Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

An older fellow and I were having a conversation in which he was told me about attending Catholic school in his growing-up years. He mentioned something a teacher, a religious sister, once said in class. She told him and the other students that they should want to experience some suffering in their lives—that suffering was a good thing. He said to me that the first thought that popped into his mind was: “That’s crazy! Who in the world would want to suffer if they didn’t have to?”

In Paul’s Letter to the Romans, however, he does write about “good” suffering—how it can lead to a chain reaction of “good” things: “…we…boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us…” In his commentary on Romans, Martin Luther says very much the same thing:

To bear tribulation but unwillingly so and with the thought that one would rather not have to undergo such a trial is the lowest stage [of suffering]. Gladly and willingly to bear it but not to seek it is the next and middle stage. But to desire and seek, even to bring about, tribulations as if they were a treasure—this is the highest stage…”[i]  

When we think of suffering, don’t we also come up with reasons that have nothing to with it being a good experience? Don’t we often think of suffering as a punishment, a consequence of sin? And enough times it is, but certainly not always or even often.

I remember a church member—his name was Mike—who for many yrs. had been a big-rig truck driver. He loved it. Every week he and another guy drove an 18-wheeler from near Austin, Texas, to  Los Angeles and back.  Then one day something terrible happened: Spontaneously, he became blind in one of his eyes. What happened was that a faulty heart valve had led to a small stoke that then took away the vision of that eye.That impairment meant Mike could no longer drive tractor-trailers. The company gave him a decent job in the warehouse. But it wasn’t the same. He had grown up in a fundamentalist church in which he learned bad things happen when a person disobeys God, when a person does something terribly wrong. But he had no idea what it must have been. So he came to me to help him find out what his sin must have been. I tried to comfort him, telling him God had nothing to do with causing his disability. It was strictly a physical problem, a bad card dealt to him by nature. But he had trouble with that kind of answer and continued to mull over in his mind what he had done to deserve God’s wrath.

Besides sometimes understood as something good or as a kind of punishment, suffering is regarded as part of some plan God has decided on—either for an individual, a family, or an entire group of people.

As a very young pastor, I once received a phone call from a church member whose brother’s family had just had a tragedy. The mother and grandmother had left the house to do some shopping. Staying home, the father was doing some work in the garage. Their toddler daughter was in a nearby room. When he went  to check on her, he discovered she had opened the back door and gotten outside. Now, he and others thought for sure that the gate to the swimming pool was locked. But it wasn’t. An ambulance was called, and she was quickly taken to the hospital. In spite of the efforts of the emergency responders, she could not be revived. Since the parents had very little in the way of a religious upbringing and no church home, I was called by the father’s sister to come to the house and try to comfort them. Big mistake. Another family member from another church got there first, telling them their little girl’s death was God’s plan for her—that God loves babies and had chosen to take her back to heaven. Supposing that to be the case, the mother decided that God must in fact be very cruel. Since I was, as a minister, a “representative” of God, she quickly showed me the door and told me to leave.

Still another way to regard undeserved suffering is to see much of it as random, completely meaningless. In other words, it makes no sense at all. This view especially come to the forefront as a result of the carnage of World War II, during which, of course, the evil of the Holocaust was committed and a total of other deaths—soldiers, sailors, and noncombatants—was also estimated to be in the millions. The question: How could a good God allow the destruction of human life on such a massive scale? At that point many people lost their faith. In ancient times as well, there were those who came, if not to the same conclusion, at least one similar to it—even in the Bible itself, that is, in some of the Book of Ecclesiastes:

                        Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher…

                            All is vanity.[ii]

…I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.[iii]

…the same fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil…As are the good, so are the sinners…the same fate comes to everyone.[iv]

[So] I saw that under the sun the peace is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.[v]

A very pessimistic, sobering philosophy, isn’t it? To interpret suffering instead as at least some kind of punishment from God might seem preferable. That’s how we humans are. We are wired to try to make sense out of things, to try to find some inherent meaning in most if not all events.

Another man of the Jewish tradition—a wise man who hasnot despaired—once wrote a very thoughtful, sensitive, and hopeful book after the death of his son. The man’s name is Rabbi Harold Kushner, and the book is When Bad Things

Happen to Good People. It came out back in 1981. If you haven’t read it, you probably at least recognize the name.

It was published several years after his son, Aaron, died at the age of 14—from a rare disease, known as progeria. What happens is that a person ages at an abnormally rapid pace. So, as a young teenager—quite small for his age—Aaron already looked as if he was near the end of a long life.

Reflecting for years about his son’s condition and eventual death, Rabbi Kushner draws on one particularly strong theme in the Hebrew Bible that helped see him through that time and the grieving that followed. He also includes in his book how often he sees this theme in the lives of members of the congregation he served for many years. That theme is how God becomes manifest in a community that cares about others suffering from great pain. People in such a community—small or large—serve as the face of God.

I am going to read now an excerpt from the book.

[Here is how] I [once] answered [a] young widow who challenged me about the [effective of prayer. Her husband had died of cancer, and she told me that while he was terminally ill, she prayed for his recovery. Her parents, her in-laws, and her neighbors all prayed. A Protestant neighbor invoked the prayer circle of her church, and a Catholic neighbor sought the intercession of St. Jude, patron saint of hopeless causes. Every variety, language, and [style] of prayer was muster on his behalf, and none of them worked. He died right on schedule, leaving her and her young children bereft of a husband and father. After all that, she said to me, how can anyone be expected to take prayer seriously?

Is it really true, I asked her, that your prayers were not answered? Your husband died; there was no miraculous cure for his illness. But what did happen? Your friends and relatives prayed; Jews, Catholics, and Protestants prayed. At a time when you felt so desperately alone, you found out that you were not alone at all. You found out how many other people were hurting for you and with you, and that is no small thing.

They were trying to tell you that this was not happening to you because you were a bad person. It was just a rotten, unfair thing that no one could help. They were trying to tell you that your husband’s life meant a lot to them too, and not only to you and your children, and that whatever happened to him, you would not be totally alone. That is what their prayers were saying…

And what about your prayers?, I asked her. Were they left unanswered? You faced a situation that could easily have broken your spirit, a situation that could have left you a bitter, withdrawn woman, jealous of the intact families around you….Somehow that did not happen. Somehow you found the strength not to let yourself be broken. You found the resiliency to go on living and caring about things….In desperation, you opened your heart in prayer, and what happened? You didn’t get a miracle to [avoid] a tragedy. But you discovered people around you, and God beside you, and strength within you to help you survive…[That is] an example of a prayer being answered.[vi]

 

In our lives, then, some good does come out of suffering. Paul was right after all.

·         It does give us endurance.

·         It does give us character.

·         It does give us hope—“a hope [that] does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit….God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us.”

And out of his suffering and death, new life has come to us—both in this world and in the world to come. Amen.


[i]Luther: Lectures on Romans, ed. Wilhem Pauck, The Library of Christian Classics: Ichthus Edition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1961): 158-59.

 

[ii]Ecc. 1:2.

 

[iii]Ecc. 8:17

 

[iv]Ecc. 9:2-3a.

 

[v]Ecc. 9:11.

 

[vi] Ibid: 130-31.