Where Is God When People Suffer?

Where Can I Find God? 

For a lot of good reasons, I’ve never posted a sermon on this page before.  But because the question of God’s presence when innocent people suffer is relentlessly before us and because American Christianity has an overdose of a version of Calvinism that says, “There’s a reason for everything,” I felt led to post last Sunday’s sermon.  You can also watch the podcast at www.firstchurchorlando.org.

“My God, Why?”

Text: Job 23:1-12, Psalm 22, Hebrews 4:14-16

As if I didn’t already have more than enough material for this sermon, when I opened my Facebook feed on Friday morning I found this message from a pastor friend whom I had seen at a Conference meeting the day before.

I’m speechless and heartbroken with the news of the death of our nephew.  He lived in NC and was driving to an appointment when a line of storms came through and a tree and power lines came down on his car. My heart is breaking for his wife, their beautiful baby Wade and older son Travis. Brian was a kind, caring, loving son, husband, father and friend. His loss leaves a huge hole in many hearts today. Prayers for God’s presence to be felt with all of us during this time.

          I double dog dare you to come up with some simple answer to that. I dare you to look into my friend’s tear-filled eyes and say, “God must have had a reason for this,” or “He’s better off in Heaven.”  Better to be like my friend — “speechless and heartbroken” — than to try to squeeze a loss like that through the tiny needle’s eye of human reason.  Better to cry out with Jesus the words of the 22ndPsalm, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Where is God when innocent people suffer?

Where was God when hurricane Michael carved its deadly path across the panhandle?

Where was God when a faithful, joy-filled pastor, a seminary colleague who always lived a healthy life, suffered and died with mesothelioma?

Where was God when his widow returned to Kenya where she has been engaged in mission work for many years and was in a horrendous car accident in which another passenger was killed and she had to be airlifted back to the US for major surgery and a long, difficult healing?

Where was God during hurricane Irma when the teenage son of a United Methodist pastor in NC was clearing a fallen tree and a branch hit his head, causing a brain injury that could have ended his life and resulted in a long, tedious recovery?

Where is God when children starve or are incarcerated or when young women are assaulted and no one hears their cries?

Where can you find God in a world like this? With Job, we cry out, “O, that I knew where I might find him!”

Sooner or later, anyone with a smidgeon of compassion and a minimal amount of faith has to face the hard question: Where is God when innocent people suffer?  But if you’re looking for a simple answer, you’d best stay away from the book of Job.

If I asked for a show of hands by everyone who has heard of Job, I suspect the response would be nearly unanimous.  But if I asked how many have actually read the story, it would probably be a slim minority.

There are good reasons for avoiding this book. It’s long, it’s complex, and it’s poetry.  That’s three sure-fire strikes against it before you open the bible.  In our short-attention span culture, we want every story, no matter how complex, reduced to a Tweet or a 30-second headline. As for poetry, when as the last time you read a 42-chapter long poem?

We talk about the “patience of Job” without having the patience to read his story, to endure his suffering, to debate the simplistic answers of his insufferable but well-meaning friends, or to hear his wife say, “Why don’t you curse God and die.”  I’ll acknowledge that I’ve never used Mr. and Mrs. Job as a model for marital communication.

But when we tell the truth, we’re a lot like Job’s friends. We’d like to believe that we live in a quid pro quo world.

Live a good life and good things will happen.

Have faith in God and God will take good care of you.

Pray with the right kind of faith and God will give you anything you want.

The tragic corollary is that when bad things happen, it means that either you did something to deserve it or God is trying to teach you a lesson. There’s always a reason for everything.

To be sure, there are times when Job’s friends got it right.  Sometimes there is a reason and often the reason is human sin or stupidity.

Some car accidents are the result of a drunk driver or a limousine that was not property licensed or maintained.

Some cancers are the result of a lifetime of smoking or bad eating habits.

Some heart attacks are caused by stress, obesity and lack of exercise.

Most of the suffering in poverty-stricken nations is due to greed in the wealthy ones.

Sometimes Job’s friends get it right.

But the Old Testament storytellers won’t let us get away with that.  They knew that life in this world is not always as simple as a mathematical equation.So, they gave us this story of a very good man who experienced almost incomprehensible suffering.

The good guys don’t always win.  In fact, they sometimes end up on the short end of a cross.

The bad guys don’t always get punished.  In fact, sometimes they do a lot of the winning.

As much as we’d like to believe the promises of the prosperity gospel preachers, life doesn’t always work out that way.  There is not always a reason for everything.

When people refer to “the patience of Job” it’s a dead give-away to me that they’ve never read the story.  That phrase suggests that Job simply sits on his ash heap, scratching is sores, enduring whatever comes his way.

But when Job finally speaks he is anything but patient.  He spends nine chapters (23-31), laying out his case before God like an attorney arguing his case before the Supreme Court.  His voice is filled with deep anguish, searing questions, and direct rebuke of the simplistic answers with which his friends tried to explain away his suffering.

