The Rev. Frank
Questioning Your Faith:
Note: This talk begins with a video clip from the movie Dogma in which the character Bethany talks with the angel Bartleby on a train. In the dialogue, Bartleby asks Bethany if she still goes to church and then they each tell when they lost their faith. Bethany says it came in dealing with a personal loss when her mother insisted it was all part of God’s plan. It closes with Bethany saying that when you are a child you never question your faith. God is in heaven, and everything is under control. She wishes she could feel that way again.
This same scenario is repeated time and again. People are raised to believe in God, but as they grow up, life experience gets in the way. In the movie Dogma, Bethany wants to regain her childlike faith, but it just doesn’t fit for her any more. Like many of us, Bethany finds that her Sunday School image of God on his throne in heaven can’t be reconciled with the suffering she reads about in the Sunday paper. Where is the loving God she heard about in church? If Jesus loves me this I know, and I’m being a good person, then why does life go so wrong?
Simply stated, the problem is this: If God is good, it seems only logical that God would want all of creation—the work of God’s own hands—to be happy. If God is all powerful, God should be able to make this happen. So, either God is not good or God is not all powerful, or worse yet, there is no God. If God is both good and all powerful, as Christianity teaches us, then why do bad things happen to good people.
The problem of suffering primarily turns on the issue of God’s omnipotence. Omnipotence means all powerful. How are we to understand this? The writer C.S. Lewis explores the meaning of this word in his book, The Problem of Pain. Lewis asserts that being all powerful means having the power to do things which are possible. Lewis’ opinion is that some things are impossible even for God. I would like you to consider this as a possibility for a moment. Lewis says that it is impossible for anyone, God included, to take two opposite actions at the same time. He writes,
“If you choose to say ‘God can give a creature free will and at the same time withhold free will from it,’ you have not succeeded in saying anything about God: meaningless combinations of words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them two other words ‘God can.’”
God either gives us the ability to decide for ourselves what we are going to do or God does not. It cannot be both at the same time. To say that God could intervene remains true. But could God continually intervene in our lives? If God did so, would we still have a choice? Or would our lives turn into an endless series of decisions with no real consequences. No matter what we choose, God will make it work out all right in the end.
For example, can I decided to drink and drive night after night with the calm assurance that God will keep my car safely in my lane on the way home? Or do my actions have consequences? If I can take actions that have real consequences, then we introduce the possibility of suffering into the world. This does not come about through God deciding that a world with suffering is better than a world without suffering, but through God creating a world in which we can exercise our own will.
Some of the suffering we experience is suffering which we cause. This may be a simple cause and effect relationship; such as if I put my hand in a fire, it will get burned. The suffering I cause myself can be more complex. If I do not take the time I know I need to spend with my wife and daughter, I can find myself estranged from them. If it leads to a divorce, the loneliness and despair I feel are, partly, the result of my own actions. Now, I say it can be more complex, because there is rarely a simple cause and effect involved in divorce. Our lives get much more complicated and it is unusual that one person shoulders all the blame alone. Nonetheless, we can, by our own actions, bring suffering on ourselves.
Sin is the word we use to describe actions that are not God’s will. The New Testament was first written in Greek. The Greek word that is commonly used in the New Testament for sin is “hamartia.” Hamartia literally means to miss the mark. It is an archery term. The idea is that God sets a target and sometimes our actions miss the mark God has set for use. This sin in our lives can bring about suffering. But Jesus spoke strongly against connecting human suffering to sinful behavior. In first century Palestine, it was a common belief that God directly caused immediate punishment. The rich were seen as being rewarded by God and the poor as being punished. Jesus overturned all of this with his teaching.
Much of the suffering in the world is also caused by others, who take actions that cause suffering. The Nazi regime and Stalinist Russia caused millions of people to suffer. The people who suffered in the Holocaust and the communist revolution did not suffer because of sin in their own lives, but because of their ethnic background or their political views. Or, to look at a painful example here in Camden County, Sergeant Dan Jenkins died because of the free choice made by the man who gunned him down, not because he did anything wrong.
This gets us back to the video clip with which I began this talk. In it, Bethany recounts how angry she was when her mother told her that the breakup she was getting over was all part of God’s plan for her life. Bethany said, “But what about my plans. Don’t they matter to God?” How does this all fit together? Many times people are told that the bad things that happen in life are part of God’s bigger plan. What a painful thing to hear, “I know that you don’t understand it now, but your child being hit by a drunk driver is all part of God’s plan.” Then people will point to the good that comes out of a tragedy to show it as proof that God really did work good through a tragedy. Is this right? Does God’s eternal plan for the world really revolve around the pain and suffering of innocent people? That’s not an affront to the idea that God is all powerful, that’s an attack on what it means to be good.
Scripture does record some cases of suffering being used for the good. But there is also Paul’s assertion in Romans 8:28 that “All things work together for good for those who love God.” Paul does not write that all things that happen in this life are good, but that good can come from them. We should not confuse God’s ability to redeem suffering, with God creating suffering. God can take the worst of tragedies and help us to redeem them for the good. A mother who loses her child to a drunk driver can found Mothers Against Drunk Driving to help prevent other deaths. But God did not have to will that child to be killed for that to happen.
