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What about suffering?

Sermon preached at St James’ Church, Bolton, Bradford on 16 October 2016

Psalm 22:1-22

One lovely, sunny Sunday afternoon, 40 years ago, Yvonne and I were walking hand in hand through a wood in Derbyshire when her left leg suddenly collapsed for no apparent reason. She was at University at that time and I managed to get her back to my car and from there to her flat in Nottingham. But then, as she tried to do some reading for an essay she had to write, she found that her sight had become distorted and the print on the page seemed to be flashing. I took her to the Clinic on campus and … well, to cut a long story short, within a few weeks she was back home in Bradford and some months later, while still aged just twenty, she was diagnosed as having multiple sclerosis. Many people – family and friends – distraught and shocked, were asking ‘Why?’

Fast forward to a Monday morning, 17 years later in 1993. Yvonne and I were then married – had been for 15 years – and we were just back from a holiday in Italy. I stepped into the garage, suited and booted and ready for my first day back at the office in Leeds, and went to open my car. But as I did so a massive pain shot through my chest, then another and another, and I staggered back into the house and shouted for Yvonne. Within an hour I was in the back of an ambulance being treated for the first of my heart attacks. And then came major open heart surgery, more blocked arteries, stenting, by-pass re-dos, early retirement, heart failure and so on – and all with a disabled wife to look after. So again there were those who were asking ‘Why?’

Everyone can tell these kind of stories or, if they can’t, they know plenty of others who can, so no wonder that one of the very first questions we get thrown at us if we start to talk to anyone in the big wide world about God is: ‘Yes, but what about suffering? Why? Why do people get MS, cancer, brain tumours, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, heart disease? Why are thousands of children being maimed and injured in Syria? Why do people who already have very little, lose everything in a hurricane in Haiti? Why are millions of refugees living in abject poverty and misery in holding camps? Why are children and young women trafficked across borders to be abused and enslaved? Why? Why? Why?’

Suffering takes many shapes and forms. Whenever we enter a time of pain, or distress, or hardship of any kind, we are suffering. And put that way, few, if any of us, are exempt. And the question remains. Why?

It is, of course, a question that needs a bit of unpacking. What do people mean exactly when they say ‘What about suffering?’ They may mean, ‘If God is as all-loving and all-powerful as you Christians believe that he is then why does he allow suffering at all? Why doesn’t he just stop it?’ Or their question may be much narrower. They may mean, ‘Why does this all-loving, all-powerful God of yours allow bad things to happen to good people?’ In other words, they don’t have a problem with supposedly ‘bad’ people suffering, ‘They’re just getting what was coming to them, aren’t they?’ But they do have a problem with ‘good’ people like their Auntie Nellie getting cancer because, as they put it, ‘She’s a lovely old dear who would never hurt a fly.’

Now if you think about it, that second question raises a different issue from the first one. The first question – why does God allow suffering at all? – is a question about God’s power and even more about his concern for humankind. Does he really love us? Is he even interested in us?

But the second – why does God allow ‘good’ people to suffer? – is a question about what suffering is. It assumes that God is interested in us but that suffering is a kind of punishment that he doles out to us, and what the questioner is asking is why is it so indiscriminate? Here are all the ‘bad’ people. Are they suffering? Yes, some of them are, Well, good, that’s ok. They’re getting what they deserve. And here are all the ‘good’ people. Are they suffering too? Yes, lots of them are. But why? They shouldn’t be. They’ve done nothing to deserve it, so that’s not ok.

Now, I know that my brief this morning is to come up with an explanation that we might be able to use in dealing with both those kinds of question; and that is something I shall try to do. But, to be honest, I want to get past that bit as quickly as I can and get to what I see as a far more important question – which is what we can do about suffering. You see, I know for a fact that there are people here this morning who are suffering – whatever kind of a brave face they are putting on it. Suffering is part of the human condition. Job said, ‘Man is born for trouble as the sparks fly upward’. Jesus said, ‘In this world you will have trouble’, and C S Lewis said, ‘We were promised sufferings. They are part of the programme. And,’ he added, ‘I accept it.’ Well, so do I. And so, of course, must all of us. Not accepting suffering won’t make it go away, and all the reasons in the world we might find as to why God allows it won’t make it any easier to bear.

