Tag Archives: suffering

A Homily: Why Our Suffering is Meaningless (And Why That’s Really Good News)

Job 38:1-7

You know Job’s story. He has suffered great loss—loss his personal fortune, his health, even his own children. All of this through no fault of his own, but as the result of some strange cosmic pissing contest between God and the devil, which we the readers are privy to, but which Job knows nothing of. He suffers, like the rest of us, in the dark—searching for answers, for the meaning in his pain.

And here, in the passage I just read to you, God enters the conversation for the very first time. He comes with perhaps an unexpected agenda. “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” he asks Job. In other words: Who the hell do you think you are, Job, to question me? “Dress for action like a man, and I will question you.”

And question him, God does: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”

Are you picking up the sarcasm? I hope so, because he’s laying it on pretty thick. And God doesn’t let up after these seven verses we read this morning. No, it goes on like this for almost four chapters.

  • Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb…and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?
  • Have you commanded the morning, Job…and caused the dawn to know its place?
  • Have you entered the storehouses of the snow?
  • What is the way to the place where the light is distributed?
  • And who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help, and wander about for lack of food?
  • Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?
  • Is it by your understanding, Job, that the hawk soars and spreads his wings toward the south? Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes his nest on high?

If I’m honest, I find these verses more than a little distasteful. Maybe you do too? I mean, Job is at the end of his rope here. He’s poor, mourning the death of his children, scratching the boils on his skin with broken pottery in hopes of a moment’s relief. Now God shows up? And just to give Job the third degree? If we read these chapters by themselves God comes across as a pitiless bully who just wants to kick Job while he’s down.

But hold on just one minute. It was, after all, Job himself who asked for this trial—back in chapter 31. After rattling off a litany of his innocence:

  •  He’s always shared what he had with the poor.
  • Never said a bad word about anyone.
  • He’s been honest.
  • Faithful to his wife.
  • Why, Job’s never even looked upon another woman lust in his heart.

Then he cries out, in the words of Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message:

Oh, if only someone would give me a hearing! I’ve signed my name to my defense—let the Almighty One answer! I want to see my indictment in writing. Anyone’s welcome to read my defense; I’ll write it on a poster and carry it around town. I’m prepared to account for every move I’ve ever made—to anyone and everyone, prince or pauper.

God is just giving Job the trial he had asked for. But you see, therein lies Job’s problem, and, I would argue, the reason for God’s unorthodox interrogation. Both Job and his so-called friends have, throughout the book, been assuming the law of reciprocity: suffering properly comes to the wicked, while the righteous should prosper.

What goes around, comes around.

You reap what you sow.

We may call it karma. Or, if you grew up in a certain corner of Pentecostalism, perhaps the health and wealth gospel: if only you have enough faith God will make you rich and prosperous.

So Job’s friends keep trying to convince him that he’s done something wrong, and that’s why God is punishing him.

But Job maintains his innocence. He’s done nothing wrong, and he certainly doesn’t deserve this. That’s why Job calls God to the carpet: He’s being treated unfairly, according to the law of reciprocity, and he wants some answers.

But maybe God’s not bullying Job. Maybe instead he’s showing Job just how little he understands the way the world works.

Have you commanded the morning…and caused the dawn to know its place?

Maybe God is pushing back against Job’s unquestioned assumption of the law of reciprocity.

But before we write off this naive worldview, consider how often you and I think like Job and his friends. It might be easy to see how we’re not thinking like them—we have long since given up the notion of reciprocity. Sure, there are folks like Pat Robertson who are always quick to blame every natural disaster on Wiccans or homosexuals or whatever group happens to be on the chopping block that week. But most of us, on our better days, don’t really believe that good things come only to those who do good, or that only the wicked suffer. We have seen too many good people stricken with cancer. Too many good parents cradle dead babies in their arms. Too many tsunami waves crash indiscriminately upon the righteous and the wicked alike. Yet, still, we search, sometimes frantically, for some purpose to our pain, some narrative that will explain why we suffer.

