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Suffering 2 – a loving God?

by on June 7, 2016

boxing-day-tsunami-547917At CCC lately we are feeling like suffering is the right thing to be talking about. If God loves us so much, why do terrible things happen to us? GOOD QUESTION!

Here’s our second study on suffering, from the book of Job and Romans 1.

Suffering and a God of love

Job 2;    Romans 1:18-32

“I felt so angry with God I could hardly pray”. This came through as a text message  from a friend, on my phone. When do people feel angry with God? (chat with your neighbour.)

Last week we asked the first question people ask when they suffer: Why? What answer did we find from the Scriptures? Meaningless. Suffering is given no logical explanation. The tapestry of life that has so many loose ends and dark threads from down here, if you saw it from God’s viewpoint, it still looks like a mess.

This week we’re asking the next question people so often raise: How could a loving God do this? 

“I felt so angry with God I could hardly pray”. I wonder if you’ve ever felt angry with God? This friend who texted me, we had a mutual friend a third friend, whose toddler was killed in tragic circumstances. This friend who wrote the text message was coming to terms with the disaster. “I felt so angry with God I could hardly pray”, she said. I could hear her asking God, “How could you do this?”

When we experience great suffering, it often creates a faith crisis for us: our trust in God sometimes turns into anger. This is the issue in the second chapter of Job: will Job boil over in anger against God, and curse him to his face? The classic modern example is Basil Fawlty from Fawlty Towers, when he discovers his hotel is on fire: Basil is left shaking his fist at the sky and shouting, “Oh thankyou God, thankyou so bloody much.” If you push us far enough, we all tend to react a bit like that don’t we. I wonder why?

Athiests sense that we believers have a weak point here. When the boxing day Tsunami devastated the nations around the Bay of Bengal, many newspapers printed articles that said, Here is final proof that there is no God. What sort of God would send such misery? He can’t exist.

And many religious people were troubled too. Why would God send such a thing? In the chapters that follow our story, we learn that Job does blame God for his suffering. Over the following 30 chapters, he repeatedly asks, “How could you do this to me?”

The writer CS Lewis thought a lot about this problem of suffering, his answer to it was: ‘Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’ Get that? The world has gone deaf to God’s word. They need a loud trumpet blast to get their attention. Suffering is that blast. But I’m not sure that makes things any better for us. For if that’s true, if the tens of thousands of little children lying dead on the beaches of Asia, if they were a message from God – then what sort of God is that? Would you construct a megaphone out of dead children? I don’t find C S Lewis’s explanation that reassuring. Indeed later in his life, when his own suffering became intense, C.S.Lewis didn’t find his own explanation that reassuring either. He ended up wondering, like Job, “How could God do this? Could it be that He is evil and sadistic?”

In the West, people have worried over this problem for at least a thousand years. God is good, and all powerful, yet the children lie dead on the beaches in great piles. It just doesn’t seem to fit.

And it’s not just those children. It’s our children. When they are bullied at school, or hurt in car crashes, or rushed to hospital in an ambulance. And we think, why is God doing this to my dear child? Does he hate us? Does he want my little girl to suffer?

How could a loving God do this?

The apostle Paul gives an answer to the question, How can a loving God do this? His answer may disturb you. Take a look with me at his letter to the Romans, chapter 1. He’s describing how mankind turned its back on God, and fell into evil and all the suffering which it brings. It’s the story of Adam and Eve and everyone who came after them, the story of human history.  v.21

Though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.   Romans 1:21

There’s that word ‘futile’ again, do you remember it from last week – the same word we met in Ecclesiastes. “Futility! Everything is futility said the preacher!” Now Paul says, Because people did not honour God, they became futile. The way God made the world, things were rational, things made sense, but then we fell into this evil, this madness: we humans became futile in our minds. Our world became mixed up, chaotic, it lost its sense or purpose.

Let’s hear more of the story: v.25

They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…Romans 1:25.

