The new sermon series on Tough Questions begins this weekend. The congregation took the month of June to turn in questions that they would like to have addressed in a sermon. We compiled them and came up with four biggies. This weekend I will be wrestling with one of the toughest questions that exists. Why does God allow suffering?
I came across an article by Terence Fretheim, a professor of Hebrew scripture at Luther Seminary, that provides one of the most compelling and concise treatments of this question that I have ever read. I also heard Fretheim speak at our synod assembly two years ago and took three pages of visual notes. I now see that that lecture was an updated version of this article.
This post will provide a list of quotations that synthesizes the article. My visual notes from the synod assembly are at the bottom. The sermon this weekend will be an attempt to translate this article into an interesting and, hopefully, helpful 15-20 minutes.
Key Quotes from the Article:
Relationality is fundamental to God’s way of being and doing, and hence relational categories are key to interpreting such realities as suffering and evil and God’s relationship thereto. (346)
God’s relationship with the world is such that God is present on every occasion and active in every event, no matter how heroic or Hitlerian, and in every such moment God is at work on behalf of the best possible future for all creation, whether in judgment or salvation. (346)
God has freely entered into relationships in such a way that God is not the only one who has something important to say. Prayer, for example, is God’s gift to human beings precisely for the sake of communication within relationship. Again and again, God honors such prayerful responses within relationship (e.g., Exod 32:11-14; 2 Kgs 20:1-7). (347)
God has freely entered into relationships in such a way that God is not the only one who has something to do and the power with which to do it. (347)
In honoring this basic character of the Creator/creature relationship, God chooses to exercise constraint and restraint in the exercise of power in the life of the world. This is a risky move for God, as becomes shortly evident in Genesis 3 and beyond; yet, even in the face of human sinfulness and its disastrous effects, God continues to entrust human beings with creaturely responsibilities and the power to carry them out (see Gen 3:23; Psalm 8). (347)
God’s efficacy in and through such less-than-perfect instruments will always have mixed results, and be less in accord with God’s good will than what would have happened if God had chosen to use power alone. (347)
Deciding to go with a wicked world come what may, with all of the suffering and evil that that will mean for individuals and communities, means for God a continuing grieving of the heart (see Ps 78:40; Eph 4:30). For the sake of the continued life of the world, indeed for the sake of its salvation, God bears that grief and suffering within the divine self (see Isa 43:23-25; Hos 11:8-9). The reader of the New Testament knows that this divine way of being with and for the world is supremely embodied in Jesus the Christ. (348)
“Regarding the “whence” of suffering, the biblical material permits us to make several distinctions:
- Human beings are created with limits—of intelligence, agility, and strength.
- God has created a dynamic world; earthquakes, volcanoes, glaciers, storms, bacteria, and viruses have their role to play in this becoming of the world.
- Individual sins can cause suffering to those who commit them because God made a world in which our actions have consequences for both individuals and communities, though not in some mechanistic fashion. The effect is judgment.
- We often experience suffering, not because of something we have done, but because of what others have done to us. This elicits salvation.
- We also suffer because we belong to communities that have had a long history of sinfulness with the result that its effects, which can be named “evil,” are integrated into the very structures of our life together. This elicits justice.
- Suffering may be the effect of a vocation to which we have been called by God (see 1 Pet 2:21; Mark 8:34).” (348-350)
God creates a world with risks and challenges wherein suffering is part of life apart from sin, but also a world wherein sin is possible and can intensify that suffering experience and bring still further suffering in its train. God sustains a world wherein sin and its effects are carried along and are built more deeply into the structures of existence over time. God judges the world in and through the created moral order, acting within the interplay of human actions and their consequences, so that sin and evil do not go unchecked in the life of the creation. God saves the world by taking its suffering into the very heart of the divine life, bearing it there, and then wearing it in the form of a cross. (350)