notre dame montreal


How does God speak to us?

Sermon for Easter 7 Year A

Why does a good God allow suffering and evil?

The problem of evil and suffering - Rev Canon Charles Royden

Sermon in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing

This has been a bad week for Manchester, a bad week for our country. The targeting of children by an indiscriminate suicide bomber, applauded and supported by others, sends a chilling reminder of the extent of evil in the world. Our Queen called it ‘very wicked’ as she visited victims in hospital. What are we as Christians able to say in moments like these? How do we respond in the face of the suffering of those who have lost loved ones? Indeed what do we say as Christians when people ask us, where is God when such evil strikes, when the innocent suffer? What is our answer to the ‘Problem of Evil’?

The question which the philosphers put to us is clear and perhaps the biggest question which our faith has to answer

If God is all powerful he can stop evil
if God is all good he should want to stop evil
So why doesn’t he ?

This was a question asked by the famous philospopher David Hume, his books were subsequently banned by the Roman Catholic Church. More recently Christopher Hitchins was an atheist who died in 2011. He wrote ‘God Is Not Great’. Actually that is not the full title it is ‘God is not Great: How religion poisons everything.’ This book uses the presence of suffering in the world as a means to deny God’s existence. This problem has been called the, “the rock of atheism.”

Suffering is a real problem for the theologian, 'theodicy' is the attempt to give an explanation for God in the presence of innocent suffering, to get God off the hook. However it is much more than just a theological question. We need to tackle this problem, we need something to say, because people deserve a response.

  1. As Christians we have to be able to be alongside people who are suffering and we have also to be able to say something about their predicament as a pastoral response.
  2. It is also a real issue for us in understanding our own suffering, because if we don’t have one then we won’t have the resources to tackle the suffering we ourselves meet in life.
  3. If we don’t have something to say then we also just hand the argument over to those who seek to blame God
  4. It is also a problem for mission for how can people believe in a God who allows suffering?

Atheism is not an answer.
If the atheist suggests that the answer is to simply deny God - then that is not an answer to suffering. If we deny the existence of God because we see suffering in the world, that does not make suffering any easier. It does mean that we can’t blame God, but it also means of course that we cannot say that some suffering is wrong. If there is no God then who is to say that one thing is right and another thing wrong?
For example - Some people believe that it is right to blow up innocent children in furtherance of a cause. If there is no God, then what moral law tells us that the Nazi’s were not right to kill people with learning disabilities, or gay people?

Neither are atheists right when they lay the blame at the door of religion for the worlds suffering. The Cambodian Killing Fields are places in Cambodia where the Khmer Rouge regime between 1975-1979 under their leader Pol Pot committed state genocide in which perhaps 2 million lost their lives. This was a communist regime, as was that of Stalin under whom many more millions were murdered. If we remove God it does not remove suffering. Religion does not cause evil and suffering, and atheism cannot explain suffering.

We have to admit that there are no easy answers.
Some Christians in a genuine attempt to offer help end up saying things which make the situation ten times worse ! God’s children have struggled with the problem of evil and suffering in the world for thousands of years without answer. We should not be afraid to say that we don’t know. There seems to me no argument as to why God couldn’t have just stopped theManchester bomb from going off. It would not have played havoc with the doctrine of free will or anything else, nobody would have even have had to know he did it. If God is all powerful, all knowing then would it be too much trouble to speed up a cure for cancer? So that people could live at least their three score years? There are no easy answers. And so we must not pretend that there are.

Let me say something about prayer because we sometimes see prayer as reminding God who is ill so that he can heal them. The old joke is that the 'prayer meeting' becomes the 'organ recital', heart, lungs, kidneys etc. Now it is great to pray for people who are sick, we need to do that. We are told that even the Apostle Paul asked God three times to take away his thorn in the flesh. But sometimes Christians suggest that if we pray hard enough, whatever that means, or if enough people pray, then God will make you better, that God will stop the suffering. You get away with it when somebody does get better, but when they don’t, then the person is often told that it is because of their own lack of faith. It is cruel thing and adds guilt in addition to the suffering.

Sometimes we see suffering as God given, to teach us a lesson. There are different ways of saying this and some sound quite convincing. C.S.Lewis said that through suffering God can speak to us. Suffering reminds us of our immortality
'Pain, removes the veil; it plants the flag of truth within the fortress of a rebel soul.'
He also said
'God whispers to us in our pleasure, speaks to us in our conscience, but shouts to us in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.'

These things are true in part, in that through suffering we can be drawn closer to God and we can become better people. But this does not even go close to explaining why God needed to send 6 million Jews to their death in the Holocaust. Did God really arrange for that to happenso that we could all learn valuable lessons? Now God is starting to sound like a monster.

Corrie Ten Boom was a Christian who wrote ’The Hiding Place.’ In it she tells of how her family helped Jews escape the Nazi holocaust in World War II and how she was put into a concentration camp. She famously described life as like a tapestry, which from the back looks a complete mess, but it is only when you turn it over you can see what the weaver has been doing. She spoke of God as the weaver in her poem.

Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.

