Thursday, February 18, 2010

Where is God when it hurts? (Plymouth CU Mission Week, Thursday Lunchtime)

With thanks to William Lane Craig and Andrew Wilson and others whose material on this subject was influential. The four wrong, four right outline in the middle is borrowed from the excellent book, GodStories by Wilson.

There are few questions more pertinent and present than this. Despite our best efforts to eradicate pain, evil and suffering in the world the 20th Century was the most bloody in our history, and the 21st Century hasn’t been much better, with terror attacks, pandemics, child abuse and the recent Haitian earthquake.

In the West, we live relatively insulated lives – we don’t expect empty shelves, or collapsing buildings, or hardship or disease to afflict us – while such things remain as “normal” for much of the world.

What does Christianity have to say to this? It’s charged that this is the achiles heel of Christianity. If Christianity has anything to say, it’s argued, there shouldn’t be suffering in the world. The fallacies in this argument are plain enough – if Christianity claimed to be the cure to all suffering then there would be a point to make, but it doesn’t. Likewise it’s phrased, if there is a good and powerful god there wouldn’t be suffering.
But that’s not really true either – it presupposes that the purposes of this god would be above all else to eradicate our pain. Where does that idea come from?

I’m not saying that a painless and plentiful life wouldn’t be good – sounds heavenly. No one is offering it and even if it was on the table – would it really be “best” for us? Take the film Sliding Doors we see Gwyneth Paltrow’s character live two parallel lives, in one things are going well, while in the other things are bad – yet in the end the more difficult life ends happier. We may be too close to the action to be able to tell what is good. Very often, as we reflect on life the pain is painful and yet when you meet someone who has really suffered they’re the better people, they have a substance and a resilience and a perspective and a can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it quality. Those who suffer tend to become like metal that has been in the crucible, tested and tempered by fire. I've not suffered much, but I see friends and family who have... they wouldn't choose it and they've lost much and yet they're somehow richer than I've ever been.

Where can we go with this subject of suffering?

At the events the Christian Union has been hosting this week we’ve been inviting you to step inside Christianity and have a look around. Imagine, on this grey day, a beam of sunlight coming in through the ceiling. You could look at it and see the dust in it, but you could step into it and look along it. The experience would be different. See how Christianity feels, tastes and thinks. I want to do the same here by inviting us to step inside the story of a man called Job. His story is told in the Bible. In painting his story I’m not asking that you accept it as history, though I think it is that, rather breathe the air of the world of the Bible for the next 15 mins..

The basic plot of Job is that an impeccably good man suffers massively and without knowing why. As the story unfolds his friends come to counsel him and help him work it out. Their advice is often conflicting and contradictory and deeply unhelpful, but as the “play” unfolds we approach some answers. In the end God speaks to him and provides some resolution. Perhaps not a complete answer but perhaps an answer that will help us. Job’s life is to some degree a test case for the question of suffering.

What can't a Christian say?

1. Suffering isn’t real. Some argue this. The Buddhist will argue that suffering in an illusion. Richard Dawkins wrote after the Boxing Day Tsunami with “pitiless indifference” – yet he can’t consistently do, having recently set up the Non-Believers Giving Aid charity for Haiti. He’s inconsistent and I would hope as much Job’s friends don’t say it’s an illusion that his health, his home and his children are taken from him – its clear that that’s not true. Denial wont do. It’s cold and heartless and unsatisfying.

Conceding the possibility of God might raise awkward questions for us but let’s not pretend the issue resolves simply if we exclude God. Suffering hurts and it feels wrong, it makes us cry out “what just happened!” – We grate against it in frustration. Something about it feels out of place. Why is that?

2. God doesn’t cause suffering. Easy to imagine that God is a distant deity, a King Richard who can’t save his people from the wiles of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Not so. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are intimately and lovingly involved in this world. And, difficult as it is to understand, Job confidently counsels us:  “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away”.

