Psalm 146 identifies God as a friend to outcasts and the put-upon, the One who “lifts up those who are bowed down” and “upholds the orphan and the widow.”
First Kings recalls a moment in the ministry of Elijah in which God heeded the prophet’s prayer and raised up the widow of Zarephath’s son.
From the life of Jesus to Israel’s ancient prophets and beyond, the witness of scripture invites us to ponder the mercy and grace God shares with those who suffer. However, in light of this witness and confronted by a generation predisposed to skepticism, people of faith do well to ask an essential question.
If God cares for widows, orphans, outcasts, and all who suffer, then why do they suffer in the first place?
Why, God, why?
“Why?” is a bedrock question. It’s one of the first questions children learn to ask, yet it fuels some of life’s greatest quests for meaning and understanding.
“Why?” is a profound question that deserves an honest answer. It’s often the case, however, that humanity shies away from this question by pressing down inquiries and lashing out instead.
We come up with platitudes to spare ourselves from wrestling with the reality of pain and sorrow.
We identify scapegoats and assign blame.
We convince ourselves that horrible things can’t happen to us.
Ultimately, our desire to avoid suffering and those who suffer can even lead us to inflict more pain.
We assume that they must’ve done something to cause this.
I think this is particularly true for believers who often succumb to the temptation to respond to the reality of suffering as if it were a referendum on God’s fitness to be God and act as if we must keep the sorrowful at arm’s reach lest we be accused of second guessing God’s inscrutable wisdom.
This is, of course, the exact opposite of Jesus’ example.
A passage from one of William Sloane Coffin’s most memorable sermons illustrates this point well.
Rev. Sloane Coffin was the pastor of Riverside Church in Morningside Heights from 1977 to 87. During his ministry there, he had to carry the heavy cross of eulogizing his own son, Andrew, who died a few months short of his graduation from Boston University.
On January 11, 1983, Andrew’s car careened into Boston Harbor. His passenger escaped, but Andrew did not.
Ten days later Andrew’s father spoke these words from Riverside’s historic pulpit.
The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister's house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, "I just don't understand the will of God." Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. "I'll say you don't, lady!" I said.I think it’s worth noting that there’s nothing uniquely awful about the brunch-bearing family friend Sloane Coffin took to task. In fact, given the decades he spent in pastoral ministry, I suspect that the noted preacher could provide a few examples from his career in which the roles were reversed and he played the part of the person trying to fill an uneasy silence with an unhelpful platitude.
I know that I’ve done that and I’m also sure that some of you have been on both the giving and receiving ends of empty efforts at comfort.
Our experience, then, proves the truth of words C.S. Lewis wrote in the wake of his wife’s death.
Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand.At our core, I think suffering scares us—we don’t want any part of it—and that fear impedes our ability to be truly present to those who are suffering by producing the wall of clichés behind which we try to hide our true selves.
“God wanted another angel.”
“You’re young. Just get pregnant again.”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
Back at Riverside Church, Rev. Sloan Coffin sought to keep his flock from peddling in phrases like these. In doing so, I believe he led them, as he leads us now, to a point of powerful encounter with the living God.
The sermon continued.
For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels…The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.If our faith speaks anything to us about the reality of suffering—if our faith speaks anything at all about our deepest needs—it isn’t that God offered us lengthy treatises and precise philosophical proofs about human suffering.
If we have anything to say it is to allow Jesus—God’s gift of God’s self in the flesh—the same Jesus who loved those who suffered, who ministered to those who suffered, who cried real tears with those who suffered, and who ultimately suffered, too—if we have anything to say it is to allow Jesus to speak through our actions.
From the life of Jesus to Israel’s ancient prophets and beyond, the witness of scripture invites us to ponder the mercy and grace God shares with those who suffer, for it is in pondering these things that we find our courage, our hope, our comfort, our mission, our Lord.
So, why suffering? Why tragedy? I don’t know.
But my faith shows me that Jesus walked with those who suffered and sat with those who suffered, and I believe he walks and sits with us in our sorrow, too.
He loved people who were in the midst of life’s tearful and slobbering mess and offered them himself, and so should we.
Having drawn so much from Rev. Sloan Coffin today, it seems right to allow him to have this last word. This is how his sermon closed.
As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in the "right" biblical passages are beginning, once again, to take hold: "Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee"…"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”Let it be so with us and let us give thanks to God for this Good News. Amen.
I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.
So I shall — so let us all — seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.