January 27, 2019
• Rev. Rob Fuquay
St. Luke’s UMC
January 27, 2019
New Year Series(3)
Questions Alexa Can’t Answer
Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen?
Open with response: God is Good! All the Time! And all the time? God is Good!!
Really? Is God good all the time? I was talking the other day to one of the women who volunteers at our front desk. Her brother found out not very long ago that he had the same cancer John McCain had. Just a few days ago he passed away. Is God good?
I called the other day to reach one of our members, a widow whose husband died a year ago. Her house just burned down while she was away, and she lost her two pets in the home. Is God good?
One of our staff members has a seven year old nephew who just passed away. Is God good?
Is God good when United Methodist Peter Kassig is beheaded after trying to serve the needy people of Syria? Is God good when a nineteen year old’s car overturns after hitting an icy patch of road near Muncie the other night and lands in a creek and dies?
Is God good when Victor Oladipo is injured and now out for the season? I had to throw something in there a little lighter after that kind of start, but for die-hard Pacers fans they have been using God’s name a lot this week.
If in tragedy God’s character can’t be questioned then that just leaves the character of the humans involved. For surely suffering is a result of something. Perhaps it’s the behavior of the victims. That line of thinking is as old as, well, the Bible. Consider a few of these verses from the Old Testament:
Psalm 107:17: Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction
Psalm 38:3: “There is no health in my bones because of my sin.”
Micah 6:13: “Therefore I have begun to strike you down, making you desolate because of your sins.”
Exodus 15:26: “If you do what is right…I (the Lord) will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians.”
No wonder a crowd of people asked Jesus about an event in the news in which Pilate had bludgeoned a group of worshippers. Interestingly they didn’t question Pilate’s character, but the asked Jesus, “Were these Galileans worse sinners than other Galileans because they suffered this way?” No wonder. If you’ve been led to believe that suffering is the result of sin and God’s character is off limits, then that just leave the character of the people involved.
If you think about it we still hear this logic in interesting ways today. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans years ago there were pundits saying this was God’s wrath against the sins of Big Easy. Even those who didn’t bring God into it, said the deaths and suffering was a result of people who knew the levees were bad and still chose to live in flood zones. In other words it was their fault.
We even heard this last fall when wildfires ravaged California. There were those who said it was the fault of the forest rangers who didn’t adequately prepare the ground by doing controlled burns. Suffering has to be someone’s fault.
Now, of course, we have to recognize there is partial truth there. Is suffering the result of sin? Sometimes, yes. If you smoke cigarettes all your life and get lung cancer it’s kind of hard to ask God why? If you blow your life savings on a risky investment scheme, don’t blame it on God. There were times Jesus healed people and followed up by saying, “Your sins are forgiven.” Maybe Jesus knew their sickness was a result of sin. Maybe he was concerned as much for their spiritual wellbeing as he was their physical wellbeing. We can’t say for sure.
What we can say for sure is what Jesus said in response to the connection between underserved suffering and sin. “Were these Galileans worse sinners than others? Is that why this happened?” “NO!” said Jesus. He evens reminds them of another news story at the time, about a tower in Siloam that fell and killed eighteen. “Were those eighteen worse sinners than others in Jerusalem?” Again, an emphatic, “NO!”
But that doesn’t fully settle the issue does it, because if you take away human error, that just leaves God to question. How can an all-powerful God, capable of preventing bad things, allow bad things to happen?
Matt Bays is currently our interim Worship Leader in contemporary services and he also works in our communication office. Several years ago he wrote a very powerful book, Finding God in the Ruins: How God Redeems Pain. He references a verse in Isaiah, “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the LORD, do all these things.” How does one understand that? If it means God sends every disease and calamity when people don’t deserve it, then we can’t call God good. But to believe in a God who is good and yet allows in his ordering of the world the possibility for bad things to happen, now there’s a tension. There is something to wrestle with. There is something we are meant to struggle with, and through the struggle understand that something good can be produced.
