ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH OCTOBER 18, 2015
DOES GOD CARE? Part 2
Job 38: 1 – 7 & 34 – 38; Mark 10: 35 – 44
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Two weeks ago we began a series on suffering based on The Book of Job. Job was a “good”, God-fearing man whom God had been richly blessed. Satan asks and is granted permission from God to cause Job to suffer in order to see if he remains faithful when times are tough. The story unfolds with Job losing everything. His few remaining friends tell him his suffering as a result of offending God and he should repent. Job is miserable and confused yet he remains faithful to God. Some of our gleanings from this book were: all people (good and bad) suffer; suffering is an opportunity to show mercy; Christians also suffer – Jesus suffered and we suffer; Jesus’ suffering reveals the depths of God’s love.
As we gather today many of you are carrying heavy burdens, others live with chronic anguish of a physical or emotional nature, some bear silent on-going grief, the chaos of family or work chaos cause others to worry. Pain and perplexity hit us when we are hit by trials, tribulations or tragedy. When life is going well, suffering’s like a cloud on a sunny day reminding us rain is in the forecast. Suffering digs at the core of our spirituality. As Christians we struggle not only with our suffering but also with our response to suffering. On top of pain, we feel confusion. We may feel guilty if we’re not suffering in what we think is a “Christian” way. Like Job we may become fearful, depressed or bitter. We may feel abandoned by God. We’re in a spiritual Catch 22. We’d lose faith except we need God too much.
During times of suffering it’s human to ask “why?” Why is this happening? Why is it happening to me? Why doesn’t God fix things? Why God doesn’t grant our prayers? We often answer the question “why?” by saying God causes us to suffer to teach us. I once heard this said to grieving parents whose infant died of SIDS. It was flippant and cruel. It heaped guilt on top of sorrow. It alienated the parents from God when they most needed God’s comfort. Suffering may teach us something in the long run (or not) but is that the motivation of a loving God? Another answer is: God is allowing us to be tested. This is the premise in Job where suffering is presented as a pass/fail course. The NT also describes suffering in terms of testing (Mt 4: 1 – 11; 1 Cor 10:13; 1 Thess 2:4). It’s true that suffering always tests our faith, but maybe it’s less like a celestial exam and more the way Peter describes it. Peter compares our suffering to the “testing” of gold in fire (1 Peter 1: 6 & 7). Just as fire makes gold strong and pure, suffering has the potential to make us stronger in faith and purer in character; it makes us more like Christ. God can use our suffering to test us – to serve his purposes. In a similar way Jesus said God is like a gardener who prunes trees so they will bear more fruit. (John 15: 1 – 8). Suffering can be one of the tools God uses to prune us so we’ll bear more fruit for his kingdom and serve his purposes.
Although we all ask it, “why?” is a question with dark shadows. “Why?” is often rooted in feelings of injustice. Many here would say Job’s suffering was unjust. (We just can’t shake that “good people shouldn’t suffer” mindset!) We think that in a fair and ordered universe things happen for a reason. In courts of law the motivation of the accused may make the crime “justifiable” e.g. we feel empathy for a murderer who’d put up with years of abuse but less for a serial killer. And so we want God to justify his actions – to us. “Why?” puts God on trial making us judge over him. “Why?” is also a question that seeks a sense of control. We think that if we understood the reasons we suffer, we could do something about it. Job’s friends were sure they knew the reason for his suffering so they urged Job to repent and sway God. Poor Job had no idea how a mere mortal was to approach and persuade the Almighty. He couldn’t control the situation or manipulate God and neither can we. When we try to take the reins, we make God our beast of burden. We try to assert our lordship over the one who is Lord. Furthermore, “Why?” is a question that often is not helpful. I knew a woman who thought she could aid in her alcoholic husband’s healing if she understood why he drank. His only answer was, “Because I like to”. Finally he told her “You’ve got to stop asking “why?” or you’ll drive yourself crazy.” She eventually came to accept he just liked to drink. Some things just “are what they are” and we can waste a lot of energy trying to figure them out rather than accept them. When we ask “why?” we’re like Jesus’ disciples who told him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” (Mark 10: 35); we stand before God wrapped in our pride and assertiveness, as if we had the right to stand there and question him! To the disciples’ request that they sit beside him in glory,Jesus responded, that “is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” (vs. 40) In other words we can’t infringe on God’s domain. Some things aren’t up to us. They’re not for us to know, they’re for us to accept. Rather than approaching God in arrogance, we’re to have a different attitude. Jesus continued, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (vs 43 & 44). Slavery is a state of suffering. It’s a state of submission. Slaves take whatever is thrown at them. Admittedly slavery isn’t a typical state to which people aspire. Jesus himself is our example. “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (vs. 45) In Jesus we not only become humble servants, we learn that suffering can be redemptive. Suffering can carry with it unanticipated gifts and many opportunities.
