Lay Reader = Job 1:13-22
13One day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in the eldest brother’s house, 14a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three columns, made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the four corners of the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”
20Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” 22In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong-doing.
We are continuing our series looking at some of the questions people most commonly ask about our faith. We have asked if life has a purpose, and does God really exist. This week we are asking the age-old question – Dear God, why do you allow pain and suffering?
Of course, this question has been definitely answered by the great theological treatise known as “The Matrix.” In the movie, humanity lives inside a computer simulation called The Matrix so that the artificial intelligence civilization can harvest humans for their heat and energy, and one of the artificial intelligence characters has captured one of the free humans and says this to him.
“Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world, where none suffered, where everyone would be happy? It was a disaster. No one would accept the program, entire crops were lost. Some believed we lacked the programming language to describe your perfect world, but I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through misery and suffering. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.”
So there you have it – we live in a computer simulation, and we won’t accept a perfect world. Case closed. Didn’t even need the Bible. We’re going to beat the Baptists to lunch today!
You don’t look like you’re buying it.
OK, then, on the off chance that we aren’t living in The Matrix, let’s take a look at what Paul wrote to the church in Corinth.
This is Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, and it comes about a year after the first one. In the meantime, Paul continued his church-planting efforts around the Mediterranean. And he continued to face opposition, persecution, even seemingly bad luck – he was shipwrecked, not once, not twice, but FOUR times! That is dedication! How many shipwrecks would it take to get you to stop getting on boats? Go ahead – call it out. How many shipwrecks before you’re landlocked? The smart people in the room just said “once.”
So the church in Corinth got the ministry reports. They heard about how many times Paul had been beaten in Christ’s name. They heard about the shipwrecks. They heard about Paul being thrown out of towns. He was wanted by the law. How could this man possibly be a representative of God? How could this man possibly be the way Jesus chose to reveal himself to cities around the Mediterranean?
Clearly his pain and suffering and trials and bad luck were evidence that God opposed what Paul was doing, right? Here’s how Paul responded.
2 Corinthians 4:7-18
7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
8We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 9persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 11For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 12So death is at work in us, but life in you. 13But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke” —we also believe, and so we speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. 16So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.
Is God Punishing Me?
In 1988 a researcher decided to look at cancer rates among four different religious groups to see if the lifestyle patterns encouraged by the religion had a measurable impact. So, for instance, the Amish, who live simply and communally, had very low cancer rates for lungs and anything oral. Why? The strong community pressure against smoking accounts for that. Also, lower cervical cancer rates. Being Amish is good!
But the researcher also found that the Amish have “unusually high rates of breast cancer and juvenile leukemia,” and even looking at every known risk factor couldn’t explain why. In fact, sometimes the cancer rates went directly against the normal predictors. So being Amish is bad, right?
So let’s ask the question. Is God mad at Amish women, thus giving them breast cancer? Or is God especially displeased with Amish children, deeming them deserving of leukemia? Is God punishing the Amish for some transgression? Can we all agree that the overwhelmingly most likely answer is “no” to those questions?
Or let’s go to our partner churches over in Zimbabwe. One of the main leaders just suddenly died, leaving a giant void. Their communities can barely afford food. Some of the churches can’t get access to water. Is God punishing them? Of course not! In fact, we could learn a lot from their faithfulness and joy in the midst of that.
I think it’s relatively easy for us to see that God isn’t punishing a group – like the Amish, or the churches in Zimbabwe – I think that’s relatively easy because everyone’s in the same boat. But when it’s our own suffering, or the suffering of someone we know, for some reason it’s very easy to go down the road of asking, “is God punishing me?”
Anyone ever thought that? Anyone ever wondered, “Is God punishing me?”
Jesus’ disciples wondered about that. There was a man blind since birth, and they asked Jesus who sinned to deserve this punishment – the man himself or his parents. And Jesus said, “His parents, they are responsible.”