3. God is not good. Job’s wife says he should curse God but he responds, “Shall we receive good from God but not evil?” God will not be limited and he will not get himself off the hook.We might think he would but 

4. We get what we deserve. The basic argument of Job’s friends is that he’s suffering because he sinned against God. You know… “why does it always rain on me, is it because I lied when I was seventeen”. But this kind of “karma” isn’t Christianity at all. Some might suggest we get what we deserve whether in this life, in a reincarnated life or in an afterlife. Not so Christianity. Job is painted as a genuinely good man – whatever else is going on he’s not suffering for being bad. The Christian will say that this is a world under frustration because of the totality of human evil – but not in any cause or effect relationship. Some suffering is self-inflicted but generally we'll get in trouble if we try to draw connections too tightly.

What can a Christian say?

1. Nothing. This is the one good thing that Job’s friends do (2:13). “no one spoke to him for they saw that his suffering was very great”. While we sit here talking about suffering it’s entirely possible that it’s not an intellectual issue for you, but a real and personal present suffering in your life or that of someone close to you.
First and foremost I know that you don’t need an answer you simply need someone to be with you, to listen, to share your grief and to wait. My hope would be that a Christian would offer you that kind of support not that others wouldn’t, equally I know we’re all capable of being complete oafs and being insensitive.

2. God is still in charge. Job never concedes God’s sovereignty and we wont be able to purchase answers to suffering at the expense of either God’s goodness or his power. A world where God isn’t in control of suffering leaves us no better off. This is not a world of pitiless indifference but one in which the God of self-giving love is intimately involved.

3. There will be a resurrection. Job speaks (19:25-26) “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” This is not all of life – there is a day beyond this. That’s not to propose some kind of trite “pie in the sky when you die” answer, but simply to say there is more than now and that there can be hope of restoration and relief.

4. God is greater than us. The climax of Job’s story is an encounter with God. Ultimately that is what we need - to meet with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - the God who wants us to know him. Job and his friends are silent and God speaks. And then Job speaks a last time (42:3): “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” I don’t offer this as a complete answer but as something things we can hold on to, to help us cope and to help us comfort others.

In the course of Job’s story:
Job 9:32-33. We hear Job crying out that he wants someone who can arbitrate for him, if only one could stand between Job and God and have his case heard. 
Job 23:3-7. Again, we hear Job desire that the throne of God would be within reach, so his case could be put before God.

You see suffering’s real answer, Christianly, is not an argument, it’s not a philosophical construction that can resolve our experience and our definitions. The answer in Christianity is a person, Jesus. In Jesus, Job’s desire is met. God becomes a man to mediate between us and God. One Bible writer says this (Hebrews 4:14-15)

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

One who comes and loves us, suffers with us and for us, and is himself resurrected from the dead to stand for us as our “high priest” our representative. And so the writer concludes (v16):

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

That’s not a promise that the pain goes away, or that the questions go away, but it is an invitation to “receive mercy and grace” – to receive comfort from God, and in the company of his people. Jesus is the assurance that God isn’t out to get you, but out to invite you to know him, and the assurance that you’re not alone. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit forever love one another perfectly, and they invite us to join them in intimate relationship too.

One of the hardest things about suffering is to be bombarded with trite answers – like Job was.
But, worse than dodging cheap answers is to suffer alone, suffering hurts physically but the loneliness is often worse. You see “the church” isn’t a building or a meeting but a family, a community where when one person is honoured all can rejoice, and where one person suffers, all suffer together. The church might not be the only place you can find people who will stand with you, but it is a place for that – a place where the hurt and happy devote themselves to one another because they each know the comfort of Jesus, the innocent one who made the world but also planned before creation to come and suffer for his people, if anyone can speak to us in our suffering it is not me, but him.

Foundationally “suffering’s answer” isn’t an argument or an answer but community, company and comfort. Let’s pause for a moment’s quiet. Reflect on what we’ve said and then we’ll take some time for questions and comments.

Questions asked at the event: One on isn't the Bible just chinese whispers (partially answered, but next event is on that subject). One on even if I know God if he's behind suffering how can I trust him, and one on why are there so many rules to Christianity.