October 27, 2019
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
WHEN WE SUFFER
James Michener thought he was done writing his books. He was in his eighties. His health was not good. He had been through quite a bit of suffering. But he had yet to write his memoirs. He wasn’t sure he was up to it. It turned out he was. It turned out to be one of his best books. Long like all of them are. He called it The World is My Home.
He opened with a childhood memory from growing up in rural Pennsylvania.
The farmer living at the end of our land had an apple tree that had once been abundantly productive but had now lost its energy and ability to bear any fruit at all. The farmer, on an early spring day I still remember, hammered eight nails, long and rusty, into the trunk of the tree. That autumn a miracle happened. The tired old tree, having been goaded back to life, produced a bumper crop of juicy red apples, bigger and better than we had seen before. When I asked how this had happened, the farmer explained, “Hammerin’ in the rusty nails gave it a shock to remind it that its job is to produce apples.”
Sometimes it feels like we are that tree, those long rusty nails are being pounded right into our flesh, and it hurts. We’d like to believe that good comes out of it. Often it does. Often suffering does make us more fruitful and productive than we otherwise would have been. If I had written this sermon 40 years ago, I might have tried to convince you that the good that comes out of suffering outweighs the bad and that makes it all worthwhile. I’m no longer so sure of that. What I am sure of is that suffering is part of life. A big part. For all of us. No exceptions. The book of Job says, “We are born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (5:7). Forty years ago I didn’t know much about suffering. I still don’t know nearly as much as some of you do, but I am learning.
One childhood memory I have is standing in line in the hall of our grade school waiting to get our shots. It was torture. The waiting much more than the shots themselves. The line moved so slowly. We’d hear sobbing and occasionally screaming echoing down that long hallway. We’d see our classmates walking past us in the opposite direction, tears streaming down their cheeks. Not just the girls. Even the tough boys.
Shots really aren’t that painful. And as we get older they aren’t even that scary. But shots are an example of what we’d like to believe about suffering. It hurts a little, but it helps a lot. For example, two of the shots I was given were for polio and smallpox, which once caused such terrible suffering, but today are almost unheard of. It was worth that little poke in the arm.
But can we say that of all suffering? On December 26, 2004, the day after Christmas, there was an earthquake under the Indian Ocean. An enormous tsunami resulted. The tide of the ocean went way out and then came roaring back in with 100 foot waves. 250,000 lives were lost. That’s the population of Boise. Every life somebody’s son or somebody’s daughter. The light of so many hopes and dreams snuffed out in a matter of minutes. If I were to stand here and tell you that the good that came out of that event outweighed the bad, I hope you would shout me down.
Here’s the question that never goes away: If God is so good and so powerful, why do we see so much suffering in the world? Archibald MacLeish wrote a play about Job that includes this line: “If God is good, he is not God. If God is God, he is not good.”
And here is the tricky part: We open the Bible looking for the answer to this problem of human suffering and what we find are very few answers but a whole lot of suffering. I don’t think another book has ever been written that is more troubled and perplexed over human suffering, or more honest about how hard it is to make sense of it all.
One of the answers in the Bible is obvious enough. We can’t blame God for the suffering we bring on ourselves. With the freedom God gave us to make good choices, comes the freedom to make bad choices, and bad choices often hurt. Not just ourselves, but others as well. The book of Proverbs is full of wisdom that can spare us unnecessary pain and suffering. For example, “The borrower is the slave to the lender” (22:7), the one Dave Ramsey loves to quote.
Follow God’s rules for living, and you will probably suffer less than the person who doesn’t, but still you will suffer. “We are born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward.”
From Exodus, with Israel suffering under the oppression of Pharaoh, to the agony of Job, to the emptiness of Ecclesiastes, to the Psalms filled with endless complaints, to the lamentations of Lamentations – there is a lot of suffering in the Bible that cannot be explained as the natural consequence of our sin and poor choices. The question that we ask is also asked all through the Bible. Why?
Here’s something strange. If you ask people why they don’t believe in God, the number one answer they seem to give has to do with the existence of suffering, and yet it is the existence of suffering that has given birth to many of the great religions.
