I have to admit, my heart has been heavy the last week or so – not always, and in every moment, but the sadness keeps coming back. I have been thinking this week of the many prayers we offer on Sundays for people with cancer or other debilitating illness; for situations in the world that just seem to cycle from violence to violence; for humanity’s failures and sins; for lives lost to natural disaster or sheer accident, like Eric, AJ and Corey in Sooke last weekend. I know it’s hard for any of us to make sense of those things, and it’s natural to turn to our faith with the question: Why?
Christian faith has given many answers to that question over the centuries, and we still see those same answers being offered today. While there are no direct answers to those questions in the Scriptures for today, we may be able to glean some responses from the arc of the stories we have heard today and through the last few weeks.
In the most basic form of response to that question, we have the ancient belief that when bad things happen to us, we are somehow at fault. In some versions of that belief it is the result of choices made in a previous life (karma), and in others it is due to decisions made in this life – but still, there is blame attached to the one who is suffering. “If you just had faith, you would be healed.” “If you hadn’t messed up your marriage, your spouse wouldn’t have attacked you”. “If you were obeying God’s laws, you wouldn’t be persecuted and reviled.” These are dangerous messages, not helpful or healing, but it’s surprising how many churches still teach this stuff!
Jesus rejected this understanding of suffering several times in Scripture (ex. John 9; Luke 13), while at the same time the Gospel writers suggest that suffering could, at times, be for the glory of God. That could mean 2 things: the first is that Jesus’ miraculous healing power shows the depth of God’s compassion for us. That’s not altogether helpful when there is no miraculous healing or intervention in our own lives, though we may – and I hope we do! – experience God’s compassionate presence as a healing balm to our spirits. The other way to understand this phrase “to the glory of God” is that our endurance and resilience through suffering could be a testimony to others of the power of God working in us. That is certainly a way of bringing meaning into our experiences of suffering, and it is true that the example of faithfulness through hard times can inspire the faith of others. One of the most inspiring women I have known was a woman named Shirley Sanko, who over the course of her life experienced cancer in virtually every part of her body – and yet she remained joyful, prayerful and faithful to the end of her life. Not all of us can be Shirleys, though. Not all of us are built with such peaceful, joyful spirits.
The narrative of Scripture tells a not-quite-coherent story about suffering. Again and again we see that the faithful are not immune to hard times and life-threatening experiences: in fact, quite the opposite! In the Hebrew Bible the first murder is one brother killing another innocent brother out of jealousy; the entire Hebrew people are taken into slavery fairly early on in the story; prophets are imprisoned, persecuted and killed for speaking God’s word to people; then the whole people are exiled in a foreign land!
Those who experience these things do not always accept them without struggle. They long for liberation and vindication – and that same hope is alive in people who are struggling today. Some of us are too much warriors in spirit for us to simply accept, the way Shirley and others are somehow able to do. The spiritual task for us is to discern when it is necessary to fight our circumstances and when it is time to make peace with life as it is. It is a painful and difficult task, but a profoundly spiritual and faithful one. To wrestle with God and one’s circumstances is about as Biblical as it gets! Remember Jacob and his wrestling with the stranger in the night, or Abraham and his argument with God over the fate of Sodom?
I personally find the Psalms helpful in this regard. Many of them were written by the legendary David, who went from shepherd to soldier to king. He knew a lot about the hardships and dangers of life; he threw all of his anguish and bitterness and despair out to God in his songs; and yet somehow he found his peace. The Gospel according to Matthew tells us that Jesus himself cried out with the words of one of the Psalms on the cross: “Why my God, have you forsaken me?” That is the beginning of Psalm 22; the end is a plea for rescue and a prayer of confidence and praise: “Save…my afflicted soul…Then I will declare your Name to my people. In the midst of the assembly I will praise you.”
