Proper 12 (July 24-30)
Texts: Romans 8:26-39;
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
THE MYSTERY OF SUFFERING, PART III
“God has a reason for everything.”
“God will never give you more than you can handle.”
“It was God’s will.”
These common sayings assume suffering is part of life. As a Pastor for more than 25 years, I’ve heard them more times than I can count. And I have to admit that just like many of you, I still struggle to understand. Why does God allow suffering?
I’ve relished this opportunity to walk this spiritual journey with you three weeks in a row and explore these lessons on suffering more deeply. Two weeks ago the Parable of the Sower helped us look at what the Gospels say about the good soil of faith. We were pointed to the times and places of suffering in our lives that become good soil. Last week and again today our readings from Romans 8 take us to what is perhaps the most profound place in the Bible to struggle with suffering.
Why does God allow suffering? This seems to be one of life’s biggest mysteries, a burning question theologians through the ages have tried to answer. Last week I mentioned contemporary theologian Brian McLaren’s recent book Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words. (1) I’ve found his 12 simple words and the way he maps those words out in a spiritual journey of four seasons to be extremely helpful. McLaren names the four seasons of our spiritual journey as: Simplicity, Complexity, Perplexity, and Harmony. Last week we focused on the word “Help” in the season of Complexity, when the experience of suffering moves us beyond simple faith to begin to reach out to others for help.
Today I’d like to focus on the 3rd season of our spiritual journey: Perplexity, and the simple word “Why.” Suffering moves us beyond the season of complexity and asking for help, to the season of perplexity – the times and places where we just can NOT understand and want to know “why?” When those headaches turn out to be brain cancer, does God really have a reason? When a young athlete drops dead on a basketball court, is God really testing his parents to see if they can handle it? When a tsunami follows on the heels of an earthquake and devastates much of Japan; or when the Somali people already struggling to survive in a country rife with political corruption and violence are now enduring the worst drought in 60 years, is it really God’s will that people suffer death and destruction? Why?
At Golgatha that first Good Friday, (2) with his dying breath, Jesus himself cried out why: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Abandonment is the splintered, brutal reality to which Jesus is nailed. He is suspended and stretched spiritually just as he is physically. This is the moment when everything he has trusted has collapsed under him. But in that moment of total darkness, did the word why still hold the door open a crack? A hope against hope that there is some reason for this madness?
If by seeking a ‘reason’ we are really looking for an ‘explanation’ we won’t get too far. Offering explanations for evil, abandonment and suffering lead us to believe that something is inevitable and can’t be changed. For example, when a person is killed in an alcohol related crash, some people say, “it was just their time.” But if the driver had chosen not to drink and drive, was it really inevitable?
On the other hand, if by ‘reason’ we are saying that suffering is God’s plan, we’re still in trouble. Does God actually engineer earthquakes, crashes, murders, and diseases as part of a preordained plan? Can we hear God saying, “Yes, I know this is quite frightening and starvation is a tough way to die. But don’t worry, it’s all part of my plan.” Both explanations and plans put us in a pre-determined, mechanist universe where we just go through the motions without real freedom.
But there is another possible meaning for ‘reason’ when trying to answer why, and it can liberate us from a pre-determined, mechanistic universe anchored in the past and explained away as God’s predestined plan.
What if we ask instead: “Can any good can come out of today’s suffering?” This question doesn’t assume the present is either inevitable or intentional. Neither does it assume that the present moment is meaningless. It holds open the door, lets in some light, and allows for the possibility that some future good can be wrested from this present tragedy. It gives us hope. And hope is what we need when we are suffering — not explanations or reasons, but hope. Romans 8 is all about hope we have in Jesus Christ because he went through the suffering of Good Friday to the promise of life and forgiveness on Easter. Something good did come through the suffering.
The why that is answered with an explanation or a plan invites passiveness and resignation. But the why that seeks meaningful hope by bringing some future good out of agony seeks a new creative possibility. It says, “Well, the worst has happened. There it is. It’s all in ruins, a complete disaster.” But instead of saying, “I’ll just curse God and die,” it dares ask, “What good can we pull from this mess? What meaning can we make of this madness?”
On the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus has a sense of where things are headed, so he goes to pray in an olive grove called Gethsemane. Matthew and Mark tell us Jesus was “agitated” and “deeply grieved,” even “to the point of death,” so much so that he doesn’t want to be left alone (26:38; 14:34). If Jesus lived in an explanation-driven, plan-driven universe, we would expect him to pray, “I know this can’t be avoided. I know its part of your plan. So give me the strength to go through with it.” But that’s NOT what he prayed. Jesus’ words were, “If it is possible, let this cup pass from me . . .” That word “if” is key to helping us understand. Jesus doesn’t have clarity about a predetermined plan. He wonders if there can be some other way. But if not, he says, “Yet not what I want but what you want.”
To go through with a plan is one thing. But to step into the abyss of if is another thing. There is a powerful resonance between the if in Gethsemane and the why on Golgotha. Jesus isn’t trusting a plan; he is trusting God. He believes that, whatever happens, God can use it for good. I have tried, but have never succeeded in imagining a trust more naked and pure than this.
In uttering that question why, Jesus validates that pain, abandonment, doubt, and despair are indeed part of life, even part of a life well lived. In questioning why, Jesus stands in solidarity not only with faithful people; but also with doubters, questioners, and skeptics.
What does this mean for us? In our longest, darkest nights as we declare our doubt and faith in the same agonizing cry: “why”, God isn’t looking down on us with a divine clipboard holding a divine checklist, checking off achieved objectives on the divine plan as they occur. Earthquake: check. Famine: check. Cancer: check. Crown of thorns: check.
In these moments of deepest fear and pain, Jesus is with us; and through Jesus, God is with us.
God is in the midst of this agony. In Christ, God is godforsaken. In Christ, God hangs without a script or skyhook, without an escape clause written into the contract, without an explanation or plan, and without a prayer, except that simple word: why.
And in that simple word is found all the hope in the universe. A hope that reaches forward into the darkness, saying, “What good can we work from this?” In even the worst – Jesus’ crucifixion, Jesus hoped for good. Good can rise again. In our nights of asking why before the dawn of hope, even if we have stopped praying, God’s Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words. God is with us through the spiritual season of Perplexity, the valley of the shadow of death, and leads us out to the other side. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, July 21 &24, 2011
1. Brian McLaren, Naked Spirituality: A Life with God in Twelve Simple Words [San Francisco: HarperOne, 2011].
2. Ibid, pp. 181-84. From this point on I largely use McLaren’s words and ideas, edited quite a bit to fit a spoken sermon.