Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, October 6, 2019
Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4, Psalm 37:1-9, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
The prophet cries out to God: “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongdoing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”
It’s one of the big problems of the Bible: why is there pain? Why does evil happen? Why does God not smite the evildoers of the world? Why do bad things happen, and especially, why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God in all the brokenness of the world? From the third chapter of Genesis when Adam and Eve eat the apple, to the last chapter of Revelation when we hear of the righteous being saved and happy in God’s kingdom come to Earth while evildoers are kept out, the writers of the Bible wrestle with the problem of pain, and argue about it. Deuteronomy claims that bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. The book of Job, in which an innocent man suffers dreadfully, finally concludes that mortals are too limited to understand the problem of pain. Ecclesiastes asserts that since so much of the world—good and evil both—is temporary and ultimately empty, the question is meaningless. Lamentations focuses more at expressing profound grief than asking why. Revelation says that even though the evil may prosper in the here-and-now, they will not reach God’s kingdom. Other books have different perspectives. And people of faith, both Jews and Christians, have been continuing the conversation and talking about it and arguing about it all the time. Theologians have a fancy word for it, called ‘theodicy.’
The thing is, though, when you’re the one in pain, when you’re the one suffering, none of these answers are particularly convincing or helpful. Despite the platitudes and Bible verses that well-meaning people of faith are prone to spout in times of trouble, when you or people you love are really suffering, no possible answer can satisfy. “Everything happens for a reason” is a terrible answer to someone wondering why their child has cancer, or wondering why their father molested them, and in fact is more likely to harm someone’s faith than help it. “The Lord never gives you more than you can handle” is even worse. First, it implies that God caused your suffering, and second, lots of people face harder challenges than they can possibly handle, harder challenges than anyone could handle. People break under the strain of hardship and tragedy all the time, and that platitude implies that if you do, it’s your own fault for not being strong enough to take what God wants you to. Or, to take a verse from our reading today out of context. “The righteous shall live by faith!” as if that means that having enough faith will mean nothing bad happens to you, when what God means is that faith means trusting God is still there even in the midst of the worst the world can throw at you.
We Christians really don’t like that idea. We’re not comfortable with the reality of suffering, we’re not comfortable with the problem of pain, we want a world in which everything happens for a reason and if you’re a good enough person, nothing truly bad will ever happen to you. I think it’s about two things: not wanting to question God, and control. We Christians have this idea that being pious and faithful means quietly accepting everything God does in our lives and always having perfect trust in Jesus and never doubting, never struggling, never arguing, never wrestling with anything that happens. Our Jewish brethren don’t think that; they argue with God all the time. And if you look at the great heroes of the Bible—Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the writers of the Psalms, pretty much all the prophets—they wrestled with God. They questioned God all the time. They disagreed … and not only was that okay, sometimes they changed God’s mind. Sometimes they got told they just weren’t capable of understanding, but never does the Bible say they were wrong to question, to cry out, to demand answers. The belief that you can’t argue with or question God, or complain to God, is not just wrong, it’s un-Biblical. When we don’t think we can question God, those questions don’t go away, they just fester deep in our soul.
The other reason we cling to a belief that we can make sense of suffering is that we want to feel like we control what’s going to happen to us. If being good earns you good things and happiness, if suffering is caused by doing things wrong or not having enough faith, then you can control whether or not you suffer. If you are good, you don’t have to worry. You can pray your way out of any problem. If your faith is strong enough, you will literally be able to move mountains, so even if you have a serious problem, your faith will be rewarded by a miracle cure. You can figure out the divine plan, do the right thing, and any problems you suffer will be merely temporary inconveniences on the way to glory.
The problem is, life just doesn’t work like that. While some people are fortunate enough to have their good behavior rewarded with good outcomes, not everyone is. Sometimes bad things just happen. Sometimes evil people cause pain and suffering for others while they themselves have a wonderful life. Sometimes the world is simply broken by sin and death, and it’s nobody’s fault, it just is. And even if you believe, as we Lutherans do, that God is at work even in the darkest, ugliest parts of the world, that doesn’t help much when you’re walking through one of those dark, ugly parts and you feel so alone. Even if you believe that Christ will return and judge the living and the dead … that’s not much comfort if you are suffering from the actions of evil people and you need relief from it now. Those platitudes about everything happening for a reason and good people getting rewarded are a way of papering over people’s suffering and making ourselves feel better about it. It doesn’t help the people who are suffering; it just reassures the bystanders that they’ll never suffer like that, and if they did, they have a stronger faith and would be able to handle it better. It wouldn’t crush them, only make them stronger.
And if you’ve built your understanding of God and life around an idea that if you’re good enough and your faith is strong enough, you’ll never suffer, never doubt, never have something you can’t sail through easily … then if something terrible does happen to you, you’ll have no way of dealing with it. When you are in the deepest trouble, when you are most in need, all your certainties will come crumbling down around your feet. There are some things so terrible that they can’t be explained. Some experiences so shattering, there’s no possible way of making meaning from them. And sometimes people go through things that may not be as severe, but which drag on for a soul-grindingly long time. And even knowing intellectually that God is with you, that God will never abandon you, doesn’t help much when you feel abandoned. The only thing you can do, when all the explanations fail, is cry out to God.
Faith isn’t about being confidently serene no matter what. Faith is about living with God. It’s about a relationship. And crying out to God, complaining, lamenting, letting out all your grief and pain and fear and horror, as the prophet Habakkuk does here, as Job does, as Jeremiah does in Lamentations and the psalmist does in the psalms, that’s a part of having that relationship. Because what kind of a relationship is it if you can’t take your fears and doubts and troubles to? Not a very strong or intimate one, that’s for sure. Faith isn’t about being certain, and it’s not about being safe. It’s about putting one foot in front of the other and trusting God is right beside you as you do it. And sometimes that trust is small and feeble and hard to keep ahold of, and that’s okay. Sometimes we have questions that have no answers, and that’s okay. God knows how we’re feeling, and what we’re going through, and God is willing to wrestle with us through our doubts and fears and questions. God has been there. God was tortured to death on a cross; there is no grief or pain or fear that God can’t understand. There is no place on earth so dark or twisted or corrupt that God can’t work. I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen, but I know that God is at work in the midst of them.
And although it can seem almost impossible to imagine, one day all pain and suffering will cease. One day, all evil will be cast out and all wounds will be healed. One day, the dead will rise from their graves and all the living and the dead will be judged. One day, all sins will be forgiven and every tear will be wiped away from every eye, and there will be no grief or pain or suffering any longer. We wait for that day, and although it seems like we have been waiting forever, it will come.