Monday, February 29, 2016

Suffering and Belief in God

Cathedral of St. Paul, Fond du Lac, WI,
Lent 3, February 28, 2016

Why do you believe in God?

Why do you believe in God? Maybe you’ve had some mystical, burning-bush experience like Moses in this morning’s Old Testament lesson. Maybe you’ve had a dramatic conversion experience and you can point to the difference God has made in your life.  Maybe you are struck by the beauty and grandeur of creation. Or maybe, you were just raised that way and you don’t know any better. All of these reasons are fine and good, as well as whatever other reasons you might have. But for me, when it gets right down to it, I believe in God mostly because of the suffering and injustice in the world. 

I know that the suffering and injustice in the world is supposed to be the great stumbling block to faith in God. But, I’m just peculiar enough to find that to be the starting point for my belief. Let me explain. When I was around 30 years old, I came very close to giving up on Christianity and declaring myself an atheist. When I tried on being an atheist I found that as an atheist I would be forced to live a contradiction – a contradiction between my mind and my heart. Either I went with my mind and I followed the logic of atheism to its utmost conclusions, or I followed my heart. But the two could not be followed together. 

I tried to be an atheist and followed the logic of my mind I was forced to conclude that the beginning of all that is, and the beginning of all that I am, was an accident.  The end of all that is and all that I am will also be, more or less, an accident. Everything in between is a meaningless event suspended between two accidents. Nothing, ultimately, has any meaning. Nothing, ultimately, has any purpose. All we are left with is our personal preferences and prejudices as to what is good and what is not so good. I was forced to agree with Albert Camus who wrote that if we believe in nothing, then it does not matter ultimately if we stoke the fires of the crematorium, as did the Nazis, or if we serve the lepers in Africa, as did Albert Schweitzer. It all comes to the same thing.

The question “How can there be a good God when there is so much suffering in the world?” is a serious question. I do not mean to make light of hard realities that provoke it. But, is a parallel question that is just as challenging for an atheist, “If there is no God and no meaning, why do I care about the suffering in the world?” Why should I? In fact one of the things I felt when trying on atheism was a sense of relief – I didn’t have to care so much.

When a pack of wolves attacks and kills an elk calf we do not feel any moral outrage. Morally, it is a matter of indifference. That’s what wolves do. But, why do we feel moral outrage when a gunman shoots teenagers at a high school. Why are we outraged by the violence of war? When animals brutalize each other it is a matter of moral indifference. Why are we indignant when humans brutalize each other or even other animals? For an atheist there is no logical reason to give the lives of humans priority over the lives of other animals. We are all just the accidental byproducts of evolution and history. Our inclination to feel otherwise is only conditioned sentimentalism.

But, that, as the Psalmist says, is “a barren and dry land where there is no water” and humans cannot live there. That is why it is hard to find an honest atheist. However much our minds might say that there is no ultimate meaning, purpose, or value to life, our hearts cry out, “No!” Our hearts insist that there is meaning. There is purpose. Life has value. It’s not a matter of indifference. When a child is abused, tortured and killed, my outrage is not just a matter of my own personal preference. The response of my heart is in tune with the response at the heart of the universe. The offense I take at the slaughter of innocents, or for that matter the accidental deaths along the way, is not just an offense against my personal taste. It is an offense against the very fabric of reality.  That offense, the offense we take in the face suffering and injustice, does not prove that there is a God, but it at least pointed me toward God.

But, not just any God. The only god that makes sense to me in light of the reality of suffering is the God of Jesus who is also the God of Moses and of Israel. We just hear the story of Moses and the burning bush. Out of the burning bush – out of the burning heart of reality – Moses heard, “I have observed the misery of my people . . . I have heard their cry . . . I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them.” The God of the Bible is not aloof and indifferent to the suffering and injustice of this world. That God’s commitment to engaging misery and suffering culminates in his coming along side us in the flesh in the person of Jesus.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because in this morning’s gospel, some people come to Jesus, and ask, “What about the people who were murdered by Pilate and whose blood was mingled with their sacrifices?  Were they killed because of their sins?” Jesus responded, “No.” “What about the people who were killed in the accident in Siloam when the tower fell on them?  Did they die because of their sins?” Again, Jesus answers, “No.” According to Jesus, God is not in the payback business. The God revealed in Jesus is not about karma. God about grace, redemption, and transformation.

Jesus does not offer a nice and neat answer to why there is suffering. But, then Jesus rarely seems interested in answering our questions. He is more interested in questioning us. His response in this morning’s gospel is uncomfortably blunt. In essence he says “Those deaths were tragic. But, we are all going to die, maybe sooner, maybe later. So, today is the day to start living our lives in sync with the burning Heart of the universe. That heart burns with mercy and love. Begin now learning to love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus does not answer our questions about why there is suffering. He does not attempt to get God off the hook. Which is, of course, the point of the Gospel. On the cross, God puts himself on the hook. God, in Jesus Christ, enters into the mess that we have made of the world. God, in Christ, on the cross, enfolds and absorbs the pain and suffering of the world.  He transforms it into resurrection. There is the promise that we too will be transformed, our pain, our suffering, will be transformed. By his wounds, we will be healed. 

In the parable this morning, Jesus recognizes that, as the bumper sticker used to say, “‘manure’ happens”. But manure is fertilizer. If you look at your own life, often it is the hurts and the sufferings that cause spiritual growth. I do not think Jesus is suggesting that God causes the suffering in our lives. Rather, God transforms it.

French poet, Paul Caudel, wrote, “Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it away. He came to fill it with His presence.” Jesus does not explain suffering. He fills it with his presence and the promise of its transformation in the final resurrection of which his is the foretaste.

We live in a world of great suffering, of great injustices. It can be a hard place. It can be a hard place to believe in God, especially the generic God of human imagination. But the God we know in Jesus Christ is not a God of our own imagining. He is the God of the cross.

William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during WWII, wrote,

The revelation of God’s dealing with human sin shows God enduring every depth of anguish for the sake of His Children. . . All that we can suffer of physical or mental anguish is within the divine experience. . . He does not leave this world to suffer while He remains at ease apart; all suffering of the world is His.


Only a God in whose perfect Being pain has its place can win and hold our worship.

In Jesus  – on the cross and in the resurrection – heart and mind meet. And that’s a God you can believe in.

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