Preached at Alger First UMC on 8/14/2016
Well this week, we’re going to start a new 4-week series that I’ve been excited about for a while. The series is called “Why? Asking the Hard Questions of Faith.” Throughout these four weeks, we’ll be looking at several difficult questions of faith that we all struggle with, or have struggled with, in one way or another and seeing what we can figure out. This week, we’ll be asking “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Next week, we’ll be asking “Why do my prayers go unanswered?” The third week, we’ll be asking “Why can’t I see God’s will for my life?” And finally, on the last week, we’ll be looking at why God’s love wins out in the end. Now I want to make sure I say this: this whole series will be based on a book written by Adam Hamilton, lead pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. It’s a very good book, I would recommend it to anyone, and I would be more than happy to lend my copy out after we finish the series. But I say that because many of the insights you’ll hear are not mine, they’re Adam Hamilton’s, but they’re important enough that I think everyone needs to hear this. (Online-only readers: You can buy the book here. Do it. Also, all the quotes in the sermon are from this book)
God created humanity in God’s own image,
in the divine image God created them,
male and female God created them.
God blessed them and said to them, “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.”
The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it. The Lord God commanded the human, “Eat your fill from all of the garden’s trees; but don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because on the day you eat from it, you will die!” (Genesis 1:27-28, 2:15-17, CEB)
So, here’s our question for today again: Why do bad things happen to good and innocent people? I’ve struggled with this question several times. Several years ago, on a school trip, I visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Anyone been there? I knew what the Holocaust was, I’d learned about Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews, along with several other classes of people. But it had never been real to me until I walked through that museum and saw the story of that awful event, so horrific that words can’t even describe it. It was there that these deep, difficult questions came up – how in the world could God allow a monstrosity like this? How could God allow the concentration camps and the gas chambers and the ghettos? Where in the world was God when that was happening?
Have any of us asked those questions? It seems like the last several years especially have given us any number of reasons to struggle with this question, why do bad things happen to good people? Mass shootings, terrorism, hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, the list goes on. In our own community in Hardin County, we’ve learned more and more over the last several years about the suffering resulting from the heroin epidemic in our communities. And that doesn’t even say anything about the suffering and pain we have in our own lives and in our families: sickness, death, division in our family, unemployment, abuse. And it all makes us question, “Where is God in the face of this suffering and pain and evil?”
For many people, the tension in that question plays out like this: If God is loving and just, then God must not be all-powerful, because then God would just stop the suffering. Or, if God is all-powerful, then God must not be loving and just, because God hasn’t stopped any of the pain and evil, so God must not love us. Whether or not you personally struggle with that, there are many who do.
So today, we’re going to step into that tension and struggle with this. Why do bad things happen to good people? I’m not going to provide answers today, because answers might not really exist. But I do want to provide you with some encouragement in our ongoing lives, and give you tools to help you struggle with the question yourself.
Now, when we think about suffering, we all have assumptions about how God is supposed to work in the world. And in the face of suffering, we get disappointed with God because God didn’t meet our expectations and assumptions. So I want to start by challenging two common but misguided assumptions that many of us have about how we believe God works. Ok?
Misguided assumption #1 – The Bible says that if I believe in God and try to be a good person, then God will bless me and keep anything bad from happening to me.
You hear this from a lot of TV preachers. Can you see why I want to challenge that? If we are familiar at all with our Bible we should know that the Bible doesn’t actually say that believers will not suffer.
Think about it: Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers. Job – remember Job? – he’s a very good and God-honoring man, but he loses everything and suffers for no reason. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are thrown into the fire for refusing to bow down to an idol. And there are a hundred more stories of the saints of the Old and New Testaments suffering, often for no reason.
And here’s the kicker: at the center of our faith is the story of a man, Jesus, facing the brutal, senseless suffering of the cross, leading to his death. At the center of our faith is the Son of God coming down to earth to show us the way to life, and then suffering and getting killed for it.
So the Bible definitely does not teach us that the followers of God will have a suffering-free life. Instead, it contains story after story of people and families and groups who are determined to trust in God and have faith despite the suffering and pain they endure.
So that’s the first misguided assumption that we want to distance ourselves from. Misguided Assumption #2: Everything happens for a reason
We say this all the time, but what does it actually mean? We usually use it to comfort someone in the midst of struggles and pain, and we mean something along the lines of “God has a plan, your suffering has a purpose, and God has a good reason for your suffering.”
Now that sounds good, but let’s really think about this. If everything happens for a reason, if everything is really a part of God’s plan, then, according to Adam Hamilton, we’re really saying that “God planned for this tragedy to come to you. God willed for this thing to happen.” And if God willed it, then God actually caused it to happen.
This statement is related to something else we often say to comfort suffering: “It must have been the will of God.” But again, think about it: When a drug deal goes bad and someone’s son is shot, is that the will of God? When a six-week-old baby dies, is that in God’s plan? When thousands upon thousands of people around the world die every day because of diseases related to starvation and malnutrition, did God make that happen for a reason?
