1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

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1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

The Rev. John Bedingfield

In the name of the risen Christ, Amen.

A man stumbled onto a subway car, just as the doors were closing. His clothing was rumpled, his necktie was all askew, he had bright red lipstick marks on his cheek and collar. He reeked of booze and had a bottle of cheap gin sticking out of his jacket pocket. He staggered over and plopped down in the seat next to the priest. After sighing heavily, the man opened a crumpled newspaper and began to read.

A few minutes later the man leaned toward the priest and said, “What causes arthritis?” The priest said, with almost a sneer in his voice, “It is caused by riotous living. Too much drinking and carousing and doing immoral things with immoral women, that’s what causes arthritis!” The man pondered that for a second and replied, “Hmmm,” then went back to his newspaper.

Feeling a little guilty, the priest leaned toward the man and said, “I’m sorry I was so uncharitable just now. That was not a very Christian way to respond to you and I apologize. How long have you had arthritis?” “Oh,” the man said, “I don’t have arthritis. I just read that the Pope did.”

St. Peter, in his first pastoral letter, a part of which we just heard, brings up an issue that has dogged people of faith for thousands of years, and has been the substance of the argument of many an atheist as well. To a greater or lesser extent, every group who believes in a higher being must struggle to answer the question, “Why does God allow suffering in the world?” The 1st Epistle of Peter was written from Rome by the chief Apostle to the Christians throughout Asia Minor (what is now Turkey) at or near the time that Nero was the Roman emperor. Remember Nero – the one who was said to have fiddled while Rome burned? Well, Romedid burn while Nero was emperor. And although historians agree the Nero himself ordered the fires to be set – so that he could rebuild the city the way he wanted it – the emperor and his people blamed this new religious group (the Christians) for setting the fires. Thus began one of the worst persecutions of Christians in history. During the next few years, Christians were fed to wild animals for the amusement of Roman citizens. The Romans crucified Christians in unbelievable numbers. And these Christian believers were even tied into little stands, doused with oil and set afire so that the emperor’s guests would have light for their evenings’ entertainment. And while all this was going on, Nero was taking all of the money and possessions from Roman Christians and using the money to rebuild the city he had destroyed.

It is out of this world of horrific persecution that St. Peter wrote,

Beloved, don’t be astonished at the fiery trial which has come upon you, to test you,
as though a strange thing happened to you….
If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed;
because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you (1 Peter 4:12, 14)

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Implicit in all the Peter wrote in this letter to early Christians is the question, “Why would God allow such horrible things to happen to God’s people?” Theologians and church leaders have struggled with the question and have answered it in a variety of ways over the centuries.

Some have said that a loving God would never cause or allow suffering. Therefore, either God is not really all-loving, or God is not really all-powerful and cannot stop suffering from occurring. Others have said God is like a great watchmaker who created the world, set it in motion and then left it to be what it would. Still others have said that pain and suffering result from our sinfulness and if we were better, we wouldn’t suffer.

Each of these theories (and all the others that have been put forward) has its strengths – and its problems. First of all, this discussion of God’s power and loving nature is not a mutually exclusive discussion. That is, there are more possibilities than either God doesn’t love us or God isn’t powerful. There are literally myriad other possibilities. So that argument simplistically gets us nowhere. The watchmaker scenario is also problematic, because why would a God who just set the world in motion and walked away get involved enough to send God Incarnate – Jesus – to come and rescue us from sin? And the idea that pain and suffering are responses to our sinfulness doesn’t work for me, because I’m stumped at trying to figure out what horrible sin 200,000 people would have committed that caused them to die a few years ago in a huge tsunami. None of these explanations is sufficient for me to explain the idea of pain in the world of a loving creator.

And it doesn’t have to be something as huge and mysterious as a tsunami, a tornado or a hurricane to cause us to deeply question. When we lose a job, we often ask God, “Why me?” “Why would you do this to me?” When our child has a problem that we cannot solve – and we feel the child’s pain (as parents do) – our prayers can be reduced to, “How could you do this to her – or at least, how could you allow this to happen to her? She’s a good girl.” And of course, if we’re diagnosed with a serious illness, or if we lose a loved one, these questions almost invariably arise in one form or another.