Oh, that I could know how to find him…
    I would lay out my case before him,
fill my mouth with arguments,
    know the words with which he would answer…
He would surely listen to me.

            Job’s gutsy, ruthless honesty with God takes him to a place of courageous confidence in his own integrity.  In chapter 27 Job declares:

…as long as breath is in me
and God’s breath is in my nostrils—
    my lips will utter no wickedness;
my tongue will mumble no deceit…
.

    Until my dying day, I won’t give up my integrity.
I will insist on my innocence, never surrendering it;
my conscience will never blame me for what I have done.

            When Amy Butler preached on this text at (The Riverside Church) in New York City  she said that Job’s kind of integrity enables us to continue to believe in God even when there seem to be no rewards. It empowers us to:

Tell the truth even when people disregard it.
Be kind even when the occasion doesn’t call for it.
Demand justice even when it seems far away.
Protest, canvas, vote when all cards stacked against you.
Proclaim God’s goodness even when the pain and fear seem too intense.
Keep walking even when the way is hard.

            Job’s unwavering trust in God and his own integrity, keep us walking all the way to the cross where, just as Job cried, “O that I knew where I could find God!”, Jesus asked, “My God!  My God, why have you left me all alone? Why are you so far from saving me?”  (Psalm 22:1)  It leads us to that place where God joins us in our God-forsaken suffering; the one place on earth where the almighty God takes into God’s own self all of our God-forsakenness.

We hear that word in the epistle reading for today. The letter to the Hebrews was written to people who were facing hard times, personal rejection and painful persecution; people who couldn’t help but feel that God had forsaken them.  It had to come as good news to them to hear that we don’t have a high priest who can’t sympathize with our weaknesses but instead one who was tempted in every way that we are.”

            Just a few verses later the writer describes Jesus praying with and for us:

During his days on earth, Christ offered prayers and requests with loud cries and tears as his sacrifices to the one who was able to save him from death. He was heard because of his godly devotion.”  (Hebrews 5:7)

            We dare to believe that we follow a Risen Christ who has been there, in the deepest, darkest, most God-forsaken moments of our lives.

In the 16thCentury, Matthias Grunewald expressed that faith when he painted an altarpiece for the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, Germany, where the monks cared for victims of the plagues that ravaged Europe, many of them suffering from a variety of brutal skin diseases. When suffering patients looked up at the cross, they saw on the body of Jesus the same open sores and painful scars that covered their bodies.  cruz1234.png

It was Grunewald’s way of describing the way God is with us, even in the darkest, most God-forsaken hours of our lives; taking into God’s own self all of our God-forsakenness.

I had a conversation recently with a young pastor whose 19-year-old nephew committed suicide.  He confessed that just as we all do, he and his wife kept asking why, all the time knowing that they would never really know the answer.  But at the end of his sharing he said,  “There was no way to figure it out, but I’m glad I know a God who walks with me through the inexplicable.”

Brothers and sisters, when we experience suffering like the suffering of Job, suffering for which there simply is no good reason, quit trying to explain it away with simplistic clichés, but keep on trusting, keep on walking, keep on believing, keep on living in the assurance that God walks with you even through the inexplicable.

Grace and peace,

Jim

 

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7 thoughts on “Where Is God When People Suffer?

  1. Trust in God is really all we can do when tragedy comes into our lives. Been there, done that. Thanks, Jim.

    Sent from my iPhone

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  2. Jim, thank you for your enlightening words and insights. This week I lost a very dear friend of 17 years. She was only 66 years old and died of pneumonia and complications of CLL. This is the third dear person I’ve lost in the last 4 years. All of them have gone prematurely, two of them because of suicides. They couldn’t handle their pain any longer and sought to end their pain. One had uterine cancer and the other had Lyme disease. Paul

    Sent from Yahoo Mail on Android

  3. I once set a goal to read the whole Bible. Leviticus was tedious beyond belief, Isaiah pushed Psalms out of the running for my favorite book. Job was brutal faith punch. We would be a better community if we were confronted with this book more often. Faith is the opposite of certainty. Love is about suffering with our brothers and sisters. Good stuff, Pastor Jim!

  4. Jim

    I’m leading a Wednesday night look at Yancey’s “The Bible Jesus Read”. Two weeks ago we discussed Job and tomorrow night we have Ecclesiastes. I think i prefer Job, though Yancey gives a reason to appreciate both.

    Jim

    James A. Cloar

    Sent from my iPhone

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  5. Thank you. I needed that. Judy

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  6. Thank you for that sermon, Jim. It hits close to home tonight. We received a call from a family friend tonight that she found that her adopted 10 year old son, who suffered from shaken baby syndrome, had died in his sleep early this morning. Considering the doctors’ prognosis, we were so blessed to have him this long. And yet, our hearts bleed; what can we say?

    God’s Peace, Rev. Mike Brinkman (ret.) Oneonta, Alabama

    Sent from my iPad

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  7. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you,

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