Suffering is not a problem (Year B, 4 October, 2015)

Readings
Job 1.1; 2.1–10
Mark 10.2–16

Like a weaned child on its mother,
like the weaned child on me is my soul…        Psalm 131.2

When I was a chaplain at The Wesley Hospital, we noticed something quite concerning. We chaplains saw the way a number of young couples responded when they were confronted with a stillborn child.

These young couples were absolutely floored, of course. They suffered terrible grief, as you would expect. It was something they would never forget. That is the natural reaction to an unnatural situation.

That’s not what concerned us. Our anxiety was because it was obvious that these largely middle class couples had never before come across a problem that couldn’t be fixed.

Even more than that, to them any setback at all was a problem to be fixed. If you or your dad couldn’t fix it, you paid a professional or a tradie to do it for you.

They asked the question common to nearly all people: Why me, why us? But they also asked, Why couldn’t our technology solve the problem?

For some couples, this was the very first time they had been confronted by something huge that just couldn’t be fixed. Their usual way of coping with things just didn’t help.

What they found hard to grasp is that in losing a baby they were not being confronted by a problem. They were being unwillingly plunged into an encounter with loss, with grief, with suffering too deep for words. They couldn’t fix it, solve it, or manage it.

What could they do?

These days, hospitals handle this kind of thing much better than they used to. There is a great awareness of the needs of mothers and fathers who must face this situation. So hospitals encourage mothers to hold the child, to take handprints and footprints and in this way create memories.

This approach is not helpful because it fixes a problem, it doesn’t; what it does do is help grieving people to live when sorrow and suffering have touched their lives.

Let’s turn from grieving couples to another picture of grief, loss, pain, and missed connections. It starts like this:

There once was a man in the land of Uz.

The story of Job is set in a distant land; no one knows where ‘Uz’ was, or even if it was a real place. It’s a bit like our stories that begin ‘Long ago and far away, there was a man…’ Or like the Star Wars series: ‘Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’

Job is an ideal character, ‘blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil’.

Yet in the space of just a few hours, calamity befalls Job. His seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and his numerous servants are killed or taken away; and his seven sons and three daughters are killed. All on one day.

Then, he himself is inflicted with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.

How can such a good man—indeed, a blameless and upright man—suffer so much?

Why does anyone suffer? The Book of Job is one of the ‘Wisdom’ books of the Bible. Other Wisdom books include Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. These three books have different perspectives on why people suffer.

The Book of Proverbs says that living with wisdom brings prosperity and happiness. For example, 12.21:

No harm happens to the righteous,
but the wicked are filled with trouble.

That means that since Job is suffering, he must have done something wicked. That’s the kind of thing his three friends say, his ‘Job’s Comforters’. One of them, Eliphaz, says to Job (Job 4.7–9):

Think now, who that was innocent ever perished?
Or where were the upright cut off?
As I have seen, those who plough iniquity
and sow trouble reap the same.
By the breath of God they perish,
and by the blast of his anger they are consumed.

In other words—if you’re suffering, Job, then you can’t possibly be innocent. Admit it Job, you’ve done something to deserve it. Come on Job, you know you’ll feel better once you’ve confessed your sin.

Notice: this is exactly what Job himself thought before this calamity fell upon him. This is Job 1.5:

And when the feast days had run their course, Job would send and sanctify [his children], and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt-offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’ This is what Job always did.

He didn’t want anything to happen to his children because of their sin. That’s why he prayed for them.

This attitude—if you suffer, you must deserve it—is alive and well in our own day. Karen and I once knew a young woman who had a stillborn child. She was understandably bereft, and turned to friends and family for support. Her own mother’s response was to tell her that she had lost her child because God was punishing her for no longer going to church. Unbelievable? Believe it.

So the approach of the Book of Proverbs is There’s no smoke without fire. How often have you heard that? Or said it? It was certainly the attitude of Eliphaz. And at first, it was Job’s belief too.

The Wisdom of the Book of Ecclesiastes is quite different. Ecclesiastes has altogether another perspective on wisdom and indeed on life. The author of Ecclesiastes seems to be teetering on the edge of despair.

Listen to some of his words (ch.3.18–20):

I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.

All is vanity’ is the catch cry of this book. It’s all meaningless, don’t sweat things too much—it gets you nowhere. Suffering? What’s the point of trying to make any sense of it? All the effort just gets you nowhere. It’s all vanity.