About twenty years ago, a professor of philosophy at a small, liberal arts college in the Midwest, received the telephone call that is every parent’s nightmare. At 3:30am, a voice on the other end of the phone said, “Are you Eric Wolterstorff’s father?” The professor said that he was. The voice then said that while Eric was in Austria on a mountain climbing expedition, he had had an accident. Then Nicholas Wolterstorff heard an unknown voice tell him that his 25 year old son had died. In his book, Lament For a Son, Professor Wolterstorff says that as he stood there on the phone that morning, “For three seconds I felt the peace of resignation: arms extended, limp son in hand, peacefully offering him to someone else – Someone. Then the pain – the cold, burning pain. (Wolterstorff, Nicholas, Lament for a Son, Eerdmans, 1987, p. 9)

Lament For a Son, is Nicholas Wolterstorff’s diary, written as he grieved the loss of his son. Over the year that the book chronicles, Nicholas alternated between pain and numbness; between acceptance of his situation and rejection of reality; and between rage and despondence. He is a man of immense faith, and he deeply questioned why God would allow this tragedy to happen. Nicholas quoted Rabbi Kushner, who has posited that God suffers with us when we suffer. But that quasi-explanation did not do it for this grieving father. He says,

I cannot fit it all together by saying, ‘(God) did it,’ but neither can I do so by saying, ‘There was nothing (God) could do about it.’ I cannot fit it together at all. I can only, with Job (the Biblical character of such suffering) endure. I do not know why God did not prevent Eric’s death. To live without the answer is precarious. It’s hard to keep one’s footing. … I have no explanation. I can do nothing else than endure in the face of this deepest and most painful of mysteries. I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and resurrecter of Jesus Christ. I also believe that my son’s life was cut off in its prime. I cannot fit these pieces together. I am at a loss. … To the most agonized question I have ever asked I do not know the answer. I cannot even guess (why). .. The wounds of all humanity are an unanswered question.” (Wolterstorff, p. 67)

The Apostle Peter gives us three possible ideas to partially explain human suffering. First, suffering may indeed provide the test by which our faith is strengthened – as the song from this morning says, the “Refiner’s fire,” that turns our faith from impure to pure metal. Second, suffering provides us a way to be more deeply connected to Jesus’ suffering, thereby deepening our connection to Him as our Savior. And third, suffering “in accordance with God’s will,” not suffering because God demanded it, but rather suffering as a loved child of God, provides us an opportunity to truly live out our faith (See David Bartless, New Interpreter’s Bible, 1 Peter 4:12-19, p. 313). If we can do it when the chips are down, we can do it anytime.

In Jan Karon’s Mitford series of books, she writes about Fr. Tim, an Episcopal priest in a small town and parish. In her volume titled, In This Mountain, Fr. Tim gets seriously ill and he tells the congregation one Sunday morning that in the middle of the night, as he struggled with his sermon, he finally decided that he had to surrender and try a new attitude. Fr. Tim says,

Our obedience will say, Father, I don’t know why You’re causing, or allowing this hard thing to happen, but I’m going to give thanks in it because You ask me to. I’m going to trust You to have a purpose for it that I can’t know and may never know. Bottom line, You’re God – and that’s good enough for me. (Karon, Jan, The Miracle and the Myth, “Shouts and Whispers, Twenty-one Writers Speak About Their Writing and Their Faith,” Eerdmans, p. 126)

Nicholas Wolterstorff received a gift through his suffering. He says,

Suffering may do us good – may be a blessing, something to be thankful for. This I have learned. … (P)erhaps the treading down (of people by suffering) is itself a blessing, or can become a blessing, rich as any coming to those we call ‘the lucky ones.’

Suffering is the shout of ‘No’ by one’s whole existence to that over which one suffers … (the shout of no) to death, to injustice, to depression, to hunger, to humiliation, to bondage, to abandonment. And sometimes, when the cry is intense, there emerges a radiance which elsewhere seldom appears: a glow of courage, of love, of insight, of selflessness, of faith. In that radiance we see best what humanity was meant to be. (Wolterstorff, p. 96)

Let’s finish by returning to Peter’s 1st Epistle. “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright 2009, John Bedingfield. Used by permission.