Where is God when we suffer?
They say that if you were alive in 1963 in November of that year you’ll recall the time and the place when you learnt that President Kennedy had been assassinated.
I imagine the same will be true in the years to come of where you were when you heard of the disaster that hit America on September 11, 2001. For you it may have been listening to the radio or watching the news, the news broke at about 10.45pm.
Or it may have been, like it was for me, waking up on Wednesday morning, hearing the radio, bewildered at the news that had been broadcast. As if the impossible had happened. And then of course you watched the TV as I did, you saw those horrific scenes and over the ensuing days they were repeated time after time after time. The impact was so extraordinary. You felt like you were watching one of those Hollywood movies, one of those disaster films, Deep Impact like Armageddon or Independence Day.
We’re so used to seeing these digitalised effects on our screens, going to the movies and being somewhat entertained, going back into the real world and knowing it wasn’t quite like that in the real world, and we thank God that is the case. But there was no consolation of that order after we turned our TV sets off. The impact of that terrorist attack continues to abide with us. We’re puzzled, we’re bewildered, we’re outraged, we’re angry, we’re sorrowful for those who lost their lives.
In Pearl Harbour there were about 200 military personnel, mostly navy, who were killed and less than 100 civilians. We have at the moment estimates of something like 5000 civilians killed and a few hundred military personnel, of which about 60 or so are Australian citizens as far as we know. And it’ll be a while before all those deaths can be confirmed. We know terror, but terror has become terrorism, where people traffic in ill-will, and call upon God for their philosophy or their anti-American or anti-Western ideals, to inflict carnage at such an enormous level as we’ve seen in the last days.
Where is God in all of this? Why is there pain and suffering? Our minds have been focused by the events that we’ve seen on TV. And it’s not an isolated example is it? We’ve been seeing a conflict in Northern Ireland between so-called Christians fighting one another for ideals, for land, for freedom. We see a similar conflict in the Middle East with Palestinians and Israelis. That conflict has been going on for years. We see it in different parts of Africa where regimes come into power and systematically kill those who oppose their rule. We see it in India, we see it in Indonesia, we see it all around the globe.
How does the Christian approach a God in a world of suffering and pain? Well we live in a world and in a country where we have a number of different faiths. Multiculturalism has come to Australia. What are the alternative answers we get from those religious traditions? In Hinduism it’s a question of balance. They see the concept of good and evil being balanced. A good deed will bring about a good result, a bad deed will bring about a bad result. And if you’re suffering pain or evil in your life according to Hindu philosophy, that’s because of your ‘karma’. Your ‘karma’ are your deeds, not just your deeds in this life but in a previous life. And because there’s a belief in reincarnation if things are going bad for you today then it’s because of something you’ve done beforehand. Not quite like Maria’s song in the ‘Sound of Music’, “I must have done something good”, but because of the previous life. And if you do good now in this life, you have ‘karma’, so that in your next reincarnation you’ll be born to a more wealthy family, to a better estate, but if in that estate you do bad well then the cycle will reverse and in the next reincarnation you’ll be worse off. That’s their only understanding of evil in the world; it must have a cause. If you have enough ‘karma’ you’ll be able to free yourself from this mortal existence, cast off this mortal coil and you’ll achieve enlightenment, or in Buddhism ‘Nirvana’, you’ll be able to free yourself from all physicality, and from the realm of suffering and pain.
Buddhism on the other hand sees pain as illusion, it’s not real, it’s an illusion because you are fooled into thinking that your pain is related to your affections and your desires. If you could only free yourself from affection and desire then you would see the pain as an illusion. When you are hungry, and have a desire for food, if you could free yourself from that desire, then hunger becomes an illusion. If you free yourself from love, if you cut yourself off from affection, from relationships, then when you lose them you’ll feel no pain because it is an illusion. That’s the path of enlightenment that Buddhism teaches.
