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Who Sinned? The Problem of Human Suffering

John 9:1-5

1As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. 4As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Making Sense of Disaster

On November 1, 1755, a devastating earthquake hit the city of Lisboa, then called Lisbon, Portugal.  Tremendous waves crashed ashore, and gigantic fires broke out throughout the city.  Nine thousand buildings were destroyed, along with priceless works of art, books, and historic records of Portugal’s explorations in the New World.  Out of a population of 275,000 people, almost 15,000 were killed.  According to Dr. Paul Schilling, many died in churches where they had gathered for All Saints’ Day services.

Immediately following that disaster, clergymen throughout the world, including John Wesley, indicated that the Lisbon earthquake was God’s judgment on the city for its sins.  Those sins were enumerated as —

1.  Lisbon’s fabulous wealth of palaces, churches, and its treasuries filled with gold bullion, jewels, and other precious merchandise;

2.  the ruthlessness of the Portugese Inquisition which forced all the Jews from Portugal, and compelled others to convert involuntarily to Christianity;

3.  superstition and the worship of images (of course this criticism came from non-Catholics);

4.  a lax moral code in Portugese society.

Several voices rose in protest to this kind of thinking.  One, the Bishop of Exeter, said that these pronouncements were the “raving of designing monks, Methodists, and ignorant enthusiasts.”  But, he went on to say that because Londoners had not suffered the same fate as Lisboners, that the English would take this warning and try to become better and more genuinely Christian people.  (Paul Schilling, God and Human Anguish, p. 131-133.)


So this week, when Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, inferred that the earthquake which struck Haiti on Wednesday was somehow connected to a legendary pact the Haitians had made with the devil, he was following in the verbal tradition of others who have sought explanations, and tried to fix blame, for natural disasters which have claimed untold numbers of lives.

When Al Qaeda terrorists flew airplanes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and crashed into a field in Pennsylvania on 9/11, Jerry Falwell, speaking to Pat Robertson, also offered an explanation by saying —

“I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way — all of them who have tried to secularize America — I point the finger in their face and say “You helped this happen.”  — Jerry Falwell speaking to Pat Robertson, Sep 14, 2001.

Falwell would later apologize for this remark by saying that he blamed no one but the individual terrorists involved in the 9/11 attacks.


In the passage we read the morning, John’s Gospel reminds us that seeking to explain tragedy by blaming someone else is as old as humankind itself. As Jesus and his disciples make their way on their itinerant ministry, they encounter a man who is blind.  John tells us he was born blind, and that fact must have been known to the disciples at that time because they ask Jesus the question —

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?

There was no question in their minds that his blindness was the judgment of God, the curse of God, for some sin committed by either the man or his parents.  Of course, if the sin is imputed to the blindman himself, then he would have had to sin before he was born, because his blindness is from birth.  Or, perhaps they believed that God knew the man was going to sin after his birth, and so God struck him with blindness in anticipation of his sin.

Or, his parents might have sinned.  They could have been immoral, he might have been conceived in sin, and so God’s judgment strikes their first-born child as God had struck the first-born of the Egyptians 1,500 years before.

We seek an explanation for suffering because if we can make sense of it, if we can find a cause for suffering, then we can rest more easily at night.

One of the reasons John Wesley  offered in his pamphlet titled, Thoughts Occasioned by the Late Earthquake at Lisbon, was that it was better to attribute the earthquake to God than to think that we were at the mercy of random natural events.

We are always trying to make sense of suffering.  But in our attempt to make sense of it, there are some things we need to understand.
Our Thoughts Are Not God’s Thoughts

In Isaiah 55:8, the prophet Isaiah records the words of God as God invites Israel to faithfulness —

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.

The first truth we need to understand as we seek to understand the problem of human suffering is that God’s thoughts are not ours and God’s ways are not our ways.

In other words, while we seek to fix the blame for sin, God seeks to fix the sinner.  The entire chapter of Isaiah 55 is God’s gracious offer of God’s presence and loving forgiveness to Israel.  Listen to God’s thoughts —

1 “Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.

3 Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David.

4 See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander of the peoples.

5 Surely you will summon nations you know not,
and nations that do not know you will hasten to you,
because of the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendor.”

6 Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.

7 Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.

8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the LORD.

These are God’s thoughts.  Thoughts of redemption, of promise, of love, of faithfulness, of invitation, of hope, of generosity, of forrgiveness.