A young, spoiled, entitled prince named Siddhartha leaves his palace and for the first time in his life becomes aware of suffering. He sees a sick man, an old man, and a dead body. He decides to devote himself to dealing with this problem of suffering, and Buddhism begins.
In Egypt, the Hebrews are enslaved, their babies are being murdered, and God works through Moses to do something about this and set his people free. This Exodus is the central event in Judaism.
Babies are also being murdered as Jesus is born. He suffers horribly and dies on a cross. “He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Chapter after chapter in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are all about the humiliation and crucifixion of Jesus.
Suffering is a big part of life, so suffering is a big part of
any religion that deals honestly with life. I can understand why
some people reject God because of suffering. But what is the alternative?
Richard Dawkins is a biologist and an atheist. Here’s what he has to say about suffering:
In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind forces, and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice.
One of our youth at Rose City Park United Methodist Church had a rare and debilitating muscular disease that required many surgeries and eventually took his life. A great kid. Very brave. He made a huge impact on everyone who knew him.
So what would you have said to him? “Some people get lucky. Not you. No rhyme. No reason. No justice. No hope.” I hope not.
Here is the test of any religion or world view: What does it have to say to a suffering person? If the best it can say is, “Tough luck” I think I would want to keep looking. There has to be a better answer. Not just an answer that makes us feel better, but an answer that is true.
What is that answer? Maybe this is a clue. Suffering points us beyond ourselves. When life is great, we don’t need any help beyond ourselves. We can handle it. No problem. But then something happens, even to very strong people, that proves how weak we really are.
People will often reach beyond themselves for something that will numb their pain. Alcohol. Work. Shopping. Pornography. These don’t help. They make the pain worse.
There’s a story in the Manual of Psychological Medicine that dates back to 1858. An Italian actor went to see his doctor about his deepening depression. The doctor prescribed laughter. He told him he needed to go to a performance given by a very funny comedian named Carlini. He said, “Your depression would have to be very deep indeed if the acting of the fabulous Carlini does not remove it.” The patient sighed. “I am Carlini.”
Our suffering points us beyond ourselves. It proves how helpless we really are. And it proves something else that is so important. It proves how much we can help each other.
Louis Smedes said there are two kinds of suffering. There is suffering from and there is suffering with. We can suffer from something and we can suffer with someone.
We suffer from painful events, large and small – bad traffic, a bad hair day, a dental procedure, a bankruptcy, divorce, cancer, death of the most important person in our world. Whether large or small, no one would choose any of these. They happen, much as we wish they would not happen.
But when it comes to suffering with, here is the paradox. This is something people choose. This is voluntary suffering. We stop what we are doing and go to the person who needs us. We sit by a hospital bed. We listen to a mom who is having problems with a child. We bring a meal to someone who has lost a loved one. We can’t cure the suffering. We can’t fix it. We can’t make it go away. But somehow when we are willing to hurt with those who hurt, it helps. Suffering with can hurt just as much as suffering from but we choose it because we know it’s the right thing to do. And as Christians, we know it is the way of Jesus.
Jesus is our model for suffering with. He suffered with lepers. He wept over sinners. He had time for outcasts. He had compassion for doubters. And his suffering with meant suffering from. He died a horrible death on the cross. He died for you. He died for me.
When people suffer, the question often is asked, “Where is God?” And here is the answer. God is on that cross. Nails were pounded into that tree, but first through his flesh. Through the hands and feet of God.
John Stott says this:
I have entered many Buddhist temples and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, with the ghost of a smile. But each time I turn away again to the lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross that symbolizes divine suffering.
The scripture we read this morning has that wonderful verse: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (8:18). And one verse before: “. . . provided we suffer with him in order that we may be glorified with him” (8:17).
There is suffering from and there is suffering with, and right here it tells us that we are to “suffer with” Jesus. But how do we do that? How do we suffer with somebody who lived 2,000 years ago? Jesus told us how. Remember? “Whatever you do for one of the least of these, you do for me” (Matthew 25:40).
