The Rev. Dr David Pitman preached at Centenary UC yesterday. His sermon is full of wisdom for those who grieve the loss of loved ones. Here it is:
In a recent episode of Call the Midwife….
Sister Julienne says, “God is not in the event, God is in the response”
This is very good theology!
Back in 1982, the Jewish Rabbi, Harold Kushner, wrote a book entitled, When bad things happen to good people. The book came straight out of his own experience. He and his wife had a son, Aaron, who at three years of age was diagnosed with “progeria”, a disease that causes rapid ageing. Aaron looked like an old man while still a child and died two days after his 14th birthday.
Filled with grief, Rabbi Kushner confronted in himself the eternal question, “WHY?”
Why Aaron? He was an innocent child!
Why me? I am a deeply religious person committed to a life of serving others!
And, why does a God of love allow things like this to happen?
Over the 45 years of my own ministry, this has been the question most often asked of me, in a great variety of different circumstances, as people have endeavoured to deal with:
- The death of a baby
- The ravages of cancer
- An unexpected and tragic accident
- The injustice of dismissal or redundancy
- The debilitating impact of alzheimers disease
- The loss of a business due to the actions of ruthless financiers
- The destruction caused by natural disasters
- The horrors of war and genocide
- The bashing of elderly people in their own homes
- The cruelty and rejection of someone thought to be a friend
WHY DO BAD THINGS HAPPEN?
There have been many attempts to offer an answer to the eternal “WHY?” Numerous philosophical and theological books have been written on the subject. The book by Rabbi Kushner is a very good one. It also happens to be very personal and readable. We have another one in the Old Testament. We call it the Book of Job.
I want to summarise a couple of the responses made to this most searching and difficult question, and tell you why I think they are inadequate, or even misleading.
The bad things that happen are God’s punishment for our sin.
This response suggests that because we are sinful and disobedient people, God has to punish and discipline us in order to make us more obedient and faithful, and God does this through inflicting on us those crises and experiences that cause us pain and struggle and grief.
Now we understand very well that some of our actions are foolhardy and that we often suffer the consequences of our foolishness. In such circumstances we have no one to blame but ourselves. If we have any sense, we learn from our mistakes and try not to repeat them. To blame God for our own foolishness does no good at all, especially for ourselves.
However, the belief that God is the initiator of pain and suffering, in order to promote obedience and holiness, makes no sense. For a start, we see plenty of people all around us who live fundamentally good lives. They are essentially honest and caring folk who do their best to be responsible parents, faithful friends, and reliable employees. Yet they seem to be on the receiving end of all manner of bad luck.
This was certainly the experience of Job. The OT book that bears his name is devoted to an exploration of the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” Job’s friends were in no doubt as to why Job had suffered so much pain and loss and grief. He must have sinned in some awful way and was experiencing his just punishment. The problem for poor old Job was that, no matter how hard he searched his heart, he could not understand what he could have done to deserve so much tragedy.
On the other hand, we all know people who are irresponsible and selfish, who act dishonestly or unethically, and yet whose lives seem remarkably free of struggle and strife. If God wants to promote obedience and holiness through the experience of personal crisis, he seems to be going about it in a decidedly odd and ineffective manner!
In any case, this is a belief that Jesus specifically rejects. In John 9, we see the religious authorities asking in regard to a man born blind, “Who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “Neither! Yet through this man’s blindness the power of God will be revealed!”
Is suffering God’s punishment for sin? NO!
So, let’s make a conscious decision right now to put this false and misleading belief out of our minds. All it does is make us think badly of both God and ourselves. And it is not true to the faith of the New Testament!
God makes bad things happen to test our faith.
I have heard this statement many times over the years, and a number of variations on the same theme.
- Suffering is God’s way of seeing how much we trust him.
- God has a reason for everything. All we need is to have enough faith and we’ll be able to see what that reason is too.
- Suffering is good for us. It makes us better people.
Thornton Wilder wrote a book in the early 1960’s called, The Eighth Day. It is a story about a family ruined by bad luck and the hostility of others. The novel has no happy ending. Instead, Wilder offers us the image of a beautiful tapestry. Looked at from the right side, it is a work of art, unique and colourful in its design and detail. But from the other side, all we can see is an ugly maze of seemingly unrelated threads and knots. Wilder’s message is that beyond the pain, grief and suffering of life, there is ultimately something beautiful and good. We may not be able to see it now, but one day we will.
