This sermon was composed and preached six years ago. I am re-posting it in case it is helpful to anyone else in these times.
Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? It’s such a human question. Why is this person suffering? Is it his fault? Can we blame the victim? You’d think we’d be over that, but it’s such an attractive idea that it keeps coming back – after all, if the person in pain brought the suffering on herself, then we don’t have to care, right?…
Well, if it’s not the victim’s fault, then whose is it? It must be somebody’s. Did the parents mess up? They usually do. Is Society at fault? The schools? Vaccines? Environmental pollutants? The President? God? …
Suffering is the great problem of human existence, and oh, how we would like to be able to understand it, to explain it, once and for all. If we can’t opt out of it, we would at least like to know what it means, why it happens.
The 50-cent seminary word for this is Theodicy. Theodicy: the effort to explain why a loving God permits evil and suffering. If God is all-loving and all-powerful, then why do bad things happen? And especially, why do bad things happen to the innocent and the good?
People of faith have tried out many, many explanations, whether trying to make sense of suffering far away or close to home. In his book Unapologetic – the one I keep telling you to read – Francis Spufford runs through some of the more popular theodicies, the ways people have tried to reconcile the reality of a cruel world with their experience of being cherished by a loving God. Spufford says, “Theodicies try to justify God by justifying the cruel world. They vary, but they have one thing in common: None of them quite work. None of them fare well enough against the challenge of experience… to let us lay the issue [of suffering] to rest, to let us file it under ‘solved.’ Each tends to find some useful elements of truth to grip on to, but end up failing…by drawing a picture of the God of everything which is incompatible with love.”
Explanation number one: People get what they have coming to them. Good things happen to good people. This illusion has a certain appeal if you lead a comfortable life, if you’ve never dealt with a serious crisis or loss, and if you can manage to disregard the extensive evidence, both in Scripture and in the voluminous text of human history, that innocent people – starting with infants and children – suffer and die ALL. THE. TIME.
Living a good life, a just and ethical and loving life, day by day and year by year – that is utterly and completely worth doing, for the well-being of your soul and of the world. But the world is not a gumball machine; dropping your good life like a quarter into the slot won’t get you the sweet sweet reward of easy living. It just doesn’t work that way. What looks like the simplest, cleanest, fairest explanation fails as soon as we hold it up to the harsh light of a single child’s suffering.
Okay. So. We move on to other explanations. How about this one: We suffer because God is refining us. Making us stronger, purer. Spufford says, “The element of truth… here is that there are virtues which, quite genuinely, can only be developed by endurance. There truly are ways in which we need to experience bad things… in order to have selves which are strongly made.”
We know this is true because we have heard it affirmed by the only people with the authority to speak to it: people who have suffered greatly, and who say, ‘I am who I am because of that suffering. I am braver, more compassionate, more thoughtful, more focused, more faithful, because of what I have endured.’
But, Spufford notes, the idea that suffering might be distributed by God for pedagogical and character-building purposes cracks open and falls apart when we consider the distribution of suffering. Spufford writes, “The ills of the world are not all neatly sized so that we can cope with them. It is not true that we are never tested beyond our power to endure.”
Suffering does not always help us grow, or make us noble. Sometimes it distorts and debases us. Sometimes it makes us into people who want others to suffer. Sometimes suffering makes us more; just as often it makes us less. And sometimes, of course, it destroys us. When suffering does bring growth or deepening, I see that as evidence of divine grace at work, of God’s capacity and desire to bring good out of pain and loss. That doesn’t mean that God intends the suffering; only that, sometimes, God can redeem it.
Here’s another one, Explanation Number Three: We suffer because God has a plan in which our suffering is necessary. The idea here is that God has some vast, profound, wise cosmic plan, and while we can’t see how this loss or that misfortune fits into that divine strategy, it’s only because our perspective is so limited. The helpful truth here is that God cannot be confined in time as we are; God’s perspective is unimaginably other than ours. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s ways not our ways.
But again, if we understand God’s love as being at all similar to human love – then this explanation doesn’t carry us very far. I have a friend in another state who, years ago, suffered the miscarriage of a very-much-wanted pregnancy. Twin girls. She and her husband have three living children now, a houseful of noise and happiness. Does the loss she suffered make her a better parent now? Does she treasure her living children more, having suffered that loss? I don’t know. Maybe. Does that mean that God planned for her to lose those babies, knowing that eventually good things would come to her? …
Spufford writes, “If love is love, [if God’s love is like human love,] it can’t manipulate. It can’t treat those it loves as means to an end. Love is love because it sees the loved ones as ends in themselves, not tools or instruments to achieve some further goal. Suffering can’t be vindicated by a pay-off elsewhere.”
