This sermon is the first in a series called “Tough Questions.” We polled the congregation back in June and asked for questions upon which we could build a sermon series. The first question is the biggest question humans tend to ask. How can a good God allow such evil, pain, and suffering to exist in the world.
Texts: Habakkuk 1:1-3; Luke 13:1-9
Back in June we filled out cards, asking what questions you would like to hear addressed in a sermon. Pastor Mark and I looked through them all. Let me tell you, you ask good questions.
We boiled it down to four tough questions.
Today we’ll look at the first question: Why Does God allow suffering? In the spirit of the question, Pastor Mark let me preach on this nice, easy topic! Thanks, Pastor Mark.
If you want to hear a really great sermon about this, go to our sermon archives on the website and listen to Pastor Mark’s sermon on the Psalms of Lament back in June. Holy buckets, he knocked it out of the park with that one and really got inside the emotional space of this question.
I’m not going there today. I’m going into the head space and trying to think through the theology of how a good and loving God can allow such awful pain and suffering in this world.
I want to start out by asking you a question. Think about relationships you have in your life. Some are more equal in nature, some have power structures involved. Think of either a friend or spouse, on one side, and either a boss or a teacher on the other.
Now, would you rather that person be in control of you, or in relationship with you?
Now, I want to flip the question…
How would you answer that question in regard to God? Would you rather God is in control of you or in relationship with you?
This is a crucial point, because it creates the theological basis for how we approach the question.
If we have a theology of control, then God has consciously willed every terrible thing that has ever happened in the universe, thus we either have to believe that God is the author of Evil, or else we just have to suck it up and get with the program, with no explanation.
But, what if God was more about being in relationship with creation than about being in control of it?
I came across an article this week that really helped me with this question. It was written by Dr. Terence Fretheim back in 1999. It’s called “To Say Something—About God, Evil, and Suffering.”
This article is so good that I’m simply going to use my sketching to visually describe the argument he makes.
We must first begin with who God is. There is a big fancy word that theologians like to use in reference to God. It is relationality. It simply means the quality of being relational.
The very essence, or quality, of God is relationship. God is the dynamic relationality of the persons of the Trinity. This is what I talked about two weeks ago when we concluded the series on the Apostles’ Creed. The fact that we believe in the Triune God is essential to helping us understand why God allows suffering in the world.
First, relationships are two-way. A good relationship allows space for both parties to speak openly and to contribute to the other.
Second, relationships are also risky. There must be vulnerability if a relationship is going to get deep. If you don’t want to get hurt, then you keep the conversation surface, and never really get to know someone. But, the deeper your desired intimacy with someone, then the greater your potential risk.
Haven’t you found that to be true? The people you love the most are the ones who hurt you the deepest.
This is true of a relationship with God.
Because God has opened Godself to relationship with creatures—with us:
God is not the only one who has something to SAY. That’s why we pray.
God invites us to speak into this relationship and God responds and reacts to the conversation.
We’ll talk more about this in two weeks when we ask if prayer really makes a difference.
Also, because God has opened Godself to relationship with us, God is not the only one who has something to DO. That is why we work.
God created us to be creators. In a sense, we are co-creators with God.
That is technology. God did not create the wheel, the telephone, or the internet. God created us to dream up these things and God wonders and marvels in our ingenuity, like a parent hanging our water color paintings on the refrigerator door.
God promised Noah with the sign of the rainbow that God would never take control and wipe out humanity in judgment again.
In other words, God limited Godself for the sake of a world in which relationships can happen.
This is risky business, and this vulnerability of God allows room for sin and suffering.
I want to quickly name six sources of suffering that Fretheim identifies, because I think they help us to realize that not all suffering is bad, and most suffering is not the result of God’s will.
The first type of suffering happens because we are limited creatures. We have limited bodies, limited intellect, limited perspective.
When we reach beyond our limits, we suffer.
I’ll tell you right now that if I tried to drop down into the splits…there would be severe pain and suffering.
However, when we stretch slightly beyond our limits, the pain leads to growth and the expansion of our physical, emotional, and spiritual limits.
The second kind of suffering comes from the fact that the universe is dynamic. Earthquakes, tornadoes, floods, and forest fires, bacteria, viruses, and genetic mutations are not the acts of judgment from God, but are the natural process of the dynamic, shifting universe. We are becoming increasingly aware of how unstable and unpredictable the very fabric of the physical universe is. Stuff happens.
The problem happens when humans believe that the universe is fixed, stable, predictable and controllable. That’s when we build static structures on shift fault lines, or build cities in a flood plain or below sea level and expect to hold back the ocean with a wall. When the natural processes of earthquakes and floods happen, we look at our broken creations and say, Why did God let this happen?
The third type of suffering is the result of sin. The human heart is full of selfishness, greed, and fear. When we behave badly and act out in ways that hurt others, then we are the source of suffering. Sin requires judgment. That is why God established laws and governments. Human society has to have law and punishment. God works in, with, under, against, and for society through civil laws and governments as we keep sin in check and inflict appropriate suffering and pain for crime. Police officers, lawyers, and judges, you are doing the work of God to keep sin in check. You do the crime, you do the time.
The fourth type of suffering comes when people’s sinful acts hurt others. When a person chooses to get drunk and then drive, innocent people suffer and die. When power-hungry people oppress the weak for profit, people suffer and die. This is not God’s will. This is the effects of sin and God grieves with the oppressed and raised up leaders to bring salvation.
The fifth type of suffering comes when sinful behaviors become entrenched in society and become forces of evil that control institutions. This is Evil, the demonic. This is Satan.
For example, when one person elevates himself above another based upon the color of his skin, that is racism. When a community of people abuse others because of race, and this happens over a long period of time, then the culture and the institutions and power structures of that culture become racist and it becomes a spiritual power of evil. Then, even if individuals are no longer racist, the power of racism controls society.
I believe this is what the apostle meant when he said that we do not struggle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, and authorities, and against cosmic powers of this present darkness.
Evil stands against God and truth must speak against evil power and the suffering that it produces.
God is not the creator of evil, but God suffers with us and stands against the evil that we have created.
Finally, the sixth type of suffering comes from a calling that God places. Some people are called by God to stand against evil, and that almost always leads to pain and suffering.
I know this is big stuff. I want to conclude by reading Fretheim’s final paragraph.
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.
My prayer is that we will take this lesson and move forward with comfort that the almighty creator of the universe loves us so much that God invites us into an ever deepening and dynamic relationship of love. May we suffer together as seek God’s salvation for the world.