A friend of mine once told me about an essay he had read in an evangelical magazine. The author—whose name I can no longer remember—was trying to answer that age old question, why we suffer. His story was tame. Some hooligan had thrown a rock through his windshield. So he called AAA, had the window repaired, and then told the repairman about Jesus. Then he had an epiphany!  This, this is the reason God allowed his window to be broken—so he could tell another soul about Jesus!

Then he had another epiphany: this is the reason for all sorts of suffering in this world. Now, think about that. In essence, this author is declaring that God kills the children of his followers, strikes wives and husbands with cancer, destroys cities in earthquakes, and wreaks general havoc with human lives…

…so that believers can tell non-believers about Jesus?

That’s it? That’s the meaning of suffering?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy it.

Are we really to believe that broken car windows and broken lives are the same thing—all a part of God’s plan for evangelism?

But this author is not alone. I can’t tell you the number of sermons I’ve heard explaining that God allows human suffering to teach us patience or humility or to make us ready to help others through times of suffering.

This is the same thing Job’s friends were doing. They came to help Job, to comfort him, to endure his trial with him.  But they ended up blaming him for his suffering.  Well-intended though they may be—Job’s friends, the preachers we’ve all heard over the years, the author of that essay about the windshield—each claims a wisdom no one really has, the wisdom to explain this world’s inscrutable ways.

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky resisted similar consolations. Ivan, an atheist character in Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, refused to accept the notion that suffering serves any purpose whatsoever.  And if it does, it’s a cruel purpose.

“Imagine,” Ivan says, “that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one [innocent child] . . . would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?”

Ivan’s protest is powerful because he does not dally in the realm of the inconvenient—the realm of shattered car windows—but goes to the heart of the real question: murder, abuse, torture, the gratuitous suffering of children.  Did God allow the Russian nobleman in Dostoevsky’s story to set his dogs upon an eight-year old boy so that the boy could later testify to the love of Jesus?

Well, the boy died.

Did he do it so the mother could—the mother who was forced to watch?

The fact of the matter is that these answers just won’t work for Christian theology.

Christian theology has always held that evil has no being of its own, but is merely parasitic on God’s creation. Think of evil like a hole in a shirt. A hole in your favorite shirt can be a pretty terrible thing. But when you think about it, it’s really no-thing at all. It’s just a big, gaping nothingness, where there should be fabric. So, the technical language for this is: evil is “a privation of the good.” Evil, according to Christian theology, is literally nothingness, a corruption of God’s good creation, a perversion of God’s purposes. So, according to classic Christian theology, we can never know why there is evil in the world, because there is no why. Evil, at its core, is chaotic, arbitrary, nothingness. I want to repeat that—and I’d like for us to let it soak in—because this is the frightening reality that many of us have spent a lifetime trying to escape:

Our suffering is utterly meaningless…

But now let me alleviate the tension a little bit. I want to suggest that this notion—that our suffering is not a part of God’s plan and purposes—it right near the heart of the gospel, the good news.

It really is good news, I think, that we don’t have look upon the devastation wreaked by the latest natural disaster and console ourselves with sentimental drivel about how God works in mysterious ways, or assure ourselves that there is some ultimate meaning or purpose in such misery. It is good news that we are permitted to hate death and evil and suffering with the kind of perfect hatred that they deserve.

It really is good news that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of his enemy. That is why, at the end of the story, God vindicates Job’s complaint and says that his friends have spoken ill of God. For God does not permit human suffering to punish sin—nor for any reason.

It’s good news because the Christian gospel is a story of salvation. Our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come. The whole creation, Paul says, groans with the pains of childbirth in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, life and death. And the incarnate God enters this world, not to teach us how God works mysteriously through human suffering, but to break wide open the bonds of suffering and sin and death, and to redeem creation to its original beauty. God will not, in the end, show us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the kingdom. No, God will raise her up and wipe away the tears from her eyes.

And there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Amen.

