Sunday, October 18, 2015

why pain?

Almighty, eternal, and merciful God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: inspire the hands in the writing, the lips in the preaching, and our hearts in the pondering so that we may be led deeper into your truth, better know and do your will, and grow in holiness day by day. Amen.

The question as to why is there evil and pain in the world is a serious one, especially as to why there should be innocent suffering. Somewhat tediously, that tiny group of very vocal people who are loosely collected under the banner of Militant Atheism – those who not only have no faith themselves that there is anything that exists beyond what the eye can see and they hand may touch, but actively and aggressively seek to convert others to their own belief that God that does not exist – act as if this were a question that only occurred to humanity recently. Christians claim God is good, they say; but a God that was good would not allow suffering, especially the suffering of those who are truly innocent. God therefore does not exist.

It must be noted with a certain degree of amusement that they can get quite angry with a God that they claim they believe is not real. But that aside, their raising of this issue is not new. Philosophers have always dealt with the problem of pain and suffering. They dealt with at length in the middle ages; they considered it deeply during the long and varied history of the Roman Empire; and they pondered it endlessly during that shining period of human achievement that was the time of the Ancient Greeks. But before any on them, many centuries before, was the sublime and divinely inspired work on the matter that is the Book of Job.

Job, as I am sure you are aware, is a man who is not only innocent but righteous, and who suffers greatly. After he has lost everything – family, wealth, even his physical well-being – friends come to comfort him; friends who try to persuade him that he has done something to deserve his suffering. His friends are scandalised by his claim that he has done nothing wrong. But the truth is – and this is the point of the book – that he has not. Job is a good man who has suffered terribly. In his pain, Job cries out to heaven for an explanation for what has happened to him. And in our Old Testament reading this morning, we hear part of the answer that God gives to him:Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?'

Such words may sound strange to the modern ear, but what God is essentially saying to him is that he is God and Job is not. And that is a more profound explanation than it might first seem. Imagine a human being trying to explain to an ant – a creature that is tiny in size, whose time of life is brief, and whose ability to grasp abstract ideas and concepts is as nothing compared with ours – what he was doing in building something as massive as a railway line crossing from one end of the United States to the other, a project that would take many years to complete, and when finished would be in service for an even greater span of years. Could any explanation be possible, as long as the ant remained an ant and the human being a human being? Even if it were possible for them to communicate, perhaps all that the man could say to the ant ultimately is that 'I am a man and you are but an ant.'

However, the gulf between God and Man is even greater than that between a man and an ant. A man and an ant at least have some things in common; they are born, they die, they must eat while they live, they both live in communities, and understand what it is to seek out food and build things. But God is Eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, able to create all that is out of nothing, and keep it in being with nothing more than the force of his will. How could it be possible for us understand the thinking of a being who plans not in terms of decades or centuries but billions upon billions of years; whose scale of operations is not the few miles that surround a person, or a country, or even a single planet, but the infinite reaches of the universe – a space so vast that it contains, as far as we can tell, more galaxies than it would be possible for us ever to count? And how might anyone dare, a person so tiny and limited, to say to a being that is infinite and all-knowing, that because there is some aspect of his creation that we simply do not understand, or like, or find unpleasant, that the fact that this aspect does not meet with our approval is proof that he can not possibly exist? Such an reaction is not only foolish, it displays an embarrassing arrogance; the passing speck of dust demanding of the infinite creator that he justify his each and every action to him, and explain in tiniest detail to him the reasons behind all that he does. Could the speck understand the ways of God any more than the ant could understand what it is that we do?

And yet, God does not leave his explanation to Job as the only answer. And that fuller answer is in the person of Christ, God made man. For in Christ, God came to suffer and die with us, to drink the cup of his passion, and to suffer the baptism of his death on the cross, to use the words of our Gospel reading for today. We may not understand why there is innocent suffering – suffering seemingly unconnected with the brokenness of the Fall, suffering which is not caused by our evil misuse of our God-given free-will. And yet we can trust that it is not without purpose or meaning; because God loved us enough to enter into this suffering and broken world to endure all its slings and arrows with us. And because we know that Jesus, having died on the cross for us, has conquered death, and given us the hope of eternal life. And that hope guarantees us that nothing in this life is without purpose or meaning, even if there are things that we do not understand, things that we must simply pray for the grace to accept and endure, knowing that at the last they are overcome by Christ.  


To the
Almighty and Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to him be all Glory, both now and unto ages of ages: Amen.

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