A few moments ago we prayed for a variety of people who all have one thing in common. They are suffering. Some are suffering with cancer. Others heart disease. Some are trying their best to recover from strokes. Others are recovering from injuries from an accident or a fall. Others are experiencing the grief over losing a loved one to death.
And of course the question that people of faith ask is why?
Why do bad things happen to good people?
As a Christian pastor, I have often said that the question that one should ask is not “why me?” But “why not me.” We are human beings, and the reality is, that human beings suffer. Human beings get cancer, have heart disease and strokes and get into accidents.
“Why me?” No, the better question is, since I am a human being, “Why not me?’
Hear me clearly say this: When bad things happen, God is not punishing us, God is not trying to get anyone’s attention, wake anyone up, and God is not trying to teach us something. In this fragmented world, bad things simply happen.
I hate it when people misquote the Bible by saying that “the Good Lord doesn’t put any more on us that we can bear.” As if the Lord looks at people like Joyce Letchworth and says: She has buried two sons, had heart bypass and a valve replacement surgery, still, I think she could bear breaking a hip.
God does not put anything on us. We suffer because we are fragile, immortal human beings and that’s it. And God does not “take,” “pluck,” or “call home” anyone from this life. We die because we are human.
However, I believe the question that most of us really want answered is not so much, “Why me?”, but “Why isn’t God doing something about it?” Why doesn’t God do something to prevent or relieve the suffering? We understand that God doesn’t cause suffering, but, why on earth, doesn’t God do something about it? That’s what I don’t understand.
Well, one easy answer is that suffering is for our own good. A long time ago, Irenaeus of Lyons, a second century bishop, wrote on the educational value of suffering.
Why doesn’t God end our suffering? Well, through our encounters with pain, we grow and develop. The infant who touches a hot stove learns a valuable lesson. What if human beings never experienced want, deprivation, terrible heat or unbearable cold? Would human culture have developed among other creatures? No, said Irenaeus. Suffering is thus a great teacher, a wonderful prod for advancement in human development.
Even the book of Hebrews says that Jesus learned obedience through his suffering.
Now, I realize that this is somewhat true. The keyword here is “somewhat.” My aching bones tell me that a person in my shape should not try to run a marathon. But what about those whose bones lie in the mass graves in Iraq or Syria? What about the bones of the five year old boy found in a septic tank in Virginia? What lesson is there for that grieving community?
Some pain is helpful, but not all pain. The truth is that there is far too much useless, pointless pain in this broken and fallen world to speak to positively of the educational potential of suffering. What on earth is a child who falls victim to an internet child molester to learn?
Which brings us back to our main question: Why doesn’t God do something about the pain of this world? Why doesn’t God intervene and do something?
One philosopher once said, “Either God is good, but ineffective and unconcerned, in which case he is not good for us, or, considering the unrelieved, unjustified pain in this world, God is evil.” There is just too much unrelieved, unaddressed pain in this world to have God any other way.
Another response is that God is very good, but God is simply inactive. This seems to be the conventional modern resolution of the matter. Rabbi Harold Kushner has said that God only had six days to complete the world, and unfortunately, some things were left unfinished. God is not a personal errand boy. Stuff happens. And God? Well, God is simply uninvolved.
This is the modern, deist God of our founding fathers. Deism is the belief that God set up the world then went on a permanent vacation. Deism rescues us from the dilemma of having to make excuses for God’s lack of engagement with us and our suffering. God doesn’t heal, save, rescue or reach in, not because God is unconcerned and unloving, but rather because God is simply uninvolved.
Deism tended to be the faith of most of the modern world because, in order to get the modern world going, the first thing we needed to do was to remove God from the world so that we could be free to run things as we want. Belief in this God who is empathetic but not meddlesome, having gotten God safely filed away as some vague spiritual feeling, we were free to give ourselves more fully to a more effective god—the nation, the economy, or whatever. The bloody 20th century, the perhaps even bloodier beginning of the 21st century, is the result.
But then, despite ourselves—God, all of a sudden, surprises us. God comes. And God acts. A life gets uplifted. Someone comes away healed, whole. A life is changed, a future rearranged. On her death bed, after suffering more than I have seen anyone suffer, Alawoise Flanagan miraculously smiles, her eyes ablaze with hope. And members of the Flanagan family miraculously experience a peace and strength that surpasses all understanding. Just when we thought God had taken some cosmic vacation, God shows up and we experience life, abundant and eternal.
This is Palm Sunday. It is the Sunday that God showed up on the streets of Jerusalem riding a donkey. It isn’t that God is unconcerned, uninvolved, and uninterested in us, it is that the way God comes to us is not the way we want or expect God to come.
William Willimon writes: We wanted Jesus to come in to town on a warhorse, and Jesus rode in on a donkey. We wanted Jesus to go up to the statehouse and fix the political problem, and Jesus went to the temple to pray. We wanted Jesus to get organized, mobilize his forces, get the revolution going, and set things right, and Jesus gathered with his friends in an upper room, broke bread, and drank wine. We wanted Jesus to go head-to-head with the powers-that-be, and Jesus just hung there, on Friday, from noon until three, with hardly a word.
It wasn’t that Jesus didn’t do anything; it was that Jesus didn’t do the thing that we wanted. It wasn’t that Jesus did not come and intervene; it was that Jesus came riding a donkey.
God emptied God’s self, poured God’s self out, became one of us, bore our sins and our sufferings, even to death, death on cross. God came to us—not in a way that we wanted—but in a way that is all we truly need for life—abundant and eternal.
When my friend, Tony Cartledge’s, eleven year-old little girl died in his arms after their car was struck by a drunk driver, Tony said that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God was there. No, God didn’t go after the drunk driver with a vengeance and reverse the evil that had happened, but there God was nonetheless: Holding that little girl with him; feeling Tony’s pain; shedding divine tears; promising hope and peace. God was undeniably present. And “miraculously,” said Tony, “that presence was enough.” “That presence was all that I needed.”
There are people on our prayer list, and others for whom we prayed today who I pray will somehow, some way, be able to say: “It may not have been what I wanted—but God’s humble, loving, suffering, self-giving, life-changing, healing, hopeful presence, is all that I will ever need—for now and forevermore. Amen.”