January 24, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
I HAVE A FRIEND WHO BELIEVES SUFFERING DISPROVES GOD
II Corinthians 4:16-18
The third in a series of four.
Of all the hard questions we’re looking at in this series, this one might be the hardest. This might be the number one reason people have a hard time with God. Because if God is what the Bible says God is – infinitely loving and infinitely powerful – then why does God allow suffering?
C.S. Lewis wrote a whole book on this question. He called it The Problem of Pain. He sets the stage for what we’re going to be talking about today:
Not many years ago when I was an atheist, if anyone had asked me, “Why do you not believe in God?” my reply would have run like this: “Look at the universe in which we live. By far the greatest part of it is empty space, cold and dark. On earth, life is so arranged that all forms of it can live only by preying on one another. In higher forms of life, there appears a quality called consciousness, which enables creatures to suffer pain. The creatures cause pain by being born, live by inflicting pain, and in pain they mostly die. Human beings also have reason, which enables them to foresee their pain, causing immense mental suffering. Reason also enables humans to inflict immensely more pain on each other and on the irrational creatures. This power they have exploited to the full. Their history is largely a record of crime, war, disease, and terror. Furthermore, the universe will one day cease to be. Every race that comes into being in any part of the universe is doomed. All stories will come to nothing. All life will turn out in the end to have been a transitory and senseless contortion upon the idiotic face of infinite matter. If you ask me to believe that this is the work of a God who is all-loving and all-powerful, I reply that all the evidence points in the opposite direction.” (pages 13 – 15, paraphrased)
Oh and by the way, happy Sunday! I normally lighten these sermons up with an opening joke, but the question we’re looking at this morning is no joke. Does the existence of pain, suffering, and evil in the world prove that God does not exist?
This is a question the Bible keeps coming back to. For a good reason. Suffering is a big part of life. We know that, and if we know that, can you even imagine how much more people who lived in the ancient world knew that?
I got a new coat for Christmas and I love it. This time of year you really need a good, warm coat. But the truth is, I don’t have to be out in the cold very much. We have a warm home. I work in a warm office. It is nice to have a good coat when I walk across the parking lot, but then I take it off and hang it up until it’s time to walk across the parking lot again.
We are so spoiled. In the ancient world, you suffered in the winter because it was cold. You suffered in the summer because it was hot. You starved when the crops failed or when there was no animal to kill. You were thirsty and just getting a drink of water was no simple matter. Pretty much every minute of every day was taken up in an endless struggle to survive.
You lived in misery, but at least you would be out of your misery soon. Because few people lived very long. One out of every five children died before their first birthday. Half of them died before they were ten. Almost all of us are way past the typical life span of people who lived in Bible times.
In ancient Greece, the Stoics taught that life is a matter of developing character so you will be able to endure your suffering without complaining. You’ve heard of “stoicism”. That’s where we get the word.
Epictetus was a Stoic. He said, “What harm is there in murmuring softly as you tuck your child into bed, ‘Maybe tomorrow you will die’?” I’m glad I didn’t overhear my parents saying that. But back then, it was just accepted. Children die. It’s hard, but you need to toughen up and get used to it.
And here’s the thing: Back then the suffering that is part of life was seldom seen as a reason not to believe in God.
So what’s changed? Why do we all have friends who think that suffering disproves God? It’s not that we suffer more today than people did in the past. It’s the opposite. What’s changed is that we think we have a right to be happy and healthy and free of all pain. We live in a world where there is a cure for practically everything. There is even a vaccine now for the coronavirus, maybe you’ve heard. So why should we have to accept any suffering at all?
I deserve to be happy. If I’m not, if I’m miserable, if I look around and see others who are also miserable, and if God does not seem interested in doing a thing to fix the problem . . . well, then maybe there is no such thing as God.
You have friends who are thinking that. Maybe you are, too. So here are five things to ponder:
First, the presence of pain does not mean the absence of love. I remember taking our young children in for their vaccinations. The first was always the worst. They weren’t scared the first time. They didn’t know what was coming. But I did. I knew it would hurt. And I didn’t want my little baby to hurt. I think it hurt me more than it hurt them. That little face would get all red and crinkled up, that tear would roll down the cheek, those big eyes looking up at me as if to say, “Daddy, how could you do this to me?” And I would pick them up and comfort them and say, “O darling, I would never do this to you. This was Mommy’s idea.”
Sometimes pain serves a purpose. Parents whose number one objective is to shield their children from all pain are not very good parents. Spoiled kids who don’t know how to deal with it when something hurts or something doesn’t go their way are not going to do very well in life. And so a God who intervenes to remove all pain and suffering would not necessarily be a very loving God.
Second, a lot of the suffering in life comes from God’s good gift of freedom. When God created the heavens and the earth and the man and the woman and the Garden of Eden, part of that good original creation was freedom. It didn’t take Adam and Eve long to misuse that freedom and their descendants have been misusing it ever since. Take human freedom out of the equation and you don’t eliminate suffering, but you do remove a lot of it.
So would it have been better if God had not given us freedom? If we were programmed so we could only do the right thing and never the wrong thing, wouldn’t the world be a whole lot better?
C.S. Lewis wrote about this:
Free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give [us] free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata — of creatures that worked like machines — would hardly be worth creating.
Does anyone remember “The Stepford Wives”? It was called that because it was set in the fictional town of Stepford, Connecticut. This was a strange movie about real-life wives being replaced by identical looking robots who were always smiling, cooking your favorite meals, laughing at your worst jokes, doing whatever makes you happy. Doesn’t sound too bad, however I think I prefer a human wife.
