One of my favorite events that we host each year was cancelled last week - the Lenten Luncheon. I rarely get to preach to people outside of our church, and this luncheon shows the unity of Christ's church in Shawnee. I planned and prepared to address some observations about suffering and pain that I have glean both from the Bible and the experiences Sarah and I had in 2014. Since I did not get to give that talk, I gave it to our Sunday night congregation, and will share a few of those observations here:
The most asked question I get is "Why is there suffering in this world?" It comes in all different forms - why cancer, why war, why hunger, why did she break up with me, and the list goes on and on. The easy answer (or as we used to say the "Sunday School answer") is sin. We live in a broken world and suffering and pain are results of that broken world. That is a true answer, but it leads to a different, deeper set of questions. Where is God in suffering? Did Jesus not conquer death through the resurrection? Why does God just fix this world? I'm sure some of you have asked those questions from time to time, and those questions are just fine to ask and wrestle with.
Paul in an extrordinary letter to the Corinthians writes about his own struggle with pain which he dubs his "thorn in the flesh." There has been much speculation about what this thorn actually was - it could be spiritual (guilt over persecuting the early church), emotional/relational (Paul had a knack for making lots of people angry at him), or physical (he detailed his shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings, and other physical ailments). Whatever it was, God did not take away his pain. Rather Jesus replies, "My grace is sufficient for you; my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Corinthians 12:9).
What is amazing about the Bible is that it does not ask the same questions of suffering we do. Suffering is a reality of life within the scriptures for many different reasons.
Sometimes suffering happens because of other people. For instance the Psalmist writes, "People who are wicked and deceitful have opened their mouths against me; they have spoken against me with lying tongues. With words of hatred they surround me; they attack me without cause" (Psalm 109:2-3). Have you ever had anybody say something untrue about you that caused a damaged reputation?
Sometimes suffering happens because of you. Your own sin and poor choices cause your pain. The Joseph story has always fascinated me. At the beginning of the story when you read it carefully, the word that describes Joseph is an arrogant brat. That arrogance in part kindled the flame that led his brothers to make a poor choice.
Sometimes suffering happens seemingly random in the Bible. Jesus tells a story about a man walking on the Jericho road who is robbed and beaten. While this is a parable it must have occurred enough times for Jesus to use it as a context for His parable.
Sometimes suffering happens because God caused it to happen in the scriptures. We do not necessarily like this truth, but it did happen. Sodom and Gommorah suffered because of heinous sin. Israel suffered exile because they turned their backs on God. Jesus ultimately suffered the cup of judgment at the cross.
So where is God in all these senarios? According to the Word given to Paul, God is in the "weakness." In other words, God's power is on full display in the midst of our pain, suffering, and weakness. God is with us in the midst of the pain.
God actually knows pain. When Jesus died, God grieved. It was God's love that put Jesus on the cross, and because of God's love God suffered.
It is God's love that ultimately redeems suffering. Suffering can seem purposelessness and random. Yet somehow, God has a way of weaving purpose and redemption through suffering precisely because suffering is where God's power shines the most. If we wish to know what God looks like, we look to the cross. It was out of that suffering, resurrection and redemption is born.
If you are suffering today - physically, emotionally, relationally, or spiritually - you are not alone. In fact God might be shining most brightly in your darkest of nights.