Why Is There Suffering?
Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost • October 29, 2017
Book of Job 6:2-4; 19:19-20; 23:1-5; 40:6-14
and John Cobb, God and Typhoon Haiyan
In his book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner relates the following deeply affecting story. A woman named Helen noticed herself getting easily tired after minimal physical exertion. She suspected it might be something serious and arranged to see a doctor. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The physician told her it would get worse and eventually lead to death. Kushner writes:
“She broke down and cried when she heard that. ‘Why should this happen to me? I’ve tried to be a good person. I have a husband and young children who need me. I don’t deserve this. Why should God make me suffer like this?’ Her husband…tried to console her: ‘You can’t talk like that….You have to believe that if God wants you to get better, you will get better, and if He doesn’t, there has to be some purpose to it.’
Helen tried to find peace and strength in those words. She wanted to be comforted by the knowledge that there was some purpose to her suffering, beyond her capacity to understand. She wanted to believe that it made sense at some level. All her life, she had been taught…that everything happened for a reason…. It was hard to live with [the disease], but it was even harder to live with the idea that things happened to people for no reason….
She had been a good person; not perfect perhaps, but…better than many who were walking around healthy. What reason could God possibly have for doing this to her? And on top of it, she felt guilty for being angry at God. She felt alone in her fear and suffering.”
Can you identify with Helen’s suffering and with her dilemma? We all try to avoid or at least minimize from our own pain and suffering and, usually, people try to help others avoid it or at least empathize with other’s suffering. Also, we all long for some sense of justice in the universe. We want our world to make sense, but we are continually faced with what seems like senseless suffering. How are we to understand and respond to that? How are we to understand God’s relationship to our suffering?
“Why is there suffering?” That is the question we are asking God and reflecting on this morning as we continue our worship and sermon series, “Dear God….” We continue to seek an answer to this question after thousands of years of experience and of philosophical and theological investigation. One reason we still ponder it is because of the ways religious thinkers and people of faith have conceived of God. Especially relevant for us is that traditional Christian theology and philosophy has claimed three things about God:
1) God is all-powerful
2) God is all-knowing
3) God is perfectly good
Yet, if all these things are true, then why is there suffering? If God is all-knowing, then God sure knows about all the suffering that happens. Almost no one disputes that claim. If God is perfectly good and loves us, then surely God would not want us to suffer. And, if God is all-powerful, then God could prevent suffering. Yet, God does not, so, perhaps one of these claims must not be true about God.
Philosophy and theology have tried to get around this problem in a variety of ways. One is to claim that God can see the big picture and is a lot wiser than we are so God can see when suffering is necessary. The claim is that God is perfectly good, but just knows more than we do. I find that a pretty lame argument. Another approach is to say God allows suffering because to prevent all suffering would undermine human free will. Very unappealing! Why would you want to believe in a God who can prevent suffering but won’t? Some theologians simply claim that we cannot apply human logic to the way God works. How boring! A counter-argument says that if these theological claims about God would necessarily have to be true and suffering obviously still exists, then God cannot exist. I have to admit that I prefer this last option. If God is perfectly good, all-knowing, and all-powerful and still causes or allows suffering, then I think I would rather be an atheist. I have never found convincing the argument that God has a different moral compass than we do or allows suffering for some greater good.
Let’s look at the way this dilemma is presented in the Book of Job. Job’s friends portray suffering as God’s retribution for sinful behavior. Job agrees with this perspective, but claims repeatedly that he has done nothing to deserve all of this suffering. God is being unfair. I am afraid I find God’s response to Job very unsatisfactory. God does not admit to having caused or allowed Job’s suffering, although the story clearly shows God giving Satan permission to inflict the suffering of Job and his family and livestock. God does not say whether she could have prevented Job’s suffering, if she wanted to. God simply says, “I am great and powerful and you are not. Let’s see you try to create and sustain the whole universe!” Now, I still have to commend the Book of Job to you to read. It is a lot more complex and interesting than my summary makes it sound. In the context in which it was written, it was a powerful and challenging theological treatise written as a story and it is still worth reflecting on its lessons. And it demonstrates powerfully that the question about suffering has been around for a long time.
