Addressing the Unanswerable
Yesterday’s sermon (Romans 5:1-5, audio here). . .
I sat with a group of women on Thursday, and every single one of us had a tale of personal and gut-wrenching woe, and when it was time to pray, I had to pass up my turn because I was crying, and so the next person prayed, “Kyndall’s tears are her prayer this morning,” and then when we were done praying for our personal problems, we unbowed our heads and opened our eyes and I said, “And if only we could stop having national tragedies.” We had yet to even get to the worst of it, and we decided that sometimes we ministers just know too much about pain—our own, other people’s pain, worldwide pain, etc. We don’t have enough prayers, much less enough faith, for all that we carry in our hearts. People like Larry, our hospice chaplain, know this burden so well, but, of course, it isn’t just ministers who bear too much pain. There are those of you who work in hospitals, those who work with broken families, those of you who feel deeply for your friends, those of you who’ve seen what you wish you could unsee, those who live with chronic pain or chronic depression, so forth and so on.
I was planning to come here to the church on Thursday after that meeting with the suffering ladies and work on this very sermon, but instead I went straight home and crawled back under the covers and decided I’d had enough. The tornados this past week happened in my own home city, and I just can’t even watch the news coverage because my heart is out of space for pain. I can’t bear another news clip or picture. Do you ever feel that way? If one more bad thing happens, you’re going to organize a strike on life and refuse to work until the big boss decides to improve the working conditions?
In seminary I took an elective course titled, “God, Suffering, and Evil,” and a surprising number of people elected to take the course despite it not being a requirement. We started our first day of the semester by going around the room, each person sharing a personal experience of heartache that made them want to take this class, to attempt to answer the unanswerable question of theodicy, why we suffer if God is good and powerful.
The pain you encounter either makes you face the question or shut down all your questions, but it rarely, if ever, provides you with a satisfying answer. “Why God? Why?” is the most common, but there are many questions that plague and very few clichés that pacify us in the slightest, though we keep on repeating hollow responses regardless. Thomas Merton said, “One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we are afraid to ask.”
Depending on how you read it, the Bible can sound a little shallow on the topic of suffering too. “We glory in our sufferings,” says today’s text, and I find myself frowning, Who says that to a hurting person? That you should rejoice and glory? How insensitive. (It’s okay, by the way, to get a little angry when you read the Bible, if you need to.)
However, I do notice that I don’t think this passage is giving us instructions; it’s not telling that we should glory in suffering, and shame on us if we don’t. I think this text is making a profession, giving a testimonial, if you will, that here is a people who have been enabled to glory in their suffering, absurd as that sounds. These are a people who’ve encountered a miracle, and they are trying to put into words what they have experienced.
The text says “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.” In other words, this is a distinctly Christian take on the topic and role of suffering. The rest of what is to come, about suffering producing endurance, endurance producing character, character producing hope . . . all those inspiring words are set in the context of a Christian faith, and so I find myself asking the question, Why does that matter? Why does Christianity matter in light of suffering?
I’m not always comfortable labeling things as Christian: Christian service, Christian love, Christian suffering, etc. because I guess I’m a little worried about sounding snooty when I know so many people of other faiths who have endured extraordinary things with admirable grace and certainly with more kindness than I could ever muster. So, I don’t want to talk about “Christian” suffering as if we’ve got a monopoly on how to do this; I mean, we’re all pretty much at a loss when grief befalls us, and we all deserve care and help as much as the next person, regardless of what faith we profess.
But the fact remains that I am a Christian, and so are you. This is the faith we profess in this place and so it behooves us to consider, What does it mean to suffer as Christians? History tells us we suffer no less and no more than anyone else, but we do suffer and our faith plays a crucial role in how we deal with it. We are no more equipped than anyone else to really answer the question about why bad things happen; just like everyone else, our stilted explanations never solve or assuage anybody’s pain. So, it is not with presumption but with humility that we examine the topic of Christian suffering; not because Christianity provides an answer to the unanswerable, but because Christianity suggests to us certain ways of living the question.
The first, and perhaps most important, thing that Christianity has to say about suffering is this: Pain does not get the final word. Oh boy, does it ever get a word in all right. Far more words than we ever think are fair or acceptable or even bearable. But that’s the not the final word. This is demonstrated to us time and time again in biblical story, but most powerfully in the resurrection, the hallmark event of our Christian identity. Evil, though fierce, does not get the final word. Evil, though rampant, does not get the final word. Evil, though persistent, does not get the final word. Evil, though gruesome, does not get the final word.