Islam on the other hand sees everything in terms of the will of Allah. It’s the will of Allah which decrees everything. It’s a bold, impersonal, deterministic, transcendental force described as Allah or their god, not, I tell you, the God of the Bible, but the god of Islam, where the will of Allah is what permeates. When things happen, if the will of Allah, and there’s nothing you can do about it, so therefore it requires no explanation. You don’t need to find a cause other than Allah’s will, so it will be the will of Allah that the World Trade Centre was to be demolished, and that is that.
At an almost amusing level John Dickson has written a book about ‘Where is God in a World of Pain’ and he gives the illustration of a lady who is in a Muslim country and where she’d locked her keys in the car and she sought for help from some local people and one man said, ‘Well, it’s the will of Allah, your keys are in the car and that’s where they’ll stay.’ There was no help that could be offered because you could not thwart Allah’s will. Such was the deterministic outlook of Islam.
Atheism on the other hand, and although there aren’t many people who tick the box for atheists in our country, there are many practical atheists who only find God when things go wrong and then it’s someone to blame, since there’s no God when things are going well. But atheists by their very creed say there is no design in our world. We dance to the tune of DNA, it is chaos. There might be natural selection and that possibly could be seen as design. We live in an evolutionary world in which things just happen the way they do, there is no rhyme, there is no reason, there is no point in our trying to achieve any understanding of the complexity of life, it is blind chance, it is chaos and dark night.
So where is the Christian God in all of this? Philosophers have normally put it this way as a challenge to Christianity. If there is an all-powerful God, if there is an all-loving God, and if there is suffering, then one of those propositions must be false. For if there is a God who is all-loving and all-powerful, how could he allow suffering? Therefore either God is not all-powerful and He can’t stop it, or He’s not all-loving and He won’t stop it. How do you answer cynicism like that? Well the answer is this. If there is an all-loving and all-powerful God, and there is suffering in the world, He must have a loving reason why there is suffering. There must be a reason why we have suffering in our world. It’s not to deny God’s power, it’s not to deny God’s love, it is not to deny suffering in our world. But if suffering continues it is for a good reason. The problem is we don’t know or comprehend the reasons that God has. We know that our world has been turned upside down by the rebellion of humankind. We know that death has entered our world because of sin. We know the world is not what it was planned to be in God’s perfect world in the Garden of Eden. We know that sin and therefore chaos, death and disease have invaded our very being, so that our very being is under decay, the world is under decay, but that’s not how God planned things. God planned things perfectly with a perfect outcome for Adam and Eve in that Garden of Eden. Suffering came because of the evil one who tempted Adam and Eve to break faith with God. But even in our world we cause pain. We know that we actually cause pain for good reasons. Those of you who are parents - you cause pain to your children. Not just when you discipline them, but when you had them vaccinated for the mandatory vaccinations which were required. Ever thought what your child was thinking when that person in a white coat came with this enormous needle. When you’re the size of an infant that needle’s enormous let me tell you. And you stood there and watched that person jab metal into your child’s arm. If your child could have spoken what would they have said: ‘What do you think you’re doing? This is painful, and you’re standing by?’ What do you say, ‘Well the government made me do it.’ You vaccinate, you innoculate, for good reason. In fact you make that decision without explanation to the child. As parents we make decisions frequently without explanation to children because they cannot comprehend what you know. But for their good you inflict pain. It’s not just to our children, we do it to ourselves. We go to the dentist, we know it’s not going to be an enjoyable visit. We know that there is pain ahead of us. What’s more we pay for it, for we know it’s for our own good! We know we live in a world in which, yes, there’s
decay and there’s sugar. But ultimately, we’re the ones who’ve chosen what to eat. It’s a terrible admission. We’ve participated in that which will eventually need restitution and appropriate pain.
