I love my job. After 37 years, I consider still it a privilege to be the pastor of a congregation and a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But like any job, it has its hard parts. When I watch people suffer (especially people I know and love), it’s tough to know what to say or not to say. I think of grieving couples who’ve lost their children, a teenage son killed in a motorcycle accident, a young couple holding their stillborn and asking, “Why? Why is this happening to us?” I love my job. After 37 years, I consider still it a privilege to be the pastor of a congregation and a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But like any job, it has its hard parts. When I watch people suffer (especially people I know and love), it’s tough to know what to say or not to say. I think of grieving couples who’ve lost their children, a teenage son killed in a motorcycle accident, a young couple holding their stillborn and asking, “Why? Why is this happening to us?”
I think of the young cancer patient in the hospital room who’s being told nothing can be done for him. Why is this happening? he wonders. I have a family to take care of. It’s apparent to me after all these years of ministry that the song in the musical “Annie” is right. It is a hard knock life.
Why is that? It is an age-old question. People observe starvation and disease-ravaged populations, wars and atrocities between nations, mistreatment and cruelty toward others, natural disasters, and personal calamities that shake up our lives.
Along the way I have learned there are two ways of dealing with suffering in this world. One is to deal with it on an intellectual level. Maybe if we could just wrap our heads around this question and come up with an answer, perhaps it would give us some peace. Today’s message is going to touch on the more intellectual level.
The other level is what I call it the survival level. Instead of asking why, it asks how. How am I going to live with this and get through it? The Apostle Paul in II Corinthians is going to be our teacher in the next few weeks on this level.
We talk about the reasons behind a hard knock life on an intellectual level, but as Christians we also look to the Scriptures for answers, because it is our authority. The thing is, we find no single answer in the Scriptures, just a mix of answers, which can be fairly confusing and unsettling.
Scripture, in places, will tell us our suffering comes because of something we’ve done. The book of Deuteronomy is filled with blessings and curses God lays out for Israel. If you don’t obey me, you will receive curses. Ezekiel 18 tells us everybody is responsible for the suffering that has come upon themselves. It is caused by our sin.
Sometimes we choose suffering, according to Scripture. We pick up our cross and follow Jesus. The cross is a symbol of suffering and shame.
We also find passages telling us Satan is the cause of suffering. He is on the attack, seeking to destroy devour us and ruin our faith. In other places it says God lets it happen for our own good. Sometimes it’s a means of disciplining us, growing us in character, and so on. Other times people just throw up their hands – like in the book of Ecclesiastes – and say there’s no good answer.
I found Genesis 3 to be helpful. It takes us back to the beginning and tells us the story of what happened to God’s perfect world. God created this world. It was perfect and there was harmony between God and humanity, harmony between human beings, and harmony between humanity and nature. It was perfect.
But, as you know, something happened. Creation broke. It happened with a transgression – Adam and Eve ate the fruit they weren’t supposed to eat. They were promised they would be like God and able to run their own lives. Temptation was too great, so they ate the fruit. God then interrogates them and they point the finger away from themselves. “I ate, but it was because of the woman you gave me.” And Eve says, “It was because of the serpent. He tricked me!”
Then we have the consequences for their disobedience. God lays out the future. There will be pain and broken relationships, thistles and thorns. You will have to toil in the land to even survive. There will be death – from dust you came, to dust you shall return. It is going to be a mess! The entire creation is infected. In Romans 8, for instance, Paul reflects on this by saying the whole creation groans for renewal.
The story moves on to Genesis 4. All the way through Genesis 11, we see the spread of sin and its consequences. By the end, it is quite a messed up world.
Matt Woodley, the editor of Preaching Today, tells a story from his childhood. When I was about ten years old, my dad, a medical doctor, received a special gift from one of his patients: a beautiful globe with shiny sequins. The globe spun around on its base and played one of my dad’s favorite songs. My dad proudly demonstrated how it worked: grab it by the base, slowly wind it counter-clockwise. Then release it, letting it spin clockwise while playing beautiful music. He told us, ‘You can touch it, but don’t wind it, because you might break it.’
A week later, while my dad was at work, I found the globe and brought it to my room. Although I heard my dad say, ‘Don’t wind it up,’ I decided to wind it up anyway. I gave it a little twist and let it play. It played, but only for five seconds. So I gave it another twist and another twist and five more twists and then—snap! The globe separated from the base. I desperately tried to fix it. I tried forcing the two pieces together. I tried gluing it. I tried taping it. Finally, as I stared hopelessly at the two pieces of the globe, I realized it was broken beyond repair. So I went into my closet, shut the door, and hid from my dad. It was Genesis 3 all over again.
