Sunday, January 15, 2012

Escape Clause? (Matthew 27:45-46; Luke 23:44-46)

I imagine most of us have had the experience where we do something that seems like the right thing but turns out to be the wrong thing. Sometimes it's no big deal, but sometimes it can cause real problems.

One of those times is when we talk to people who have suffered and we want to tell them something to make them feel better. We may say something we heard when we were younger or something that we have been told is the right thing to say, but which we haven't thought about very much ourselves. And that's when we can not only not fix the problem at hand but we can cause even more problems.

If someone loses a loved one, we may say something about how it "must have been God's will," or about God having a plan, or how everything happens "for a reason." Our impulse there is a good one. One of the things about these kinds of losses or this kind of suffering that hurts the most is the senselessness of it all. My grandmother's death was hard for us to handle but it was not senseless -- she was 104, after all/. But the death of someone at, say, 14 is completely different. It makes no sense, because young people die much less frequently than old people do. Put that death in the context of something stupid, like gang violence or drug use, and the senselessness magnifies.

We believe that if we could give a reason for this kind of tragedy that would somehow lessen the hurt. It's a common impulse and not always wrong, but some of our tries at making sense of the world's wrongs turn out to make no sense. Go back to my example of a teenager who died because he inhaled something deadly in an attempt to get high and apply the "everything happens for a reason" to it. If by that you mean, everything happens for a reason and the reason is that the human lungs can't handle some chemicals and inhaling them kills us, well, that's true but not much comfort. If you mean that God had some kind of plan that required the death of a 14-year-old for being 14 and stupid, then we will just have to agree that you sometimes say foolish things.

For two thousand years, Christians have spilled oceans of ink, digital and otherwise, talking about what to say in the face of suffering. I won't re-hash it all, but the key is to remember that if what you're going to say makes God guilty of doing something for which we would want a human being arrested, think a couple of times about saying it. What you say may or may not be wrong, but the chances are pretty good that even if it's right, you're going to say it at the wrong time.

Have you noticed that even God didn't try to answer the question about why there's suffering? Jesus never said, "OK, here's why bad things happen to good people." He never said, "See, if you're good then nothing bad will ever happen to you and if something bad does happen, it's because you did something wrong." And if he ever had said that, then the end of his life would prove him a liar because he of all humans who ever lived was without sin and yet died a disgraceful, painful and unjust death. His death was more senseless than any.

Actually God did answer the question but his answer seems so weird we overlook it because we can't believe he'd do it. We ask, "Why did I suffer this evil?" and God says, "Let me suffer it with you."


No, really, that's what happened when Jesus entered creation. He took on everything that makes us human, including suffering. Everything from the minor level like stubbed toes and long days and being surrounded by people who don't get it to the major level like betrayal by friends and loved ones and injustice and wrongful execution.

He did this for many reasons, but one is to help reassure us that our suffering does not mean God has deserted us. He reinforced God's presence with us in the midst of the worst pain we could imagine, whether that pain is physical, emotional or spiritual. He tells us, "Even here, I am with you. I didn't abandon you. I didn't turn away from you; please don't turn away from me."

I've come to believe that even if God could tell me exactly why this or that bad thing happened to that person -- beyond the basic scientific principles that underlie things like how our bodies work or how the world's different processes help create the conditions where life exists -- it wouldn't really solve my problem. Now that I knew why, I'd still find myself asking, "Now what?" And it's that question God answers when we let him. God did not and does not cause the kind of wrongs that make us howl our "Why?" But he has promised us that, if we can find our way through to clinging to him in the midst of them, he will make from them good things.

In Luke's telling of the story of Jesus crying out on the cross, notice the detail about the curtain at the temple being torn in two. This curtain divided the center of the temple, the place where in ancient times God's presence was said to dwell, from the worshipers so they would be safe from God's overwhelming holiness. Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection did many things, and one of them was to heal humanity's broken relationship with God, symbolized by the tearing of that dividing curtain. From the senseless evil of Jesus' execution, God drew forth salvation. And from our suffering, God can draw forth good beyond what we might imagine. He does not desert us in our times of suffering. Let us not desert him or each other in them either.

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