This is what the reconciling work of Christ teaches us. You would think all is lost, but in the Christian economy, nothing is lost. Everything can be found; everything can be redeemed. Every story can have another chapter; every sin can find forgiveness; every harm can meet redemption; every death can bolt upright in life. There are no nails in any coffin. Yes, of course, people die and people get sick and people stay sick and people lose the ones they love, and so little ever seems to go the way we wanted, but yet there are miracles too, and faith is when we see them both side by side: the deaths and the miracles happening all in one unpredictable swirl, and we believe, somehow believe the miracles will outlast and outshine the dying. Evil does not get the final word.
This belief in resurrection and redemption is no easy dismissal of pain, no quick fix, no silly tool for maintaining denial. This is the redemption that comes after the full force of death has been felt and delivered. This is the laughter that comes after many, many tears. This is the joy that comes in the morning when the night has been oh so long. It isn’t a cover-up story or a cop-out or a disillusion; it is a story for the dead, for the broken, for the displaced and the trodden. It is the story you go to when all your tricks have failed you, when all your attempts to control and perfect have let you down; you show up at the one crazy place where they still believe in resurrection. This is faith. This is church. This is what we mean we say, “I am a Christian.”
Evil does not get the final word.
This is true in big ways and small ways, both communal and personal. Evil doesn’t get the final word inside of you. No matter who we’ve been or what we’ve done, our offenses are forgiven. “We’ve been justified,” proclaims our text. And there’s more than just forgiveness! There is transformation too. No matter who we’ve been or what we’ve done, our stories don’t stop there. Evil does not get the final word in who we become. Our sufferings lead to endurance, endurance brings us character, character leads to hope, hope opens us to love.
How else do we make peace with ourselves but both to know we are forgiven and to know we do not have to stay the same. We will not stay the same. This is where the personal component of Good News and salvation is so key—the world won’t transform unless people transform. It starts with you; world peace and reconciliation begin in your very own heart. Evil does not get the final word.
When tragedy strikes, we want to find solutions and preventions, and of course, that work is important. But we also have to peer in here, every time, and decide, “How will I let this pain shape me? Will I turn towards cynicism and withdrawal or will I grasp after hope and take a step towards courage? Will I close up my heart or open it wide? Will I allow this pain into my heart for a purging, a reordering, and a remaking of my inner self? Will I endure, and with endurance, build character, and through character, find hope?” Evil does not get the final word.
No one can really answer satisfactorily why it is that suffering happens with such regularity and brutality. It is of essential importance to my own theology that I both know and profess with certainty: God does not cause suffering. My God must be a God who is actively staving off more suffering than I can comprehend, and for reasons I can’t explain, evil continues to get a word in, but I think God, who hates evil, is more disappointed and grief-stricken over that gruesome reality than any of us.
Couldn’t God do more? that’s what we always wonder, and we’re being perfectly reasonable to ask it, our questions like angry prayers, like protestors lining a sidewalk holding up banners for a cause, demanding that the heavens take notice. It’s just that I think when Jesus came to earth, he got markers and poster board, scrawled, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken us?” and then he led the march, and that’s why I want to be a Christian.
And the second reason I want to be a Christian is because even though God the Father remained shockingly and disturbingly quiet that day the Son hung on a cross, even still, there was a resurrection, a Sunday after the Friday, a sunrise after the dark. Most of our lives feel like Saturdays—the limbo between our deepest questions and any clear signs of an answer. It’s no longer Friday, but it sure isn’t Sunday. It’s like the twilight hour where darkness isn’t complete but light isn’t here either—this is the shadow in which the life of faith gets lived.
So when the text proclaims that “we boast in the hope of the glory of God,” it isn’t referring to arrogance. It’s referring to the ridiculous, the unseen, and the unbelievable. It is absurdity to boast in hope in times like these, and only the fools and the outcasts and the truly downtrodden hold on. If you’ve got any faith left inside you at all, you know it’s there by miracle, not by effort. And as embarrassing and silly as it is to believe, somehow “our hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” We may seem like crazy fools for believing, for enduring, but as long as believing leads us to loving, then how can we ever be ashamed of what we’ve become in our suffering?
This is what the enduring expansion of love teaches us: Evil does not get the final word. Amen.