Our world is like the broken globe: it’s been twisted too far, and we can’t put it back together again. Relationships break, our sexuality breaks, we’re slowly breaking the Earth. Our hearts break, nations break down and go to war, our health breaks, our politics break. All the glue, tape, and positive thinking can’t put it back together again.
Why the suffering? Because we live in a broken world where people suffer.
Some amazing things happened in this Genesis 3 story, though. For instance, grace. Notice what God didn’t do. After He got them to confess, He didn’t turn His back on them or walk away. That would’ve been despair.
And He didn’t destroy them. And at the end of the story, we see He even clothed them. After they ate the fruit, they realized they were naked. In the Old Testament, nakedness is symbol for shame and feeling exposed and embarrassed. God clothed them and covered up their shame and guilt.
Scholars have pointed out that God covered them with animal skins. Animals had to be sacrificed to cover their shame. Thus the beginning of sacrifice for sin and a glimpse ahead to being clothed in righteousness by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for our sin. Grace.
Now thankfully the story doesn’t end at Genesis 3 with the brokenness and the mess. After 11 chapters in Genesis, God puts His plan into place as He calls Abraham and Sarah and promises to make them a blessing to the nations of the world. He promises to build them into a nation, which we call Israel. The rest of the Old Testament is God in relationship with Israel – loving them, sticking with them even in their disobedience, still having plans for them.
Then we get to the New Testament, and we run into another picture of a garden in Mark 14. There is a person. He is on His knees. His name is Jesus Christ. He’s the Son of God. He’s getting ready to suffer and die for us on a cross. He says to His Father, “Father, all things are possible with you. Take this cup of suffering away from me. Not my will but thy will be done,” and He obediently, innocently, went to the cross as a sacrifice for the sin of the world. In Him is forgiveness and a new start with God.
If you are wondering if God cares and understands, look at the cross. It represents atonement for our sinfulness – forgiveness – but also is a symbol of empathy.
Wheaton College Provost Stan Jones provided a helpful perspective on all the questions about suffering as he faced his own debilitating disease. He said we sometimes find it difficult or even impossible to answer why. He said:
“Long ago, I read a book about suffering, and the author made a point that I have had to return to time and time again. Me said most of our why questions about suffering are ultimately unanswerable. God does not seem to be in the business of answering the why questions, and most of our philosophical responses to the question of suffering amount to various forms of taking God off the hook for the problem of suffering. But this author pointed out that God doesn’t seem to be interested in getting off the hook. In fact, the answer of God in Jesus Christ to the problem of suffering is not to get off the hook at all, but rather to impale himself on the hook of human suffering with us in the very midst of our suffering.”
When trouble comes and places a giant question mark over our existence, we should remember Jesus and the empathy of the Cross.
We serve a great High Priest who sympathizes, empathizes with our weakness.
I remember Jesus in the John 11 story shows up late for His friend Lazarus who has died. Everyone is wailing and mourning as Jesus says, “Take me to him.” What did Jesus do as He sees the pain going on all around Him and the dead body? What did He do, the One who said, “I and the Father are One”? He wept! He wept. He knows suffering and cares.
Finally, remember the cross isn’t the last word. Jesus rose again! Death is defeated, and it cannot hold us.
I love the vision God gives us at the end of the Bible in Revelation 21. John is shown a vision. He says, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth descending, and the new Jerusalem. A voice spoke and said, ‘Now the dwelling place of God is with men. God will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more suffering, no more crying, no more death, and no more pain.’” It’s like the old gospel song says,
“There’ll been no more cryin’ there, We are going to see the King.
No more dyin’ there, we are going to see the King.
There’ll been no more cryin’ there; We are going to see the King.
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! We are going to see the King.”
This is the promise, the vision for the believer in Jesus Christ. God has the last word over us, and that word is not brokenness and suffering. He will wipe away the tears, and there be no more death, no more suffering, pain, and crying. It’ll be perfect, beyond our wildest dreams.
Now, I began by saying sometimes it’s hard to know what to say to those who are suffering as a pastor. Let me give you a tip – when you’re sitting with someone who is experiencing suffering in his or her life, I think it is okay, when they ask why, to say It’s a broken world. Beyond that I don’t really know. You are evidence of that brokenness.
But then, instead of trying to rationalize anymore with them, the best you can do is to keep your rationalizations to yourself. Move on with compassion saying, “But know this: I care about you; I am here with you, and God is here with you. We just have to keep trusting Him.” Leave it at that. It’s the best ministry you can do for your suffering loved one. Amen.
Pastor Steve Kramer