After about 10 minutes the road descended towards the intersection of 24th avenue. As he approached the intersection he glanced down, as he was known to do while driving, and missed the sign telling him to stop. Unknown to him another vehicle, a suburban, was heading north on 24th avenue approaching the same intersection. This vehicle was not required to stop. Both cars reached the intersection at the same moment. The Suburban struck the Accord and drove it into a ditch. The driver was killed instantly.
Why did God allow this to happen? Couldn’t he have just caused my dad to leave 30 seconds later than he did? Didn’t he love me? Didn’t he love my dad? Was God punishing my dad for sin? Was he punishing me? Where was God in all of this?
The last few months many in our church body have experienced a lot of death and loss
Many of us have asked or are continuing to ask why… Why did this happen? Why didn’t God do anything to stop this? How can God be good and allow so much suffering? Some of us have also asked where. Where is God? Where can I find him now? Has he left me? And some of us have asked how. How do I go on? How do I move forward after experiencing tragedy and loss? How do I survive the darkness that I currently find myself in?
Turn in your Bibles to Mark chapter 15. Mark was written sometime around 30 years after the time of Christ to Christians who were living in Rome under the rule of a man named Nero. Around the time Mark was written, a fire consumed almost 70% of Rome. Many in Rome suspected that Nero had deliberately set it in order to clear the way for him to rebuild the city into something bigger and better. In response to these rumors, Nero began to blame the fire on the Christians living in the city. After this, a great persecution broke out among Christians. A Roman historian records the persecution this way:
Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.
The first people then to read Mark were people who had suffered a great amount of loss. Their friends and family had suffered grisly deaths at the hands of the Romans, many times these deaths were a direct result of the testimony of other Christians, who under great persecution had given up the identities and location of their friends. Without question they had many of the same questions we have, Why had God allowed this to happen? Where is God now? And How can we go on?
It is in this context that Mark wrote his gospel.
Mark chapters 14 -16 contain the record of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. One theme that we see in Mark’s record of these events is the rejection of Christ. Beginning in Chapter 14 Mark record the rejection of Jesus by at least 8 different groups of people. First, Judas betrays and rejects Jesus, handing him over to be arrested. Next the Priests, Sanhedrin and high priest reject Christ before handing him over to Pilot, directly after that we have the story of Peter’s denial of Christ.
Jesus is then taken to Pilot where after talking with Jesus, he hands Jesus over to be executed at the request of the crowds that had gathered. The soldiers are the next people to reject Jesus, placing a robe and crown of thorns upon his head, they kneel before him, mocking him. Finally, Jesus is crucified. As he hangs there, seething in pain, people walk by, they stop, look up, and mock him. Finally, the criminals crucified with him join in. Jesus is on the cross alone. Having been rejected by everyone except the women who had followed him.
For at least 3 hours, Jesus hangs there, alone, in Silence.
Finally, he speaks. “My God, My God why have you forsaken me”
It is in these words that I think we can begin to answer the questions of why God allows suffering, Where he is in the midst of suffering and how we can move forward in the midst of suffering.The question of why God allows suffering is one the most written and debated about subjects in the history of religion. One of the first books written in the Jewish scriptures is the book of Job. Its sole purpose is to wrestle with the subject.
The problem stated most simply is this. Christians claim God to be both all-powerful and loving. Because suffering occurs, specifically unnecessary suffering, like a child getting cancer or a starving to death in sub-Saharan Africa, God must either not be all-powerful or not loving. If God is not all-powerful then he isn’t really God and if he is not loving then he is God but he is a monster.
Since the time of Christ, almost every theologian has tried to untangle the three stranded knot… of God’s power, his goodness, and the existence of evil. Spoiler alert, none of them have been able.
CS. Lewis wrote a whole book on the subject, called the Problem of Pain. The book offers helpful insights and is worth reading, especially if you are trying to get your head around this question of suffering. However, even a great mind like his was unable to solve the problem. In fact when he faced the death of his wife to cancer he very nearly gave up his faith as he realized the shallowness of all his explanations.
Christ’s cry from the cross, My God my God why have you forsaken me, or more literally, my god my God why have you left me, points us beyond an explanation of suffering towards the mystery of God:
Did God leave Christ on the cross?
Did he abandon him?
If he does, why did he?
Christ was innocent, he is had done nothing wrong.
Does God abandon innocent people?
Is Jesus not fully God?
How could God die?
How is any of this possible?
We don’t know.
In some mysterious way Christ as God was able to lay down his power as God, be separated from his father, die, and continue to be God. Jesus’ cry on the cross demonstrates that at the center of Christianity is mystery and that this mystery saves us. There is good reason then to think that the mystery of suffering with in the end lead to good. Why is there suffering? We don’t know. It is a mystery and that’s ok.
That brings us to the second question many of us face in the midst of loss and suffering…
Where is God when we are suffering?
On the cross, Christ experienced extreme physical pain. Mark tells us about this pain. Christ in his humanness suffered physically as we suffer… He experienced pain, exhaustion, and death. Not only did he experience intense physical pain, Christ also experienced emotional pain.