But what can make it easier to bear and what can indeed transform it, is the way we deal with our suffering. As I said the other day to a young friend of mine who’s going through a very difficult time, ‘It’s not so much what happens to you that’s important; it’s what you do with what happens to you.’ And what you do with suffering is what I’m eager to get round to and to focus on this morning.

But first the question: Why does God allow suffering to exist? And why do even ‘good’ people suffer? Is it because God hasn’t the power to stop it? No! Is it because he doesn’t really care enough about us to stop it? No! Is it then his way of punishing us for our sins? Absolutely not! So why? Is there an answer?

Yes there is. We may not like it, but there is … and it comes in two parts. The first part is that suffering exists and God allows it because it is the price we have to pay for living in what God sees as the best of all possible worlds. That is to say, it is the price of living in a world where we all have the freedom to run our own lives. God has created a universe which operates in accordance with natural and moral laws that no one can alter. But, on planet earth, he has given to human kind the task of managing his creation, and to that end he has given each and every one of us the freedom to make our own choices. Wise choices, poor choices, good choices, bad choices. Choices bathed in prayer. Choices made without giving God a second thought. Choices that cooperate and harmonise and work with the grain of the natural and moral laws of the universe, or choices that conflict with, and try to defy and to cut across, those natural and moral laws. But if we make wrong choices, choices that transgress the natural and moral laws of the universe, pain and suffering will inevitably result and their effect is felt on anyone, good or bad, who happens to be standing in the way as the bad choices work themselves out.

We might think of the inbuilt moral law of the universe as a bit like the Highway Code. And as we all know full well, if you drive your car down the wrong side of a motorway then sooner or later you will injure, maim or kill some other road users. Those other road users may be drug dealers or they may be aid workers – bad people or good people. Your car – and the Highway Code that it’s transgressing – simply doesn’t know the difference.

And so it is on a global scale. Make the bad choice of spraying crops with powerful insecticides so as to maximise profits and you put carcinogens in the food stream that will ultimately give cancer to tens of thousands of people – good people, bad people, the carcinogens don’t know the difference. Make the bad choice of tipping millions of cubic meters of spoil on an unstable mountainside above Aberfan in Wales and just 50 years ago today you had 116 children suffocated in slurry – good children, bad children, the waste didn’t know the difference. Make the bad choice of neglecting the routine maintenance of vehicles you’re supposed to be servicing and the next thing you know there’s a coach down an embankment of the M1 and passengers within it with life-changing injuries – good people, bad people, the coach and its failed brakes don’t know the difference.

The greater part of all human suffering can be traced back to someone, somewhere making bad choices. Even many so-called ‘natural’ disasters can be laid at the door of global warming which is something that has been hugely accelerated by the bad choice of businesses great and small not to cut back sufficiently on their emission of greenhouse gasses. And that is the world we have been given to live in – a world where such bad choices are possible. So why does God think it’s a good world?

Because a world where bad choices are not possible would be a world where good and loving and wise and kind choices would not be possible either. And God does not want that kind of world. He believes that a world in which humankind can choose good – even though that means they can also choose evil – is a better world than one in which human beings are simply his robots living their lives according to some program he places on their hard drives. God’s free choice when he created the universe was to give us freedom of choice too – in all we think and speak and do; and a world in which God was intervening at every end and turn to prevent anyone choosing evil – which is what some of us might like – would, of course, be a world without any choice at all.

But all this, of course, raises another question. Why do so many human beings choose evil rather than good? Why are there so many times when we ourselves do just that? Well that‘s a topic for another sermon, but the short answer from Scripture, from Jesus himself, from the church throughout the centuries, and indeed from many eminent thinkers today, is quite simply that we live in a fallen world; a world that is not as God created it to be. However unsophisticated it might sound to many 21st century ears; we live in a world that has been invaded by a dark power opposed to God, someone we call the devil or Satan. Someone we see most exposed perhaps in the face of ISIS but someone who is ceaselessly working to bend and distort and skew everything he can, so as to turn it away from God and towards the evil that he himself embodies. And he works not only in the hearts and minds of people. Cancer cells are ‘bent’ cells that divide and multiply wrongly. Disease is a disorder of what was once ordered and good. MS is a disorder of the body’s good immune system. Parkinson’s is a disorder if the body’s good nervous system.