We think God’s thoughts are of punishment and vengeance and retribution.  But those are our thoughts, not God’s.  God’s highest and greatest thought is always of love.  If it is not, then we have no explanation for God’s sending Jesus.

God continually reaches out to mankind with the offer of God’s forgiveness, fellowship, and love.

We should be very suspicious of those who claim to speak the thoughts of God, especially if those words are words of destruction.

Human Suffering Has Many Causes

The second thing we must understand is that human suffering has many causes.  Human suffering and death can be caused by evil, natural events, accident, and human choice.  Let’s explore each one of these.

1. Evil. Everything bad that happens is not caused by an evil force.  For an event to be attributed to evil, there must be a moral intention.  In other words, it is the intent that defines the action.  By that definition, the Holocaust was evil.  The Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler sought the “final solution” — death — for the problem of the Jews.  According to Hitler, the Jews were to blame for everything that was wrong with Germany and the world, and so the final solution was that all the Jews had to die.  In the Holocaust, Hitler was able to exterminate 35% of the world’s Jewish population — over 6,000,000 Jews died as a direct result of Hitler’s intention to kill them.  That is evil.


When someone points a gun at another and pulls the trigger in an effort to take their life, that is evil.  When an adult uses his power and authority to abuse an innocent child, that is evil.  When a man beats a woman, a soldier tortures a prisoner of war, or the strong take advantage of the weak, that is evil. Evil has an intention to do harm, to take, to hurt, to demean, to rob, to kill.  Evil is selfish, loveless, self-centered, ruthless, merciless, and unforgiving.  Evil is sin incarnate, rebellion against God’s love, and the attempt to mar the image of God in humanity beyond recognition.


By that definition, an earthquake cannot be evil.  An earthquake, a tornado, a tsunami, a hurricane — all can cause immense suffering, but in themselves they are not evil events because there is no intention.


To attribute to God the use of nature as a means to inflict harm is to attribute to God evil intent.  Just as God’s thoughts are not ours, neither are God’s ways.  Jesus used the example of the wheat and the tares, the sheep and the goats, to remind us that both the obedient and disobedient will grow up together until the final judgment of God.


2. Natural law and events. God has created an orderly and natural world.  We have the law of gravity for instance.  We all understand that law — what goes up, must come down.  So, if I decide that the law of gravity no longer applies to me, and I walk off the edge of the Grand Canyon, I am going to be in for a really big surprise.  Gravity does apply to all of us, equally and unrelentingly.  Gravity is a law of the natural world.


The same can be said for natural events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis.  Scientists understand and can explain the phenomena behind each of these events.  When conditions are right, either meteorologically or seismically, we can expect a nature event.  We know when hurricane season begins and ends, and we can track tropical depressions each night on the nightly news until they become full-fledged hurricanes when they reach the coast of the United States.  Natural laws are at work.


An earthquake is a natural event.  CNN reported this week, among others, that the island of Hispaniola, which is occupied by the Dominican Republic on the one end, and Haiti on the other, sits over two parallel earth plates which rubbed against each other this week.  This was a natural, if not totally predictable, event.  Seismologists knew this day would come, they just didn’t know when.


I think I told you about my experience in the mild earthquake that hit Kaoshiung, Taiwan when I was there in the late 1990s.  The hotel room shook, the door in the bathroom kept banging against the wall, and I jumped out of bed scared out of my wits.  I proved that my going to the large plate glass window in my room to look out.  Fortunately, the earthquake was relatively mild, although it did make the news in the US, and Debbie tried to call the hotel to check on me.  Natural events happen without any intent, but governed by the laws of the natural world that God established at creation.


3. Accidents. There are also accidents, those things that happen due to human error, machine malfunction, or some other circumstances that cause suffering.  The American Heritage Dictionary defines “accident” as “an unexpected and undesirable event, especially one resulting in damage or harm.” It is from the Latin words “ad cadere” which means “to fall.”


When birds struck the engines of US Airways flight 1549 a year ago this week, the plane lost power. Fortunately, Captain Sully Sullenberger made a safe water landing and all 155 passengers survived the crash.  This was an accident — birds and jet engines are not compatible and when some birds accidentally flew into the jet turbines, the result could have been much worse than it was.


4. Human choice. Human choice can involve evil intent, as in Hitler’s case.  But human choice can also involve unintended consequences, as in the all-too-familiar cases of drunk drivers who crash their cars into innocent people, and kill or injure them.  Drunk drivers do not intend to do evil.  They do not intend to kill or injure.  But the choice they make to drink to the point of impairment, and then to drive a motor vehicle, results in injury to others.  Our society has decided that even if someone does not intend to kill or injure, their choice to drink and drive is a choice for which they are held liable.  And so we have laws that punish drunk driving, whether there is death or injury.  Our choices matter, and our choices can be the cause of immense human suffering.


