Does Anyone Believe Anything Anymore?
When Good Things Happen to Bad People
January 21, 2001
Selections from Jonah: Luke 15:25-32 The Rev. Carol DiBiasio-Snyder
Introduction to the Scripture:
Our first reading comes from the short but powerful book of Jonah. We join Jonah part way through the story. You are, no doubt familiar with what has gone on before. God calls Jonah, a most reluctant prophet, to go to Ninevah to preach repentance to them. I must mention that Ninevah is an Assyrian city, large, and brimming with people Jonah sees as his enemies. Clearly, Jonah thinks God is out of God's mind. Going to Ninevah to share God's grace with his enemies is the last thing Jonah wants to do. So rather than heading east toward Ninevah, Jonah books passage on a ship heading as far west as possible in the known world. Remember that along the way a storm hits, Jonah take the blame, admitting he is running from God. In an effort to calm the storm Jonah tells the others to toss him into the sea where he is swallowed whole by an amazingly large fish. There in the belly of that creature, Jonah prays fervently wouldn't you? and is unceremoniously tossed up on land.
Not one to give up on even the most stubborn of us, God calls Jonah again. That is where our story for today picks up.
Our second reading is the closing verses from the story we call The
Prodigal Son. After the wandering, rebellious son returns home, repenting
of his wild deeds, the father throws a big welcome home party. We pick up
on the story as the older, hard-working, obedient son comes in from the
field to the sound of music and the smells of roasting fatted calf. Like
Jonah, he is none to keen on any grace being lavished on those he believes
don't deserve it. So concerned is he with this idea of justice, he misses
the grace his father has always lavished on him. Let us listen now for
the word of God.
I'm not sure Ralph and I could have picked larger or more complex issues than the ones we have for this series of 6 sermons, Does Anyone Believe Anything Anymore? We are attempting to consider subjects that whole seminary courses cover and to which some theologians and philosophers devote their whole careers. We can really only consider a small aspect of each area in these few minutes we have together.
Ah, now that feels better! Those are my disclaimer sentences that remind me as much as explain to you that a sermon-length treatment of the problem of evil will be inadequate, but that's okay.
Maybe you thought I got the title of this sermon wrong as you remembered that popular book from a few years ago by Harold Kushner titled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I chose to call this When Good Things Happen to Bad People for two reasons. First, I kind of hoped it would get your attention. But in addition, this title is only the flip side of the same coin from Kushner's title. Both deal with our questions about God's justice, just from a different point of view. When Bad Things Happen to Good People could be the title for the biblical story of Job. A righteous man meets catastrophe. When Good Things Happen to Bad People could be the title for the story of Jonah. Unrighteous people get God's grace. And really, both would make nice titles for the two parts of the story of the Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother. In all these stories, the characters struggle in the face of their belief in a powerful, loving God and the reality of suffering and injustice in the world.
Last week Ralph talked about and invited you to think about the small and limited topic of . . . GOD! That topic is really continuing today as we think about that God and the problem of evil. There is no end to the reading I could have done this week on the subject. Huge volumes fill library shelves with ideas on what religion and philosophy refer to as "theodicy," that is: wrestling with questions about there being evil in a world created by a good and loving God. I put the word "theodicy" in my Internet search engine and got 6,910 hits. Then I searched under the phrase "the problem of evil" and got 894,000 hits! These articles included everything from class lecture notes from a Philosophy class at the University of Colorado in Boulder, to a hyped-up athiest in Sweden writing page after page about how arguments about the problem of evil offer some of the strongest arguments that there is no God.
Perhaps I should have sought my answer somewhere else. Perhaps I should have asked 6 year-old David. He came home from Sunday School and said he didn't want any lunch, he had to do something and off he ran to his room. In a little while his concerned mother went and knocked on the door, looked and saw David madly drawing. "What are you doing, David?" "I'm drawing a picture of God," David answered. His mother said, "Honey, no one knows what God looks like." Unperturbed David replied, "When I'm finished they will!"
Perhaps a child could cut through all our bewilderment about questions that have plagued humans for millennia. Four hundred years before Jesus was born, the problem of evil may have found its first formal statement when Epicurus asked: If God is willing to prevent evil but not able, then he is not omnipotent; if he is able but not willing, he is not benevolent; if he is both able and willing, whence comes evil?
Recently it seems that many people in this church have been going through difficult times. We seem to be having more than our share of suffering: there are people in the hospital and at home with serious health problems, there have been deaths of family members and friends, there are families in great pain, individuals dealing with personal anguish, people who have lost jobs, and the list goes on. I find myself saying, "What is going on here? What is God doing?" And I know my voice joins the voices of many today and throughout the ages that echo these questions.
So I wander around asking, "Why do we suffer?" I haven't found all the answers. (If I had, I'd be signing copies of my best-seller out in the narthex after the service!) But I invite you to wander with me through some of my ruminations.
As Ralph told you, we are considering these issues each week in light of what others have said in the past. We are especially looking to the ancient creeds of our faith, The Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed, as well as more recent statements of faith. Strangely, all these documents are quite silent on this subject of the problem of evil.
