Yesterday’s message …
- Dealt with the oldest dilemma in the Christian faith (or any faith): theodicy. How can God be both all powreful and all good and yet evil still exist in the world?;
- Drew from Genesis 50:20 and, in a brief detour, Job 2:13;
- Concluded by explaining how the vast differences between how Jesus deals with suffering and how every other religion and philosophy deals with it — a conclusion that led naturally to Holy Communion;
- Landed at this bottom line: The pain of suffering PROVES the goodness of God and the greatness of his purpose.
Today is going to be a GREAT DAY! Why? We get to wrestle with the LONGEST RUNNING, MOST IMPOSSIBLE TO SOLVE Problem Of God of them all. It’s been going on since way before the time of Jesus. And when I say most impossible to solve, I mean IMPOSSIBLE. More impossible, even, than sneezing with your eyes open, than, if you’re not Gene Simmons, touching your nose OR your chin with your tongue, than standing in a checkout line at the grocery store and NOT checking what the people ahead of you have in their cart, than making a list of TOP TEN THINGS I LOVE ABOUT JUSTIN BIEBER. Impossible, all!
So what is this Problem Of God that is both ENDURING and IMPOSSIBLE? This: how do you reconcile belief in a god who is all good and all powerful with the reality of evil and suffering in the world? How can we live in a world where God is in charge … AND people shoot up movie theaters in Colorado and Wal Marts in Texas and shopping centers in Charlotte? People have been trying to make sense of this for centuries and one famous philosopher even phrased it this way: (AV) Is God willing to prevent but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then why is there evil? Very compelling logic and made all the more compelling because it includes questions YOU’VE asked and suffering YOU’VE endured. It’s watching the Twin Towers fall. It’s seeing footage of Holocaust victims. It’s the tsunamis and the hurricanes and the devastation they bring. It’s attending the funeral of someone you love who is gone way too young. It’s the diagnosis YOU got just this week … and you never smoked or drank or went with girls who do.
Since evil exists, God doesn’t.
Since suffering is real, God isn’t.
And I know that’s where some of you are even right now. It’s thorny, it’s enduring, it’s right here and right now. There have been a handful of times here when I’ve noticed people drift away and then I dig a little and find out that it’s not some hipper, cooler church or even a calmer, more sedate one. It’s that the pile on of sadness and tragedy has led them to believe there is no god they are calling out to. It’s the kind of hopelessness that even led Ecclesiastes’ author to conclude (at the beginning!), Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!
So let’s deal with this problem, ok? Because I have a sneaking suspicion that what sounds so sophisticated is ultimately going to prove to be relatively hollow. Beginning with the very language itself. Stay with me here. When we decide that because suffering exists, God doesn’t, think of the words we use. Evil, pain, unfair, ugly. Well, where do those terms even come from? If there is what we call evil, that means there must be good, right? But who decided or defined good? If there is pain, there must be joy. If there is ugly, there must be beauty. To say “this isn’t right, this isn’t fair” implies that someone, somewhere IS right and IS fair. But where do those categories even come from? Not survival of the fittest!
Why is mass murder wrong? Lions do it all the time! If you argue that we are merely products of cells and processes with no Higher Mind or Higher Purpose, so many things we think are RIGHT are actually an impediment to survival. Things like caring for the aged or making a way for ppl with disabilities. Yet, regardless of belief system, we humans recoil at treating the vulnerable of our species in the same way lions and tigers and bears do to theirs. Here’s the deal: what if someone beyond you put deep inside you the very categories of right & wrong and evil & good that you are now using to put him on trial? (AV?). Huh.
And what if, what if, the notion that suffering is random, without purpose or without meaning is one we shouldn’t accept so easily? We think there can be no higher purpose to our pain, but is what we think right? Now: can we agree that if you’re part of your family and your siblings try to kill you that’s bad? You’d suffer? And can we further agree that if those would-be murderers chicken out at the last minute and instead of killing you, “just” sell you into slavery to strangers, that’s still bad? And if they go back home and tell your Dad that you were killed by animals when you were actually sold by some, that’s bad? That he believed them and they let him grieve a death that did not happen, that’s bad? Bad. Wicked. Evil. If you’re a modern person then you’d say that proves there’s no god.
Except all that happened to Joseph of Technicolor Dreamcoat fame. Yet later in life when he meets his brothers after becoming a prince in Egypt and overseeing a food logistics program that prevented both Egypt AND Israel from starvation, by “chance” he meets his brothers again. And when my summary statement would be OFF WITH THEIR HEADS!, his is Genesis 50:20:
20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.
