible will not shield us from all suffering, but it will minimize the suffering that we bring on others and ourselves.  Living with love and kindness simply makes life better - for us and everyone else.  God is actively working in, through, around, and beyond us to heal our broken world.

Second, God uses suffering.  An honest look at the Bible reveals that God actually causes some suffering as a means of discipline.  The Biblical authors use the analogy of a parent spanking a child to correct his behavior.   The problem is that I don’t think we can accurately discern with any particular suffering whether God causes it or just allows it to happen or even if it is something he wishes would never happen.
However, the good news is that God can use all suffering.  God can take whatever has happened to us and use that to make us stronger or more able to help others.  God can teach us through suffering.  God can take the worst events of our lives, the deepest darkest dirt, and plant some seeds right there, and bring life out of our darkness.

Most importantly, God suffers with us.  We see this most clearly in the life and death of Jesus.  Jesus lived on earth just like we do.  He walked, talked, cried, and slept.  The Bible specifically says that sometimes Jesus got hungry, thirsty, stressed out, and tired.  Human suffering punched him in the face when his cousin John the Baptist was beheaded for speaking out for what is right.
  After three years of public ministry, Jesus was crucified.  The Romans nailed Jesus to a wooden cross through his hands and feet and hung him there until he died.  Jesus, who is both God and man, knows human suffering because he experienced it as a human.
Joni Eareckson Tada - who became paralyzed after a diving accident -- explains it like this, “When we suffer, when we go through hardships or affliction, we may have questions about the goodness of God.  But the thing that is so wonderful to me about God is that He does not sidestep suffering.  The God of life conquered death by embracing it.  Jesus destroyed the power of sin by letting it take Him to the cross.  He doesn’t explain away our suffering with a bunch of words.  He is the Word made flesh – bruised, bloody, beaten, gouged, spat-upon, scorned.  My heart is wounded by my suffering, but it comforts me to know that Jesus was terribly wounded on the cross.  I’m in a wheelchair.  It means so much that God was wounded on my behalf.”

It is important to remember that God answers “Who?” not “Why?”  Rusty Wright follows along that same line of thought, “When I see God, items on my long list of questions for Him will include a painful and unwanted divorce, betrayal by trusted coworkers, and all sorts of disappointing human behavior and natural disasters.  Yet in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection I have seen enough to trust Him...”

So how does God respond to suffering?  God wants to heal our brokenness so that we quit hurting each other.  God can bring goodness out even our worst experiences, and God has entered into our suffering and redeemed it.  By his wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).  

But what about us?  How should we respond to suffering?  What should we do when we suffer or when we see it in our world?
First of all, voice your complaints to God.  God is not afraid of our anger.  Go ahead and shout at God.  Things have gone wrong in this world, and it is good to talk to God about that.  Just like Habakkuk, tell God how you feel.
Second, turn toward God rather than away.  When Billy Graham addressed grieving families after the Oklahoma bombing in 1995, he said something very profound. “Times like this will do one of two things: they will either make us get hard and bitter and angry at God or they will make us tender and open and help us reach out in trust and faith. … I pray that you will not let bitterness and poison creep into your souls, but you will turn in faith and trust to God even if we cannot understand.  It is better to face something like this with God than without Him” (emphasis mine).

Lastly, join God’s healing mission.  We ask God, “Look at this world!  Why don’t you do something about all of this suffering?”  But God is asking us the same question, “Look at this world!  Why don’t you do something about all of this suffering?”  We can’t change everything right away, but that is no excuse to not to start changing something right now.  
I think often about my Christian brothers and sisters in Bangladesh.  They have almost nothing.  They live in mud houses and cook on open fires.  But because of what Jesus has done in their lives, they have hope and courage.  They work through the heat and the cold, and they feed and educate and love the little children of their community so that they can experience a better life.   Join God in healing the brokenness in our world.  Together, we can do something completely new.

Still, in the end, when we think about the vast amounts of human suffering in this world, it comes down to a trust issue.  The basic issue is: Will we trust God in the midst of suffering even though we don’t fully understand?
There is a jump of faith.  I’m not going to stand up here and tell you this is an easy issue and you should just believe.  However, the step of faith is not a leap of Evil Kaneval proportions over the Grand Canyon of human suffering.  It is more like a jump across a three-foot wide gap that we have seen others jump before us.  And, we are not jumping into nothingness.  We are jumping into the strong arms of a loving God who has passed through the chasm of suffering when he died on the cross.

In the final analysis, we are in a similar predicament to the disciples in John chapter 6.  Jesus had just given some of the most difficult teaching of his life, and many of his followers abandoned him.  Then, Jesus turned to Twelve Apostles and asked, “Are you going to leave me, too?”  Peter responded wisely, “Lord, to whom would we go?  You alone have the words that give eternal life”  (John 6:66-8).  
When we are faced with the irresolvable difficulties of life, and it seems that life and God are both unfair, our best choice is to bring that pain to God if for no other reason, than that He is the best place to go.  Life doesn’t always make sense, but when we look at the available options, Christianity makes the most sense of our broken world.  The Bible’s answer to the problem of suffering still feels incomplete, but it is still the best answer we’ve got.

 Hebrews 6:19 says, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”   “We have this hope” - the hope that God is good and faithful - “as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” 

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