I get pretty frustrated when people hand out platitudes in the midst of someone else’s suffering.
In responding to a divorce or problem at work: “Time heals all wounds.”
In responding to the death of a loved one: “God needed another [fill in the blank].”
In responding to someone else’s tragedy: “You reap what you sow.” Or, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
Are any of those even Biblical? No.
Take a look at Job Chapter 1, and consider what we can see about suffering. Here, we see a story about a man who is considered blameless (he did no wrong) and upright (he is respected by his community). He fears God and repels evil. He has a good life, with many descendants, much property, and is considered the “greatest man among all the people of the East.” There is an interesting aside, that he sacrificed for them to keep them “up to code,” just in case they had missed the mark somewhere along the way– Job is so holy that he even works to help others stay on the up and up.
And then evil, in the person of Satan, shows up in the story of Job. Whether you consider this a historical book of the Bible or one of the Old Testament parables (like Jonah), we have an exchange between Yahweh God and Satan.
Satan shows up to tease God, to harass him about the way that the people of Earth behave. He’s there to prod God’s sentiments, to see if he can’t harass God into displeasure or displaying wrath. God immediately points to the goodness of Job.
Satan is quick to ask whether it is not God’s providence and protection of Job that keeps Job worshipping. He points out the hedge that seems to be around Job, his family, and his possessions.
[Now, pause for a minute and check out Tim Hawkins’ sketch on the hedge of protection. I never really understood that one either; why in the world would there be a topiary garden, a chest high garden growth, that would somehow keep all sorts of evil away from us? But I digress.]
And God accepts Satan’s challenge. It’s not clear immediately why, although, by the end of Job, it seems to be that Job’s suffering may actually be used for God’s glory (but we’ll get to that in a minute). Yahweh God tells Satan that he can do whatever he wants to Job but he isn’t allowed to kill him. In fact, Paul, who knew quite a bit about suffering, said, “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it” (I Corinthians 10:13).
In the next few verses, Job loses his cattle to marauders, and his children to a tragic house collapse. Satan petitions God and is allowed to afflict Job’s skin with painful sores; his wife later urges him to curse God and die.
Job has nothing left, and still it says, that he refused to give up his faith in God. While some of us would be inclined to respond like this, Job keeps his eyes on the prize: he recognizes that God loves him even if it doesn’t feel like it.
I wonder sometimes if I have Job-like faith. How bad could it get? What temptation could I face and how would I respond? Where would I turn to and how could I overcome whatever faced me?
Those questions seem relevant in the world today, and I’m troubled sometimes by the way that the Church responds. It’s not always what I consider church, or even a denomination that I’m associated with, but when a known Christian speaks in the media or responds to someone I know who is facing tragedy, then I’m left dealing with it.
And there’s nothing that makes me angrier than bad theology.
Consider this: On May 20, less than twenty-four hours after the tornadoes struck in Oklahoma, a prominent Protestant preacher tweeted Job 1:19. For those of us who don’t have instant recall, he posted “Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead.” He’d later say that his quote was taken out of context.
He also wrote this in 2001 after the tsunami hit Thailand: “The point of every deadly calamity is this: Repent. Let our hearts be broken that God means so little to us. Grieve that he is a whipping boy to be blamed for pain, but not praised for pleasure. This is the point of all pleasure and all pain. Pleasure says: ‘God is like this, only better; don’t make an idol out of me. I only point to him.’ Pain says: ‘What sin deserves is like this, only worse; don’t take offense at me. I am a merciful warning.’ But the topless sunbathers amid the tsunami aftermath in Phuket, Thailand did not get the message.”
So God doesn’t love sunbathers? Or people who vacation in Thailand? Since when do we have any Scripture that allows us to know if God likes or doesn’t like those things?
Next up, God prefers Coke over Pepsi? The Cowboys over the Redskins?
I’m sorry, folks, but that’s NOT what I hear God saying in the midst of tragedies where nature strikes or humans make decisions that negatively impact. I think God can speak to us through suffering but I don’t believe that the point of suffering or brokenness is repentance.
I’m all about repentance, because we all need it. We all need to turn from the things that hold us back, to turn away from sin, to embrace the love of Jesus Christ and his miraculous resurrection. We all need to recognize that life isn’t about us, but about God and loving others.
But too often we put things on God that are human rather than godly. We see the Old Testament people’s understanding of God and figure God must just be waiting to unleash that on us later. We figure God must be angry because we’re angry at the things we see in the world today. We want God to blast the things we don’t like, and fail to recognize that if God blasted evil… where would he stop? Pretty soon, we’d be gone, too.
God wants our undivided attention but he lay his son’s life down to get it. If we can’t see that in blessing and cursing, we’re missing out. God got our attention through love, not pain, even though he had to take the pain on himself to do it. But the Church is no different from anywhere else—it’s full of people who want to explain away the hurts they see.
Nevermind that Job didn’t actually do anything wrong—he wasn’t in sin and therefore condemned by God—bad stuff just happened to him.
And before his friends botched their advice, they did a few things right: “When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was” (Job 2:11-13).
