1 Peter 5:6-11
As many of you know on June 17 our world was shaken. A man worshiped with and then shot and killed 9 people at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina motivated by the hate that is racism. This event shook the security and sanctuary we all feel within our churches. It brought forth feelings of anger and hate towards those who could bring such violence upon the church. It sparked debates over systemic racism and acts of senseless violence. However, most of all, within the Christian community, it has rekindled the ever-going conversation around human suffering.
The people who had gathered that day at Emanuel AME gathered for bible study. They gathered to commune with God. None of them were doing anything wrong. Yet 9 of them were victims of an unbearable tragedy, because one person thought it needed to happen. It is events like these both on large corporate and smaller personal scales alike that lead persons to question their faith. Asking questions like, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “Why do the innocent suffer?”
Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, KS, poses the question in this manner saying,
“‘…If God is loving and just, then God must not be all powerful. Or, if God is all-powerful, God must not be loving and just.’ For if God were all-powerful and loving and just, then God would stop the evil, pain, and suffering in our world. Theologians have a special name for the attempt to resolve this quandary: they call it theodicy, from the Greek words for God and justice. Theodicy is the attempt to reconcile belief in a loving and powerful God with the suffering present in our world.” (Hamilton, Kindle Location 62-66)
These are the tough questions.
As I ponder and reflect on my own ever-growing theologies I realize that this is not a journey I must make alone, nor are any one of us the only ones struggling with these concepts. Therefore, let us help one another. We can all struggle with these ideas together.
Over the next month we are going to be looking at questions that people of faith ask all of the time. Questions that cause us to question our faith in God. These are questions that often lead people to stop trusting in God. That lead people to leave Christianity because they cannot reckon a God who could act in such manners. We all wrestle with these questions. These are not questions that just go away, or ideas that become easy to deal with. Sin, temptation, suffering, and evil unfortunately don’t just go away because we have accepted Christ, but can seem much more elevated and worse because we feel in that moment God has let us down or, sometimes, we have let God down.
In situations of suffering often times things are said like, “Maybe it was God’s plan” or “perhaps you did something wrong and now God is punishing you.” These statements sadden my heart because they hurt more than they help. I personally do not believe God causes any of our suffering. Our God is a good God who loves and cares for us. As we begin to wrestle with this topic it is important to begin by noting that God is not the creator of evil. James writes in his letter c.1 v. 13-15,
“No one who is tested should say, ‘God is tempting me!’ This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death.” (James 1:13-15)
It is us, humans, who are to blame for suffering. Whether it is we ourselves or our ancestors or our neighbors we have failed. Adam Hamilton, in his book “WHY?”, gives three basic ideas that can help provide a foundation for reconciling God’s goodness with the suffering we witness and experience. (Hamilton, Kindle Location 141-46) The first is that God gives us dominion over creation. This is revealed in our Genesis passage read.
“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘…have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1:28b)
God gave humans dominion and rule over all of creation. To care and protect it. The fish, birds, and animals all of it. Hamilton puts it, “God’s primary way of working in the world is through people who are empowered and led by God’s Spirit.” (Hamilton, Kindle Location 176-77) Through our dominion God has entrusted us with the care of creation and all the creatures within it.
This dominion leads us to the second foundational idea, and that is that with our dominion we also possess freedom. We as humans have free will. We have the ability to choose between right and wrong.
God gives us free will because God wants our love to be genuine. It could have been so easy for God to make us into robots who say I love at the push of a button, but God wants our love to mean something when we say it. Therefore, God gives us free will to choose between right and wrong. To choose to accept or reject God’s love. This freedom has been given to humanity since creation.
As we continue to build the last foundational point is that because of our free will we have a predisposition to stray away from God’s path or God’s love. We are often drawn to things that are wrong. Straying from the path looks so great. It is filled with all kinds of fun looking things. Things that will glorify ourselves, but only temporarily. With the idea we have a choice between right and wrong, wrong often seems like the choice to make and we make it.
