We are in the middle of a short series about Foundations of Faith and this week we’re thinking about suffering.
I’m sure we have all asked the question at times,“How can God allow this?” I suspect that for our Mission Team, having just come back from the Philippines and having seen the sharp edge of extreme poverty, this question will be on their minds and in their hearts. I had a friend in Papatoetoe whose mother died slowly and painfully from cancer, and he refused to believe in God because he couldn’t reconcile the idea of a loving God with the pain he had seen. In a small way I remember sitting in Rotorua Hospital the night of the millennium, crying as the fireworks went off, when we miscarried our first child.
How can God allow such suffering in our world? How can there be any meaning in suffering? Why doesn’t God intervene?
Tim Keller in his book ‘The Reason for God’ reminds us that the question is only a problem if we believe in a good God. How can God be both good and powerful? It’s both a head question, and a heart question.
I want to start with a head response. It’s not emotionally satisfying, but it’s good to realise that there are solid intellectual responses to the head part of our question. (Don’t worry, we won’t stay here).
The atheist philosopher, J L Mackie, puts the question neatly like this,“If there is a good God, how can he allow so much pointless evil in the world?” (Keller p23). He sums it up quite well I think. Hidden in his question is a very big assumption that we need to expose. Just because suffering, or even evil, appears pointless to me, must it be pointless? Perhaps God has a purpose in allowing suffering and permitting evil that we do not understand?
The philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, has a simple way of responding. He says if you look into your kennel for a St Bernard dog and you can’t see one, it is reasonable to assume there is no St Bernard. But, if you look into your kennel for a ‘no-see-um’ (which is a tiny insect with a really nasty bite - it sounds funny but it’s a real insect about the size of a sand fly or flea) and can’t see one, it is not reasonable to assume that there aren’t any there. It is just that we can’t see well. We tend to apply the St Bernard model to suffering, but that’s unreasonable. If there were really good reasons for the existence of suffering and evil why would they need to be easily understood by human beings? A full answer to the problem of suffering could simply be beyond our understanding. I think Plantinga makes a very good argument simple. Essentially his argument, or his answer, is the message of the book of Job, summed up in Chapter 38 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?”
The story of Joseph, starting in Genesis 37, is a biblical story of an arrogant young man who goes through a time of terrible suffering, but the suffering remakes him, and ultimately the evil that was done to him works out for good. Joseph was so arrogant that his brothers beat him up and sold him as a slave (vs 28). Joseph prospered as a slave and then just when things were getting better he was accused of attempted rape (39:14). He was sent to jail and came to his lowest point. But from there he rose up to be the Prime Minster of Egypt during a famine. Being faithful to God, he helped save the lives of thousands including his own father and brothers whom he was able to forgive. Genesis 50:2 “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
It’s a rough story, but it’s a real story. We never enjoy the bad things that happen to us but sometimes they can work out for good. It has been some of the hardest things in my life that have grown character and compassion in me. It’s only as you absorb a blow that you learn not to throw it back.
Strangely, the fact that we have this visceral and passionate response to injustice, to seeing suffering, many would argue is actually a pointer towards God rather than away from God.
If life is only the product of random natural selection then the suffering of millions is simply nature at work. When people are killed by a tsunami, a disease, or even something as awful as genocide, that is natural selection at work. When some people succeed by exploiting others, then that is natural section at work. Social Darwinism might suggest that the better adapted are simply rising to the top of the gene pool.
Evolution as classically described by Tennyson is “nature red in tooth and claw”. It is about the scramble of species and within species for the survival of the strongest – and within nature there is no sympathy for the weak.
I want to suggest that our repugnance at injustice is not an evolutionary adaptation, but is a yearning for God, for a good God, to assert himself. Even if we are just talking about yearning for a basic moral order, or a basic sense of justice in the universe, that is a yearning for some sort of God.
But Christians claim more than this. The primary Christian claim about suffering is that Jesus was the Son of God, and that he endured suffering so as to overcome suffering, death and evil. What’s interesting about Jesus’ death is that he was not ‘gung ho’ about it. He was deeply worried about his coming death. Matthew 26:38“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” He chose to go to Jerusalem where he knew he would face death, but he shows all the signs of being deeply anxious about this. He prayed with intensity. Matthew 26:39 “Father, if you can, remove this cup from me”. He went to the cross with courage and dignity, but not with any excitement – he didn’t display any of the ‘gung ho’ features of the martyrs of the time. A few years before him there were Jewish martyrs who went to their deaths full of defiance and confidence even as they were dismembered.
What we see as the climax of Jesus’ death on the cross is a desperate cry, “My God, My God why have you abandoned me.” And then he dies. What a strange way to finish. Surely here is “a man of sorrows acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) who can give us consolation in our suffering because he suffered. But these last few words point to something more. The central Christian message is that on the cross and in the grave something far deeper and more profound than a physical death was happening.
Christians believe that by his death on the cross Jesus made a way for people to be reconciled with God, a way for suffering to be reversed, a way for death to be defeated. Often we talk about sin and Jesus taking the punishment that was deserved by people for our evil, or for the suffering that we have caused.