Three times Paul describes this exchange, this choice humankind made: Truth exchanged for lies, reality replaced with fantasy, the structure of right relationships all broken up, exchanged for wrong ones. This is the crazy world of Ecclesiastes: meaningless. And now Paul shows us where all this chaos came from: we chose it. We made the exchange.

People these days like superhero stories: spiderman, wolverine and so on. And one favourite kind of superhero story is the origin story, where you get to go right back and find out how they began, how they got their super powers. One particularly dark version of this is in the Bourne movies. Jason Bourne is a kind of superhuman, but he’s lost his memory, but he gradually uncovers the truth about himself: He’s an assassin, a kind of monster. Who did this to him? In the third movie he finally learns where it all started. It started when he volunteered for it. He chose to become the monster. Paul here is telling the origin story for futile mankind. How did it all start? Go right back to the beginning of this bleeding world of ours, says Paul, and we chose it. 

Though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.   Romans 1:21

And now that we have plunged ourselves into this, there is no understanding mankind anymore. At the deepest level, our lives don’t make sense. It’s a kind of madness, listen:

Though they know God’s decree, that those who practice such things deserve to die—yet they not only do those things but even applaud others who practice them.    Romans 1:32

You see? They actually encourage harm and destruction. Senseless. stupid. That’s our race, what we’ve become. Have you ever noticed how much of life is like that? We harm ourselves! We become our own worst enemies.

How did we get to this place? Nobody has done it to us. We chose this instead of choosing God and his order of things: that was the exchange we made.

I heard a story from a neighbour about one of their family members, a young woman. She was attractive and full of life, and the young men were queing up to take her out, and she wanted to get married, and she married a gangster. She married a drug dealing gangster. Instead of one of the normal boys, she chose someone really interesting. How do you think that went for her? She spent a year in hell, no one could help her: she’d chosen this life for herself. Then her parents found her on their doorstep, with her bags packed. She couldn’t take it anymore. We humans were like that, we turned away from God, and chose madness.

Imagine how that girl’s father felt when she married the gangster. He would have done anything to stop her. He couldn’t stop her. What about God then – how did he feel about what humankind did? The passage is crystal clear that God’s reaction is wrath: his strongest disapproval. None of this was God’s intention. It was not the path he wanted for us. What does he do? What can a parent do in this situation? Romans 1:28

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.

Three times here Paul tells us God’s response was to ‘give them over’ to their wickedness. Get the hang of this, this is our human story, we need to understand why there’s so much suffering and evil. Paul gives us a window here, a lense through which to look at human history, at our own lives too. So much nonsense is spoken about God’s wrath: here is what God’s wrath is really all about. Mankind wanted a world without God in charge: God let us have one: he let us reap what we had sown. He let us go our own way. That, says Paul, is God’s wrath. God effectively says to mankind, If you are determined to live that insane life, I will let you live it. God’s wrath isn’t about something nasty he’s cooked up for us to suffer. It’s when he says, “This is not what I want for you, but I will allow you to choose it. To choose for yourselves.” He gives us over. That’s his wrath.

It’s also his love. This is what a loving parent ultimately does, isn’t it. They don’t keep controlling a rebellious child forever. They let go.

What did it look like, this giving over, this letting us go? It looked like suffering: here’s how things ended up, v.29

They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips,  slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents,  foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.    

When I read this description, I can’t help thinking of zombies. There’s a bit of a zombie culture fad around the world these days. Why are people so fascinated with zombies? I reckon they remind us of us! Of each other. You know, the person is a friend, then suddenly they turn, and next thing we know they’re attacking us, like Zombies trying to eat our brains. Crazed. Dangerous. That’s the picture Paul is painting here isn’t it. And it’s what we experience every day. People who would like to hurt us. Mankind has turned. We’ve been infected, and lost our humanity. This is the nightmare we’ve fallen into, this is what it’s like to be given over by God. This is his wrath.

