“FALL SERIES: Welcoming Doubt…Building Faith ~ Why Does God Allow Suffering & Pain?”
Genesis 3:1-7 & John 11:28-37
Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United Church ~ September 24, 2017
This has been a challenging time to make sense of the world. We watch the evening news: the most devastating forest fires in our province’s history, two hurricanes have ripped through the Caribbean; a massive earthquake has overwhelmed Mexico; lethal missiles are being fired from North Korea. Some choose to change the channel and watch the sports highlights and avoid the news, yet others ponder the nature of the world, and our faith, and wonder where God is amidst all this. In our personal lives, we struggle with life’s disappointments, we are shocked when an incurable disease develops, and we lament at how life’s events can go so horribly wrong. It was not too much of a surprise that the most common response to the question of what kind of ‘doubts’ and ‘wonderings’ we have in our faith is where is God amidst the pain and suffering in the world. Theologian Lee Strobel commissioned a national survey several years ago and found that the number one question people would ask God was “why is there suffering in the world?” And, so, over these two weeks we are going to be doing some pondering about the nature of pain, suffering and evil in the world.
As we move ahead, I want to propose we find a common understanding of what the function of religion is. According to Tyron Inbody, author of “The Transforming God: An Interpretation of Suffering and Evil”, the most deep-seated misunderstanding of religion is that its purpose is to produce happiness. The primary function of religion he proposes is, not to generate happiness, but to help us in constructing meaning. Not that meaning and happiness are mutually exclusive, I don’t think they are. But to be clear that our purpose, our approach is about the making of meaning and acquiring a deeper understanding into the ‘whys’ of pain, suffering and evil in the world. And so, as we come to this question of suffering, pain and evil in the world, it is helpful to be clear about the perspective we are approaching it from.
The first consideration is the agency of God in suffering, pain and evil. Where is God located amidst suffering, pain and evil? Language is very revealing of our thoughts. We may ask questions like: “why did God take away my child?”; “why does God allow people to go hungry in some countries?” or “did God cause the hurricanes? or cause the earthquakes? or cause all the other natural disasters” (after all our insurance policies clearly state they are ‘acts of God’). These type of statements reveal an understanding of a God who is either an active agent in destruction or a passive bystander who failed to intervene. Where do you view God amidst the pain, suffering and evil? When we take on such a sensitive subject as we have over these two Sundays, we really need to sort out who we believe God to be in our lives and in the world. For some of us, we have never really had the opportunity to unpack the Sunday School God that we were introduced to all those years ago. This view of God we are introduced to works well when we sing “Jesus Loves Me” and talk about loving our neighbours, but what about these terribly challenging periods of life that we are considering now. Where is God amidst suffering, pain and evil?
The first text uncovers much of the nature of our relationship with God. In Genesis, we find ourselves at the very beginning of the biblical story. It sets the scene for the nature of all other scripture which will follow. And, aside from the gospels, Genesis continues to be the most scholarly researched biblical book. Following the initial two creation stories, we have a view of an idealized world created at the hand of God. Creation begins… it is almost a symphonic presentation by God. On the first day – heavens and earth are created. On the second day – sky. On the third day – dry land…then water, plants, animals and then humankind. A second version of creation is given and then we find ourselves in the Garden of Eden. Humankind ~ Adam and Eve ~ walk with God, walk among God, walk freely with God. It was a time of innocence ~ they walked naked, yet they were not embarrassed. It was a time of beauty and paradise. Except temptation enters and humanity separates and choose to go on their own. They bite into the apple and as the sweet juices of the fruit flow down their chins, their eyes are opened. They suddenly knew they were naked; they became afraid of God as God approached. They become banished from the garden, because they had chosen to go their own way, to walk their own path, to separate from the garden. What the garden becomes is a symbol for the exercising of our free will as people.