The New Testament features story after story of disciples and apostles being beaten, tortured, imprisoned, and executed – not to mention John the Baptist’s horrible execution and Jesus’ terrible, torturous death. Yet we still struggle with the existence of suffering in life, as if some how we should be exempt. There is so much in life over which we have no control; the circumstances that cause sickness, accident, or disaster are among those. The question we ask though is “ Why doesn’t God control them?” or as a famous book asked “Why doesn’t God stop bad things happening to good people?” (Rabbi Harold Kushner, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People)
An entire book of the Bible, the book of Job, was written to explore that very question. It tells the tale of a righteous man who experiences enormous tragedy for no reason at all, except to find out if a faithful person can endure it all and remain faithful. Interestingly, Job rejects the test. His comforters try to give him all the standard faith responses: you must have done something wrong, God is testing you, God is teaching you. Job rejects them all, trusting in his own innocence and in God’s faithfulness. Job’s response is simply to bow before the mystery of life and the awesomeness of God – to “live with the questions”, we might say today.
Some of us have a Job-like response to the terrible things that happen in life. We grieve, we struggle, we get angry, we ask the big “WHY?” questions – but when it comes down to it our faith gives us the strength and peace we need to live with the questions. It’s not fatalism, exactly, but more an awareness and acknowledgement that life is full of accidents and mishaps and good and bad choices – ours and others – and environmental change and political upheaval and so many other things and that all of that together makes for a pretty tangled situation. To ask or expect God to pull out all those tangled threads so that we might not suffer just doesn’t make sense to us – for if us, why not everyone, and then what would happen in this interconnected world? I, personally, don’t want to live in a world where I have no real choice: where everything is predetermined and my actions and thoughts and feelings and choices are not actually mine, but God’s. I personally feel that the randomness, the chaos that comes in a non-determined life are worth the price of real freedom. You might think differently – and that’s OK.
So what is my answer to the question “Why”? I suppose, at least part of an answer for me is: “because God created us for freedom.” The question then shifts for me from “Why suffering?” to “what as a faithful free person who follows Jesus am I going to do with and about undeserved suffering?” I think Jesus is our guide in this:
that we are aware of and prepare ourselves and each other for the reality of hardship in this life, as Jesus prepared his disciples;
that we grieve the suffering and injustice that others face, as Jesus is said to have done at the death of John the Baptist and Lazarus and others in the Gospels;
that we stand up for those facing suffering imposed by others and do our part to heal and to help, as Jesus did in the stories we have heard the last few weeks –
and when it comes to our own suffering, that we give it to God, as Jesus did as he prepared to go to the cross. He wept, he struggled, he prayed – and finally, he came to a place of acceptance.
Our faith story tells us that – astonishingly! – Jesus found new life on the other side of the worst thing that could possibly happen to him. That is our trust, that whether in this life, or in the next, there is hope, and peace, and even joy to be found at the end of that dark valley through which we travel.
Friends, while there are common steps and stages of grief and loss, each of us will journey through them in our own way, and each of us will make meaning of that loss in our own way too. We can offer our own answers, if we have any, but we cannot insist that others accept them as their own. Let us never judge each other because we have different answers to the question “Why?”; neither let us impose our beliefs about the “why” on one another. Each of us will need to find our way through to our own sense of meaning. Even if you should go so far as to abandon faith in God because of what you or others have experienced, do not fear – for God does not abandon you. When and if you come to a place in your life where you can turn again to God, She will be there, waiting for you.
Do you remember that story from last week, when Jesus told the parents of the little girl “she is not dead, she is only sleeping” then turned to her and said, “Little girl, arise!”? Jesus is there waiting, to show you the way to life and hope, to draw you back out of that deep valley of grief and loss, anger and pain, to peace and joy again.
This I believe. This, I trust. Amen.
John Calvin in his commentary (on Ps 22) concluded that a sense of being forsaken by God, far from being unique to Christ or rare for the believer, is a regular and frequent struggle for believers. He wrote, “There is not one of the godly who does not daily experience in himself the same thing. According to the judgment of the flesh, he thinks he is cast off and forsaken by God, while yet he apprehends by faith the grace of God, which is hidden from the eye of sense and reason.”