When Bad Things Happen, Part II
Job 38:1-11 & 42:1-6, Romans 8:31-39, July 23, 2017
“Sermon idea—If God is all loving & all powerful, how can he allow suffering from natural disasters?” received 6/26/17
This is the second of two sermons that are rooted in the note I received seeking sermon topics for this and next month. Last week’s sermon is on the website, as is today’s. The topic, which theologians call “theodicy,” is one that many of us have thought about, and will continue to think about. Here are two definitions of theodicy: ”the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil.” [Oxford Dictionaries, accessed on line 7/12/17] Or “a theological construct that attempts to vindicate God in response to the evidential problem of evil that militates against the existence of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent deity.” [Wickipedia, accessed 7/12/17]
I had a hard time learning to drive. We had a 1976 Volkswagen Rabbit with manual transmission. It was extremely difficult for me to make the car go from a stop sign. The coordination of clutch and accelerator was simply beyond my ability. There were not many things that I struggled to learn as a child. I was a good student. I was well-coordinated so sports came pretty easily. Driving was the first thing that had really frustrated me. Really frustrated me. I remember sitting at a stop sign at Moss and Sterling Avenues in West Peoria, killing the car at least a dozen times. Feeling the pressure of failure. Feeling the pressure of public failure, because there was a motorist behind me who wanted to go, but my incompetence was blocking her way. When we finally made it home I was broken. I was 15. Clearly, this was my mother’s fault. The answer to my frustration was obvious. I’m sure you’ve all figured this out by now: If Mom loved me she’d buy a car with an automatic transmission.
Let me stay in 1981 for few minutes. My friends and I used to play video games and pinball at a couple arcades in Peoria. There were moments when I got pretty good at pinball, though mastery of Asteroids and Space Invaders eluded me. Sometimes I’d get the high score for the day on a pinball machine; I even earned some free games with my skill. A friend of mine had his very own, arcade-quality pinball machine in his basement. I liked to practice on his machine, because it was free so I never had to fork over another quarter for another three balls, each a shot at greatness. Once he blocked all the drains. It was his machine, in his basement, and he basically made it possible for one to play forever, and pile huge point totals up and win potentially infinite free games. It was boring. It simply stopped being fun to play on John’s machine. On his machine all one needed was time to win free games—and the games were already free anyway. The challenge, or struggle or whatever one could call it, was gone. Success was only satisfying when failure was possible, or better yet, likely.
What would life be like without struggle, pain, suffering, hardship and difficulty? Last week I realized that if I were immortal I would never get anything done. Why go to the trouble of writing that song or checking things off your bucket list if there will always be tomorrow? Life is a gift from God. One reason that life is precious is that is finite. At least life here on earth is finite. We are all going to die. Even Lazarus, Jesus’ friend we hear about in John’s gospel. Lazarus, who was in the tomb for four days before Jesus brought him back to life, died. His second death isn’t recorded in scripture, but we know he died. Death is part of life. To receive the gift of life is also to accept a death sentence.
Job struggled with God’s justice. He was a prominent, respected, wealthy leader among his people. He defended the poor, and when he spoke, people listened. Then the Lord turned against him. Job lost everything. He was a laughingstock, suffering physical pain as well as humiliation. He was righteous, blameless and God sent calamity on him. Job made his defense to God (and his “friends” who knew he was hiding something) from chapter 29 through chapter 31. Job proclaims his righteousness—given his worldview he should not be suffering as he was. Rather he should be rewarded!
Then God responds. From chapter 38 through 41. And nowhere in all of this poetry does God explain why the righteous suffer, or why anyone suffers, or why there is evil, or why there is good.
“God,” Job asked, “why have I suffered so?” and God answered, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” “Who made the stars, the oceans, the animals—where were you when I was creating all things?” Let me be very clear here. In the Book of Job, God does not answer the question of why good people suffer. And it drives me crazy when people do not answer the question I have asked! It’s as though God’s defense is what the prophet Isaiah spoke “My ways are not your ways, nor are my thoughts your thoughts.” [55:8]
Why do the innocent suffer? Yes they do.
The conversation between God and Job is a mirror image of a conversation I had with my younger son when he was six years old. I asked, “David, why do I love you so much?” And he replied, “Because you do!” He didn’t answer the question. And maybe there simply isn’t an answer to “why” in this case.
The question that spawned today’s and last Sunday’s sermon is about why God permits suffering from natural disasters. I’ve been using a number of different terms in place of “suffering,” “sadness,” grief,” “pain” “bad things.” I’ve danced around the term “evil.” To me, for something to be evil, someone or something has to intend it to make something bad happen. Someone is responsible for evil. And it’s pretty easy to explain evil, some free actor chose to do something that caused someone else harm. He knew better and did it anyway. A natural disaster, in my thinking, isn’t evil. No one caused the tornado to touch down here, and not there.
