Early in my ministry, I experienced one of the worst moments of my ministry.
I was visiting the home of some church members. The family had just experienced the tragic loss of a young member of their family. A nephew, six years old, had been on his way to school when a drunk driver ran over and killed the child.
It was one of those terrible moments that unites a community in its grief. A young child, bright and handsome, snuffed out in a moment by a dirty town drunk. There was no justice in the tragedy. There was no fairness.
When I visited the family who were members of my church -- the aunt and uncle of the child who had died, the uncle told me, "Well, preacher, it was God's will. I have to believe it was God's will, it is the only comfort I have."
I look back on that experience as a bad experience, because I know now what I was just beginning to suspect those years ago, and that is that this man's comfort was probably a lie.
For the life of me, I simply could not believe that God had been sitting in heaven and decided that what the world needed was for the Almighty to make a grown man become a drunk. For God to put that drunk behind the wheel of a car and to have that mortal drive down the road until he reached the child, whereupon God made the drunk turn at just the right moment and hit and mutilate and kill that poor child.
"It is the will of God!" -- That is the comfortable lie.
A child is born with a serious defect.
"It was God's will," someone will say, but is that true?
A young father is killed by a disease that robs his heart of the ability to sustain his life, and he dies just days before his wife gives birth to a son "It was God's will," someone will say, but is that true?
A family business is bankrupt. God's will?
In the earliest teachings of the Old Testament, no one would ever look at suffering and declare it to be the will of God. It was, instead, the result of evil in the world. It was in every sense, something that was contrary to the will of God.
In the book of Job, the man Job suffers from a painful disease and is visited by friends, one of whom reflects this early theology that suffering is caused by evil. This friend tells Job, “I have seen people plow fields of evil and plant wickedness and evil. Like a storm God destroys them in his anger...Evil does not grow in the soil, nor does trouble grow out of the ground. NO! Man brings trouble on himself." (Job 4:8-9,5:6-7)
Why is there suffering? Is it God's will?
No, says the friend of Job, suffering is the result of the evil we do.
The purpose behind this kind of suffering was to draw people BACK to God.
In Jeremiah, the voice of God is heard saying, “I will abandon my people until they have suffered enough for their sins and come looking for me. Perhaps in their suffering they will try to find me." (Jeremiah 6:15)
There are times when suffering is caused by the evil we do. Our sins bring the suffering upon us.
So forget about saying “it was God's will that poor Joe Blow suffered.' Now we can say, “Poor Joe must have sinned mighty badly. Wonder which commandment he broke to suffer this badly."
is this always the case with suffering?
The child on the bike who is killed by the drunk driver --- what sins did he commit? Or did his father commit some sin that caused God to kill the son in order to draw a wayward sinful father back to the Almighty.
That is not an original question. In Luke’s Gospel, a group of people approached Jesus with this issue. Reminding him of the time when a group of devoted Galileans went to make a sacrifice to God and Pilate decided to sacrifice them, they wondered if this meant that they were worse sinners than anyone else.
"No indeed,” was Christ’s answer. (Luke 13:lff) In fact, referring again to Job's situation, while one of his friends declares that people suffer because of their sins, we know that Job was not suffering for such a reason. The opening passages of that book take us behind the scenes so that we can read about the conversation between God and Satan.
Job is described as a good man; "careful not to do anything evil" (Job 1:1). God himself tells Satan, "There is no one on earth as faithful and good as Job is. He worships me and is careful not to do anything evil." (Job 1:8)
And yet, Job suffered terribly -- suffering in ways few of us must endure.
Which raises an interesting question. If suffering is caused by the evil we do, why do the righteous have to suffer and why do the bad guys often end up on top of the world?
In the Old Testament, the psalmist sang "I nearly lost confidence; my faith was almost gone because I was jealous of the proud when I saw that things go well for the wicked. They do not suffer pain; they are strong and healthy. They do not suffer as other people do; they do not have the troubles others have." (Psalm 73:1-5)
You see, this thing about suffering is a complicated matter -- as complicated as life itself. Why do we think that there is a simple answer to the issue of human suffering? Why do we think that there is simply ONE answer as to why terrible things happen to us?
It is the will of God," someone will say. And they may be right. Or they may be terribly wrong.
"It was because of the sins they did," someone will say. And they may be right. Or they may be terribly wrong.
"It is because of the nature of evil in the world," someone will say. And they may be right. Or in that particular moment they may be terribly wrong.