Adam Hamilton says “If by ‘everything happens for a reason’ we simply mean that we live in a world of cause and effect, then of course this is true. But if we mean that everything happens according to God’s plan and that God wills everything that happens, this cannot be true.” (p. 8) When non-Christians hear Christians say things like ‘everything happens for a reason’ and ‘it must have been the will of God,’ they’re left thinking that God is not loving or just, but actually makes suffering and evil happen in the world.
So those are two ways to understand how God works in the face of suffering and pain and evil. We see that they don’t really work. So how does God work in the face of suffering? Let’s look at another way that works a little better, to see if we can learn how God works in the face of suffering.
There are three basic ideas that can help us understand God and suffering. And this is where the Scripture I read earlier comes in. We hear these three basic ideas in the story of Creation.
First idea that can help us understand God and suffering: God puts humanity in charge of the earth. God created the earth, but gave human beings responsibility over the earth. We heard this in the first part of the Scripture passage – God created humanity in God’s own image, then told them “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and master it. Take charge [the traditional language is ‘have dominion’] of the fish of the sea, the birds in the sky, and everything crawling on the ground.” (Genesis 1:28, CEB)
We have been given responsibility of the earth. God put us in charge. Now God helps us to carry out this responsibility, but we’ve still been put in charge. And that means that when God wants something done in the world, God sends humans to do it, because God put us in charge.
Second idea that can help us understand God and suffering: To be human is to be free. To be human is to have the ability to choose right from wrong – freedom. We heard about this freedom in our Scripture – God placed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, put them in charge, but then told them to eat from every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Most of you know how the story goes from there: Adam and Eve did indeed eat the fruit from that tree, they made a poor choice, and the history of humanity has gone downhill from there. So we see that with freedom to choose comes the possibility of choosing a course of action that might cause suffering.
Now, I wonder sometimes why in the world God put the tree there? God could’ve avoided all this mess that came after the first poor choice. But according to Adam Hamilton, “The tree represents the freedom that God gives human beings to choose God’s way or another way.” (p. 13, emphasis mine) God decided that this ability to choose is an essential part of being human. And we love our freedom, we know the importance of it. But as we’ll see, this freedom God gives us can lead to suffering, pain, and evil when we make poor choices or when we misuse our freedom.
Third idea that can help us understand God and suffering: We all have a tendency to stray from God’s path. Now I think this is the most important of the three ideas in understanding God and suffering. Normally, we call this tendency to stray “sin.” Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the Hebrew and Greek words that we translate as ‘sin’ mean to ‘stray from the path’ or to ‘miss the mark.’ The path we tend to stray away from is God’s path. The mark we tend to miss is God’s will for humanity. We all have something inside us that pulls us away from the path and off the mark.
This is what happened to Adam and Eve – they knew God’s path and they knew the mark – don’t eat from that tree. But the serpent urged them to eat the fruit, and so they veered from the path and missed the mark and ate the fruit.
That same choice is before each one of us, and the same tendency is in each of us. We all feel drawn to that which causes ourselves or others pain – we are all drawn away from the path and off the mark.
And this is what finally leads to suffering. Take all three together: God puts us humans in charge of the earth; God gives us the freedom to make the right or wrong choice; and we have a tendency to stray from God’s path and sin. Because we tend to sin, we tend to use the freedom given to us by God to make poor choices, choices that cause others or ourselves to suffer. And us humans who tend to make poor choices that cause the suffering of others or ourselves are put in charge of the world. You can see how suffering comes from this, right? This is what leads dictators to abuse their people. This is what leads men and women to cheat on their spouses. This is what leads individuals to pick up a gun and commit mass shootings. This is what leads people everywhere to worship money, sex, and power. This is what brings suffering.
Now, to hopefully bring everything together. Adam Hamilton said “Rejecting God [in the face of suffering] doesn’t change the situation that has caused our suffering; it only removes the greatest source of hope, help, comfort, and strength we have.” (p. 28)
Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the innocent suffer? There might not be a satisfying answer to that question. But I can tell you this: In the face of suffering, don’t fall back on meaningless platitudes like “everything happens for a reason” or “it must have been God’s plan.” Those don’t really mean anything, and as I talked about earlier, they’re not actually very helpful. And don’t get bent out of shape that you’re suffering even though you’re following God, as if that is supposed to protect us from suffering. To be human, Christian or not, is to suffer.
When you are suffering, when you are dealing with physical, emotional, or mental pain, or when evil rears its ugly head in your life or in the world, I invite you to change your response. Don’t wonder why God has abandoned you, as tempting as that is. Instead, when you are in the midst of suffering and pain, say “God, you are here. Show me where you are. God, I believe that you are here, even though it’s hard or impossible to feel you. So show me where you are in the midst of my suffering.”
You see, in the Christian faith, suffering never has the final word. Christianity never promises that we will not suffer. But our faith does promise that suffering does not have the final word. Jesus suffered was executed and the disciples suffered and grieved for three days. But Jesus rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. In the midst of death, there is life. In the midst of darkness, there is light. In the midst of suffering, our faith says that there is hope. God does not make us suffer. But God is with us in the midst of suffering and God will force your suffering to serve God’s purposes.
As Romans 8:18 tells us, “our present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed in us.” (CEB)