Some bad things happen when we reap what we sow. I drove too fast and got a ticket or caused an accident. I knew better and paid the consequences.
Some bad things just happen. My insurer calls them “acts of God.” For example, last month a deer ran into my car. I didn’t hit it; it ran into my car, bounced off and ran away. When I stopped into my insurance agent’s office to start the claim process, she asked whether I hit anything else. “No, it was just me and the deer.”
“That’s good,” she said. “your deductible will only be $50. If you had swerved into another car to avoid the deer, that would be considered a collision and your deductible would be $250. So you really want to stay in your lane when you hit a deer.”
(I am a cheapskate, but I cannot imagine thinking in the moment of white hot panic when a deer runs in front of me that I can save $200 if I only hit the deer.)
And some bad things happen to people who are innocent because of someone else’s evil. Think of the person killed by a drunk driver who survives the accident.
And some bad things arise out of unjust social systems. No individual is responsible, but society is. These are the really, really difficult problems. Think of children who go to substandard schools because of where their parents can afford to live. It’s obvious that these students suffer, as they are not able to compete for jobs with better-prepared students. Those students suffer. But society also suffers because so many of our citizens cannot reach their full potential.
To which of these can we assign blame to God?
Each week we sing, “praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” We don’t even think about those words; they are in a part of our memories where they hardly mean anything. But when we stop and think, don’t we believe that all good things ultimately come from God? I do.
Last week’s affirmation of faith said “God has created the world of space and time to be the sphere of God’s dealings with humanity. In its beauty and vastness, sublimity and awfulness, order and disorder, the world reflects to the eye of faith the majesty and mystery of its Creator.” [The Confession of 1967, Inclusive Language Text)
Good and bad things help us see the majesty and mystery of God.
Last week I quoted Peter Marty at length about God’s plan. A 19 year old member of his church lost a leg in a motorcycle accident when a motorist ran a stop sign. Another member of his church comforted the young man’s mother by saying this was God’s plan.
As one might expect an article on theodicy prompted several letters and Peter Marty replied in part by writing, “I’m simply not convinced that for God to be responsible for God’s world…God must therefore assume blame or credit for every circumstance.” [Christian Century, July 19, 2017]
He goes on to address the premise of the one who suggested this sermon last month, the premise I echoed when I told about my difficulty to learn to drive, the premise, “if God is omnipotent, that is, all-powerful, and loves us then innocent people shouldn’t suffer.” Peter Marty gave me something new to think about regarding God’s power or sovereignty. He points out that in the New Testament God is only referred to as “Almighty” nine times, and eight of those times appear in the Book of Revelation, the wildly weird book about how God will create a new heaven and a new earth and dwell forever completely in the presence of humanity, where there will be no grief or sadness, where there will be no need for lamps because God’s light will fill all places forever. So maybe God’s omnipotence is something that is still not completely in place s here and now. Maybe God’ omnipotent All-mightyness is something we have to wait for. Wait for it to unfold and grow. Just as Christ gave us a sample of the kingdom of God, but the kingdom has not yet fully arrived, perhaps the same can be said for God’s omnipotence. It’s not completely here yet.
And maybe a more helpful adjective for God is “omni-loving.” That is God’s plan, and God’s intention is to love creation and all those whom God made in God’s image, relentlessly, passionately and completely. God’s omni-loving does not prevent evil or suffering or bad things. God’s omni-loving is as good as it can get, for now.
And God’s love is strong. I am pretty sure I have read this morning’s New Testament lesson at every funeral and memorial service I have presided at. Paul was writing to the Romans when they were being persecuted. They were an upstart sect in a minority faith and they were threatened by the police, by poverty, by hunger…Paul lists many things that threaten them. He knows very well how they suffer. He knows the power that the dominant society and civil authorities can use to afflict the Christians. He reminds them that they are surrounded on all sides, and have been in the past, and will be in the future. And all these powers arrayed against them, have no power to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
My friends, bad things are going to happen. Acts of God, machinations of unjust social systems, human cruelty, all these things are going to happen. Young women will die in traffic accidents; towers will collapse and crush people; cancer will take over the bodies of people we love. And faith in Christ, or any other religion will not prevent them from happening. Prayer, obedience and piety do not vaccinate anyone from calamity.
And through all them, God is determined to love us. God’s plan and intention is to love all of creation. And that love is stronger than anything else in all of creation. Amen.