October 21, 2018

2018 October21

Why? The Problem of Evil & Suffering

Proper 24 - Year B
A Sermon Preached by The Rev Karen Siegfriedt

 

Why? Why is life so hard? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why did my colleague get the promotion when I am more qualified? Why does she have stage 3 breast cancer at the prime of her life? Why did his spouse leave after 20 years of what he thought would be a life-long marriage? Why don’t my children care more about me after all I have done for them? Why is our health insurance being cut? Why did my beloved die so suddenly, leaving me with a broken heart? Why don’t their friends call more often? Why am I in so much pain?

 

If you have ever asked any of these “why” questions in the midst of your own pain and suffering, then you are in good company with Job. The book of Job is an ancient book of wisdom which explores the subject of theodicy:

 

If God is good, powerful, and
just, then why is there so much
evil and suffering in the world?

 

The book of Job begins as a folktale, a wager between God and Satan. In spite of its odd beginning, this piece of scripture has tremendous depth as it explores the question of why bad things happen to good people. In this folktale, Job is a blameless and upright man who loved God and turned away from evil.  One would expect that his life would turn out well.  But suddenly, his life becomes a disaster. His children are killed, his property set on fire, and his cattle stolen. To make matters worse, he becomes inflicted with “loathsome sores” from the soles of his feet to the crown of his head. It was then that he began to curse the day of his birth and wished to die.

 

Three of Job’s friends hear about his troubles and come for a visit. The book of Job contains the dialogues between Job and his friends, & Job and God. Like many of us today, Job and his friends believed that God is good, God is just, and God is all powerful.  And since that is true for them, then it follows that good things should happen to good people and that suffering should be limited to those who do wrong. Job’s friends were so convinced of this particular way of thinking, that they accuse Job of having done something really bad to deserve his afflictions. But Job defends his character and holds onto to the claim that he is blameless before God.

 

And so, these friends try to make sense of God’s justice and goodness on the one hand and innocent human suffering on the other. Job continues to ask the “why” questions like: Why did I not die at birth? Why am I being ridiculed by my friends and servants when I have been so good to them? Why has God made me a target when I have been so faithful? Why is God so silent? Why doesn’t God take away my pain? Why doesn’t God answer my questions?

 

When we have probing questions like these, it can be difficult to imagine God’s response without parroting our limited knowledge or wanting our ego defenses soothed. How does one make space for God’s words in the midst of one’s pain and suffering when those words might not match our thirst for justice or our rigid theologies?  In today’s reading from the book of Job, God finally gets around to answering Job’s questions but not in the way Job had expected. Instead of giving him logical answers based on justice, God ends up questioning Job. The Divine discourse from the whirlwind goes something like this:

 

Pull yourself together Job and stand tall on your feet. I have some questions for you and I want some straight answers. Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about? I am more complex and mysterious than you can ever imagine. Your thoughts are not my thoughts. Where were you when I created the earth? Who came up with its blueprints and measurements? How was its foundation poured and who set the cornerstone? Who took charge of the oceans when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb? Can you send forth lightening? What do you have to say for yourself?

 

While the Divine response from the whirlwind is insightful and eventually stops Job from questioning God’s ways, it does not resolve the problem of theodicy for me. It does not satisfy my thirst for justice, especially when bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. However, here are some of the insights that I have garnered from exploring the Book of Job.

 

1. Suffering is part and parcel of the human condition. It may not be fair but that is how the world is. We are born, we live, we suffer, and we die. How we live our lives, the choices we make, and our attitude towards all sentient beings is where our power lies to improve the human condition. The good news is that 85% of human suffering is self-inflicted. Thus we have the power to reduce it. Much of our suffering comes from negative thinking such as the way we take offense and hold onto resentments when things do not go our way. The Buddhists believe that all suffering comes from attachments such as attachment to relationships, loved ones, health, power, and material goods. So Buddhists practice meditating on holding these things loosely, as temporary blessings, thus reducing the future pain of loss and sorrow.