We look at suffering and we want to know WHY this had to happen. Maybe it was God's will. Maybe it was Satan’s. Maybe it was my own fault and no one else’s. When get out of bed in the middle of the night and I stump my toe in the darkness it was not so much God's decision or Satan’s --it was due to the fact that I was just too lazy to turn the light on.
We want to know something about suffering. And the one great thing that we want to know is WHY.
And it is the one great thing that we cannot always know.
When a child is hit by a car driven by a drunk, and the child with a flash of understanding knows that he is about to breath his last breath -- that child does not know why. It is one great thing he will not know.
When the mother hears the news from the police officer that her child is dead, she and her husband will have a lifetime to consider the question that their son may have considered in only the last instant of life --why? But they will not know. They may find comfort in saying, “It was God's will." Or they may inflict a greater pain upon themselves by producing a needless guilt, believing that it was their own sins that caused their child's death. But the fact is, this is one great thing they will never know.
God’s will, result of evil, product of sin?
Who knows? All they know for sure is that their child suffered, and they now suffer.
Suffering is a part of our life. It is woven into the fabric of our being and into the texture of human history and none of us avoids it. The Old Testament Psalm says, "Seventy years is all we have --eighty years if we are strong; and yet all they bring us is trouble and sorrow; life is soon over and we are gone." (Psalm 90:10)
A life full of trouble. Even the best of us have friends who die. Relatives who are sick. Even the wealthiest among us have financial fears that keep us awake at nights.
And each of us is being stalked by death. At some future time, we will die.
We suffer. Our loved ones suffer. And there is never any certainty as to why these things happen. The Bible gives many reasons behind the issue of human pain, and any one of these reasons may apply to our particular troubles -- but who is to say which reason?
Man – what a depressing sermon this turned out to be!
But in our New Testament lesson from Paul's letter to the Romans is a message of comfort to everyone of us who has ever lost a loved one, or received a distressing report from our own doctor, or struggled with the pain of day to day living.
There is one great thing that Paul is able to know. In the midst of suffering, he may not know why -- God’s will, or Satan's temptation -- but there is one thing that Paul does know -- there is one thing that he can know -- one thing that we can know.
In his letter Paul says, "I am certain that nothing can separate us from God's love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below. There is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:37-39)
This beautiful statement comes at the conclusion of a section in which Paul deals with suffering. He begins that section by saying, "I consider what we suffer at this present time cannot be compared at all with the glory that is going to be revealed to us."
Easy for Paul to say, we may think to ourselves. After all, Paul was a saint of a man. What did he know of suffering? Did he ever lose a child to the careless driving of a drunk, or be told by a doctor that the spot on his x-ray is cancer, or have his marriage dissolve at the end of years of discord?
But Paul did know what he was talking about when he used the word "suffering." In one of his letters, Paul listed his own unique sufferings:
"I have worked ... I have been in prison
· ... I have been whipped
· ... I have been near death
· Five times I was given the 39 lashes by the Jews
· ... Three times I was whipped by the Romans, once I was stoned.
· I have been in three shipwrecks, and once I spent 24 hours in the water. In my many travels
· I have been in danger from floods and from robbers,
· in danger from fellow Jews and from Gentiles;
· there have been dangers in the cities, dangers in the wilds, dangers on the high seas, and
· dangers from false friends.
· There has been work and toil,
· often I have gone without sleep;
· I have been hungry
· and thirsty;
· I have often been without enough food,
· Shelter or clothing.
· And not to mention other things, every day I am under the pressure of my concern for all the churches."
Paul knew suffering. Perhaps not the same pain as you, or me, but that is true of anyone. Each of us lives a different life, and we each suffer in a different manner.
Paul suffered greatly. And yet, he still wrote in our New Testament lesson, “In all things, God works for good with those who love him." (Romans 8:28).
You see, Paul knew that knowing WHY he suffered was not nearly so important as something else to be known.
The one great thing that we can know is that God is with us in our suffering, and therefore, our suffering cannot defeat us, separating us from the love and comfort we can have in Christ. Again, our Scripture this morning said, “What can separate us from the love of Christ? Can trouble do it, or hardship, or persecution, or hunger or poverty or danger or death? No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us! I am certain that nothing can separate us from his great love." (Romans 8:34-38)
In the end, there is only one great thing that we can know about our suffering. We might learn why we suffer. We might be able to see what good God is able to work through our suffering. But we might not. But one great thing we can definitely know is Jesus Christ, the crucified, the one who suffered, is with us. And none of the suffering we endure can separate us from His love and comfort.
Copyright Maynard Pittendreigh, 2014