Suffering gives us the opportunity to grow. Once the Bishop of a church discovered the janitor was illiterate and fired him. Jobless, the man invested his meager savings in a tiny tobacco shop, where he prospered and expanded until he ended up a wealthy man with a chain of stores. One day the man’s banker said, “You’ve done well for an illiterate, but where would you be if you could read and write?” “Well,” replied the man, “I’d be the janitor of the Church.” Life hands us hurtful and destructive things; we define ourselves by our response to them. Some people respond to suffering by rising above it, discovering our inner strength and growing in faith. In the face of suffering do we become victims or do we ask ourselves, “Now that this has happened to me, what am I going to do about it?”
Suffering offers the opportunity to draw close to God. During a drought in Florida trees were dying for lack of water, except in one orchard where irrigation was used sparingly; there the trees were healthy. When asked ‘why?’ the owner said, “When these trees were young, I frequently kept water from them. This hardship caused them to send their roots deeper into the soil in search of moisture. Mine are the deepest-rooted trees in the area. While others are being scorched by the sun these are finding moisture at a greater depth.” Not many people turn to God in the good times, in fact we often turn away from God because we think we don’t need him. In times of hardship the roots of our faith grow deep to find the living water Jesus offers and this living water gives us strength for future struggles.
Suffering gives us the opportunity to glorify God. Job’s friend criticized him because he was more concerned with his own reputation than with God’s – and rightly so. When asked why a man was born blind Jesus said, it wasn’t due to sin but “so that God could be glorified” (John 9:3). When we experience life’s trials we can become sarcastic, impatient and fearful like Job or we can become like William Sangster who, when told he was dying of progressive muscular atrophy, made four resolutions: 1) I will never complain; 2) I will keep the home bright; 3) I will count my blessings; 4) I will try to turn it to gain. People watch as Christians suffer to see if Christ is real to us. God can be glorified in us.
When suffering comes our way it’s normal to ask “Why?” The book of Job reminds us we may not have answers this side of heaven – or ever. There are cosmic spiritual events which we cannot comprehend. When God finally spoke to Job out of the whirlwind, God reminded Job that God is beyond our understanding and God is Sovereign. God is far greater than we can imagine; as the creator and ruler of all, he can do whatever he wants. God, being God, isn’t accountable to us. God doesn’t need to explain himself, least of all to us. Job also reminds us in his sovereignty, in his omnipotence, even in the worst of times, God is near us. Suffering offers the opportunity to be humble, accepting and trusting. We don’t have the whole picture. A successful business man lost his wealth and then his family left him. Feeling much like Job, he went out for a walk where he saw some men who were doing stonework on a large church. One of them was chiseling a triangular piece of rock. ‘Where are you going to put that?’ he asked. The workman said, ‘Do you see that little opening up there near the spire? Well, I’m shaping this stone down here so that it will fit in up there.’ Our suffering often doesn’t make sense to us; it may seem unjustifiable; there may be little we can do about it; God may give us no more answer than to say, “I am God.” All we can do is trust that through our suffering he is shaping us down here so we’ll fit in up there.