Suffering is one of those questions that people often struggle with. This is my attempt to tackle it. Not to give definitive answers, but at least to try and suggest ways of thinking about it and questions that we might want to think about the issue.
I found Tom Wright’s book Evil and the Justice of God helpful, as well as his For Everyone… commentaries. I also think that the approach of Greg Boyd in Is God to Blame? a helpful one. There were also a couple of helpful articles that I found whilst writing this sermon that I quote from and link to in the sermon.
We are continuing our sermon series on Questions of Faith by looking at the question of suffering. I was thinking about suffering this week during a very long meeting of the Deanery Chapter. And I was reminded again of suffering when I got a letter telling me that I need to book an appointment for Eliora to have her MMR jab. So, I have to inflict some form of minor suffering on my daughter in order to save her from far more suffering which she might otherwise suffer from those diseases.
And that also draws out the two main types of suffering I want us to think about. The two main types of suffering are those inflicted by people, and those inflicted by the natural world. The readings we heard talk about both of those types of suffering.
So, we heard about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed. That’s a very good example of the sort of suffering that we see down the ages, the sort of suffering that we’ve seen inflicted in the Algerian hostage crisis. We hear about many different examples of people choosing to inflict harm on each other. And there is the temptation to rationalise the random nature of this sometimes isn’t there? There must have been a reason that bad thing happened, or, at least there must have a reason that bad thing happened to them.
Searching for answers
The book of Job, in the Old Testament is all about suffering, about the nature of suffering and that bad stuff happens to good people. Job’s friends accuse him of having done something wrong to bring on himself the calamities that happen to him, but the answer that the book of Job gives is that this isn’t the case. It’s well worth a read.
And in the reading we heard from Luke, we hear Jesus rejecting a similar argument. Twice he says that the people who suffered and died were no worse than the people who didn’t suffer and live. “Do you think they were more guilty”? he asks. “I tell you, no!” They might not have been any better than the next person, but they weren’t particularly worse either. What happened to them wasn’t punishment, wasn’t because of what they had done or what other people hadn’t done.
Bad stuff happens to good people. That offends our sense of fairness, so we look for reasons why that isn’t really the case. People sometimes misquote or misunderstand the verse from Romans right after our reading, which says “We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him”. I think that people often read this as something like God brings about all things for the good of those who love him. But that’s not what it says. It says ‘in all things God works for the good of those who love him’.
In all things. There is no thing that is beyond God’s resurrection love, there is no thing into which God cannot pour his healing Spirit. In the midst of horror and pain and anguish and even despair God is there. That is what we are promised. We’re not told that we have to believe that it’s God’s will that those things happened. We’re not told that God wanted that to happen. We’re simply told that God can and will work for good even in the bleakest situation. And we see that in the phrase ‘the Blitz spirit’, when the worst brought out the best in people, and in people’s lives when suffering gives them a profound insight into life and hope.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the film Bruce Almighty. Basically, it’s about a struggling TV reporter, called Bruce. God gets tired of Bruce complaining that he can do it better, so gives him all his powers, which he can use however he wants. And we see the chaos that comes from Bruce’s misuse of God’s powers. In one scene we see Bruce answering ‘yes’ to every single prayer in his town. This leads to multiple lottery winners, rioting and widespread destruction. The film suggests why quite a lot of our prayers aren’t answered in the way that we’d like them to be.
But, there are also two rules that God gives Bruce. Bruce can’t tell anyone he’s God. And Bruce can’t mess with free will. “Can I ask why?” asks Bruce “Yes” says God “you can. That’s the beauty of it.” Which is basically the answer that book of Job gives. Yes, you can ask.
Part of the answer that the Bible gives us about suffering is that if you want free will, then that means suffering. Because, if you give people free will, then they can misuse that free will. And the problem with that is, is that people misuse it in ways which frequently cause rioting and widespread destruction. Although, not very often multiple lottery winners.
Towards the end of Bruce Almighty, Bruce has lost his girlfriend and is trying to work out how to win her back. He asks God “How do you make someone love you without changing free will?” To which God replies “Welcome to my world.” We’d like other people not to have free will, we’d like other people not to be able to hurt us, but we don’t want to give up our own free will. God gave us free will so that we could freely come to him, come to know him and come to love him. But, that pretty much inevitably means suffering and pain, because free will means we can misuse our powers.