NO – that’s NOT what Jesus said! Thank GOD that’s not what Jesus said.
Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. This happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” And then Jesus heals him. But the key is that Jesus strikes down the idea that God is sending a plague upon you because of your sins (or those of your parents).
God Healed Me Because I Prayed So Hard
And lest we think that God is only with you if you’re healed, in Luke 4 Jesus points out a bunch of times when faithful people weren’t healed.
So, “is God punishing me?” Probably not. And “I’m praying hard, but I’m not healed! Has God abandoned me?” Definitely not!
And let me go even further on this. I’ll say that it’s a good thing that God doesn’t tie our behavior to his decision about intervening on our behalf. It’s a GOOD THING that we can’t earn miracles from God. Why? Well raise your hand – get ready here – raise your hand if you have lived a perfect life in God’s eyes. Raise your hand. Any perfect people around here? I’m not seeing any hands.
If our healing, if our rescuing, if our good fortune were tied to our behavior, none of us would earn a thing! The fact that God does sometimes intervene gives humanity a better batting average than it deserves. That’s why it’s considered a gift, not a wage for good behavior.
But that’s how we think, right? Have you ever listened to Christian radio? They’ll share stories sometimes. And inevitably it’s a good story. “I had cancer and the doctors gave me two months to live, but I prayed my heart out and God healed me!” That’s wonderful! But that last part – “I prayed my heart out and God healed me,” that’s where we maybe go off the rails a little bit.
Have you ever prayed your heart out for something that didn’t happen? And I’m not talking about praying for the Broncos to win the Super Bowl – I’m no fool – I know you did it! Admit it! I’m talking about praying for something that you know is in God’s heart. “God, please heal this person.” “God this person is suffering, help them find peace.” Or what about, “God show your power through this ministry?”
There are plenty of people praying their hearts out and not getting what they want – even if it’s something that seems like God would want it, too. But we only tend to tell the good stories.
Our son Charlie has hundreds – maybe thousands – of people praying for his seizures to go away. God doesn’t get a break from that, because I’ve got people praying for him across multiple continents – different hemispheres even. The sun literally does not set on prayers for Charlie. My strategy is to annoy God into doing something about it, and I think I have pretty good coverage on that strategy. I even have the Pacific Ocean covered! I’m a little sparse on Antarctica, so if you know anyone help me out.
And Charlie has improved when many do not. Thanks be to God. But he still has seizures. He still has significant developmental delays. Now, I have to believe that out of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of people across multiple continents and hemispheres – surely ONE of them has faith! Maybe I don’t have the faith. Maybe no one in my family has the faith. Maybe. But surely someone around the world has faith, right?
So I don’t think God chooses whom to heal because of their faith. Paul writes later in this letter that he has a thorn in his flesh that he has prayed for God to remove, but God never did it. Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, “Lord may this cup pass from me, but not my will but thine be done.” The cup didn’t pass from him.
In our text today, Paul says, “we have the same spirit of faith.” In other words, you can have strong faith and still suffer. God doesn’t rank our prayers and then heal the top five for the day. If you’ve been healed or rescued, it wasn’t because you prayed harder than everyone else – God gave you a gift, not a wage. And if you haven’t been healed or rescued, it’s not because you need to pray harder or better.
So why, then? Why does God allow pain and suffering? Why doesn’t God heal everyone – or at least everyone who says they’re a Christian? That would make for really good conversion material, right? Believe in Jesus – get healed! We could open up a drive-through window for the double pack – conversion + healing for the simple price of the sinner’s prayer. Church attendance would skyrocket!
But that’s not how God works. That’s not what Jesus did – he healed a lot of people, but not everyone. One time he even snuck in and healed one person out of hundreds gathered at a pool – all of them hoped for healing, but only one received it.
But to quote our almost-three-year-old… “Why?”
