Summary: The power of God to live as Jesus’ followers is a blank check for good in a chaotic and dangerous world.
Bad things happen. Bad things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. Bad things happen. Sometimes the cause is obvious: greed and hatred, poverty and ignorance, all cause suffering in greater or lesser degrees, and we can point to sin as the reason. But sometimes the deaths seem so random and pointless. The pictures of the devastation in Indonesia and Sri Lanka and Thailand, the 150,000 dead, tales of unspeakable tragedy and unimaginable loss have dominated the news for two weeks. Religious leaders
around the world have been called upon to explain how belief in God can survive
suffering on so massive a scale. Some people want to know why these things happen, some people look for ways to stop these things from happening, others
look for someone to blame. And everyone feels helpless.
But the issue before us is the same whether the number is 1000 or 100 or ten, or even just one. Every day around the world children are killed, or kidnapped or abused. Every day around the world more 150,000 thousand people die every day from accidents to old age, from famine to floods, from disease to disaster to war, and a hundred different varieties of random violence. It’s just that we rarely see them all at once, in one place.
But getting an answer to the question why isn’t really a whole lot of help, either. The Archbishop of Canterbury, writing in response to this tragedy, said "It some religious genius did come up with an explanation of exactly why all these deaths made sense, would we feel happier or safer or more confident in God? Wouldn’t we feel something of a chill at the prospect of a God who deliberately plans a program that involves a certain level of casualties?" That’s one of the problems with the classic Presbyterian doctrine of predestination, too. If God is in charge of everything, why doesn’t he make life easier?
Thomas Hardy thinks that suffering is random, and that he would feel better if God really was against him, getting his kicks from pulling wings of his hapless human flies. He wrote,
"If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: ’Thou suffering thing,
know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!’
Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.
But not so...."
People say, "things happen for a reason." And there is comfort in believing that good comes out of suffering. It’s Biblical, too, to believe that. James tells us, "Brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy,because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. [Jas 1:2]
But you know what? That’s not really what we want. We want these things not to happen at all. We want the power to stop them before they happen. Or at the very least to have the power to fix things after they do happen. We want sickness and pain and grief and loss and disappointment and change to go away. We want power. We want to be in control.
But let me tell you, folks, power is not all that it’s cracked up to be. An author named Ursula LeGuin wrote a marvelous story about a man whose dreams changed the world. He was so outraged and angered by racism that he dreamed it away. And the next morning, everyone was the same shade of gray.
And that was all very well until he noticed that people were now classed according to the shape of their ears - pointed or round, whether they stuck out or lay flat against their heads. So he dreamed discrimination away. And the next morning everyone was banded together like brothers and sisters - because hostile aliens had appeared in the sky and the earth.
Even if we had that kind of power, we just don’t know enough to make good choices. Rain in one country may mean drought in another; sickle-cell anemia, a genetic scourge that often comes with African genes, seems to protect against malaria. Which would you rather have?
No, power alone is not enough. You have to know what you’re doing - both short-term and long. And that is why Paul’s prayer is just what we need at times like this. Because both the power and the wisdom we need to make sense of our world and a difference in it are found in only one place - or I should say, in one person.