Let me use some slightly different language today that might help you grasp this event - the language of separation / exclusion / abandonment. When we are cut off from a casual acquaintance, it can hurt. If someone that you like just stops the relationship, breaks the relationship, that sucks. I guess we’ve all been dumped. I started going out with a girl when I was about twenty that I had had a crush on for years. I was intense, I really liked her, no sex just a few kisses, and she dumped me. It tore my heart. It was probably because I was too intense. Oh the pain! Some of you have been, or are going, through divorces that must be 10,000 times worse. And then there is the pain of a child who is abandoned by their parents. I’m not talking about a healthy adoption, but a harsh cutting off - the sort of pain that there is no answer to.
The bible says that the son, Jesus, was part of the three person God, that he had the eternally closest relationship with God that was possible and that on the cross God separated from him. God split his own being apart, so that Jesus could fully identify with humanity, in all our sin and guilt and shame and brokenness, in death. That is pain multiplied beyond exponential.
Keller puts it this way. “The death of Jesus was qualitatively different from any other death. The physical pain was nothing compared to the spiritual experience of cosmic abandonment. Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows first-hand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture and imprisonment. On the cross he went beyond even the worst human suffering and experienced cosmic rejection and pain that exceeds ours as infinitely as his knowledge and power exceed ours. In his death God suffers in love, identifying with the abandoned and godforsaken. Why did he do it? The bible says that Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He was willing to pay for our sins so that some day he can end evil and suffering without ending us.” (Keller, p30)
I love that ending, God allowed himself to be torn apart because of his love for us. You see, God could end evil in an instant but that’s the Noah solution, where he would also need to end us in an instant. As Aleksandra Solzhenitsyn wrote (1973) ‘the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.’ The cross destroys evil without destroying the hosts of evil.
So when we experience evil, suffering and pain, when we see it up close and personal, we can start by knowing that Jesus is with us in the suffering, he stands alongside the victims and loves them. He is our consolation.
But the shocking truth is that he also goes and stands alongside the perpetrators and the beneficiaries of evil. And that makes our gut turn, and we want to slander him, ‘How dare you!’ Until we realise that as consumers of products produced by child labour, until we realise that with every dodgy image we lingered over, until we realise that with every angry word we have shouted … we are also perpetrators in need of him standing by us.
But the story doesn’t finish there! Jesus rose again from the dead. Well actually he didn’t, there’s a subtlety here that is incredibly important. God raised him from the dead. Jesus emptied himself of his divinity (Philippians 2:7) “he made himself nothing”. He couldn’t raise himself from the dead. The miracle is that the father having let go the son, for loves sake, grasped him again. Breathed new life into him again, raised him to life eternal. The resurrection is not self help. It was about Jesus risking everything on a belief that God could restore him. And I believe that Jesus couldn’t know with certainty that the plan would work. That in this moment where eternity intersected with exclusion, all could have been lost. I believe Jesus went to the cross with no certainty – only trusting in the love of his father. In a remarkable reversal of the risk that Oppenheimer took, where he wondered if he would destroy the universe for the sake of his war, God risked destroying his son for the sake of his peace.
And it worked. And what it points to is a reversal of evil. Unlike eastern religion, the Christian hope is not about the dissolving of personality and the return of our spirit to the sky. The Christian hope is for a new heaven and a new earth – it’s like this world but it’s different. Our personality and uniqueness will be maintained, but all things will be made new. Jesus’ resurrection was in some ways a foretaste of this. The bible talks about resurrection bodies - not flesh and blood, not just reanimation - but superior and designed for a new life.
And here’s the best part of all. The idea that this good and new earth will redeem all things; panta - “all things” will be redeemed, will work backwards through suffering and be able to restore and heal and start again. Tolkein has a lovely way of putting it, just after the climax of the Lord of the Rings (1955), Sam Gamgee discovers that his friend Gandalf was not dead (as he thought) but alive. He says ‘I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself! Is everything sad going to come untrue?” What a lovely way of putting the Christian hope. Forget some of the bizarre American “Left Behind” films, the new heavens and new earth are far better. I want to leave you with this story of suffering being reversed, it’s fictional but there’s a deep truth behind it.
A child is separated from her father at a young age. She is passed from foster home to foster home; it is a hard life but the worst pain is thinking that her father doesn’t care. Life tumbles into a vortex of hopelessness and despair, and at her lowest moment she is near death. At that moment a miracle occurs. Her father she thought had abandoned her returns. He has been imprisoned and held against his will for 20 years. Every day he would pray for her, not knowing how she was, and once a week he was able to write a single letter to her but never allowed to post them. Then came the day of his acquittal where the injustice was reversed and he was free. He carries the bundle of letters he has written but never been able to post and finds his daughter. Over the next few days he holds her in his arms and reads these letters to her that unfold the love he had poured onto her from afar, but she had never known, and with each word he could see the life flowing back into his daughters eyes. On her first days of school he had thought of her, on her 12th birthday he had prayed for her. Many of the things that had happened to her he had anticipated and wrote to her about. She could not relive the barren years, but his letters transformed their meaning from ‘abandonment’ into ‘loved’, and slowly she could begin her life again transformed by the rediscovered love of her father. My friends, Jesus has been praying for you every day since you were born. Amen.
Keller, T. 2008. The Reason for God, Belief in an Age of Scepticism. London. Hodder.
Solzhenitsyn, A. 1973. The Gulag Archipelago.Paris. Éditions du Seuil
Tolkein, J.R.R. 1955. The Return of the King. London. George Allen and Unwin.