I have to say I have a problem with that, because whilst we all believe that in all things ‘God works for good for those who trust in him.’ That is a very different thing from saying that God causes the suffering in the first place. Does God choose the holocaust, put into the minds of men the means to design ways of efficiently exterminating millions of innocent people? Does God really need the red coloured thread from the blood of the innocent victims of the Manchester suicide bomb ?

So what can we say?

Well first of all we should know that it is OK to be angry and the place of Christians is alongside those who suffer. If people shout and scream and are angry at God for allowing suffering then our place is not to try to silence them but rather to be alongside them in their grief. We can share their pain and sorrow and fear. If you and I feel anger towards God because we do not understand why such suffering is taking place then that is so much better than pretending that God is just going to make it all better if we pray hard enough, or if we can just get the numbers of others to join in.

The Bible has some things to teach us about telling God how we really feel and not pretending. If we read Job 3 we hear Job curse the day on which he was born, wishing that he had died in his mother's womb so that his mother's womb would forever be his grave. Job had done no wrong, things went wrong in his life not because he brought it upon himself and he was angry about it!

If we read the Psalms we see people of God doing it all the time in the language of lament. Read Psalm 88 when you get chance and try and put yourself in the place of the person who wrote this

1 Lord, you are the God who saves me; day and night I cry out to you.
2 May my prayer come before you; turn your ear to my cry.
3 I am overwhelmed with troubles and my life draws near to death.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like one without strength.
5 I am set apart with the dead, like the slain who lie in the grave,
whom you remember no more, who are cut off from your care.

He goes on
Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?

Even Jesus pleaded have the cup of suffering removed from him. When Jesus was on the cross he felt abandoned by God and he screamed
My God my God, why have you forsaken me

These are words Jesus knew from Psalm 22. Jesus would have read the Psalms, he knew it was OK to share with God his feelings that the pain and suffering was so great God had deserted him.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest.

Where is God ?
When people suffer, the place for Christians is alongside them to share their grief, but where is God? When Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsie were at Ravensbruck concentration camp Betsie's health deteriorated and she died on 16 December 1944 at the age of 59. Before she died, she told Corrie,
"There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still."

This is true. As much as we are with those who suffer, so is God. In the darkness of the Pit we cannot see God, we may not feel his presence, but as Christians we are reassured that God is there with us.

  • God has not made the pit,
  • God does not put us into the pit,
  • God does not want us to be in the pit,
  • but God is with us in the pit

Even through the experience of the pit, God seems sometimes to be able to use those red threads to bring about better things.

From earliest times God’s people have sensed that God was with them in their suffering. Do you remember the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in the Old Testament? King Nebuchadnezzar was furious with them because they refused to worship a gold idol and they were thrown into a fiery furnace. Then we are told that Nebuchadnezzar looked into the fire and saw not just three men but four figures 'one who looked like a son of the god.' Of course for the Christian this comes to fruition in the person of the Son of God, Jesus.

Our God is good and when we feel bereft, when as a nation we mourn the loss of innocent lives, we have a message to share that God who made himself a part of our vulnerable humanity shares with us in our suffering and pain. God is not a distant, unaffected deity “watching from a distance,” but a God intimately involved in suffering with those who suffer and for them.In his Letters and Papers from Prison, writing from a Nazi prison cell before he was hanged, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said 'Only the suffering God can help.' There is no answer to the problem of why God allows suffering, but we know that God is not immune to it, he suffers too with his suffering children.

  • We do not know why God has given us freedom to kill ourselves
    We do not know why God is patient to wait before overcoming all evil.
  • But we do know that God suffers too. God does not cause suffering, he endures suffering and we are not alone.

Finally we are promised hope
God’s promise to us is this, that suffering will end, it is God’s intention is to stop suffering once and for all. Through his death and resurrection we are told that Jesus is the first to ascend to everlasting life. For this this reason the Apostle Paul declares that
'Our present sufferings are not worth com­paring with the glory that will be revealed in us' (Romans 8:18).

We’re in a world that is 'groaning and travailing in birth, waiting for the regeneration of all things' to use Paul's language in Romans 8.

Christians have a glorious hope for the future. Karl Marx had little time for all this he declared that Christianity is 'an opiate for the masses', a kind of anaesthetic or narcotic which dulls our senses, and prevents us from fighting for change.

Our hope in Christ is not a mechanism by which God’s people become silent in the face of suffering. It is all too easy to become so heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use. Rather we are called to be a people who work for the transformation of the world as we know it, removing suffering, as work for peace in this troubled world. Christian hope is a stimulus, not a sedative, it drives us out to work for change. We are engaged in a struggle with a troubled world and we do not know what lies ahead. But we do know that, wherever we go, the God of all compassion goes ahead of us and journeys with us, consoling and reassuring us, until that day when we shall see him face to face, and know him just as he knows us.

This week we have been reminded of the Ascension of Jesus. It is a reminder to each one of us that we are here only for a time. This life is fleeting and then gone, but we live for an eternal city to which our Lord has gone before and we get a glimpse of this in the words of Revelation which I leave yiou with this morning

God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes,
and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more,
for the former things have passed away