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Beauty & Affliction

Romans 8:18-30

Simone Weil once wrote: “There are only two things that can pierce the human heart, beauty and affliction.”  I read a story recently about a young black man growing up in South Africa during the 20s and 30s.  Though he was descendant of a royal line, this boy was the very first of his family to go to school.  In fact he went to a United Methodist mission school.  Shortly after graduation he headed off for Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, to pursue even further education, and maybe to escape an unwanted marriage arrangement.  But like so many young men in Africa’s violent cities, he was seduced into believing political change and justice can be achieved with guns and violence.  He wound up leading a rebel army until it was scattered and he was forced to spend two years hiding out alone, on the run as a political fugitive.  When he was finally caught, he spent his next 27 years subject to unspeakable conditions in a South African prison.  Tragedy, like this young man’s, is a dramatic invitation to us to wrestle with deep theological questions.  Why—if God is all powerful and all good—do we live in a world of violence and torture, of suffering, of cancer, rape, and murder?  And why is there an innate sense deep within us that in all this something is tragically wrong with the world?  That we’re made for something better? 
The Price for Glorification

In our text for today, the Apostle Paul begins to grapple with some of these questions. The major theme of Romans chapter 8 is glorification.  Or, the formation of women and men into reflections of the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  Now, that’s an interesting definition of glorification.  When we think of “the glory of God,” we often picture an immense beam of light with perhaps a long Gandalf-like beard sitting on a cloud.  And swarms of angels and cherubs (what ever the difference) circle around serenading this thing with harps and saving peacock feathers, and that’s the glory of God.  But the Bible says that the glory of God is revealed in a sweaty small-town carpenter, with dirt under his finger nails and dust on his feet.  The kind of guy who spits in the dirt and rubs mud on people’s eyes.  The glory of God is revealed in Jesus Christ, and God desires to form us into his image.

But if you want to talk about the formation of women and men into reflections of the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ—which is what I have suggested this passage is about—you’ve got to talk about suffering. “I consider that the sufferings of this present time,” Paul says, “are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” Paul’s was a time of great suffering.  The Roman Empire in the first century was not the glorious place you read about during the classical period.  By this time, the fall of the empire was imminent.  Economic hardship was the status quo.  The average family didn’t know where they would find their next meal.  Barbarians marched to the gates to attack and plunder helpless Roman villages.  The government had grown oppressive and tyrannical in the name of home land security.  And increased migration caused astronomical increase in disease.  Almost every home would have had an empty room once occupied by a family member who had now passed.  The Romans knew about suffering.  And it was even worse if you were a Christian—Christians were thrown into dens of hungry lions by emperors looking for scapegoats for the empire’s problems.  Vast crowds of people would fill the stands to watch and chomp on government bread like popcorn at a movie. 

Paul is anticipating a question in his writing: that if he is to talk about glorification—formation into reflections of the glory of God revealed in Jesus Christ—one of these Roman Christians will inevitably ask “Paul, if we are supposed to be glorified, then why is life so hard?”  Why Paul—if everything you’ve said about the gospel is true—why are things still so painful?  Or another way to put it: In light of all the pain and suffering in our world, why should we buy into this gospel business anyway?  Pretty good question isn’t it?  Perhaps some of us have asked this kind of question before.  Paul anticipates that question, and he doesn’t skirt around the issue.  No, Paul embraces the subject of suffering, he says that the entire creation is “subject to futility,” and groans in pain.  The entire creation.  Even before Al Gore, the Apostle Paul knew that the entire creation was in desperate need of the grace of God and of redemption—because, you see, the effects of sin are not just personal and spiritual.  We often think that the effect of sin is that feeling of guilt that I have inside.  No, the effects of sin are not just personal and spiritual; they are material and cosmic.  I once read quote at the beginning of a cheesy movie that said something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can ultimately cause a typhoon halfway around the world.  Now, I have no idea whether that’s true.  But I do know that Christian theology teaches that it was a small bite of fruit, a simple act of disobedience that was the ultimate cause of all disease, famine, disaster, and war.  Sin pervades every wonder of the natural world, every structure of authority, every person, every molecule of creation.  In other words Paul says, “Yes, you are being glorified, but you live in a pre-glorification world, a world of suffering, and the price you pay for glorification in a pre-glorification world steep.”  As he said in verse 17 “we suffer with [Christ], that we may be glorified with him.” 

