So Brent told you I would have the answers. I don’t have the answers, but I have responses. I want to share with you where I am now, after two and a half years as the Associate Pastor of Pastoral Care. In those two and a half years, I’ve seen all kinds of suffering: people with cancer, people dying, people with children or loved ones who are in trouble or suffering, and you know, I feel a great compassion for them. It gets me, too, to see them suffering. So I’ve struggled with why we suffer, what it means, and so on. And so here is where I am today with that.
Some of you have attended your high school reunions. The five-year reunion was still a lot like being back in high school. People still looked much the same. They tended to get in the same clique to talk to each other. Many had gone to college, or married. A few had children. Then you go to the 10 or 15 year reunion, and things have changed. Some people have gotten divorced, or been fired. They’ve had loved ones get sick or get old or die. A couple people from your graduating class have died under tragic circumstances. And the feeling in the reunion changes: it becomes more tender. People talk to each other, regardless of the cliques they were in before. Life has humbled them. Suffering has taught them compassion. One woman threw her arms around me and said, “Hi, sweetie!” and she wouldn’t even talk to me in high school. Life brings us suffering. And this causes faith issues. Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? How could God let this happen to me? Where is God anyway!
When you begin this conversation, you can start with the biblical book of Job. Among the classics of ancient world literature, you must include Job as an excellent work of literature, philosophy, poetry. It’s about suffering. The man, Job, was a good man, a righteous man, who was careful to observe the laws. Then there comes a terrible day when everything in his life is destroyed: his crops burn, his storehouses are destroyed, his children die, he is bereft of his wife, and to top it all off, he breaks out in boils. They’re painful and they itch and they’re disgusting. He sits down in the dirt to scratch his boils and mourn. “What did I do to deserve this? Where are you, God?”
Along come three of his friends—they’ve heard of his loss. When they see him, they are appalled, and can do nothing but sit down in the dirt with him, in silence, for seven days. This is the part they did right. But then they opened their mouths. “You did something, Job, you sinned somehow, and God is punishing you!” But he insists, “I did nothing! I am a good man!” And this goes on, this discussion, for about 30 chapters, and it’s well-written, well-argued, gorgeous poetry—you should read it. The friends make some good points. But in the end, here’s what happens: God shows up. See Job 38:1-7 and 42:1-6. God speaks to him of the far expanse of the universe, the power of storms, the beauties of nature, the mysteries of animal life, and on, and this works something powerful in Job.
Ultimately, Job is comforted in the revelation of the Creator God. When God describes to him all the glories of creation, Job remembers his place in it. It is humbling, and it is reassuring. Let me see if I can explain this to you another way. A few years ago, my sister—who has some really difficult health problems—had gone through a very tough time, and she was scared, so she basically sat on her couch and didn’t want to get up. I went out to visit and see if I could be any help. After a few days, she and I decided we’d go see the redwoods, so I drove and she was uncertain, but we went to the park where the redwoods were. We got out of the car and entered the woods—have you ever seen redwoods? They tower above you, up and up, and it’s quiet and cool—it’s a sanctuary, and it’s astonishing. You’ve seen marvelous things like this: the Grand Canyon, the stars at night, the ocean, a landscape in fall colors, a Georgia spring. It restores your perspective. You remember that it is a miracle that you are alive—it was a miracle that you were even conceived, that you even have breath in your body! This is healing and restorative, and humbling. It’s a good kind of humbling. This is what comforted Job, ultimately. He did not get an answer: God did not explain his suffering, but he had no need for that. He had a revelation of God.
So that’s the first response to suffering, the story of Job. I think about this when I encounter suffering, in my life or in others’ lives. The second thing I think about is Jesus Christ, his incarnation and death and resurrection. In lots of ancient cults and religions, there were stories about gods or goddesses who became human for a time. They usually wanted to become human so they could party, or take a lover, or generally mess with us. In no other religion does God become human to suffer. But in Jesus Christ, the Word was made flesh, and that flesh suffered. He was born into a family and a community, and he knew the suffering of families and communities. He was born into poverty and knew that suffering. He was born in to a nation under occupation by a tyrannical enemy, a cruel enemy. When they went to Jerusalem for festivals, they saw crucifixions. Rome was hated and feared. He knew the suffering of being betrayed and arrested, tried in an unjust trial, beaten and publicly paraded, and crucified naked. He knew death and the darkness of the tomb. This is God willing to suffer, in order to be with us, out of love.
But if it had ended there—if Jesus had died and that was it—then suffering would have triumphed. That is not what happened. Jesus rose from the dead. The apostle Paul did great work thinking through Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, and what it means for us, and Paul explained (1 Corinthians 15:19, 20, 55) that Christ rose as a “first fruit” of a harvest—when we all will rise. And this leads me to thinking of heaven.
Now how do you picture heaven? Do you picture yourself in white robes, with angel wings, and a harp, and streets paved of gold? That picture comes to us, not so much out of the Bible as out of the hymns of the 1800’s. They seem kind of quaint to us now, but imagine you lived in the 1800’s, as a slave, or a servant, or a sharecropper. Imagine you worked in a factory or a mill, 12-hour shifts, six days a week. And up the street is a great mansion, and in that mansion they wear beautiful linens, and they eat gorgeous meals on gold plates, and they hear music all the time. You would picture heaven, then, with white robes and streets of gold, too. Because: heaven is a place where things are made right. Heaven is a place where things are complete and whole. It is described beautifully in Revelation 7:9-10, 13-17 and 21:1-5, and 22:1-5. We have to hope in the Kingdom of Heaven and the healing that will be there. We will be comforted in the revelation of God.
And this brings us full circle, back to how Job was comforted. Now, is this an answer to the problem of suffering? Not really. It does not explain evil. It does not explain earthquakes. It is not a short and easy answer. But for me, it works.
Please note a caveat here. When someone is in pain, there is no answer for them. I was visiting a wonderful woman who was in terrible chronic pain, and there was nothing anyone could do for her, except be with her. Hopefully, in time, the surgery they had done would help her, but for a while, she was going to suffer. I stood by her side and held her hand, and she asked me, “Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve this? Why doesn’t God help me?” I thought, wow! Here’s my chance—what can I say that is right for this moment? I said to her, “Well, it helps me to think of Jesus Christ, and how He suffered and even died, but triumphed over that in the resurrection.” She snorted in derision. And this is a good Christian woman! My response might have been working for me, but when someone is in pain, there is no answer. Now she is better, and I hope that she looks back on all that, and she feels she was blessed and comforted, because people were with her. Her loved ones were with her, and I was with her, and maybe that is the best we can do, and maybe it’s enough.
Do you remember 9/11, how upset and frightened we all were? I remember that I was comforted by seeing on the news that, at American embassies all over the world, people were bringing flowers. That comforted me, to know the sympathy of people. I heard some months afterwards this story: there is a tribe in Africa, and all their wealth is in their cattle. The cow is their food and their wealth and sole possession. To them, a cow is like a house is for us. When someone told them about what happened in America on 9/11, they were greatly saddened, and they offered us a cow.
This is so meaningful to me that I hardly have the words for it. It speaks to me of compassion and solidarity, and strength and love. It speaks to me of grace, a grace that could not be prevented by the suffering.
When suffering happens, there are no words that are suitable. There are no explanations. After the suffering, we can reflect on God and life and death and meaning, and we will do that best in Christian community, in the church, with the Bible—with Job, with Jesus, and with the hope of heaven.