The following is the sermon I preached yesterday as the starter for a series of sermons called F.A.Q.’s. Over Christmas we polled church members and visitors on their most frequently asked questions about God, faith, life, etc. The most common question was that of human suffering. Before the sermon we read John 16:16-33. This is not an expository sermon on the text. Instead the text was read to remind us that Jesus said we will always have trouble in the world, but that we can trust him because he has overcome the world. The text is written for me to preach from in the style that I speak in. It is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. I simply want to record these sermons in this space.
I have just come through two of the hardest weeks of my life. Since Monday the 9th January I have been walking this path of personal devastation. Day after day the struggle gets greater and the misery just seems to compound. I had one moment of respite in it all last Sunday afternoon. It lifted my spirits somewhat but soon after that things returned to my new normal.
What’s been going on, I hear you ask. Well after all the food and drink of Thanksgiving and Christmas; after almost 6 weeks of holiday based over-indulgence, I made the call that something had to be done about it. So i joined Margaret on a 21 day self-inflicted suffering program…I mean body cleansing juice diet program. They say that nothing tastes as good as skinny feels and I want to tell you today that this is a lie. That steak I had last Sunday tastes much better than any pound that has been lost in the last 14 days. Yes 14 days done in a 21 day program…I have 7 more days of this to go. 7 more days of self inflicted suffering…I mean body cleansing.
The suffering is real!
The struggle is real!
Of course I am joking around with you. I am not really suffering in the midst of this and it would be wrong of me to suggest that a body cleansing juice program is a form of suffering as such. I might consider it a form of misery…but I am not suffering, friends.
We all know what suffering is, right? We each have a story or stories in our lives about suffering. Or if we don’t, we can each point to a situation in a friend or family member’s life, or a situation in the world around us which we could undeniably say is a situation of suffering. I have several of my own, for sure. Here is one
I was 22 yrs old and had just had one of the best experiences. I was young in the ministry and had been a youth worker for a couple of years. I had finally made my way across the Irish Sea with some youth ministry friends where we had attended the National Youth Workers gathering. I was inspired by what I had heard, I was rejuvenated and ready to get back to Belfast and dive in to making my youth group better based on the things I had learned. I was sitting on the boat on the way back crossing the Irish Sea one last time and I was ready to get home and get started.
Then my cell phone rang. It was my mum. She proceeded to tell me some bad news. My best childhood friend had been involved in a car wreck the night before and he had not made it.
I was devastated. Absolutely and completely devastated. The news had shocked me to my core. You see I had had my own brush with death in a car accident just a few short years before, but I had made it. It did’t take me long to start asking the questions that grief can can so quickly bring to our minds: Why?
Why did you do this?
Why him and not me?
He was in his prime. He was a good person. He was in a relationship with a great young woman. Why do his parents have to go through this and now live with this?
What age were you? What is your story with the suffering question? Like I said already, we all know what suffering is. We know it on a world scale and also on some kind of personal scale too. We all have some kind of suffering story. We all have that moment when we have encountered very deeply and very personally the reality of human suffering in the world.
Maybe it was 9/11. Did you know that churches reported a spike in attendances in the 5 weeks after 9/11? People were coming to churches and they were seeking some kind of comfort from God; maybe some kind of answers to their questions:
Why can it happen in our world that thousands of people simply get up and catch a flight, or get up and go to work, and do not come home?
Or maybe you are watching the news these days and you have the same questions about what is going on in Syria:
How can this be happening in our world?
How can it be allowed that bombs are dropped on a city inhabited by thousands of innocent and unassuming people.
How can 6 million Jews be allowed to suffer and be wiped out in the way they were?
Famine in Africa. Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, or Rwanda, or in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. The AIDs pandemic. Cancer. Mass shootings Sandy Hook, Paris or Orlando:
How can a good and loving God allow such suffering in the world God created?
This is the question on pretty much everyone’s lips at some point in their journey through life. I have found that to be true everywhere I have travelled, and in every conversation I have had with friends old and new as we talk about the Christian faith. I have found that non-Christian people ask this question and I have found that Christian people ask this question. I have found that young people ask it and older people ask it too. White Europeans ask it and African American’s ask it. Men ask it and women ask it too. Questions around human suffering are questions that we all have.
So how can we answer them?
The first and most important thing to say is that there is no definitive answer to this question. The question of suffering in our world will always be permeated with subjective circumstances. What do I mean by that? I mean that a generic answer to a big question like this will not always answer the specifics of your particular situation.
I guess we have got to start with our understanding of God. Back in September i spoke about this in a sermon and I want to hit on some of that stuff again. If we start with our image of God as some kind of cosmic game player who is in control of every move, then we are going to keep coming back to this question again and again and no answer will ever, ever satisfy. If we start with an image of God as some kind of Santa Claus God who gives everything wanted to those who do things right and make it on the nice list, then we are going to come back to this questions again and again. And if we start with an image of the Absent Landlord God, well, we may not come back to the question so much because we think that God simply does not care and remains disinterested in the world that God has created. In September I argued that these are the images that we most commonly like to attach to God and i challenged them with the idea of the incarnate God, who we will come back to later on this morning.
Before we go there i want to think some more on who God is and what it is that we classically say about God. What are the classic attributes of God?
God is Omniscient: God knows everything.