So when Christian people see a Tsunami or a famine or a cancer or a child brain-damaged, and they say, this is God’s will, or ‘it was meant to be’ – we have to say, that’s not quite the story the way Paul tells it. All that evil and suffering, whose idea was it? Who made the exchange? Paul hammers this point: it wasn’t God, it was us! True, God allows us to make the choice, but it was never what he wanted for us: it wasn’t God’s will – it was ours! Beware of those slogans people use to cope with suffering, saying It’s all God’s will when something happens. The story is not that simple is it. And don’t be too quick to blame God and get angry with him, and curse him. Because we live in the world we chose – a world that has been given over to futility.

When Jesus was training his disciples in the ways of God’s kingdom, he started saying something that upset them all. He taught them, The son of man will be handed over to the Gentiles; and he will be mocked and insulted and spat upon. After they have flogged him, they will kill him.” 

They didn’t want to hear it, it made no sense to them. Jesus – handed over to violence and injustice? The words, handed over, are the same ones Paul uses over and over. We were handed over to madness. And now the Messiah, God’s son, comes and he is handed over to the same madness. Our madness. He who had never done wrong, never chosen evil, Jesus who never deserved it. God hands him over to suffer like a sinner. To suffer our fate. To stand in our place. To enter our nightmare. Wrongly condemned, publically shamed and murdered.

Now this is extraordinary. If even Jesus gets handed over, then that changes everything. Our whole way of thinking about our troubles gets turned upside down. We can’t look at suffering anymore and say ‘God hates us’ or ‘God is against us’. Would you really say God is against his own son, that he hates Jesus?

And now that Jesus has come and entered into our misery, we can’t say, God has abandoned us in our time of trouble. No, because in Jesus we find God has come right here next to us, into the thick of it. Suffering the wrath with us and for us. God has not washed his hands of us. He has rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty in our mess.

In fact, when we look at the cross of Jesus, we start to realise that in all our suffering, something else is going on here. Something full of hope. This chaos, this pain, it’s not the end of the story. God is at work, even through his wrath, even through this misery. Now because of Jesus it’s heading somewhere. Through death comes resurrection.

So what the gospel has to say about human misery is not simple. It is surprising. It is unexpected. It is deeply challenging. Simple explanations like ‘it’s God’s will’ don’t capture it. Beware of slogans and cliches. People who get angry with God and want to curse him, haven’t quite got the hang of it either. Instead of a slogan we need to keep telling the story, the story Paul is telling in his letter to the Romans : How suffering and evil was never God’s plan: but that he is allowing it for now, in hope, and that he has come near to deal with it in Jesus. More about that hope next week.

So the take home message from Romans ch. 1 is God is not the author of your misery. When these evils come against you and your loved ones, God is not over there lobbing bombs at you. God is not against you, hurting you. He’s over here, actually on your side. It’s right to get angry with the world. But not with our Father.

I want to suggest two implications of this. First it leaves room for you to pray. There’s nothing harder than praying to a god who’s over there lobbing bombs at you. It’s a bit alienating! But if there is someone over here on your side who loves you and who will listen: you can talk to that person. And the gospel tells us, that’s where God is. The proof of it is in Jesus. The one who stands with us in our grief. The one who carried our load of trouble. The lower you sink down into the pit of misery, the closer you come to the one who reached the bottom: Jesus our sin bearer. Get close to Jesus when you’re hurting.  Tell him all about it. He knows! He knows.

The other implication is: since God is not behind your troubles, you don’t have to be ashamed about them. They are not a judgement on you in particular. Sometimes good people suffer. Sometimes wise, competent people fail. Christians in particular, I believe suffer more than most. And it’s not a shameful thing. As we face the wider world, we don’t need to put on a brave face and pretend to be healthy wealthy and wise. We can admit, we’re struggling. We suffer along with Jesus the sufferer. Don’t be ashamed of Jesus crucified, and don’t be ashamed of your troubles either.

Well, the woman who married the gangster packed her bags and went home to Dad. Next time we’re going to ask, Can we do that? Any way we can get out of this mess and back to our Father? As we will see, the news is good!

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