OMG. What we design for evil, plan for evil, enact for evil, to maximize suffering. God takes and through a divine sort of alchemy MAKES into something good, a GREATER good come out. He massages good out of bad. The bad isn’t good. Ever. But God elicits good out of it as only God can. He massages the undeniably good out of the unbelievably bad. All that together makes me realize: The pain of suffering proves the goodness of God and the greatness of his purpose.
See that? The fact that DURING suffering, while witnessing evil, you even have categories to call one thing wrong and another thing good shows there is a GOOD GIVER! It proves there is a God who established those boundaries of good and evil; it never disproves him at all! And then, in the aftermath of suffering, when you see glimpses of goodness and greatness that were not possible without some kind of struggle, you see: REFRAIN. There’s a goodness to God and a greatness to his purpose that you see with much more clarity and focus after struggling than you ever would without it. Just ask Joseph and his dreamcoat. The pain of suffering proves the goodness of God and the greatness of his purpose.
You know how it works with oysters, don’t you? Oysters FEEL stuff. And they feel that grain of sand that gets in. It drives them crazy. It’s a thorn. To ease the pain, they coat the sand. Over and over and over again. It doesn’t remove the troubling grain. It just transforms it into a beautiful pearl. That’s what it’s like. The pain of suffering proves the goodness of God and the greatness of his purpose.
Or even Billy Graham, who YEARS AGO, many years before his death, received the diagnosis of Parkinson’s. Some of you have that now; others of you have had a front row seat to the way it works. It’s neither pretty nor pleasant nor fun. Yet what did Billy Graham say about it? “God sent Parkinson’s to me to show that I am completely dependent on him.” You’d think he’d be justified for thinking I ALREADY KNOW IT ALL, LORD, but apparently even Billy Graham himself was able to see how God massaged the undeniably good out of the unbelievably bad. The pain of suffering proves the goodness of God and the greatness of his purpose.
You know so much of this from experience. The hardest class, the most painful loss, even the worst valley of the shadow of death that you’ve traversed. You see in the aftermath how the struggle and the pain and even the suffering made you into someone and something you would not have been otherwise. You didn’t get better, more mature, more whole IN SPITE OF your difficulties but BECAUSE OF THEM. Adversity grows you deeper in a way that prosperity never could.
Now: will you allow me to take a quick detour here? This has to do less with those of you who are SUFFERING RIGHT NOW than it does those of you who are TRYING TO HELP SOMEONE WHO IS SUFFERING RIGHT NOW. A lot of you know the biblical story of Job, how he loses everyone and everything close to him. He doesn’t really have a lot of patience, but he does have a great deal of pain. Anyway, what you may not know is that the bulk of the book is Job’s conversations with three advisors who show up in the aftermath of his tragedies, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. And the HIGH POINT, I mean THE APEX of their counseling with him is Job 2:13: READ. Notice WHERE. Chapter 2. But Job’s a LONG book. And his advisors start talking in Chapter 4 and from then on their usefulness to their suffering friend goes down the tubes. Why do I tell you that?
Because I don’t want you running to someone in the middle of pain and throw The pain of suffering proves the goodness of God and the greatness of his purpose in their face. You don’t need to say “But God massages the undeniably good out of the unbelievably bad!” to them TODAY. They need your PRESENCE, not your PONTIFICATION. If they ask, you can share. Don’t volunteer. Difficulties DO lead to discovery and this message is less for you to go yak it to another and more for making sense of your own aftermath of suffering as well as prepare others for you who may have a difficulty ahead of you. It’s also to help you in answering the “sophisticated” doubters in your life. The pain of suffering proves the goodness of God and the greatness of his purpose.
And just in case, I’m not sure you realize how different the Christian approach to pain and suffering is from other beliefs systems and religions. In Hinduism, for example, suffering is DESERVED – it’s the unbreakable law of karma. In Buddhism, suffering is an ILLUSION, it’s not real. In atheism, suffering is ABSURD – and all of life is as well. In New Age, suffering is only IN YOUR MIND. No, no, no. We in Xnty acknowledge that suffering is often unfair, it is very, very real, but that on a much deeper level it often (not always and not in a one-to-one ratio) has a deeper purpose and meaning.
But more than that, there’s Jesus. What does he do with suffering? Oh man. This is not an abstract, hypothetical conversation for Jesus. He doesn’t shy away from suffering, nor does he explain it away. Instead he looks it right in the eye, confronts it, goes through it, and uses it to do a different, greater good than would have been possible without it. He turns the supreme act of evil – when the creation kills its own creator! – into the eternal act of love. In his hands (and his feet and his side!) suffering becomes salvation. We don’t have a philosophical god, discussing the merits of suffering in an ivory tower; we have an historical one who went through what we’re talking about, all so that we might savor him forever.
And that, that, is the best answer to the most impossible problem God ever thunk up. The pain of suffering proves the goodness of God and the greatness of his purpose.