In Luke chapter 13 Jesus tells us of a story where some people had spoken to Him and said ‘Look there are some terrorists in Jerusalem. Their leader goes by the name of Pilate. He mixed the blood of the Galileans with their sacrifices. What that means is the Galileans had come down to Jerusalem. Pilate, who we tend to think has a tender conscience with the crucifixion story, was actually a tyrant. He was not in favour with the people at all. He was cruel man and he had slain these Galileans who’d come to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices. Not only had he done that, he’d taken their sacrifices and the blood from the slain bodies and mixed them and allowed them to be offered as sacrifices on the altar in Jerusalem. What a cruel fate! What cruelty beyond belief! Jesus said, ‘Were those Galileans worse sinners than others? Did they deserve to die at this tyrant’s hands?’ No ! We live in a world where cruelty abounds. We live in a world in which there are evil men and women who perpetrate evil deeds against innocent people. But the message is ‘unless you repent you also will perish’.
There was a tower in Siloam. This tower had collapsed and killed a number of people. Nothing like the proportions we knew in New York but nevertheless in the first century it was clearly a memorable event. And the people that had died were either workmen on the job, civilians going about their normal tasks, and there they had, without warning, without any wrong doing of their own, fallen under the effects of the rubble of this tower as it collapsed. Was it the architect? Was it the builder who was at fault? Was it a leaning tower of Pisa that never stopped leaning? Were these people worse than those who escaped? There were no doubt some around who did escape. Perhaps they’d visited the tower the day before, the hour before it fell. Perhaps they were on the surroundings. They’d escaped, others had died. Were they worse sinners because they died? And the answer is ‘No!’ Things happen in a world which is out of kilter with God. They can be man-made disasters like towers, they can be so-called natural disasters like floods and fire, earthquake and tidal wave. They can be evil deeds at the hands of evil men as terrorists are. The Proverbs reminds us, ‘The Lord has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble’. Job says, ‘the Lord has given, the Lord has taken away.’ And His response, ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’
God is sovereign, but He allows evil things to take place in our world. He allows evil things to remind us that the world is out of kilter with Him. Things are not right. This world is doomed for judgment. The apostle Peter has said that God has delayed the judgment so that there is a time for repentance. Most certainly those evil perpetrators will receive judgment at the hands of God. And ultimately all people will receive that judgment, for God has set a day when He shall judge the people of the earth in righteousness and truth. And the ultimate answer for Christians is, yes God does have a good reason. I may not know what it is, but I know that He is a good God, His promises are sure and I can trust in that. But one day God has promised that He will judge the world, and there righteousness shall be established before all people once and for all time. And there all wrongs will be righted. All evil will be penalised. And those who deserve judgment shall die.
Psalm 2 speaks of the days of king David when nations were conspiring against God’s king: ‘Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?’ and that word for ‘plot’ is the word mutter, mumble. That sort of disgruntled activity towards the king of Israel. ‘The kings of the earth take their stand, the rulers gather together against the Lord, and against his anointed. Let us break their chains and throw off their fetters.’ Nations rising up against nations. In those days Israel was the place of God’s people. I hasten to add that Israel today is not the place of God’s people as it was in the Old Testament. We do not transfer the glories of the people of Israel to the State of Israel today, and it’s a fallacy and a folly to do so. But in the Old Testament where God has set His king in Jerusalem, God says ‘The one enthroned in heaven laughs, the Lord scoffs at them.’ Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath saying, ‘I have installed my king in Zion on my holy hill.’
The pages of the New Testament tell us where God has enthroned His king. It is not in the landmark of Jerusalem, but in heaven itself. It is Jesus who has risen from the dead. It is Jesus who is Lord over all, it is He who will bring judgment to bear upon all who oppose God. ‘Ask of me’, He says to His Son, ‘and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with an iron sceptre and dash them to pieces like pottery. Therefore you kings be wise, be warned you rulers of the earth; serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way. For his wrath can flair up in a moment, but blessed are all those who put their refuge in him.’ Refuge can only be found in the place of Jesus. Understanding for our world can only be found in Jesus.
If we had been pursuing our normal preaching program today we would be looking at Romans 2 where God invites salvation among all the Gentiles. God’s mercy goes out to touch them to join in the glories of Israel of old and the promise of a Messiah and everlasting joy.