But I believe there is a better answer to the question – one alluded to in the lesson Erich read for us from theologian John Cobb. Rather than try to work around the attributes of God that have been promoted from at least Aristotle onward or attempt to logically fit together ideas that don’t fit logically or with our sense of morality, a better answer is to understand God in a new way. Fundamentally, it is to understand that God is not all-powerful, at least not in the sense we have usually thought about it. A better way to say it is that because of the very essence of who God is – that is love – God cannot use God’s power coercively and unilaterally. Instead, God’s power is relational. God exercises power in relationship with all of the quantum elements and natural phenomena of the universe as well as with all living creatures. God is in a perfectly loving relationship with the whole of the universe and you cannot practice loving relationship while exercising coercive, unilateral power.
As I said last Sunday, God does not and cannot force us or any element in the universe to move in a particular direction or make a particular choice. Instead, “God uses the ways of love to influence us…toward the good…. God invites, offers guidance, persuades, and lures us toward the choices and directions that God understands are the best for our individual and collective well-being, but allows us total freedom to make our own choices...”*
So God created and sustains a universe in which there was always and always will be the possibility of suffering. I would argue that was the only kind of universe God could create because of who God is. God is supremely loving and relational, so God could not impose God’s desire on the creative processes of cosmic development and evolution.
Thus, the universe evolved with cycles of life and death. Decay and death if is a part of how the natural world works. And some suffering attends the decay and ultimate death of all living things. Everything from stars to mammals to amoeba have a life cycle that includes decay and death, and for sentient beings, that involves some level of suffering.
Moreover, there is the suffering that can result from natural phenomena like hurricanes and earthquakes. God does not cause that suffering to happen. In fact, we can say that God does not allow suffering to happen but, instead, works with the fullness of God’s love and persuasive power to prevent it from happening. My experience of God’s love convinces me that God desires to prevent cancer, rape, murder, poverty, and oppression even more than we do because God is perfectly loving and good.
Contrary to the way God’s relationship with the universe and with us is presented in the Bible and, particularly, in the Book of Job, God did not created all things and does not direct all things with unilateral power. God set things in motion, creating a process of cosmic development and evolution, but without knowing precisely the direction that would take. So God did not create hurricanes and earthquakes anymore than God created guns, bombs, war, or genocide. But God stayed intimately involved in the evolution of the cosmos and of all creatures in a loving, persuasive, non-coercive way.
Let’s also remember that, along with the possibility of suffering and pain, God created the potential for the thriving of life, love, compassion, growth. God inspired and continues to nudge human beings to evolve and grow in knowledge so that we could come up with advanced science and medicine to find cures for diseases, fix broken bodies, heal wounded minds and spirits. God gave us the ability to develop technologies that alleviate suffering and save the lives of many people afflicted by natural disasters. And God inspired in us the capacities for love, empathy, and compassion.
The other way that God relates to our suffering is to be absolutely and intimately in it with us. God experiences every moment of our lives. As John Cobb put it in the lesson for today:
“God feels all of our feelings, and the feelings of other animals, and even the feelings of quantum events. God knows us, not only as we know ourselves, but far more fully. When we suffer physical pain, God suffers with us. When we suffer anguish and loss, God suffers that anguish and loss with us. Other people also are with us, and that is immensely important. But God’s presence is total and perfect and never lacking.”
There is and will be suffering in the world, but God does everything in God’s power to reduce it, including inspiring us to respond. My deep desire as an individual is that God will help me have courage and resilience in the face of my own suffering and use me to provide care for others who suffer. And my hope for this community is that we can open ourselves to listen deeply for God’s inspiration and guidance and learn to work with and through all the loving and relational power of God to co-create with God a world in which evil will be powerfully resisted, suffering will be minimized, and we will recognize more fully God at work in our lives.