Sermons

The Problem of Suffering, Rev. Dee Ledger, February 25, 2018

Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar, became an agnostic.  His spiritual journey, as with many of us, is rather complicated, yet thoughtfully undertaken.  He eventually became an agnostic (one who doesn’t affirm or disbelieve the existence of God) because of the problem of suffering.  He did not feel that he could satisfactorily reconcile what he had been taught about God with human suffering.  Despite his agnosticism, he has written,

“Eventually, while still a Christian thinker, I came to believe that God himself is deeply concerned with suffering and intimately involved with it. The Christian message, for me, at the time, was that Jesus Christ is the revelation of God to us humans, and that in Jesus we can see how God deals with the world and relates to it. He relates to it, I thought, not by conquering it but by suffering for it. Jesus was not set on a throne in Jerusalem to rule over the Kingdom of God. He was crucified by the Romans, suffering a painful, excruciating, and humiliating death for us…

“What is God like? He is a God who suffers. The way he deals with suffering is by suffering both for us and alongside us.
This was my view for many years, and I still consider it a powerful theological view. It would be a view that I would still hold on to, if I were still a Christian. But I’m not.”[1]

 

What to do with human suffering is a question or problem for many faiths to answer or to solve.  It is a great mystery for many as to why we suffer and what can be done about this state of things.  Our Bible gives different answers to the problem of suffering, depending on story, time period, or context. There is individual and collective suffering that is caused by human sin; suffering that arises because of evil forces aligned against God, suffering that arises because of our free will and choice, and suffering that results because we are human creatures, subject to natural laws, and pain is an inevitable part of life and circumstance. Our Bible, both in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, questions and wrestles with suffering from multiple perspectives, but primarily emphasizes our human response to it, rather than providing a neat and tidy explanation for it.

Likewise, in Buddhism, as we have learned in our study, the problem of suffering internally compels Siddhartha (the Buddha) to seek gurus and to seek an answer to this most universal of human experiences.  Indeed, the first Noble Truth according to the Buddha is that “dukkha,”or suffering, exists.  A better way to say this is that “unsatisfactory-ness” exists.  Buddha goes on to declare that suffering is caused by greed, human craving, or attachment.  In Christian thinking, this is one kind of suffering; in Buddhism, this is the kind of discontentment to which human beings are especially prone.

The way in which Christianity approaches the reality of suffering is through Jesus.  At some point, disciples of Jesus must wrestle with the fact that Jesus suffered on a cross.  In Christianity, the execution of Jesus, a poor peasant, is not simply symbolic of the lengths to which human beings will go to assert power and control over another.  No, it is a symbol of the lengths to which God-in-Jesus will go to exhaust evil and disempower it.  To those gathered to hear him speak at the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King, Jr, offered encouragement, saying, “I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.”[2]

For those of us who also view Jesus as the Divine Incarnate, we likewise must wrestle with the question of God suffering on a cross.  Therein lies a problem: a loving, powerful God and a suffering, vulnerable Jesus.  The way in which this problem is resolved is truly multi-faceted, but suffice it to say that followers of Jesus are challenged to look at a God who enters the human condition and suffers for it and with it.  God is not remote, detached, or “above” the particulars of human suffering, but intimately aware of our suffering because God has entered into it and struggles alongside of us.  That can inspire and encourage us to do the same.

Our gospel from Mark, the earliest gospel, takes this one step further.  In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ example compels us to undertake suffering for others, for the sake of the gospel.  That one might suffer for oneself or because of oneself is one thing, but to suffer for others is a different kind of sacrifice.  It is much harder truth; it brings about our unspoken questions of whether or not someone or some cause is “worthy” or deserving of our suffering and whether suffering is really at all necessary or transformative for God’s servants.

In our passage for today, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection.  He starts by telling his disciples, and all of us, that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, be rejected by the elders, the chief religious leaders, and the be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31).  Jesus teaches that he will be rejected and that he will suffer.  This is the reality which he faces. The Messiah, the Son of Man, will be subjected to pain and turmoil.  And not just any suffering, not just a hangnail or a bruised ego, but “great suffering.”  And this suffering will occur for the benefit of others; it will be vicarious, or pain which is taken upon oneself for the benefit of another.

To understand what Mark meant, we need to look at the idea of the “suffering servant.”  At this point, many Christian apologists will turn to the Servant songs of Isaiah, particularly II Isaiah 53.  Some familiar lines from this Hebrew text are: “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases, yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…” The passage is striking, and the earliest Jewish-Christians saw, in this text, the meaning and purpose in Jesus’ suffering.  The passage historically describes the suffering servant of Israel, but as an entire exiled people, and how this exiled Israel (as a collective) would be despised by the nations and peoples of that time.  Yet, early Christians, such as Mark, reinterpreted these passages about the suffering servant and saw in Jesus the suffering One described there: “a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity”… “one from whom others hide their faces” and “held of no account.” (Isaiah 53:3).