In his book Matt tells about a woman named Kara who shared her faith story with him one day. Her fiancé died when she was in her twenties. Most of the things she heard from the community of faith were not helpful, even hurtful. You can imagine what some of those words might have been. So this started her on a search for what she really believed. Let me share her words, “All of the good in my life has a contrast and that contrast is where I learn the great life lessons. So when the contrasts come, I plop myself down in the middle of the pain, the frustration, the unmet expectations and I wait on God. When God shows up I begin working to hear his still small voice…When (God) shows up, I ask, “What do you want me to learn so I can accomplish your will in my life? I no longer spend my life trying to escape pain.”
Perhaps there is something about the willingness to take our pain to God and not just try to escape pain, that we find something good. Perhaps that is why Jesus says what he does after saying No. Were innocent people responsible for their suffering? NO! says Jesus. “But, unless you repent, you will likewise perish.” Now that doesn’t sound particularly helpful does it? Repent is usually a verb we reserve for camp meetings, when we try to induce a fear of God into people so they won’t get banished by God. But that’s not what repentance is all about. It simply means change your direction. That’s it. Change your direction. Jesus connects repentance with unexplainable suffering. He’s talking about turning our direction toward God when we hurt. That’s where I want to spend the remainder of our time this morning, thinking like Kara, what does it mean when we are in pain to plop ourselves down until God comes and ask what we can learn?
Turning to God in Pain
So I’m turning the question on us just a little because in order to understand why bad things happen, we have to ask: What does it mean to turn to God in a time of pain? Let’s consider that to start off with, when I am hurting, I…
A. Turn Toward God in my anger. Anger is not a generally acceptable emotion to bring before God. If you look up references to anger in the Bible it is God who gets angry and usually at us, and we are admonished to keep anger hidden. Yet, the contrast of scripture is that people express anger toward God all the time. A psalmist is so angry at his enemies he prays, “God dash their babies against the rocks!” Now what emotion would you call that? Jesus turned over the money changes tables in the temple not because he was wanting exercise. On the cross he quoted Psalm 22: “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1) Now what emotion would you say Jesus was feeling there?
I remember one time in a counselor’s office being challenged to come up with better words to describe my feelings. I just kept saying I was frustrated. The counselor said, “Right now I want you to imagine you are in a place and the engines suddenly exploded and you are plunging to earth. What are you feeling? Frustation?
Anger is a God-given emotion. Can it be dangerous? Absolutely. That is why the Bible warns not to let anger become an excuse to do damage. But it is anger that sometimes causes us to change things for the better. When we get angry enough about injustice, abused children, violence, we do something to change it. There is such a thing as righteous indignation.
Swiss psychiatrist, and Christian author, Paul Tournier, said, “The greatest obstacle to acceptance is anger that has been repressed because one has not dared to give expression to it.” (Creative Suffering, p82) Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was one of the first to articulate stages of moving through grief. She said one of the important experiences is anger. Being able to express our deepest resentment that what has happened to us in unfair is a big step toward healing.
Take a look at this picture. Do you recognize it? It is one of the rooms in our building. It is called The Volcano Room. This was set up by the group that meets here on Thursday evenings known as Brooke’s Place, a program for children dealing with the death of a parent. This is a padded room where kids can go and safely release their anger and other emotions not easily accepted by the world.
I love the fact, that kids get to experience something many people, especially Christians would find unacceptable, yet it is an important part of their healing, and they get to do that at church. If anyone can take our anger it is God. God will never want to leave us in anger. God will challenge to move out of it at some point. But when we do, we often come to a closer relationship with God.
Unless you repent. You will perish. Keeping your anger inside will consume you. Repent. Turn to God with it.
B. Turn Toward What God Is Doing. The question of why presupposes that an answer will be satisfying. If we just had an experience or sign from God that makes sense of what we have gone through, then we will be okay. But Biblical record is to the contrary. The Israelites sought God for 400 years as slaves in Egypt but received nothing. Then one day God answered. Moses came. They saw the miracles of plagues, parting of the Red Sea, manna in the wilderness, a pillar of cloud and fire every day. Yet as soon as these signs dissipated so did their trust.