When we look at all that is spoiled and ruined in this world we will do well to agree with Jesus that ‘an enemy has done this’ and that is the other half of the answer to ‘Why suffering?’ In a world of free choice, a dark power is at work to bend and distort everything, including our freedom to choose what is good. C S Lewis once said, ‘We live in enemy-occupied territory’, and he was right. We know, of course, that on the cross, the Lord Jesus dealt the enemy a death-blow from which he cannot recover, but because he is doomed he presently fights all the harder, wanting to take all that he can down with him. So our job is to work in the light of Christ and for the Light who is Christ against the Prince of Darkness; and that, of course, is where the issue of how we deal with suffering takes centre stage. Suffering is one of Satan’s weapons but you need to know this: we have been given the power to turn it against him, to make it God’s weapon and thus to help hasten Satan’s end.

Let me explain how by reminding you of the story of Joseph.

Now there was a young man who could tell you something about suffering! Remember what happened to him? Sold to Midianite traders by his brothers, carted off to Egypt, bought as a slave by one of Pharaoh’s top advisers, accused of rape by his master’s wife, thrown into prison and forgotten about for years. Until finally, because he could interpret Pharaoh’s dreams when no one else could, he was raised to high office himself and placed in charge of Egypt’s famine relief program. The famine brought his brothers down from Canaan to buy grain and eventually Joseph reveals to them just who he is. He treats them kindly, but when his father dies, his brothers are afraid. ‘Now that dad’s gone,’ they say, ‘he’s bound to take his revenge on us.’ But not so. Here is what Joseph says to them in Genesis 50 – and it is foundational to the way in which we should approach all our suffering. ‘You plotted evil against me,’ says Joseph, ‘but God turned it into good …’ The treachery, the slavery, the false accusation, the imprisonment – all the suffering – God turned it into good. And in the New Testament Paul picks up on that. ‘We know,’ he says, ‘We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him’ – Romans 8:28.

All things. As someone has said, ‘all means all’ … and that includes our suffering. Look … this is the promise of God; that the moment any kind of pain, distress, hardship, difficulty – suffering of any sort – comes crashing into your life, God will, if you allow him, instantly get to work to transform the suffering from the evil that it is into something good. It is a promise I have been standing on for well over forty years and have proved the truth of time and time again.

But it is only the foundation. It is only half of the answer to suffering. On that foundation we need to build something else, and, believe me, that something else is very counter-intuitive. It goes against all our natural inclinations. When Job was suffering, his wife said to him, ‘Still holding on to your precious integrity, are you? Curse God and be done with it!’ That’s our natural inclination – to get bitter, frustrated, to feel badly done to, to get angry with God and to rail against him. That’s the road that King David had started to go down in those first 22 verses of Psalm 22 we heard earlier. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer …’ David was angry and upset at what was happening to him – particularly because, as he pointed out to God, ‘from my mother’s womb you have been my God’.

But the key to handling suffering is the exact opposite of that kind of self-pitying, complaining stance towards God. It is to develop what we might call ‘an attitude of gratitude’ and a ‘posture of praise’. It is what David came to in the end. His final words in the section of the psalm we had read to us are, ‘I will praise you’. It is what St Paul is talking about when he tells us to ‘sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything.’ And when he says ‘Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances … ‘

‘Give thanks make music in your heart to God’. Develop an attitude of gratitude and a posture of praise. And I say ‘develop’ because it is by no means easy to praise God and to give thanks to him when we’re suffering, and we do need to work at it. Indeed, giving thanks and praise is hardly possible at all until you get to the point where you actually start to believe that in all things – including the particular suffering you’re going through at the time – God is truly working for good. To give thanks and praise is, in fact, a vote of confidence in God’s love for you, in the fact that he’s in control, and that he is ceaselessly working to bless you in whatever it is that life has chucked at you.

Listen, I’ve been through some pretty high-end suffering in my time – maybe not as high-end as yours but high-end all the same – and I know two things about it. The first is that suffering is very demanding. ‘Feel me,’ it screams. ‘Am I not terrible? Am I not the worst thing you’ve ever had to deal with?’ And that is true whether what is causing your suffering is toothache, a financial crisis, a broken relationship, a bullying boss, a difficult child, or a bereavement. Suffering never lets up. Try to ignore it, and it drags your focus back. It will have you think of nothing else. It insists that you give it ever last bit of your attention.

