Summary: We don’t follow God for a promise of easy life, but simply because God is TRUTH and nothing in life or death can separate us from God’s love.
The Center that Holds
April 24, 2005
I always try my best to preach out of my own experience, but as I approached today’s sermon, I realized that I was having trouble doing that. I can preach easily about a lot of stuff because I have experience. For example: I sometimes struggle with my faith. Sometimes I don’t know how to forgive. Sometimes I feel under incredible stress. Sometimes the right thing to do is the hard thing to do. Sometimes I don’t really know how do handle people that get on my very last nerve.
So I can preach about those things, and others, because I can understand them…at least I can understand them from the point of a fellow traveler, one who is going on to perfection, one who is a Christian-in-training.
Today, I’m preaching about chronic pain, illness, and suffering. I, quite frankly, have never that. Yes, I’ve been sick a few times. I’ve had my share of sprained ankles and stitches. I did spend 17 days in Mayo Clinic over Christmas and New Year’s in 1996 because of a ruptured esophagus…took Christmas dinner through a tube in my chest. But I have really enjoyed relatively good health during my half-century of life.
One of the things of which I am aware is that it is awfully easy for someone like me to sound trite and condescending when speaking about suffering. It is easy for folks like me to counsel others who are really ill to just suck it up and deal with it. So I am approaching this sermon with a significant amount of caution. But I do hope that I can bring some Biblical wisdom and faith answers to bear on the issue of chronic illness, pain, and suffering.
I think that we need to begin with the affirmation that the world has more than a few rough edges. (see Harold S. Kushner’s book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” New York: Avon Books. 1981) Let’s consider some of the rough edges for a minute. For example, let’s consider Germany. The nation that produced Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Martin Luther also gave us Hitler, Eichmann, and Goering. The United States, which gave birth to the finest constitution in the history of the world, also brought slavery, the Civil War, and genocidal policies aimed at native peoples. The technology that enables us to transplant organs and save lives has spawned the Chinese practice of executing prisoners and then selling boy parts to the highest bidder. So the world has more than its share of rough edges…and we wonder why?
Think about pain for a little while. Pain can be our friend. It tells you when you touch a hot stove. Pain tells you that it’s time to come in from the cold because your ears start to hurt. Pain tells you that you’re overdoing it on the weekend softball team.
But pain also brings waves of torment. Cancer, arthritis, heart disease, infection, and so many other ailments bring a mass of painful misery. Pain may have been intended as a smooth, efficient warning system, yet suffering is raging out of control. And we wonder…why? Why are there rough edges?
In this world, we must confront people with spinal chord injuries, survivors of the Holocaust, and victims of drunk drivers. And we have to answer the question, “Where is God when it hurts? (I am indebted to Philip Yancy’s book, “Where is God When it Hurts?” Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 1977.)
I think that the issue really has to do with causation. If God is truly in charge, why do things seem so unfair? I don’t particularly care too much if Saddam Hussein has a migraine. But I do wonder why we have loved ones die much too soon; why some babies must suffer from horrible diseases; why so many feel the grinding pinch of poverty; why families are torn apart by dissension; why wars take some of our best and brightest from us.
I always say that I could answer these questions pretty well when I was in seminary a couple of decades ago, but now I find the answers much more illusive. I wish that there were easy answers in the Bible, but there are not. The Old Testament witness seems to be one generally of reward and punishment. God seemingly intervened in human history along the way to reward the good and punish the wicked. According to the Old Testament, there are times when God employed suffering, even causing people to die. God caused armies to lose battles just to teach them a lesson. The prophets all called out lists of behaviors which would bring doom, but promised that repentance would bring restraint from heaven.
If you remember, there were some high-profile preachers in America following the incidents of September 11, 2001, who said that this was God’s punishment on America for our sins. And it would seem that there might be some Old Testament justification for an opinion like that.