God is Omnipresent: God is everywhere.
God is Omnipotent: God is all powerful.
Of course we also say that God is all loving because God is, in God’s very essence, love.
These are the classic attributes of God and it is in these attributes that we ultimately have the problem of this question. If God is omnipresent and is in all places at all times; if God is omniscient and knows all things from everlasting to everlasting; and if God is all powerful and all loving then how can an all loving God who is everywhere and knows everything and has the power to do anything sit idly by and watch a world in immense pain and suffering? How can God choose to sit by and do nothing?
The answer to that comes back to the all loving part.
Think about it. In the times when you have experienced love at its very best and in it s very truest form, what do you have? You have freedom to choose, and move, and love back. As soon as that freedom to move and to choose and to love back is taken away, or replaced with some kind of coercive forcefulness that refuses you those freedoms, it can no longer be described as love.
God is love, and the longing of God’s heart is that you and I enter into fully loving relationship with God. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life. God loves you and me and God longs for you and me to love God back so that we can each walk through all of life (the best and the worst) in loving relationship. That is the biggest desire of God’s heart. Now we just said that God is all powerful though, so if that is true, and God loves us, and God wants us so much then why doesn’t God just zap us so that we love him the way he wants.
Because that’s not love.
Doing that would simply make us all robots.
In the fulness of love, which is God’s very essence, God has given human beings this thing we call free will; choice. We do not love God because we have been forced to love God – we love God because we have made a choice to respond to the fact that God first loved us. We have been given the choice and the ability to choose God.
But there is a cost that comes with choice. When God gives humanity the freedom to choose God’s way or another way, there will be times, and there indeed have been times when the choices that are made will not be good choices; there will be times when the choices that are made will cast long shadows, causing darkness in the lives of others, sometimes many hundreds or thousands of others all because a choice has been made somewhere at some time.
God loves you and me so much that God has given us the free will to choose to love God back, and that free will, when fully exercised can mean that those shadow casting choices will sometimes be made by some people, and in the shadows of those choices suffering will be experienced. Sometimes suffering will be the intent of the choice made, and other times the choice will have been made innocently, with no intention of suffering…but the suffering still comes about.
What am I trying to say as I explain all this? I am trying to say that I don’t think God explicitly allows suffering. I think God’s love is so deep that it means that God can do nothing but give his beloved the freedom to choose to love God back.
Does that mean that God doesn’t then care about human suffering?
Certainly not. In fact, God has done and continues to do something very very special in the midst of human suffering.
God joins us and is at work among us and God is always doing everything possible to transform death and destruction and suffering into something brand new; into abundant life. In the midst of our suffering, in the midst of human pain, God says “I am with you.” In the midst of human suffering, in the midst of human pain God says, “Trust me. I am with you and I can redeem all things, and I can make all things new.”
In the midst of the atrocity in Aleppo, Syria, there are a group of local people who make it their mission to rescue their neighbors when bombs have been dropped. They are called the “White Helmets” of Aleppo, and you can watch a great documentary about them on Netflix. When the bombs drop, they in turn drop everything that they are doing to run to the aid of their neighbors. in the documentary they each testify to how they sense called by God to come to the rescue of their neighbors; how it is the most important thing they can do with their lives at that moment.
God joins us in our suffering.
On 9/11 we all remember the actions of New York’s finest and all the other fire fighters who joined them in the days after. We remember how they worked tirelessly to come to the rescue in the midst of that terrible human suffering.
God joins us in our suffering.
Where I come from in Northern Ireland, when bombs were exploding, shots were being fired and lives were being lost; when divisions were at their height, there were clergy like my friend, Father Gerry Reynolds who worked tirelessly to build bridges and be models of reconciliation. When a tragic loss was experienced on the other side of the divide, Father Gerry would go to the home of the deceased and knock on their door in an effort to minister to the hurting and broken.
God joins us in our suffering.
Whether it is through the bravery of first responders in Syria or New York City, whether it is the reconciling heart of a pastor who longs to build bridges of hope, whether it is in the visit from a neighbor or friend in your time of greatest need – God joins us in our suffering and says I am with you.
It is not that God allows suffering. In as much as we can explain it, many times suffering happens in the world because choices sometimes cast long shadows. And I know we don’t do well with not having clear answers, but other times suffering remains unexplainable. Sometimes a choice has not been made. Sometimes things just go wrong.
But in all times, in every single circumstance of suffering throughout the world; those known to us and those unknown to us, God says: “I am there already. I am with you. Trust me, because I can and I am making all things new. I am the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega. I breathe life into dead bones. I bring light into the darkness. Where there are dry deserts, I bring streams of living water. I am making all things new. So trust me – I am with you.”
In our text today Jesus said, “In the world you will face persecution (and suffering), But take courage; I have conquered the world.”
Later on the New testament, the disciple Peter writes these words:
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert.[d] Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters[e] in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
My friends, like I said at the start of the sermon today, there is no definitive answer to the question of human suffering except this one:
Though in this world we will each encounter suffering, we may take courage because the God of all faithfulness; the God of the resurrection, who brings forth life where there is death, is with you in the very midst of the struggle, and will remain with you for all eternity as you wrestle and lament, as you sow seeds of sadness and suffering with tears and ultimately reap with shouts of joy.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.