And turning to scripture we find many ways biblical authors wrote about the problem of evil. Apocalyptic thinking is one approach. Born out of and often appealing to those who suffer, this writing uses dramatic symbols and vivid language, claiming that suffering should be expected in life, because this world and this age are ruled by Satan. But, take heart! A time is coming when this world and this age will end, a time when God and Satan will engage in the ultimate battle. All creation will be a part of this cosmic crisis. God will win, Satan will go down to final defeat, a new creation will begin, and the righteous will finally obtain their just reward while the wicked will be given their just punishment.
A sense of excitement, crisis, hope and urgency beats like a pulse in the intense language of apocalyptic scripture. Undoubtedly it has provided hope and comfort for many. And while I share the belief that when all is said and done, God's justice will prevail, I don't find much comfort in this approach to understanding suffering and evil.
In contrast to this way of thinking, some people believe that what happens to each of us matters very little in the cosmic scheme of things. In the course of human history millions have suffered and died and my puny suffering is but a speck on the expanse of history. However, our faith tradition teaches us that we are much more than specks, we are individually known and loved by God.
I'm still asking, if God is good and powerful, why is there evil? How can God see us in pain and not do anything? Perhaps God is like a parent who knows what is best for us and permits or even causes our pain so that we might learn a lesson, we might grow and mature. This is a popular and tempting solution, and very wrong. For while we may mature through suffering, this view of God as paternalistic and controlling is a simplification of a complex issue. If God is a calculating judge handing out rewards and punishments, sending death and disease to teach us lessons, then I'd rather be an atheist.
Well, maybe Thomas Jefferson and the Deists were right. God created the world and then took an extended vacation. We make our bed and lie in it. Yet the Hebrew people spoke and wrote about a God who is constantly active in the lives of men and women. I just don't believe God has left us on our own.
Is God not all-powerful, as Harold Kushner and others suggest? Or is God some kind of Cosmic Sadist? Neither choice is attractive. Maybe there are other options. Certainly some bad things just happen. Natural disasters just happen. Still there are other reasons bad things happen.
There is an ancient Hebrew concept called "Sim Sum." It talks about God exercising a kind of "divine restraint" in the beginning as God withdrew into God's self in order to make room for creation. In making room for creation God created space for freedom. We were created in love and given the gift of freedom. God's choice to be limited gives us the freedom to be dignified human beings with the ability to do both good and evil.
That freedom has allowed humanity to make choices for centuries; some good, some bad, some that led to joy, some that led to suffering. Some suffering is the result of thousands of years of human decision-making. If we were God, would we have created things differently? Sometimes I think I would have. But you see, without our precious freedom, there would be no choices, no discovery of the joys of life, no growth that comes through uncertainty. There would be no meaning in love, without the option to hate. Life would be grey and flat and dull. We would be marionettes, dancing on the end of strings with empty smiles on our wooden faces. If the price we pay for freedom is pain, if the price we pay for being fully and wonderfully alive is suffering, then perhaps, perhaps I am willing to pay that price.
I have wandered in my thoughts and the thoughts of others enough to bump into this small insight to begin to help me deal with my dilemma about the "why" suffering. I must remember that in all the centuries that we have been asking why we suffer, God has not given an answer. Yet God has been there right in the midst of the suffering with love and comfort.
You may have heard Nobel prize winner, Elie Wiesel tell of this horrible incident in the concentration camp. At times, prisoners were forced to watch the execution of other prisoners. One day, he, and others watched as two men and a small child were hung. As the floor opened and the ropes tightened, the men died quickly, but the child's weight was not enough to bring the mercy of death and the child writhed in pain. A voice in the crowd said, "Where is God?" As time went on and on, and the child struggled, the same strained voice implored, "Where is God?" Someone near Elie responded to the pained question, "There is God, up there suffering on the gallows."
I must confess that even with this powerful idea in mind, I still get very angry and in my anger confront God with injustices. Fortunately I believe God welcomes my honesty, my questions and my indignation partly because it affirms that I believe that God does have something to do with our situation. It also affirms that I believe that God is involved in our lives and it expresses honestly what I am feeling, opening me to the possibility of an experience of the presence of God.
Sometimes a small child will get so angry that he or she will be beside him or herself. Expressing their feelings with their whole bodies, they will stamp their feet and shake their arms. Have you ever reached out to your child and taken them into your arms when they have been like that, finding them collapsing into your embrace with sobs, as they feel the healing of your hug that brings comfort to their souls?
As you and I honestly express our anger to God, maybe even stamping our feet and shaking our arms, we are reaching in God's direction. We are giving God the opportunity to reach out, grasp our clinched fists, pull us into loving arms where we can find comfort, not in answers, but in God's unfailing, inexhaustible love.
Oh, I still have many questions. Why is there suffering? I'm not real sure. Why are we experiencing so much suffering right now? I don't know. Will God bring miracles of healing to our lives? I don't know. Are the forces of evil attacking us, or is this just coincidence? I don't know.
What I do know is that whatever befalls each of us, our loving God is present with us in our pain, sharing our sorrows. God is indeed up there with us on our gallows.
I wish I would remember to start each day with this quotation from Gerhard E. Frost:
Morning has broken, long shadows are receding; time for today's resolution: With the Spirit's help, I will remember that the toughest, most resilient and tenacious, most stubborn and unyielding fact that I'll encounter this day is the eternal, all-embracing love of God.