How about this one? We suffer, but it doesn’t matter, because life is only a brief prelude to heaven. What you might call the pie-in-the-sky theodicy. Spufford deals with this one briskly: “[This is] a comprehensive and instant fail, because whether or not you believe that heaven is real, this life certainly is, and so is the suffering it contains. …The only useful element [in this explanation] is a hope you can hang onto, that love with outlast trouble.” Beyond that, this explanation turns God into an emergency-room doctor who thinks it’s OK to take his time, because you’ll get the morphine eventually.
The common element in all the explanations so far is that human suffering is in some way intended by God. Many Christians believe that, deeply; and I would never tell someone who finds comfort in the idea that there is a purpose for their suffering, that their mindset is theologically untenable.
But it makes me worried, and sad, to see someone in pain who believes that pain is God’s intention, God’s desire. I can, I do believe in a God who brings good out of evil, wherever and whenever and however that is possible. I cannot believe in a God who intends evil, in order to break us down and break us open.
Scripture teaches us to think of God as a parent, in order, I think, to teach us about God’s love through our own experiences of human love. Think of your own love for your child, your partner, your dear friend. When bad things happen, you support and comfort; you try to help them survive, and if possible, to learn from the experience, to grow and change. But you would never plan bad things for someone you love. To paraphrase Jesus, if even we, in our human limitations, know how to treat our children with love, then how much more so does God, our loving Parent.
Which brings us to the explanations, the theodicies, in which suffering is NOT God’s intent. These explanations get more mysterious. More paradoxical. More slippery, perhaps. Perhaps less satisfying. There’s this one: Suffering is the flip side of free will. God made us to be fully ourselves, wholly free, able to choose good and evil, so that we might choose relationship with God, instead of simply being dolls in God’s divine dollhouse.
Again, our experiences of human love offer insight: We see those we love make bad choices, sometimes. We try to guide, encourage, support, comfort. But their choices are their own. Love does not coerce or manipulate. Does God watch us sometimes with the same thwarted tenderness we feel for one we love, who is plainly taking a wrong turn? …
But what, then, about suffering not caused by human choices? Earthquakes, plagues, typhoons, droughts? Leave aside global warming for a moment; these things have happened
since long before humans began our complicated and destructive dance with our environment. The only possible answer is this: that the world is not entirely as God intended it to be. Perhaps, like us, Creation is free, to turn unfortunate corners, to make destructive choices. There are scientist-theologians who explore these possibilities and paradoxes.
The important element of truth in this theodicy is the reminder that the creation is not the same as the creator. Spufford writes, “God may sustain it all, God may be its bright backing, … but Creation is not God, it is in some utterly mysterious sense what happens where God isn’t.”
It’s helpful to remember that… but, in truth, all of this only brings us back to the original question: Why does God permit suffering? Why doesn’t God fix the world, kick butt and take names, straighten the whole business out, once and for all? …
How, then, do we deal with suffering? How do we deal with the heartbreaking contradiction between a loving God and a cruel world? How do we understand the unfairness of a child born blind, or whatever lack or grief or hurt troubles our hearts? Well… ultimately, we don’t.
Spufford writes, “[For many believers,] the question of suffering proves to be one of those questions which is replaced by other questions, rather than being answered. We move on from it without abolishing the mystery. … We don’t ask for a Creator who can explain himself. We ask for a friend in time of grief, a true judge in time of perplexity, a wider hope than we can manage in time of despair.”
In the face of those things that break us down, break us open, explanations don’t help much anyway – neither good ones nor bad ones ease our rage or sorrow. The only comfort that can really touch us is the comfort of feeling that we are loved. Spufford wraps up his survey of theodicies here: Given the cruel world, it’s God’s love song we need most, to help us bear what we must; and, if we can, to go on loving.
But Spufford has one more thing to say. Every faith that trusts in a loving God deals with the problem of suffering. Each faith has its distinctive answers. Our distinctive answer, as Christians, is a person, and a story. He writes, “[As Christians,] we don’t say that God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world. We say: all is not well with the world, but at least God is here in it, with us. We don’t have an argument that solves the problem, but we have a story.” The story of God wearing a human face, sharing in human experience, human love, human pain.
In these weeks of Lent, we prepare ourselves to tell that story again, to receive it in all its grueling beauty. Whatever suffering you carry, great or small, near or far, bring it with you as we walk together towards the cross, and towards what lies beyond.
Francis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, Faber and Faber, 2012.