The whole book of Job, which we read from earlier, is asking that question. Job is set up as a man without blemish. He is faithful even in his suffering. The text goes out of its way to establish that he doesn’t deserve ANY of the suffering that he experiences. His friends spend many, many, many chapters going through all of the ways people try to explain suffering. And I’m going to save you some time here. After 38 chapters exploring this question, God finally answers.
And God essentially tells Job, “It’s not your place to know why. You don’t have my perspective. You don’t know my purposes.” That is not a great payoff for 38 chapters of reading, but there it is. We won’t know why. There isn’t an easy answer for why some people suffer and why some people don’t . There isn’t an easy answer for why some people are healed and some people aren’t. There isn’t a bullet point summary. There isn’t a little quip that can fit on a postcard. It can’t even fit in 38 chapters apparently.
That’s not satisfying, but it’s the truth.
The Promise of Faith
So what are we supposed to do? If we don’t get to know “why,” what does our faith have to say about pain and suffering? If it’s not praying the right prayer with the right fervor, what are we supposed to do?
Well I would say that God expects one thing from us when we are suffering, and God promises one thing to us when we are suffering. And they are related.
Psalm 94 shows us what God promises us: “17If the Lord had not been my help, my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence. 18When I thought, “My foot is slipping,” your steadfast love, O Lord, held me up. 19When the cares of my heart are many, your consolations cheer my soul.”
Or to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, Jesus says, “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.”
I will be with you always, even to the cross. I will be with you always, even to the grave and beyond. I will be with you always, even as you suffer. I will be with you always, even in your pain.
If you have been abused and you wonder where Jesus was, he was there with you – weeping.
If you have cancer and you wonder where Jesus is, he’s there to hold you as your hair falls out from the chemo.
If you have a child who is sick and you wonder where Jesus is, he’s right there at the dinner table and at the hospital with you.
In our text today Paul says “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
This is literally the only thing that has sustained me over the years with Charlie – and even then only by the skin of my teeth.
God sometimes changes the circumstances we suffer, but Jesus is always there to give us hope that overcomes despair, inner strength that exceeds the crushing burden, peace even when no human words will help. That’s what we have because of our faith.
In another one of Paul’s letters he says, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Inexplicable peace. Inexplicable inner strength. Inexplicable ability to continue on. That’s what we have because of our faith. That’s the promise.
The Expectation of Faith
And the expectation of our faith is just that – faith. Maintain a conversation with God even if you’re mad. Take a look at the Psalms. Almost half of them are called Psalms of Lament. The Psalm we read to start our worship service is one of them, the one Jesus quoted on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If the Psalms can shout and shake their fist at God and say, “Wake up, O God. Rouse from your slumber!” Then we can, too.
If Jesus can pray “Why have you forsaken me?” Then we can, too.
But do you know what’s interesting about those Psalms of Lament. They’re conversations WITH God. They are maintaining a relationship, even if it’s an angry one. Maintain the line of communication, even if you’re shouting at God. That’s a faithful lament. The second you stop talking to and listening to God, you’re going to start missing that inexplicable peace, that inexplicable inner strength, that inexplicable ability to continue on. We can’t receive the promise of faith if we shut down our faith.
So the expectation of faith is to maintain a dialogue with God through prayer.
Sisters and brothers, I can’t tell you why God allows pain and suffering. Go read Job for yourself if you want to. Go read Lamentations if you’re really feeling zealous. We aren’t meant to know why, because we don’t have the mind or perspective of God.
But we do have a promise that Jesus will always be with us. Sometimes weeping with us. Sometimes holding us up. Sometimes strengthening us. Sometimes lifting our hearts. Whatever it looks like, he’s always there. And that gives us the ability to persevere when we shouldn’t be able to. But we can only feel that and access that if we maintain a dialogue with God through prayer.
So however you or those you love have suffered, don’t wonder why God abandoned you. He didn’t. Jesus is right there with you. What does that mean to you? Amen.