 

2. We are not the center of the universe. God is! This is the most difficult truth to embrace on our spiritual journey towards wholeness. After all, the ego only cares about me, myself, and I. It takes a higher level of consciousness to rise above the self and expand one’s circle of compassion. It might come as a surprise, but God cares for all the creatures of the earth, not just human beings. As I was reading the Book of Job, I came across many references to nature, the birds of the sky, the wild animals in the desert, and the ominous sea monsters. Are you as concerned about their welfare as you are your own? Human beings have so dominated the earth that we have left little room for the other creatures to thrive.  After overfishing the oceans to satisfy our insatiable desire for fish, and after indiscriminately killing seals and the otters for their pelts to almost extinction, why are we so shocked when sharks attack and eat innocent people? Since we have stripped the seas of its abundant food and have polluted its waters, no wonder sharks are turning on other prey in order to survive. We are not the center of the universe.  And while our suffering requires attention, our circle of concern needs to expand beyond the self.

 

3. God has many attributes beyond being just, powerful, and good. An old rabbi once said that God’s mercy is a little bit stronger than God’s justice. This means that those who have erred are given some leeway rather than justly punished for their transgressions. (Give example.)  When it comes to being powerful, God has limited God’s power in order to give freedom to the created order. This means that every move is not controlled by a benevolent force. We have the freedom to love or to hate, to promote life or to engage in violence, to share generously or to hoard our wealth. How we execute our free choices in life will determine whether we inflict pain or effect healing. But we are not the only creatures who are free. Viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells all have the freedom to reproduce, causing disease and death among humans and animals alike. Snakes and sharks have the freedom to attack, especially when they are hungry. The reason why life seems unfair and chaotic is because the gift of freedom is often misused. So while God’s attributes include justice, power, and goodness, God’s attributes also include mercy, freedom, and a loving kindness towards all the creatures of the earth.

 

4. Our knowledge as human beings is limited and sometimes the only way we can know God and understand God’s ways is through love. The mystics believe that that only love, not knowledge, can help us reach God. Jesus showed us the path of love as being “the way, the truth, and the life.”  Perhaps the longest journey we will ever take on our spiritual quest is the journey from the head to the heart. ‘We know only a portion of the truth and what we say about God is always incomplete. While we have uncovered many of the mysteries of nature, we are still squinting in the fog, peering through a mist. We don’t yet see things clearly and we need to remain humble in our state of unknowing.’ (1 Cor. 13)

 

For centuries, people have held
onto the view that God punished
the sinner and blessed the
faithful. But in the book of Job,
this theological stance is brought
into question. Later, we see in the
person of Jesus, a righteous,
compassionate, and faithful
servant and yet the evil powers
of the world put him to death.
This should cause us to
re-evaluate our ideas about God,
theodicy, and our place in
the universe.

 

Creation is a lot more complex and chaotic than we once thought. Sometimes we need to re-evaluate our old ways of thinking that just aren’t working anymore. For instance, during the early part of the 20th century, as scientists investigated energy levels at the atomic and subatomic spheres, they began to realize that classical physics and its theories no longer gave reliable answers. And so they had to shift their thinking from classical physics (where outcomes are smooth, orderly, and predictable) to quantum physics where the uncertainty principle is king. “One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we never dreamed of.” (Karen Armstrong)  

 

5. In the midst of suffering, we need to be a compassionate companion. This is our call as Christians! While we don’t always have the answers nor are we able to prevent suffering, we do have the opportunity to be a loving presence. This means that we become available, vulnerable, and willing to sit with the person in pain to hear their story. While Job’s friends came to be with him in his suffering, they came with their own preconceived notions and prejudices. Instead of listening to him and his unique experience, they presented themselves as ‘know-it-alls,’ insisting that he must have done something bad to deserve his fate. We often do the same thing with people in pain, telling them that we know exactly how they feel. Well, we don’t know exactly how they are feeling and so we must listen carefully and with respect.

 

Sometimes, people who visit the suffering are not in touch with their own mortality. Some have not come to terms with their own pain and so they keep the dialogue shallow or they say something stupid like: “God never gives us more than we can handle.” “There must be a lesson in all of this.” “Don’t worry, things will get better.” “God cares for God’s own.”

 

The painful reality is that sometimes, particularly in those moments of living on life's ragged edge, we are left without an answer as to why.  Our job as a compassionate companion is not to answer the “why” questions but to listen carefully and to love one another as Christ has

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