When parents choose to neglect their children, or to endanger their lives, our society has said that behavior is unacceptable because the potential for harm exists.  Our choices can cause human suffering, and newspaper and TV reports each day reflect the choice of a jealous husband to kill his wife; or the choice of a disgruntled employee to wreak havoc in his workplace.  Human actions are most often by choice, and that choice is the responsibility of the one who engages in that behavior.

The Presence of God in the Midst of Suffering


When events that inflict tremendous human suffering occur — such as the Haitian earthquake, the southeast Asian tsunami, or the shootings at Virginia Tech — the question invariably is asked, “Where is God?”  The answers that come too quickly are ones like Pat Robertson’s.  God is said, by some,  to be using these events either as punishment or warning, or both.  Punishment is usually assigned to those who are suffering in the tragedy, and warning is for those like us who are witnesses to it.


In other words, God is the agent behind the earthquake.  I would take strong exception to that idea.


The other argument expressed usually goes something like this —


If God is all good, and all powerful, why did this happen.  God either is not all good, and therefore let this happen; or, God is not all-powerful and therefore was powerless to stop it from happening.


Both of those ideas of God are based on the notion that God is removed from mankind, and, like a puppeteer in the sky, is pulling certain strings to make things happen, or not happen.


But that is not the picture of God we get from either the Old or New Testaments.  The portrait of God that is most accurate, and most Biblical is the portrait of God with His people.


In the Exodus experience, the Biblical writer records the words of God in Exodus 3:7-8 — “7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”


God hears the cries of His people and He comes down, not literally, but relationally.  Down into the suffering, down into the reality of human life.  Down to our level of fear and frustration, or sorrow and loss. God comes down to where man knows God is present.


Paul expressed this about Christ in Philippians 2:5-8 —


5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature
[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!


Jesus came down — down from being the God of heaven, down from heaven’s glory, down from that position of authority that was rightfully his, down from the blazing glory of Light, down into a human body, down into the limitation of humanity, down to the obedience of sacrifice, down to the most heinous death of all, down to the cross.  And we call that the incarnation — God with us, Immanuel.


So, God comes to His people, and God’s people encompass all of creation.  We are all God’s people, for we are all created in God’s image.  We are all God’s children, we are all God’s beloved.  Some of us know it, and some do not.  Some of us live it, and some do not.  But our unfaithfulness does not change God’s faithfulness.  God is with us, present in our suffering whether it is in Haiti or New Orleans or Blacksburg, Virginia.


The Response to Suffering


When asked what the response to the Holocaust should be, Elie Wiesel said,


“I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response.  What I do know is that there is “response” in responsibility.  When we speak of this era of evil and darkness, so close and yet so distant, “responsibility” is the key word.” –Elie Wiesel, Night, preface xv.


In Exodus 3, after God says He has heard the cries of His people and seen their suffering, and that He is coming down to them, God then speaks to Moses, and God says —

10 So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.”

When God comes down, when God is present in the suffering of His people, God always invites those who are not suffering to join Him in the work of relieving that suffering.

It is not enough for us to watch the news accounts on TV, or to shake our heads in disbelief and sorrow.  God joins the Haitians in their suffering, and He invites us to join Him, too.

Our response will determine whether we are more like the disciples, who believed that someone’s sin caused the earthquake, or more like Jesus, who saw suffering as an opportunity for the work of God to be displayed in their lives.  But Jesus also said, “We must work while it is day…”

So, in this disaster, we must work.  We must pray for those who are being rescued, for those who are injured, for those who have lost everything.  We must give out of our own surplus, our own comfort, in order that others might have something.  We must respond to this suffering by being responsible for our Haitian brothers and sisters.  Believers were killed — the Roman Catholic bishop, a prominent Baptist pastor, the head of the United Methodist relief organization.  Kate Snow of ABC News is in Haiti.  Her message on Twitter was that she had been to a small church where people were killed.

This disaster is not the result of some diabolic legend.  This is a natural event.  But this natural event becomes the occasion for a supernatural outpouring of God’s love through us, and others, to those suffering in Haiti.

The problem of suffering is not solved by finding someone to blame.  The problem of suffering can only be alleviated by finding someone to love.