You may wonder why Ecclesiastes is in the Bible.

Karen and I once lived near an old Greek man, who had come to Australia many years before. He had tried to grow tobacco in central Queensland, but the climate beat him. He couldn’t forgive God for his failure, and he couldn’t let it go. He could perhaps identify with ‘The Preacher’, the writer of Ecclesiastes. Everything is meaningless. Mind you, he couldn’t live with that. He railed against it.

I also knew a young man whose faith was being eroded by a suspicion that life was going to turn out to be meaningless. Someone suggested that he read Ecclesiastes. He was over the moon when he discovered this book. I still recall his face, full of joy, calling out ‘Why didn’t anyone tell me about this book before?’ Once he found a part of the Bible that made space for his doubts and fears, he could begin to recover his faith.

So, we have Proverbs and Job’s friends who say that if you suffer, then you are receiving just punishment for something you have done wrong; we have Ecclesiastes that suggests it’s hardly worth wasting your time wondering about it; and caught in the middle we have Job, suffering the loss of almost everything. He knows he doesn’t deserve it. He needs answer. No one seems able to help him.

Of course, there are other answers that wouldn’t have helped Job. For example,

God never gives us anything we can’t handle
He’s in a better place now
It’s God’s will
You should be getting over it, it’s been six months
You’re a young woman, you can always have another child

These are not helpful things to say. If a friend, trying to be helpful, has said something like this to you then you probably weren’t helped.

If you were the friend who said such things, then please don’t in future.

You know, you’re really not required to say too much. People who are suffering mostly just need you to be there with them. To spend some time with them. They may want a meal, or only a cuppa tea, but they don’t need platitudes.

Job’s Comforters didn’t help. So what happens?

In the end, God confronts Job and asks him to give an account of himself.

In the end, Job bows to the greatness and majesty of God.

In the end, Job gets no answer but he learns to put his trust in God.

And really, trust in God is the answer. A hard-won, battered, bruised but deep trust in God.

I love Psalm 131, which is a psalm of trust. In it we read,

…my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.

Imagine (as the psalm does) a woman who is troubled by something, and in her distress her young child seeks comfort. The child is weaned, so mum can’t just put her on the breast; she sits her on her knee and holds her, stroking her hair. In absolute trust, the child settles. She’s on her mother’s knee, so she is well whatever happens.

This simple yet hard-won trust is a way through suffering. My Father in heaven guides me through all things, in all things. God gives me the hope to endure, even to stand tall, even if I have teetered on the brink of despair, like the writer of Ecclesiastes.

When we are suffering, we can look to the suffering and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Through trust and hope, God teaches us to hope that in the end—

he [God] will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more… (Revelation 21.4)

Suffering is not a problem to be fixed—though it is always crucial to work to fix the things that cause suffering. No, suffering can become an invitation to trust and hope in God. And to act because of that hope and trust.

In our Gospel passage, people were bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing. The disciples shooed them away; the Master was far, far too important for that!

This made Jesus indignant. Get that?—indignant. Annoyed. He wanted the children to come! He said—indignantly!—

Let the little children come to me! Don’t stop them! It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it!

How do these children show the way to the kingdom? They do it through their trust. They trust their parents to take them to a safe place. They trust the man they are being taken to because their parents are taking them.

We won’t enter the kingdom without deep trust in God in the here and now, and an active hope in God’s future. The present is a painful time for members of this congregation who wrestle with illness and grief.

It is also a time of unbelievable suffering for many:
from Syrian refugees
to people living in fear and despair in detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru
to Pacific nations watching the rising ocean eat up their land
to those people in Roseburg, Oregon grieving young Americans killed in the latest mass shooting there. Apparently, Christian young people were particularly targeted.

Friends, our trust, our hope, is a spring from which flows faithful action to remove the causes of suffering in our world.

We can—and some of us must—try to figure things out, try to understand why people and indeed the whole creation suffers. We can see that there is an internal debate going on in the scriptures about that.

Whoever we are, we’re not going to get the final answer to why there is suffering. But we can trust in the God who came among us in Christ, whose Spirit is among us and within us today.

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Filed under Church & world, Grief and loss, RCL, sermon, suffering

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