So it’s not just the creation that groans in pain.  Look at verse 23, Paul says, “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan.”  But you get the sense that our groaning is somehow curious to Paul.  Like we shouldn’t be in pain if we have these “first fruits”—even we, he says, who have the first fruits, groan like the rest of creation.  So what is this business about first fruits? 

The Pattern of Glorification

Paul says in 1 Corinthians that Christ, as he is raised from the dead, is the first fruits of those whom have fallen asleep.  In other words he was saying to the Corinthians that the dead in Christ have hope of resurrection, because of the resurrection of Christ.  If he, the first fruits, is raised form the dead, so they will be raised at the full harvest.  What Paul is describing here is the pattern of our glorification.  Yes it’s true that we must suffer with Christ.  But it is also true that we are being glorified with him.  Just as Christ is raised to new life, the first fruits of the resurrection, so we are offered abundant life, the full harvest.  Just as Christ, the first fruits, ascends to set at the right hand of the Father, so we are called into an intimate transformative relationship with the Father, the full harvest.  In other words, so only in our suffering prefigured by Christ’s, but our glorification is patterned after him as well.  Our glorification is Christ-shaped.

Paul says it’s like being pregnant.  “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains.”  During this time in which we live we are subject to pain and discomfort, we have strange cravings and uncontrollable appetites, right?—desires for things that aren’t so good for us.  But it’s also a time of great hope and anticipation.  That’s why Paul says in verse 15 that we have already “received a spirit of adoption,” that we are in some sense children of God, but then in verse 23 that we await (we eagerly expect) our adoption, and the redemption of our bodies.  We have the first fruits of adoption, but not the full harvest. 

That’s also why he says in verse 24 that “we are saved in hope.”  We have somehow got into the habit of talking about salvation as if it’s something we possess, or an action we do: “I got saved 10 years ago.”  But that’s not the way the Bible talks.  Paul says we are saved “in hope” and that we hope for what we do not yet see.  Another time he addresses the Corinthians as “those who are being saved.”  It’s not like the insurance business where you just pay a big premium up front, and then you’re all taken care of in the event of death.  God’s not in the insurance business; God is in the transformation business, and transformation takes time.  The writer Maya Angelou, who is herself a proclaimed follower of Jesus, said she is always interested when one of her students says to her “I am a Christian” and Maya Angelou had a standard response: “already?”  Christian eschatology requires the discipline of waiting and faith that “the one who began a good work in you,” as Paul says in another place, “will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6)  But for now we live in the gestation period. 

So there is a price for glorification: we suffer with Christ, that we may be glorified with him.  And there is a pattern for our glorification: it is Christ-shaped.  In verses 29-30 Paul lays out for us the process of glorification.

The Process of Glorification

The problem with conceiving of salvation as a one time insurance transaction is that we lose the story of God’s work in our lives which began before the foundation of the world, which we hold now in hope, and which God will bring to completion in the day of Christ Jesus.   In other words, we lose the gospel.  But here we get to eve’s drop on Paul’s conversation to the church at Rome as he explains the process of salvation.  Let’s see if we can begin to recover the gospel story.

Foreknew

First, Paul says, God foreknew us.  The way the word reads in English, it sounds like Paul is saying that God knew you before something—perhaps, before you were born.  And of course God did.  God knew you before the foundations of the world were laid.  And Paul knows that.  And Paul knows that you know that.  Which is why he’s not particularly interested in telling you.  No, Paul probably has in mind the Semitic sense of the word that connotes a deep, intimate knowing—the way a husband knows his wife, or a father knows his children.  Like the Hebrew word yada used in Hosea 3:2, when God says to the people of Israel “you only have I known of all the families of the earth.”  Does this mean that God is not omniscient?  That God does not see the all the peoples of the earth?  No, of course not!  But only Israel does he know like a loving father or a good king. 

Paul himself uses a related word in 1 Corinthians simply to say that “anyone who loves God is known by [God]” (1 Cor. 8:3) In other words, when Paul says that God foreknew us, he means that intimate and kind knowledge that draws us to God.  Wesley called its prevenient grace, the loving-kindness with which God reaches out to us before it is even possible for us to reach for God.  We love God because God foreknew us.