Hebrews 4:14-15 says,“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven,[a]Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”
Comforting right? On some level it is. It is comforting… Christ can relate to us. He has faced temptation… as a human… He knew the struggle… And yet it is also a little lacking in comfort…
The hardest part of life is not temptation… it is the moment after we have given into temptation. The guilt and shame that are sure to follow…The feelings of intense worthlessness that accompany our actions. “We say to ourselves, I am worthless, God hates me… I mean nothing to him. He would rather not have me as his child. “ And the loneliness of not being able to tell anyone what you have done. That is where some of the most intense suffering happens…
Did Christ experience that type of suffering? He did. On the cross he felt like God abandoned him. When he says, my God my God why have you forsaken me he really felt that. And when he said that, the Father experienced the same sadness that any of us would experience in seeing our own children suffer. Christ experienced abandonment, God the father experienced sadness, a form of suffering. Many theologians doubt that God suffers. I don’t…
On the roof of the Seattle Children’s Hospital there is a beautiful garden overlooking the city. When I was working there one of the worst parts of my job were the times when we as security were asked to shut down the garden for a family with a sick child. Families would do this when a child was about to pass away. They would disconnect the child from life support and take them up to the garden until they passed. I will never forget the face of a father carrying his child… He was suffering.
We are God’s children… When we suffering, he is the father carrying us in his arms… He is suffering. Where is God when we suffer? He is suffering with us.
Finally then, how do we move forward in the midst of suffering? We must Cry What? Cry? But many of us would say, I am sick of crying. I have cried enough. I don’t want to cry anymore.
I don’t mean cry tears, although that can be part of it. What I mean is crying out…
While on the cross Jesus cries out to God. More specifically he accuses God. He accuses God of leaving him. He accuses God of not holding up his end of the bargain. He is saying. God this is not right. I have lived a perfect life. I have done your will. And As a result of doing your will everyone has abandoned me. I am not only dying, I am dying alone, separated from you. And this is wrong!. This is not the way things are supposed to go.
Jesus wasn’t the only one to say these kinds of things to God. Indeed the words, “my God my god why have you forsaken me” are a direct quotation of Psalm 22. Throughout the Old Testament people cry out to God in the midst of their suffering. They accuse God of being unjust and unfair. They ask him to keep the promises he has made to them and basically tell him that if he doesn’t help them he will be losing his honor. These cries are mostly found in Psalms but they occur elsewhere as well. They are never condemned by God. In many cases God responses to his questioner. One of my favorite books in the Old Testament, the book of Habakkuk, is simply him questioning God about why the wicked thrive and the righteous suffer. God indulges him and answers his questions. That is a relationship.
If we are going to move forward through our suffering, we must imitate people like Habakkuk. We must lament. We must cry out to God. We must be willing to express to God and even to others, our honest feelings about our situation. Many of us have been told that this open expression of our feelings towards God in the midst of suffering is sin… That is simply not true, its not biblical. Over the years I can’t count how many times I have heard something along the lines of “who are you to question God and his plans… who are you to accuse God of being unfair. The only thing unfair around here is a perfect God saving a rotten, disgusting sinner like yourself.”
This teaching is not grounded in scripture. If God can never being questioned, if he can never be challenged, if he can never be held to keeping his promises, he is not our King, he is our Tyrant.
Jesus’ words on the cross free and teach us to be honest with God.
Why? Why is this so important?
Crying out to God is vital for moving forward during our suffering because it keeps us connected with God. It keeps us talking with him. It keeps us honest with him. We all know that healthy relationships only function when there is mutual trust. If we aren’t honest with God then trust is broken. And it is when trust is broken that we again begin to feel that we have to maintain a certain posture or attitude in order for God to be pleased with us. This inevitably leads to us trying to perform for God in order to stay in God’s favor. This leads to guilt and shame and insecurity when we fail at doing what we think we are supposed to be doing… Any that separation as we talked about earlier is the darkest thing anyone can experience.
It is also vital because crying out actually keeps hope alive… Let me explain what I mean. When we cry out we are acknowledging that what we are experiencing isn’t right. The world isn’t functioning the way God intended it to be. In the Old Testament the complaint is usually something along the lines of why are the wicked prospering and the righteous thriving. The Jewish prophets and writers were reminding God that the world he created was broken and in need of saving. As they did this they began to develop a hope for a future time when God would reign on earth. They imagined a world where the things they observed everyday wouldn’t be happening anymore. This hope sustained them through the exile.
When we cry out to God and share with him some of the disappointments of the way things are going on earth we are actually reminding ourselves of both God’s power to fix our present situation and to have hope for a future time when God will make all things right.
Last week I went and visited Joe at his house. Joe has been suffering from a wide variety pains in his body. Every time I go visit Joe before he leaves he asks me to pray for him. So this time I’m getting up to leave so I go over and pray with him. I pray that God would give him peace and comfort, that God would be present with him in and make himself known to him. And I say Amen… I start walking to the door and Joe says, Hey chad come back here. Pray for me again. Pray that I won’t be in pain anymore.
That was Joe’s Lament. He was and I’m sure is, sick and tired of the pain. Sure he wants God to be with him, to make himself known to him, but what he really wants is to be free from pain. In asking God to be free from pain, he is being honest with God about his situation. He is also beginning to think about a future time and a future place where there will be no pain. His cry is turning into a hope.
When we experience suffering it is human to ask Why God allows it? It is human to wonder where God is? It is whom to not know how to move through it? During times of suffering we must remember Jesus’ cry on the cross. Why we suffer is mysterious but God is with us and hears our cry…