Therefore, all of this, the dominion, the freedom, the predisposition, are all part of a foundation of suffering. God did not intend for this to happen, but it is a byproduct of our own abuse of what God has given us. This thing that was meant to be good, our dominion and freedom, have been abused and cause us to stray and to suffer.
It is tough to reconcile this because it makes us to blame. It takes the cause out of God’s hands and puts it on natural occurrences and on our hands. We then become the problem. Suffering and evil become a human agent. Something that happens because of our abuse and misuse of our freedom. Because of the way that we treat the land in which we have dominion over.
Charleston happened because a person was a broken piece of creation. Influenced and controlled by injustices and he took action. Causing groups of people to suffer. This was not God’s doing but the result of a persons choice to use their free will in a physically harming way. Suffering is part of our broken world. Whether it is systemic racism, religious persecution, abuse of freedom, or abuse of dominion our broken world causes us to suffer.
God is not the agent causing any of it, but it is humans who have strayed from who God calls us to be and impacting many others around them. We cannot sit back and say that God played a part in these events, because it is not fair to God. To attach God to these horrific events attacks at God’s love towards creations. However, if God is all loving then why does suffering exist? Why doesn’t God stop it before it starts?
This I cannot fully answer, because God is mysterious. God is just in action. It is not that God doesn’t enact miracles to save people from suffering, but if miracles were a common occurrence they would not be miracles. Miracles by their nature are rare. Rather it is God weeping and grieving alongside of us in our suffering that shows us God’s true nature. Not God’s absence in preventing the suffering, but God comforting presence in the midst of suffering. God grieves our mistakes and the mistakes of others, and walks with us through them.
Instead of trying to blame God for causing the suffering we need to turn to God in our suffering. Instead of forsaking the one who can console us we should turn to our creator, our redeemer, and our friend. Unfortunately I know this is a tough concept to grasp and leaves more questions than answers. We often fight and wrestle with God over these points. This is not a bad thing to do, but we cannot get caught up in out anger. We must not be in the business of blaming God or asking what might have been if God had stopped it. Instead we must recognize our broken world and seek God’s compassionate help in healing.
Peter writes in his first letter,
“Therefore, humble yourselves under God’s power so that he may raise you up in the last day…After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, the one who called you into his eternal glory in Christ Jesus, will himself restore, empower, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:6 & 10)
Peter is working to help his readers understand that suffering is not eternal, but that God will help strengthen and empower us. Peter is writing during a time when Christians are being persecuted by the Roman Empire and people are wondering why God is not intervening. He unpacks suffering throughout his letter and it leads him to these words. Peter is saying God will raise us up past this suffering.
We live in a broken world full of broken people. People who seek their own ambitions and not the ambitions of helping others. Through our abuse of creation, through natural occurrences of creation, from our own decisions, or even the decisions of others we know that suffering exists. While suffering is not caused by God God does help us by using our suffering to help us grow and strengthen in God’s beautiful image.
We have all had difficult times in our lives. I am sure we have all asked these questions. Some of us still want to blame God and there is room for that. There is room to wrestle with God about our faith, but know that God is not the cause of our suffering. Our anger with God is a natural response. However, it is when we allow that anger to continue to control our life that we allow suffering and evil to win. Sometimes we need to be angry for a bit, but don’t let it control you. Some of us sitting here might be struggling to reconcile God’s presence for any number of reasons. If this is where you are please come and talk with me. Know that you are not the first person in history to have these thoughts. Know that you also have a whole community to help you through this time. We must not allow our suffering to impede our relationship with God. We must first understand that it is not God’s doing, but that humanity is responsible through our abuse of freedom.
Seek God and others in these times of hurt and pain, and help each other. Because, suffering is what we make it. We either allow the suffering to control us and can continue to suffer, or we can turn to God for comfort and guidance in our suffering. So instead of continuing to blame God lets turn to God for our comfort. Let’s allow God to be our source of our hope in the midst of suffering. Instead of abandoning God because our questions are too irreconcilable let us turn to God, not for answers to all of our questions, but for comfort in our own pain.
1. Hamilton, Adam (2010-10-01). Why?: Making Sense of God’s Will. Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
2. NRSV Bible