Predestined

Then, Paul says, God predestined us.  Now, I know what you’re thinking.  Joe, this is a Methodist church, we don’t use words like that here.  But whaddaya know, it’s right there in the Bible.  Well, allow me, a non-Methodist, to try to easy your mind a bit.  The reason, I think, most people who get afraid of words like predestination, get afraid of them is because these words connote to them a loss of control.  And we’re obsessed with notions of exclusion.  As though the big issue of salvation and Christian spirituality is who’s in and who’s out.  And we want to know that when it comes to the “big questions” like who’s in and who’s out, that we’re in charge. 

But Paul defines predestination for us right here in this passage; he says “those whom [God] foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.”  In other words, predestination, at least in this passage, is not a word of exclusion, but of expectation.  It does not tell us who’s in and who’s out, but what those whom God foreknew can expect, namely, formation to reflect the Glory of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. 

Called

But all of this—God’s foreknowing love and drawing us to Godself, our predestination to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ—it all began before the foundation of the world, and comes to crescendo at the cross of Jesus Christ—all 2000 years before any of us were born.  So God, in God’s wisdom and grace, thought “maybe I should let them know.”  So Paul says, “those whom [God] foreknew, he also predestined…and those whom he predestined, he also called.”  Calling is God’s gracious way of inviting us into the process of glorification he is working in our lives.  He says, “Hey!  I love you deeply and intimately; I foreknow you.  And because of this great love, I have destined you for transformation into the image of my Son.”  You heard the one about the woman who on her fiftieth anniversary said to her husband, exacerbated, “In fifty years, you have never once said you loved me.”  To which the husband politely responds, “That’s not true!  I told you on our wedding day, and I’ll let you know if anything changes.”  Well, God does not have the same philosophy when it comes to God’s children.  God’s divine and intimate love for us is the secret of the universe, and God lets us in on this secret all the time.  God calls God’s children. 

Justified

“Those whom God foreknew, he also predestined…And those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called he also justified.”  If predestination is the Christ-shaped blueprint of our salvation, justification is its construction.  Justice in the Bible is the term for the entire cosmos set back to its glorious original order.  That Paul says God is justifying us means that God is making us the kind of persons we were intended to be, reflections of God’s glory.   The entire plan of salvation is a plan of justice.  It’s what Christ accomplished on the cross.  But it is not yet completed.  The first fruits of our justification began with Jesus on the cross, but we await the full harvest.  Martin Luther says we are at the same time righteous and sinners.  We are in the gestation period.  And we work out our salvation with fear and trembling, as God justifies us, molds us into the image of Jesus Christ.

Glorified 

“Those whom God foreknew, he also predestined…And those whom he predestined, he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified, he also glorified.”  So what does it mean to be glorified.  What that is mean that we are being formed into reflections of the glory of God in Jesus Christ?

(…Woops, apparently I didn’t type this part of the sermon.  But never fear, audio should be up soon enough!)

Conclusion

So there is a price for our glorification in this pre-glorification world: we suffer with Christ, that we may be glorified with him.  There is a pattern for our glorification: it is Christ shaped.  And there is a process to our glorification: foreknowledge, predestination, call, justification, and glorification.

That young man that I began telling you about.  After twenty seven years, the man was released from prison, and while inside he had had a change of heart.  That young man’s name was Nelson Mandela, and in May of 1994 he was inaugurated the first black president of South Africa.  During his term and after, Mandela made leaps toward racial reconciliation and civil liberties in his country.  He worked tirelessly the draw international attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa.  And this once-militant-rebel became a leader for nonviolence in Africa and around the world.  All the guilt he must have had from leading violent rebellions, the searing pain of running for you life, spending two year utterly alone, all the suffering incurred in this dark dank South African prison could now be seen as part of the process whereby Mandela grew into his calling to be a leader for peace and reconciliation in the world.  All of his suffering could then be seen from his vantage point as steps on the road toward glorification.  His affliction had turned into beauty.

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