And the second thing I know about suffering is that it makes you unutterably weary. It saps your strength. It makes you weak. It drains your batteries and robs you of your energy. And working together these two aspects of suffering are able to render you helpless and almost incapable of doing anything else but curl up in your own private ball of misery until the suffering eventually goes away … If, of course, it ever does.

But that is where Paul comes storming in and says, ‘No! Stop it! Tear your eyes away from your pain. Look up and start praising and giving thanks. Because that is the powerful key that will redeem your suffering and set you free from its slavery.’

‘Huh!’ you say. ‘What did Paul know about it?’

Well let me take you to a place called Philippi in Eastern Macedonia. That’s where in about AD 50, Paul and Silas were thrown into gaol for upsetting the locals. First they were stripped, beaten with rods, and given a severe flogging. And only then, when the skin on their backs was in ribbons were they placed in the underground cell, in total darkness, chained and shackled flat on their torn and bleeding backs on the rough and rocky floor. Can you imagine how they were feeling – their teeth chattering with the cold, waves of pain crashing through them every time they tried to move? The story is in Acts 16. Does it tell us what they thought or said? Oh yes … in just one sentence. ‘About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.’ What? Singing hymns to God! How could that be?

Because Paul and Silas practised what they preached. Because Paul and Silas knew that God was working for good in their beatings and floggings and imprisonment. Because Paul and Silas knew that an attitude of gratitude and a posture of praise is the key that redeems suffering and sets you free of it, from the inside out. And, my word, did it set Paul and Silas free! ‘Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.’ That’s the power of praise for you. That’s what an attitude of gratitude can do for you. That’s what happens when you shift your gaze from your suffering to the God who is busily turning that suffering into good.

Will the key of thanksgiving and praise open prison doors for you? Well whether it will open physical doors or not, I don’t know – though it has opened them for me on more than one occasion in the past. But it will certainly open the inner doors – the doors of your soul and your spirit – and set you free inside. As Charles Wesley put it in his hymn based on the story of Paul and Silas in prison in Philippi: ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free ..’

So how do you develop an attitude of gratitude? How do you tap into the power of praise? In my experience, you start where it’s easiest and go on from there. We all have the capacity for thanksgiving. As A A Milne wrote in Winnie-the-Pooh, ‘Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.’ Well, so can your heart and so can mine. We simply need to get the thanksgiving pump working. It’s so easy to let self-pity, despair and misery clog it up. So … ‘Thank you, Lord, for bringing me safely to the beginning of this day. Thank you for this home of mine; for food and clothing; for friends and family; for people who love me. Thank you for all the blessings of the past. Thank you for …’. And then be specific. I think of the old hymn my grandma used to sing:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest-tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

Count your blessings, then, once you’ve finished counting your blessings and your thanksgiving pump has become unblocked, move on to your suffering and add that to your flow of praise. ‘And thank you, Lord, for these present difficulties of mine. Thank you for your unbreakable promise that you are turning them into good. Thank you that you will never leave me or forsake me. Thank you that by going to the cross in Jesus you have shown me that you know and understand and share my pain, and that you will redeem it.’

Do you recall the first Eucharistic prayer in our Communion Services? It begins like this:

‘Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
It is right to give him thanks and praise.’
It is indeed right, it is our duty and our joy, at all times and in all places to give you thanks and praise, holy Father, heavenly King, almighty and eternal God, through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord.’

And I know – I really know – from first-hand experience, that as you do persevere in praise and thanksgiving – that as you do make it your duty and joy, at all times and in all places, to give God thanks and praise – everything will change. Your suffering and pain will be transformed.

And that is so, so necessary – not just for ourselves but for those around us. Remember this … Hurting-people hurt people. Or as Richard Rohr has said, ‘If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. … If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds we invariably become negative or bitter. All suffering is potentially redemptive; all wounds are potentially sacred wounds. It depends on what you do with them. Can you find God in them or not?’

Well, can we? Yes we can … but only when we choose to develop an attitude of gratitude and a posture of praise, right in the very midst of our sufferings. That is when the chain-breaking, prison-shaking power of God is released and the transformation of our sufferings will begin.

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