One of the fall-outs from the events of last week has been the ugly side of racism, the ugly side of our own Anglo-Saxon pride, where mosques have been attacked, where Muslims have been vilified, and that is not the way of love. God hates the events of last week with a hatred more than you can understand. But God is waiting patiently for all people to repent, from whatever ethnic background, from whatever part of the globe, and we who know the promises of God ought to be there at the forefront in our words of love to a fallen world, to convince those who think like Hindus or Buddhists or Muslims or atheists. To convince them that the truth is only found in Jesus and the God of the Bible. That’s where we must look, that’s where we must find God, who Himself bears wounds. For our God is a wounded God. The Muslim can’t understand that. God is all powerful and beyond approach. How could God have wounds? But such is the nature of our God that He took upon Himself human form. In the person of His Son Jesus He lived the life we could not live and died the death that we deserve. It is that God who has wounds, who knows the pain of suffering, who knows our mortal frame, who knows the weaknesses of our earthly existence, and yet who still entered them because of love.
At the end of the first world was a man called Edward Shillito wrote these short words under the title, ‘Jesus of the Scars’. ‘The other gods were strong but you were weak. They rode where you did stumble to a throne. But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, and no other God has wounds but you alone.’ It is because God knows our suffering from first hand experience that we can have confidence in a God who will right all wrongs. ‘Vengeance is mine says the Lord and I will repay.’
Of course the Christian gospel reminds us that but for the grace of God we too would suffer His judgment. ‘Whoever is without sin let them cast the first stone.’ Is our record unblemished in our personal relationships? We may not have committed the atrocities that we’ve seen last week, but have not the arrows of our words hit their target in our life? Has not the duplicity of our actions been seen by an all-seeing God? Has not the folly of our sin been revealed to the God of heaven and earth? We can hide from each other but we cannot hide from God. It is that God who has borne the scars of the cross. It is that God who has stood in our place.
There are so many acts of heroism and bravery that have come out of this last week. Those hundreds of firefighters and police who went into the building to save those who were still there, only to lose their life in that very gallant action. And as the need for blood became obvious scores and scores, hundreds and thousands of people lined up to give blood throughout the States. They knew that the giving of blood would be some way to ameliorate the awfulness, the horror, the injustice of this deed. But you see Jesus is the giver of blood. Jesus is the one who donated His own blood that we might be saved. He is the one who had his life spilled out that we might know the joy of everlasting life and the forgiveness of sins. We ought to pray for our country with the tensions that already exist in our multicultural nation. We ought to pray for President Bush, the decisions he will make in his government. It is right and proper for governments to pursue evil-doers. It is right and proper and under the hand of God that they bear the sword and not in vain. It’s not personal vengeance that we seek. It is not for us to take it into our own hands; it is for lawful governments to do that under the hand of God, but ultimately it is God who executes justice. It is God who will bring down the reign of righteousness upon all who opposes Him.
Last Thursday night I read a poem. It speaks of how to bring up children. It seemed appropriate to read it then and I want to read it again. We give it to those who have their children named here as a reminder of how to bring up children. It’s entitled ‘Children Live What They Learn’. We often speak of the gift of God that a child is and rightly so. Have we stopped to pause to think what a gift of God good parents are to a child? Have we stopped to think what it would be like if all parents throughout this globe could teach their children to walk in the ways of the Lord, to live God’s way? That’s the challenge that’s before us, where we are, through our missionaries and beyond, praying that God’s Word, God’s gospel word might go forth and prosper, for it is there and there alone that hope will be found.
If Children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to be shy.
If children live with tolerance, they learn to be patient.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with praise, they learn to appreciate.
If children live with fairness they learn justice.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith.
If children live with God’s Word in their hearts, they will inherit eternal life.
May we pray that for ourselves and for our children. Amen.
‘Father God, when our hearts are heavy with sorrow, when our minds are angry, when our wills feel disabled in knowing what to do, Father we pray that you would teach us more of yourself, of your plans for this world, of Jesus as the only Saviour. Help us that we might respond as your people in a way which would please you. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.’
A sermon preached by Bishop Glenn Davies, the Sunday following destruction of the World Trade Centre in New York, September 11, 2001