Can we ask why? Yes. That’s the beauty of free will. We can ask. We can complain. We don’t have to like it, or like suffering. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s the start of Psalm 22, it’s the Psalm that Jesus quoted as he was dying in agony on the cross. We don’t have to like suffering, we can complain about, we can rant and rail about it. And there’s lots of psalms that will give us the words if we don’t have them. We don’t have to like it, God doesn’t like it, and God has done something about it. He sent his Son to suffer and die, to bring about the new heaven and the new earth, where, we’re promised “there will be no more mourning, or crying or pain”.
And that’s where the reading from Romans comes in. Paul is encouraging those Christians who are being persecuted. Paul is encouraging the early Christians who are experiencing the misuse of other people’s free will. And he does this by getting them to look forward to the new heaven and the new earth that Jesus has brought about and will bring about. And Paul also does this by getting the early Christians, and us, to look backwards, to look backwards at the mess that our free will created in the first place.
“The creation” we’re told “was subjected to frustration”. Because of our actions, because of the actions of humanity things have gone wrong. We, human beings, were meant to be God’s image on earth. Creation is waiting in eager longing for God’s children to be revealed, for God’s glory to be unveiled for us, to be unveiled in us and through us. I’m going to say more about this next week when I talk about evolution and faith. But, if you want a creation with free will, if you want a free creation, then you run the risk of suffering. You run the risk of people misusing their powers, and you run the risk of the freedom of creation causing suffering.
Paul tells us that our misuse of the free will that God has given us has created even more problems than we usually imagine. Paul tells us that, because of humanity’s rejection of God his plan, not just for us, but for the whole of his creation. Paul tells us that mess of natural disasters, the mess of illness and decay is not what God wants for us. But, we’re told, we failed to take our place as God’s representatives. Creation is waiting, waiting with eager longing, for us to take our place so that the freedom that flows from God to us will flow from us to the whole of creation. The freedom from bondage and decay, from suffering and pain, flows from the suffering of the crucified, risen God to all that he created.
Writing about the helicopter crash that happened in London last week, the vicar Giles Fraser wrote that Christianity doesn’t so much impose meaning on random events, but gives people a place to bring their confusion and doubt. He says “I am not implying God is the ready-made answer. For me, God is the question. A question that will not leave me alone.”
This sermon series is called Questions of Faith, not Answers about Faith, because I think that there are some questions that we continue to wrestle with. I think that there are some topics where if we think we’ve got an answer then we haven’t thought enough about the question. I think that the question of suffering is one that we will continue to wrestle with in our own lives, in different times and different ways. I don’t have any easy answers. But, what I do know, do firmly believe is that the question of suffering was so big, so important, so crucial, that God didn’t try and give us any easy answers either. God doesn’t give us any easy answers in the Bible, but it’s a topic that the Bible keeps on coming back to. God didn’t give us any easy answers when he came to live among us in the person of his son, Jesus. God didn’t want to suffer, didn’t want his son to suffer. But, despite that, God’s son suffered and died so that we and the whole of creation can be brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. That might not really be an answer, but if God and God’s purposes are the question, then anything else is going to be inadequate.
I’m also aware that any one sermon isn’t going to be adequate. So, to explore some of these questions a bit more, to talk about some of our struggles and doubts that we might have, I’d like to invite you to a discussion group at the Vicarage tomorrow night. Unless, of course, you all turn up, in which case it’ll be in the Church Hall! So, the Vicarage at 7:30pm Monday. You’re very welcome.
Letter to Henry
But, I want to end with part of a letter that a Christian couple wrote to their four year old son after he died of a brain tumour. It says something of what I’m trying to say a lot better than I can say it. They wrote:
“When we learned of your brain tumour we prayed. Thousands prayed. We demanded in prayer, we begged in prayer, we took authority in prayer, we took personal inventories and confessed our shortcomings in prayer, we gathered with groups in prayer, and wept silently, alone in prayer.
In the Old Testament, Job attributed his suffering to God, but after God confronted Job on his lack of understanding about the complexity of the universe, Job repented, admitting he’d spoken of things he did not know.
Your dad and I also do not know. We do not know why it was you that suffered and died so young. We do not know why the prayers of thousands did not prevail. We just do. not. know.
But some things we do know. We know your pain, your death, did not come from God, but from an evil place. And we know one most crucial thing – we know how to fight back. We will fight with… surrender. We choose to surrender the anger, the despair, and defeat we feel. We lay these feelings at the feet of Jesus, to whom the battle belongs. We know how he fought for us – with complete self-sacrifice. In fact, that sacrifice is our assurance that we’ll see you again.
Sweet boy, we miss you with every breath, but we’ll all be together before you know it, celebrating the ultimate victory of love. Until then Precious One, all our love. Mom & Dad”