Job wanted an answer from God for all the loss and heartache he experienced. It never came. Instead he experienced God one day telling him he is not capable of handling such answers. In other words, he got no answer, but somehow that was enough. God’s presence was what he needed.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s okay to ask why. If you are angry you are asking why. But at some point the anger subsides, and eventually our question must become what. What is God doing? How is God present? And that answer becomes more helpful. Isaiah, the same prophet who has God saying I bring prosperity and disaster, also says, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” (Isaiah 43:2) Hope comes not in knowing why, but in experiencing how God is present.
Following the tragedy of 911, Fred Rogers, of Mr Rogers fame, gave a TV interview. He was being asked how he would explain to children such a nightmare as occurred in New York. He said I don’t think you can. Instead I remember something my mother used to say. “Whenever a catastrophe strikes look for the helpers. There will always be helpers. If you look for the helpers you’ll know there is hope.”
Have you noticed that? In every disaster there are always helpers. God shows up through the helpers. Carver McGriff a week ago preached for the funeral of one of our giants in the faith here at St. Luke’s, Gene Busche. Carver recalled the day his first wife died in a tragic car accident. The chaplain of the hospital said to Carver, you shouldn’t be here alone. Do you have someone you can call?” He called his Lay Leader, Gene Busche, who ten minutes later was at the hospital, and Carver said he had the wisdom not to say a thing. He just sat beside Carver and listened and held his hand. Carver knew God was with him.
Repent. Turn to God. Look for the helpers.
C. Turn Toward What God Has Yet to Do. Adam Hamilton in his book, Why?, says, “The sweeping message in the Bible is not a promise that those who believe and do good will not suffer. Instead the Bible is largely a book about people who refused to let go of their faith in the face of suffering.” Joseph remained faithful despite being sold by his brothers, imprisoned wrongly, and forgotten by people he helped. Jeremiah remained faithful despite criticism and abuse and even being lowered in a pit for weeks. Jesus remained faithful to God all the way to the cross.
Some of the bad things that happen to us and others makes absolutely no sense. But what also makes no sense is the way people persevere through adversity and offer their lives as instruments of hope. What keeps them from crumpling up into a ball? What allows them to go on and do amazing things? How do we explain that?
Most of the examples I have shared today are about people in Indiana. Many were ones who experienced terrible tragedy and give us a reason to ask why. Let me close with a few others.
Kim Davis wrote me the other day. She shared about having stage 3 cancer when she was born and then at 27 having other complications that took away her ability to have children. She writes, “But then God gave me the gift of working with kids in youth ministry. These have been some of my most treasured moments in life and these will always be “my kids.” Then I married an amazing man with 3 kids. They get a “bonus mom” God saw they might need as they go through their journey.
Bad things do and have happened, but I have no doubt God wept with me during those struggles and then said there are others you will be in a unique position to help and show my love and you will feel whole in a way you couldn’t when you were hurt.
John Wimmer, is a Methodist pastor who works at Lilly Endowment. Many years ago John had twins born at 24 weeks. One died and the other child survived. 18 months ago John wrote a book, Blessed Endurance: Moving from Despair to Hope. Right before being published he found out he has a very rare form of cancer known as small cell. We wrote an unexpected epilogue to his book:
Adolf Hansen. A number of years ago, Adolf and his wife Naomi, experienced the death of their adult daughter, Bonnie. It was shocking and sudden. Years before that, as a little girl, Bonnie bounced between life and death in a series of critical surgeries. Adolf writes about his anger with God at the time, and the way he felt God still accepting him and loving him. He prayed, “God I will trust you no matter what.” At the news of her death, he was surrounded by close friends, they prayed and without even thinking Adolf blurted out, “God I trust you no matter what.” And he felt a sustaining peace.
Tony and Kellie Trent…he will call for the video
The cross was a symbol not only of death but death for the worst of people. It was no different than a guillotine or gurney for lethal injection. It represented seemed to have no value, an experience to throw away, but what God did after the cross forever changes its meaning. Now it is a symbol of hope. It gives encouragement. It stands for what God can do.
Are there experiences in your life that feel like things you would like to throw away?...