They recognized his grief and cared so openly about him that they sat next to him SILENTLY and said nothing. FOR SEVEN DAYS.
Even the judgmental lot that were Job’s friends recognized in grieving to SHUT UP and BE STILL in the presence of the GRIEVING. It’s later that their attitudes got in the way of the good work they were doing. It’s later that they failed to get where God was in the midst of it.
See, I don’t hear God SCREAMING ABOUT REPENTANCE when tragedy strikes.
I don’t hear him blaming gun laws. Or homosexuality. Or mixed marriages. Or which party is in office.
Instead, all I hear is the sound of God weeping.
I hear the sound of God’s heart breaking. Of the celebration in heaven that there are new souls there, with the recognition that we’ve lost something here. I hear a blend of rejoicing in the now (the souls united with God in heaven) and the not yet.
And I think that’s all over the Bible.
One of my favorite places to find comfort is John 11, where Jesus arrives too late to stop the death of his BFF, Lazarus. He arrives and faces Lazarus’ two grieving sisters, and deals with their suffering.
Martha sticks it to Jesus—I know you could’ve saved him. But I’ll take it a step further, I know you can save his soul.
Jesus says, no he’s going to rise again. Martha: I know he’ll rise at the last resurrection.
So Martha tells Mary and she comes and gives Jesus the guilt trip again: Lord, if you’d been here…
So Jesus sees her weeping, and he becomes “troubled.” He weeps too. He knows she’s sad, and being with her makes him sad. He’s sharing her loss. But he hasn’t said anything yet. But Jesus prays to God and God raises Lazarus, not just to make people stop crying, but to have God be glorified. So God’s will in suffering is sometimes for different reasons, isn’t it?
Over the last decade, in the midst of the “normal” preacher stuff, I’ve buried two people my age, and a little thirteen-day-old baby, all who were prayed over that God might heal them, and all who died way too soon. I’ve prayed for the people in Oklahoma who have suffered from terrifying storms and the people of India who have suffered so many earthquakes.
But I’ve also seen people miraculously healed. I’ve seen people with inoperable cancer deemed cancer free. And in the name of Jesus I claim hope, grace, power, and RESURRECTION. I have an Easter hope built on experience, on the Holy Spirit, on the gift of love by God.
And in these moments when tragedy strikes we hold fast to them.
Society wants to make everything causal: because of A, then B. Because of this, that happened. We see it in politics and government, when the new party takes over and blames the previous party for whatever happens to be the struggle of the day. We see it in the way that we choose sides in a divorce, vilifying one of the divorcees and making the other a victim.
The world wants to answer the question “why?” while God’s Word reminds us that the most important question is “how?”
Not, why did this happen but how will we respond?
In I Corinthians 13, it says that “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
This is more than cool marriage Scripture. It’s a description of God. GOD is all of these things. And if we are to be like God then we must be them, too.
God doesn’t cause bad things to happen but it does say that he works for good in ALL THINGS.
If God wanted to “blast” us, why would he have sent Jesus? If we were to get the destruction and pain we “deserved” then why send Jesus to save us from it? Isn’t it because God actually wants MORE from us than the tragic life that threatens our joy? God wants you to know that you can count on God in the midst of everything, and anything. God wants you to know that you are loved and valued, and that you have purpose. Even in the midst of tragedy.
Remember Sandyhook? One girl’s parents put the money to an animal sanctuary in her obituary in lieu of flowers. $175,000 later there’s a new sanctuary for animals (her passion) and people who have been hurt and need to heal.
Remember Columbine? Because of Cassie Bernall, thousands of people have heard about Jesus and come to have a relationship with him.
It says that those who mourn are blessed BECAUSE THEY WILL BE COMFORTED.But we need to know that in our sorrow, we can see God moving. It doesn’t take the suffering away but it reminds us that God’s love is with us. That we can stand up in the face of tragedy and brokenness, not to get by but to thrive.
A few years ago, Miami Heat shooting guard Dwayne Wade’s Nike commercial hinged on his getting thrown to the floor. The slogan was “fall down seven times, get up eight,” and it showed him hitting the basketball court hard over and over again… only to keep getting back up.
What if we realized that we showed who we really believed in through the way we “got back up?” What if we demonstrated the love of God in the way that we helped others get back up?
We can’t control the way that life will test us, hurt us, and frustrate us. But we can control how we respond. We can control where we’re focused and what gives our hearts the energy we need.
Do you need to respond to God’s grace today by confessing your sins and claiming the promise of an eternal resurrection with Jesus? Or do you need to respond by considering how you will truly love someone who needs you today?
Ultimately, in the midst of suffering, it’s pretty straightforward.
Love your neighbor. Pray for your enemy. Weep with the grieving.
And when in doubt, say nothing. Just love. Amen.
What’s a time when you were hurting and how were you shown love? Leave a response below. Thanks!
This sermon is for the 9 a.m. alternative worship of The Stand at Blandford UMC, Petersburg, VA on Sunday, October 6. This includes excerpts from “Tragedy & The Presence of God” from May.