However, we don’t need to look at Isaiah 53 to understand what Mark is saying about God’s servant and suffering.  We can simply look at Mark’s gospel.  At different points, Mark has Jesus explain his mission and ministry as a servant of God.  In our passage for today, Mark writes that the Son of Man or the Servant of God will undergo suffering.  That is, for Christians, a kind of first truth.  The second is that God comes to us as a servant, not as a Commander, nor as a Commander-in-Chief, so to speak.  God embodies servanthood through Jesus, and as we embody servanthood, we embody Christ.  At another point, Jesus says, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant…and whoever wishes to be first among you must be the servant (or slave) of all.  For, Jesus says, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

Which leads us to the next question:  For whom or for what would you be willing to give some or even all of your life?  Another way to ask this question is what would you give up in order that another might live?  Whom or what do you serve at your personal cost?  If you had to inconvenience yourself in some way so that another human being could live free from bondage or oppression, what would you be willing to sacrifice?  Is there some greater good for which you would willingly and voluntarily give up your comfort or your livelihood or your lifestyle?  (Incidentally, in our contemporary reading, “Questionnaire,” Wendell Berry intentionally turns this question on its head by asking who or what you would be willing to ruin in your quest for goodness, success, power, ideals, or patriotic fervor.)

Again, each religion, in its own way, must deal with the problem of suffering and our relationship to suffering, whether voluntary, involuntary, or some combination of both.  Is suffering necessary to reach a greater good?  How does God “show up” in our suffering and why?

That Jesus believed that the Son of Man *must suffer* was deeply offensive to his disciple, Peter, and dare I say, to us as well.  Our hearts go out to Peter because Peter has just proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah.  But a suffering Messiah is NOT what Peter had in mind and often the opposite of what we expect in our spiritual lives.  Jesus responds with one of the sharpest rebukes, “Get behind me, Satan!,” calling Peter the Devil himself.  In my younger years, I used to wonder at this, but no more. Peter can be seen, in this moment, as the Adversary, believing that being a servant comes at no personal, or direct, cost.  In some ways, Jesus states the obvious, but unwelcome truth: in working for the greater good, people will ridicule and oppose you, you will be misunderstood and some may even actively seek your death.  But Jesus ALSO tells Peter that the Son of Man will rise again, which is another way of saying the God will work within the suffering and after it, transforming it, so that we may rise, as well as some greater good.

The teaching gets even harder to understand when Jesus starts talking about losing one’s life for the sake of the gospel and thereby gaining one’s life, or conversely, trying to save one’s life, and finding that one has actually lost it.  What are we to make of such verses? We do not go about losing our lives for the sake of some reward in heaven, or some kind of spiritual maturity, or some kind of elevation of our egos, or the ultimate transcending of suffering.  No, we lose our lives for the sake of the gospel—for the elevation of justice, for love’s sake—the kind of compassionate love that Jesus demonstrated and furthered in the world.  In trying to preserve our lives, our status quo, our comfort levels and our desire for individual happiness without consideration or compassion for other’s needs or safety, we shall surely lose our lives…and forfeit our souls for lesser causes, lesser things, and lesser gods/or idols.  We do not undertake suffering in order to glorify suffering or to prove ourselves worthy.  We are already worthy and the suffering to which Jesus points is hardly glorious.  But we enter into the suffering of the world in the way of God—by furthering God’s love in the midst of suffering, by furthering God’s mercy in the midst of great pain, by furthering God’s embrace in the wake of deep estrangement.

In a conversation about pain and suffering on Huffington Post, Barbara Brown Taylor has said, “Not to accept suffering as a normal, inevitable part of being alive seems like a big mistake, and finding ways to cover it up seems like choosing anesthesia. There is a sense in which if I will trust that what comes to me is for me (now that’s the hugest faith statement I can make to you), if I will trust that what comes to me in my life is for me and not against me… what I find is that it breaks my idols, that it breaks my isolation, that it challenges my sense of independence, it does all kinds of things for me that I would not willingly do, that are for me, that are for my health.”[3]

In an interview, Krista Tippett tells the story about a conversation she had with Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, years ago.  Tippett relates, “He said to me, ‘To me, I would never think of the Kingdom of Heaven as a place without suffering. I wouldn’t want to live in a place without suffering.  Because how, how without suffering, would we become compassionate towards others?’ And Tippett remarked, “And I just thought that was so striking that he was talking about the Kingdom of Heaven.  And what he said was very challenging ‘cause we don’t choose suffering and I just don’t think that it is instinctive to want to choose suffering…but I do experience that as a gift…People who have lived a long time…People who are able to really live into perspective.  It’s not so much that they wish it or celebrate suffering but they know. They know.  It’s how they’ve grown.  They can see…they see its hazards but they can see also what suffering makes possible.  It’s a mystery.”[4]

Sisters and brothers, in your faith journey, may you find guides to help you to navigate your own suffering and that of others.  May you find meaning in this mystery and may you deepen your trust that God can redeem and transform even the deepest pain and injury to some collective good and some greater peace.  Amen.

 

[1] Bart Ehrman, “Bart Ehrman: How the Problem of Pain Ruined My Faith,” http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/blogalogue/2008/04/why-suffering-is-gods-problem.html

[2] “I Have a Dream,” delivered 28 August 1963.  Washington, D.C.

[3] www.patheos.com/blogs/paperbacktheology/2014/09/what-we-do-with-our-pain-barbara-brown-taylor-spiritual-bypassing.html#fxBo8oLHRx6tLVDa.99, and Travis Reed’s post of Barbara Brown Taylor’s response: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/travis-reed/barbara-brown-taylor-smash-idols-through-pain_b_2043989.html

[4] Travis Reed, “Krista Tippett: Pain & Good News” (Video) 03/27/2015 04:14 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/krista-tippett-pain-good-_b_6955748.html