Exodus 17: 1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5: 1-11; John 4: 5-42
THE REV. JAMES M. L. GRACE
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. AMEN.
I have learned a lot about myself over the years. I have learned, again and again, that I am far from perfect. I have learned that I am not very good at so many things. I have learned that the older I get, the less I feel I know. I have also learned that platitudes, especially of the Christian variety, no longer resonate with me. Let me give you an example: “God will not give you more than you can handle.” I have heard well-intentioned Christians offer that platitude to people going through difficult times. They do so because they feel those words are somewhere in the Bible, right? It sounds like something the Bible would say – but in fact nowhere in the Bible does it ever say that God refrains from giving people more than they can bear.
To the contrary, I believe people deal with more than they can bear constantly. I would never think of saying “God won’t give you more than you can handle” to a child whose parents have died, or to a young woman carrying a child she does not have the means to care for. I know many of us have felt that our burdens are greater than we can carry. Here’s another platitude that I have long since disavowed myself from: “God has a wonderful plan for your life.” When I see Jewish cemeteries desecrated in this country, Coptic Christians fleeing for their lives in Egypt, Muslim families forced out of their country by war and geopolitical conflict – well maybe God does have a plan, but when I see all that, I must confess that it does not seem like a plan that makes much sense to me at all.
If I were God, my plan would look something like eradicating poverty, war, violence, injustice, and oppression. This very issue accounts for the rise of global atheism today – as atheists rightfully ask “If God is good, if God is in control, as Christians proclaim, rightfully in my opinion, how can the world be so broken?” For the atheist the answer is simple: there is no God, the world and our existence are an improbable occurrence, and we are responsible for the state of our world.
As a Christian, I return to the conundrum of suffering and pain all the time. Why does God allow it? I went to seminary hoping that I would find an answer to that question. I didn’t. Many authors have taken God to task on the question of God and suffering – there are books in the Bible devoted to it. A branch of theology called “theodicy” is dedicated to exploring the question of how God can be just and good and yet allow injustice to exist upon the earth. The only way I can answer this question is by paradox. A paradox is simply a series of true statements that contradict each other, and I believe that paradox is more true than fact. Here is an example: God is good, God is in control, and terrible things do happen.
I think the reason why I am able to hold the tension of those three statements (God is good, God is in control, and terrible things can happen) is because of my personal suffering. As much as I hate suffering, as much as I look back on the times in my life where I have suffered, and when I suffer today – I realize that suffering, pain, sorrow – they have been without a doubt my greatest teacher. I have learned, and still have a lot more to learn about love and God through suffering. So I say this to you today: if you feel you are in a terrible place, if you feel that God is so far out of the picture and is not even listening to you or doesn’t even care, know that often that is the sign that you are in fact nearer to God than you might imagine. I say this because I know that to be true from my own life.
Today we hear a small part of a letter written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Rome –the letter is called “Romans.” In that letter today, Paul talks about suffering directly, saying “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, we boast in our sufferings!” Doesn’t that sound kind of weird? We tend to be quiet about our suffering because we are ashamed or embarrassed by them. But I don’t believe Paul understood suffering that way. Paul says later in Romans that our suffering produces endurance, but he doesn’t stop there, but continues to say that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and our hope does not disappoint us.
In saying that, Paul suggests something that I still fail to fully comprehend today, and that is that suffering is the place where hope is born, and the hope born in that place will never disappoint us. Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, author, and holocaust survivor, proves Paul was right. In Frankl’s book entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which tells his story of living in a concentration camp, Frankl says that almost categorically it was the people in the camps who were able to envision themselves in the future no longer imprisoned, living with their families again, who had a much higher survival rate. At the same time, Frankl observed that when people lost hope, who only could see themselves dying in that hellish place, their chance for survival was much lower.
In saying all this, I have no answer that comes close to adequately explaining how or why God allows suffering. What little I can say is this: from the comparably small taste of suffering I have experienced in my life hope has emerged. It is a hope that I have stumbled upon or fallen into, a hope birthed from suffering, perhaps a hope I don’t deserve. But it is there, and to date, it has yet to disappoint.
I don’t think I will ever be able to fully understand the purpose of suffering, but I am learning to grasp the beautiful hope that springs forth from it. AMEN.