Wilder is right!
Suffering is not good. It is bad!
Bereavement is not good. It is bad!
Tragedy is not good. It is bad!
We should never pretend otherwise. And we should never use the language of faith to obscure the fact that these things are bad!
It is true that our faith and trust in God will help us to cope with and live through these crises.
It is true that we may be able one day to look back and see that we have indeed become better and stronger people because of what we have been through.
But this does not mean that the original experience was somehow good in and of itself. Nor does it mean that God inflicted it on us to find out how much faith we have. The problem with all these so-called explanations is that they assume that God is the cause of human suffering. God never caused a bad thing to happen, and God never will! God’s purpose for us is only ever GOOD!
PERMISSION TO ASK “WHY?”
It is inevitable that at various times during our lives we will experience personal and family crises and, like so many others before us, will ask “WHY?”
Asking “WHY?” has always been the response of God’s people to crisis.
Called to lives of ministry and leadership in extremely difficult circumstances, people like Moses and Jeremiah asked “Why me?”
Immersed in the catastrophe of personal pain and loss, Job cried out, “Why me?”
Again and again in the Psalms we hear that same cry.
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
Will the Lord spurn forever, and never again be favourable?
Has his steadfast love ceased forever?
Are his promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
Has he in anger shut up his compassion?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but I find no rest.
It is our experience from time to time, in the complexity of our life’s journey, to feel that God has left us, that he is absent, that for some reason he has forsaken us.
Yet at other times we feel that God is as close to us as our breath, that he is in the very depths of our being.
It was so for Jesus.
Listen to the words of his prayer for the disciples in John 17, as he gives expression to his strong sense of unity with God the Father:
“As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. May they be one, as we are one.”
Within a few hours, Jesus is dying on the cross, and cries out in pain and grief and loneliness:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
So, take comfort and courage from the personal experience of Jesus.
God never leaves us, or forsakes us.
But there are times when it feels that way.
There is no shame or weakness in recognizing and expressing our feeling that God has left us alone in our struggle. With God’s people of old, we can cry out to God from our heart:
For it is in the acknowledgement of our weakness that God can become our strength
It is in the acknowledgement of our loneliness that we can know the love and companionship of God as never before
It is in the acknowledgement of our grief that we can experience the peace of God that passes all understanding
It is in the acknowledgement of our anger and frustration that the grace of God can bring resolution and renewal
Out of the loneliness and pain of the cross, Jesus cried out in anguish,
and in his grief experienced yet again the reassuring love of God,
so that he was able, with confidence, to declare in regard to both his life and his dying,
“It is finished!”
In this life, there is no clear and final answer to our “WHY?”
We can feel that God is absent at any time, but in that moment, as we are honest with ourselves and with God, our faith takes us beyond our feelings into the reality of God’s unceasing presence, and the power of his love and grace.
Psalm 22 begins, as we have seen, with the anguished cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Listen now to how it concludes.
“I will tell your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.
For he did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted;
He did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.
Those who seek him shall praise the Lord.
May your hearts live forever!”
(Psalm 22: 22,24,26)
And what of Psalm 13, that begins: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” Listen to how this Psalm ends.
“I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
(Psalm 13: 5-6)
The witness of the scriptures is very strong at this point. When we openly and honestly pour our hearts to God, the healing work of his love and grace can begin in us, comforting our sorrow, restoring peace to our troubled spirits and instilling a sense of hope and purpose for the future.
This is a deeply spiritual reality. Ultimately we are healed and renewed because we have encountered the love and grace of God when we are most weak and vulnerable. God cannot help those who believe they are self-sufficient and can do it on their own!
This is the testimony of the apostle Paul, who in his own personal and life-time struggle with what he described as a “thorn in the flesh”, heard Christ saying to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” And he was able to affirm, “Whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
(II Corinthians 12:9-10)
And it is also the testimony of Rabbi Kushner who, at the end of his book, writes:
“I think of Aaron and all that his life taught me, and I realise how much I have lost and how much I have gained. Yesterday seems less painful, and I am no longer afraid of tomorrow.”
We don’t know why bad things happen to good people. What we do know is that terrible things happened to the greatest and best person who ever lived. He did no wrong, yet was crucified. And because of him we too can say, “Yesterday seems less painful, and I am no longer afraid of tomorrow.”