People who don’t have freedom to choose are not humans. They are robots. And as long as we have freedom to choose we have freedom to make choices that will cause pain for ourselves and for others.
Third, if you think suffering is unfair, where do you think you got the idea of fairness? Here’s how C.S. Lewis put it:
My argument against God was that the universe seems so cruel and unjust. But how did I get this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.
In other words, when we say it isn’t right that God made a world with so much pain and suffering in it, how could we possibly know if it’s right or not without some concept of God?
If this world really is just a collection of “jiggling atoms” that operates by random chance, then why not expect horrible things to happen for no good reason at all? The fact that we are horrified when horrible things happen means that we are already assuming that there is some ultimate standard of good and bad and right and wrong. And where do you think that standard comes from if not from God?
Friedrich Nietzsche was a German philosopher well known for his atheism. He heard about a disaster on the South Pacific island of Java. There had been a massive tidal wave and an unbelievable loss of life. Here is what he wrote about this: “Two hundred thousand people wiped out at a single stroke – how magnificent!”
We are appalled at such insensitivity to the value of human life, but if we don’t believe in God, who says that human life is valuable? Who says your life is as valuable as my life? Who says I should care if something horrible happens to you as long as it doesn’t happen to me? The very fact that we are horrified when horrible things happen means that we accept a standard of good and bad, right and wrong beyond our own selfish desires.
So suffering doesn’t disprove God. It’s just the opposite. The only reason suffering seems so wrong and so unfair is because we believe in God.
Fourth, Jesus reveals a God who shares in our sufferings. Think about it. We have a God who chooses to enter our world and to experience our pain and to actually die in as horrible a way as we can imagine.
But it wasn’t only on the cross. Jesus knew suffering his whole life. He was born outdoors. His first bed was an animal’s feeding trough. He escaped death as an infant only because his parents hurriedly bundled him up and escaped into Egypt. He grew up in a poor family. His lost his dad when he was young. His ministry was marked by rejection. He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3).
We worship a God who suffers with us and for us. And that’s not all. We worship a God who calls us to enter into the suffering of others and to do all we can to ease their pain. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached about this in one of his sermons.
When you go out of here to help the sick, when you go out of here to deal with the brokenhearted, when you go out of here to help the poor, it isn’t easy. It means suffering and sacrifice. But God wants a church today that will bear the cross. Too many Christians are wearing the cross, and not enough are bearing the cross. The cross is something you die on.
Too many churches are more interested in a cushion than a cross. Too many Christians are all for following Jesus as long as it’s pain-free. But Jesus reveals a God who shares in our sufferings and invites us to share in the sufferings of others.
Fifth, there is something good waiting for us on the other side of suffering. You get hints at this all through the New Testament. For example, our scripture lesson for today.
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (II Corinthians 4:16-17).
Paul says to put it on a balance scale. On one side goes our present troubles. On the other side goes our future hope. The troubles, which may seem heavy to us right now, are “light and momentary” when compared to what we have to look forward to on the other side.
And by the way, these are not the words of one who is used to a life of ease and comfort. Paul knew all about suffering. He was very familiar with it. He knew what it was to be whipped, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, persecuted, ridiculed, opposed, arrested, imprisoned, and at the end of all this, executed. He calls all this “light and momentary”. It doesn’t feel very light; it feels real heavy. It doesn’t feel very momentary; it feels like it will last forever. But compared to what lies ahead, compared to the eternal weight of glory, all this really is nothing.
Here’s an illustration. This has been around awhile. This is a little girl working up the courage to go down a ski jump for the first time in her life. She is terrified. It’s like the worst moment of her life. But then she lets go of her fear and she goes. And when she lands you will see it’s like the best moment of her life.
(YouTube: “Girl’s First Ski Jump”) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ebtGRvP3ILg
My favorite part is the “woo-hoo!” at the end! But isn’t that a picture of life? One day we’re going to go down that jump. It’s called death. It will be scary on the top. We will prefer to be let out of that ski box, to be able to climb back down those stairs, to not have to go through with this. But there is no way out except going forward. And once we do, once we say, “Here I go”, then and only then comes the “eternal weight of glory”. Then and only then comes the “who-hoo!” moment at the end.
On this side we’d love to be excused from all the fear and anxiety and terror and awfulness. But that’s not the way it works. Suffering cannot be removed. But suffering can be redeemed.
You lose a child. You lose a spouse. Your heart gets broken. You go through a divorce. You are depressed. You get fired. You’re all alone. Your health is gone. You’re scared. Whatever it is that is so hard on this side of the jump, there is another side. There is something good, very good, waiting for us on the other side of suffering.
And one of the great things about being part of a church – even a church that is still not able to worship together – is that burdens are lighter when they are shared with others who care about us. We know God cares about us. We know that the sufferings of this life are like nothing compared to what God has for us on the other side. But still, suffering is hard. And we need each other to get through.
That’s why we have church. God knows how much we need each other. God knows it helps so much to know we are not alone in our sufferings. God is here for us. And, we are here for each other.
God, thank you that this world of pain and tears is also a world of love. Suffering is real, but love is the greatest reality. Your love for us. Our love for each other. God, we pray for courage to face our most difficult days. And we pray that whether our days are difficult or easy, you will help us to live each day – not just endure each day, but live each day – experiencing all the amazing wonders and joys that come with your gift of life. In the name of Jesus, we ask it, Amen.