I have shown that free will brings with it the problem of suffering. Some suffering is caused by our own actions, while other suffering is caused by the actions of others. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we humans bring a lot of suffering into the world. But that is not the sum total of suffering in the world. There are the so called acts of God to consider as well. Though I think that God takes a bum rap on many so-called acts of God. After all, if you choose to live in the flood plain of the Mississippi River, you have made a free will choice that can effect your future. Your faith may be misplaced in the Army Corps of Engineers. Or if you choose to stand in the middle of a field in an electrical storm, it is hard to justify calling it an act of God if you are hit by lightning. But nonetheless, there are many natural disasters that no one could predict and avoid. And beyond the bigger disasters of storms, droughts, and earthquakes are the little tragedies that are so much more devastating. A child being born without a brain will never make the nightly news. Yet, a seminary professor of mine, who is also a retired Bishop of the Episcopal Church, had to deal with this very tragedy. How can we understand a good and all powerful God in a world with birth defects and disease. Is the all-knowing God conveniently looking the other way when a child is born crippled or blind? Where is the good and all powerful God when a child is dying of cancer?
There is no shell game that I can play where I tuck all the suffering of the world into neat categories like suffering caused by ourselves and suffering caused by others and then lift the shells and show that there is no suffering left. I can not make it all go away. After I have played my intellectual games and carefully removed much of the vast suffering in the world as our own fault, there is still suffering left. Is God all powerful or not? Is God good or not?
To find the answer, we have to look to the Christian story. Christianity is not so much a set of doctrine or beliefs, but a story. The Christian story is this. God loved the creation so much, that God entered into the drama of creation, through Abraham, Moses, the prophets and thousands of others first. But God most fully entered into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
The life of Jesus was and remains God’s most bold and daring plan. After all, it could have failed. No one had to listen to Jesus. In Jesus, God would be more connected to humanity than ever before and would therefore be the most vulnerable. God loved us so much, that he became one of us to fully experience all it means to be human. God also fully revealed Godself to us in Jesus. Now, if you think about it, this is a very bold claim for Christianity to make. Calling Jesus a great teacher is one thing, but Christianity has never done that. Jesus went around claiming that he and God were one. He was either who he said he was or a lunatic. There is really no middle ground.
So, whether you are ready to fully believe in him or not, imagine that Jesus was God on earth. What happened next? In the person of Jesus, God lived as one of us. God experienced all our joys and all our frustrations. Being God on earth did not make Jesus many fans. Many people did not want to hear Jesus proclaim the news that God loved the poor as much as the rich, or the Romans as well as the Jews. Many people did not want the status quo changed. They had a lot at stake in the way things were.
After three years of ministry, the Romans put Jesus to death as a threat to their rule. In this, Jesus was not unique. The Romans put many Jews to death as a threat to their control of Palestine. But Jesus was unique in that he had a choice. Jesus, the miracle worker, could have prevented his own death. But God had become human and would not change the rules. If a human who spoke out for love and justice would be put to death, then God would be put to death. Jesus loved us all so much, that he would not give up on that love no matter what the cost. The cost became torture and death and Jesus still loved us and refused to give up on that love.
So here is the succinct answer to this evenings question. Why does God allow suffering? God allows suffering because suffering is the price of freedom. If we are to be able to make choices that have consequences, then pain and suffering are possible. But that is not the whole answer. God did not leave us alone to suffer along with our freedom. God was also willing to enter that world and live and suffer as one of us.
I can’t explain away all the pain you have
experienced, seen, or heard tell of. I wouldn’t want to try. I prefer to
offer a new view of suffering. It is seen in the logo for King of Peace. I
designed the cross for King of Peace to show exactly what we mean when we
say that Jesus is the King of Peace. The spirals in the design represent
the very real chaos in our lives. Despite our best efforts, our lives can
spin out of control at times. This is very real. Bad things do happen. And
yet, those spirals are contained within the image of the cross. This is to
remind us that even at the worst of times in our lives, we are never
beyond the love of God as revealed through the power of the cross. This
offers you a deeper peace on which to build your life and a new view of
the suffering that is a very real part of our lives.
Small group discussion
1) In first century Palestine, it was a common belief that people were punished immediately for their sin. Therefore, people who seemed to have their act together were being blessed by God, while those who suffered were being punished by God. Have a member of the group read Luke 13:1-5 (below). What is Jesus teaching here? Were the Tower of Siloam and the slaughter of the Galileans connected to their sin?
2) Christianity has never suggested that suffering is not a part of this present life. It is very real. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome about this as did John write while in exile. Suffering is not just something that humans experience, but all creation. Have someone from the group read Romans 8:21-23 and Revelation 21:1-7 (below). Do these passage help you in any way? Or is future hope not enough to compensate for present suffering?
 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), p. 25.
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526