The Genesis 3 text is often referred to as ‘the fall of humankind’. It offers us a vision of our human relationship with the divine. This was the first recorded point in scripture when humanity separated from God’s will ~ breaking that one simple rule ‘do not eat from the fruit from any tree in the garden’. And so, the birthing of free will began. It didn’t happen on the first day, or the second, or in the original design. Free will was something that we developed and took on as part of our emerging humanity. And so, we became free ~ free as the first murder occurred with Cain and Abel; free as the golden calf was fashioned and worshipped; free to make decisions and actions in line with God’s commandments … or not. Getting back to the earlier conversation of God amidst suffering, pain and evil. This passage denotes the time when God allows us to go our own way; it is the moment when a parent lets the child leave the nest; it is the time when the true freedom of our humanity begins. To speak about God taking a child or allowing people to go hungry or causing hurricanes or earthquakes is not an authentic way to speak about the God we know in scripture. This God, three chapters into our faith story, gives us free will. God does not take away children to heaven or allow hunger or cause natural disasters. God is not a puppet master pulling strings in the universe upon you or I. God created us in love ~ and after we were created, God said that “it is good”. And, for better or worse, God allows us to live out our days in freedom. So much of the suffering, pain and evil in the world today comes at the hands of others, as a result of the brokenness in the world, as a result of the way we have harmed Mother Earth, and sometimes even as a result of the random events that cause so much pain in life. So, the Sunday School puppet-master image of God with his long white beard, dressed in the white robe pulling the strings universe simply does not hold up when we read our faith story. I sometimes wonder why we ever taught our kids this model of God. God loves us so very much that we have all been given freedom to live our lives for the good … or for the bad. God is not an interventionist God.
So, if God is not an interventionist God, the obvious conversation to pursue is what the nature of God is. We often speak about God as being omnipotent and omnibenevolent: all powerful and all loving. But if suffering, pain and evil is a reality in the world, then how can this be the case? The area of theology upon which we tread now is called theodicy – theos (God) and dike (justice). Can we justify the ways of God as being all powerful and loving as we acknowledge the existence of suffering, pain and evil. As William Blake’s poem “The Tiger” put it:
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make three?
When I think about this dilemma, I sometimes ponder on the nature of what it would mean for God to be truly powerful and loving. Jesus spoke about God as being like a father, addressing God as “Abba”. True power and love begins with absolute devotion to the other; not as one to be controlled or overpowered; but rather as one who was created in love, raised in love and liberated in love. Power-over / dominance is not the superior form of power because eventually something more powerful comes along. That is why we don’t parent our children this way; that is why we don’t engage in relationships in this way; that is why we find in our God the purest form of power and love. This is the unique way of our God. God created and adored each part of creation from their inception calling each part “good”. And in the garden, when humankind desired to walk their own path, God gave us freedom. In the analogy of God as ‘cosmic parent’ ~ father or mother of creation: God creates us, God loves us, God raises us, and allows us the freedom to go out into the world offering our best … and our worst. That is power; that is love; that is the nature of our God.
So where is God amidst the suffering, pain and evil in the world? If God is not pulling the strings like a puppet master and zapping evil with lightning bolts, is God weak, or disinterested, or even worse yet…impotent? In the gospel text that Kathleen read for us, we see the nature of God reflected in Jesus. Lazarus has died, the illness was horrible, the suffering was long, and Lazarus’ sisters are weeping. Jesus’ first response to the weeping is that of empathy, of compassion, of ‘being there’ with them. The text says that “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”. The Greek tells an even deeper story of Jesus’ compassion. The nature of his being “disturbed” and “deeply moved” goes all the way to Jesus’ insides. It is a bodily reference. Jesus deeply, deeply feels the pain of the mourners. It is an ‘in the gut’ / ‘in the heart’ experience. It deeply touches Jesus. After inquiring where Lazarus had been laid and received an invitation to come and see; before he will even go there and see the body, Jesus does one thing…He cries. Jesus cries, he weeps. So, when we wonder where God is amidst the suffering, the pain and the evil in the world, we know that God is there feeling the pain, God is there saddened by the evil, God is there crying along with us. When the cancer diagnosis comes back positive, when the surgeon says ‘I’m sorry, we did all we could’, when the hurricanes tear apart homes, and the forest fires burn them down, God is there crying with us…crying at the presence of evil, and suffering and pain in the world.
And friends, I would suggest that this God who weeps, who feels our pain is truly the strongest and most loving kind of God we could ever imagine worshipping. It takes true strength to meet someone in their pain and take that pain on. It takes true love to shed tears alongside another who is suffering. This is the true nature of God’s omniscience and benevolence ~ this is the God who we see in Jesus ~ a God who weeps. A God whose way is that of truly being with each of us in a world of suffering, pain and evil. As our United Church of Canada Creed commences and concludes “we are not alone”.
Thanks be to God for that.