When we mourn with those who mourn, when we weep with those who weep, when we listen to those who are lonely, when we sit with those who are sick, when we help those who are poor, when we read to a child at Sherman Elementary, when we serve a meal at the Community Shelter, when we volunteer at Love INC – in all these ways and so many more, we are suffering with Jesus. We are helping those who hurt. And we are finding meaning in life, even life in which there is so much suffering.
I’m still not sure the good that comes out of suffering outweighs the bad and makes it all worthwhile, but I am sure that good comes out of suffering. Perhaps you read the front page story in the Idaho Press about the family of Jace Burns. Jace was 14 when he took his own life. It’s going to be two years in January. I cannot imagine how painful this has been for his parents and his sisters.
But the article explained how they are honoring Jace’s life by devoting themselves to suicide prevention. They have distributed purple and turquoise bracelets with the words #Jace Matters # You Matter and then the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. The family knows of two instances where teenagers decided not to attempt suicide because of Jace. Here is what his mom, Aimee says:
We hate to have had to suffer that, but I also realize what a gift his life was, and that as hard as it is, I know his death has prevented other deaths.
Jesus suffered and died on the cross. He suffered with us and for us. But then he rose from the dead. His crucifixion is not the final word. His resurrection is. And so suffering – real as it is; awful as it can be – is not going to be the final word for us. There is hope beyond our sufferings. The hope of heaven. There is also hope in our sufferings. There is joy, resurrection joy, even in the hardest of the hard things we face in life.
Two of you recently recommended the same book, so I knew I had to read it. It’s called The Choice, written by a survivor of the holocaust who is actually a friend of Mary and Fred Hoadley. Her name is Edith Eva Eger.
She is 92 years old now. She was 16 when her family was taken to Auschwitz. Her parents died there in the gas chambers. Eva and her sister, against incredible odds, survived. After the war, Eva moved to this country and became a psychologist.
She tells of her work with two Vietnam veterans, both paraplegics. They had been given the same diagnosis and the
same prognosis. They had severe spinal cord injuries that meant it was very unlikely they would ever again walk. Their names
were Tom and Chuck.
She met Tom first. He was lying on his bed, curled in a fetal position, cursing God, cursing his country. He was imprisoned. Not only by his paralyzed body, but also by his misery and his rage.
Then she met Chuck. He was out of his bed, sitting in his wheelchair. He smiled at her. He was in a talkative mood. He said, “It’s interesting. I’ve been given a second chance in life. Isn’t it amazing? I sit in this wheelchair, and I go out on the lawn, and the flowers are much closer. I can see my children’s eyes.” Chuck was just as paralyzed, but he had made the choice to be free and to live his life, not just endure it (The Choice, page 177).
We all have that choice. There is a saying in Buddhism. “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”
We serve a Lord who suffered more than we ever will. And we serve a Lord who has proven to us that on the other side of pain and death there is resurrection glory.
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not
worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
I’m not sure I agree with the Buddhists. Pain is inevitable, and suffering is inevitable, too. “We are born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward”. One day suffering will be healed. It will be reversed. That is our future hope. But we also have a present hope. Even as we suffer.
Yes, suffering can be so overwhelming it’s hard not to give in to despair. But thank God that we have friends who suffer with us. And thank God that we have friends who we can suffer with.
God, life is so wonderful! We thank you, the author of life.
And life can also be so awful. We don’t want to blame you, though sometimes we do. We pray this morning for those who are really hurting. Physical pain. Emotional pain. We are aware that the pain in this very sanctuary right now is heavy, heavier than we can possibly imagine. But God, save us please from the gloom and doom and negativity to which we all are prone. For those of us who are suffering, may we lift our eyes from ourselves and to you, and receive from you the help you want so much to give us. For those of us whose lives are pretty fantastic, help us to feel the pain of others without being overwhelmed by it. May we all share both burdens and joys, taking away from the burdens, adding to the joys, bringing us more fully into your plan and purpose for our lives. In Jesus’ name, Amen.