Bad Things, Good People
September 21, 2019 Luke 13:1-5
The other day I ran into a friend I used to bicycle with.
He said that he still works out every day and eats a vegetarian diet so can keep control of his health and his life.
I understand what he means, but he’s not entirely correct.
Studies reveal that about 85% of all illness and disease in the US is preventable through things like weight loss, diet, and exercise.
So, yes, we can do a lot to manage our health – and care of our bodies is as much a spiritual practice as prayer and meditation.
But I also remember another bicycling friend comment as we pedaled down a busy street one day, that all our carefully controlled cholesterol doesn’t mean a thing if a bus wheel rolls over us.
He was right – tragedy lurks around the bend for any of us, and death overtakes even the most conditioned athlete.
As a matter of fact, the last time I checked, the mortality rate of athletes was hovering around 100%.
From the beginning of time, people have tried to explain why bad things happen to good people … how suffering can co-exist with an all-loving, all-present and all-powerful God.
And it’s not just an abstract question if you’re suffering and wondering “why me?”
How come I took care of myself and got this disease?
How come I gave my company twenty years of dedication and got unceremoniously ushered out the door?
And … how can I forgive God for betraying me?
When we are hurt, we look for someone to blame.
When my car was stolen – actually I’ve had five cars stolen through the years – I blamed the thief.
But who do we blame when our partner develops dementia?
Who do we blame when the hurricane destroyed so many lives in the Bahamas?
You know, sometimes it is hard to keep God off the hook for these bad things.
And even if God didn’t cause these tragedies, don’t you think He might at least have prevented our suffering?
In John Updike’s novel Rabbit Run, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom arrives home one night to discover that his drunken wife had accidentally allowed their little baby to drown in the bathtub.
Sickened with grief, Rabbit kneels by the tub and pulls the stopper.
He sobs, “How easy it was, yet in all His strength, God did nothing. Just that little stopper to lift.”
Is there anyone who doesn’t understand his lament?
At first glance, the Book of Job seems like a misfit in scripture.
Taken in proper context, it doesn’t give us any uplifting quotes to needlepoint.
It offers no short memory verses for a quick motivational lift in hard times.
But God’s gift of this book goes way beyond all that because the Book of Job allows us to confront God with our deepest questions and anger about suffering.
You remember the story.
At the beginning of the book, Job was reaping the rewards for being a righteous man.
He had worked hard and invested well and built a successful life.
And then through no fault of his own, it all goes to hell in a handbasket.
One day he’s driving home, holding hands with his trophy wife, the sunroof of his Range Rover open to refresh his golden tan.
They’re returning from church where he humbly received special honors for having personally funded the new youth center.
Then he awakes the next day to find his children are dead, his car is repossessed, his house is foreclosed and his skin is mottled by a horrible skin cancer …
probably from driving with that sunroof open all the time.
Job remains faithful to God, but his wife just can’t take it; she encourages him to simply curse God and die.
Job 2:9-10 His wife said, “Still holding on to your precious integrity, are you? Curse God and be done with it!”
He told her, “You’re talking like an empty-headed fool. We take the good days from God—why not also the bad days?”
Not once through all this did Job sin. He said nothing against God.
But the unfairness of his situation drives him to cry-out over the next thirty-some chapters, “Why? Why, O God, have you done this to me?”
Well, Job is well-liked and well connected, so before long some of his friends gather around him.
At first, that is exactly what he needs: companionship and comfort.
But being good religious folks, they cannot just stand-by while someone rants at God, and so eventually they start giving advice, justifying God’s actions and explaining-away his suffering.
Maybe we feel we need to defend God.
Maybe we just can’t tolerate the idea of life not having clear and controllable cause-and-effect.
Maybe we think that if we can explain suffering then we can avoid it … but, as we’ve seen, that is a great illusion.
There must be a reason for Job’s turn of luck, so one of Job’s friends tries to convince him that his suffering is a punishment for some sin.
Just do some soul searching, my friend, and you’ll find what you did to bring God’s judgment upon yourself.
Could this be God’s way of making you aware of some hidden sin?
But the text has gone out of its way to show that Job had done nothing wrong to deserve this anguish.
Neither have families whose loved ones are killed by texting drivers … or the woman with dementia, or the people devasted by hurricanes.
This idea of suffering being a punishment for sin was widely-accepted in the Ancient Near East.
Jesus and his disciples got news about two tragedies in Jerusalem.
In one, Herod’s troops had slaughtered some worshipers, and in the other, a tower had collapsed upon a crowd.
Luke 13:2-3a Jesus said, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no.
Sure, at times we suffer for our own poor choices, but that is different from saying all suffering is punishment from God.
Job’s friends offer other explanations for his suffering.
You’ve heard plenty of these:
Maybe you’ve been told that suffering is God’s way of sensitizing you to make you more grateful or compassionate.
But does that mean that millions live in slums so we will appreciate our homes?
The very idea is offensive.
If we believe that then we may as well follow Mrs. Job’s advice to curse God and die, because if that is our god then we are already spiritually dead.
Another common explanation is that pain and suffering are the results of God giving us free will.
From the Garden of Eden we see that God didn’t intend for us to suffer, but with our free will we chose to sin and unleashed all the forces of suffering.
So, this isn’t God’s fault but our own.
The problem with this explanation is that it is helpful only in a philosophical sense – why we so naturally lose our way when we choose to disconnect from God
But suffering is not just a philosophical question; it is a personal problem endured day in and day out by flesh-and-blood, breathing people.
Abstract theologizing was not helpful to Job and it is not helpful to people waiting in hospital rooms or left to sleep under bridges, either.
A fourth explanation is that suffering is a test … a test designed to reveal our character.
Well, suffering does test our character, but that doesn’t mean that God sends us pain as a little pop quiz.
God already knew Job’s character, and He knows yours as well … God doesn’t need a multiple-choice exam to learn about you.
It is true that how we manage our suffering molds our character, but let me tell you that a god who is obsessed with testing his creatures with pain is not the God of grace proclaimed in the Bible.
A fifth explanation is that suffering is simply a part of the heavenly brush stroke on the canvas of life.
This rationale asserts that seasons of pain – if we could just view them from a proper perspective – are merely dark brush strokes in a beautiful painting called life.
Instead of complaining, we just need to step back and see how God is adding shading to make His artwork all that more beautiful.
A nice sentiment, maybe a good Hallmark card … but how does a drive-by shooting in Sylmar make the world a more beautiful place?
Why is life a more lovely portrait because of a wife gets beaten by her husband?
Eventually, Job ran out of patience with his friends.
At first their presence had been a comfort, but after all their “fix-it” ideas, rationalizations and theologizing,
Job cried out, (13:4b-5) You are worthless physicians, all of you! If only you would be altogether silent. For you, that would be wisdom.
As one who has waited in many a hospital room, I know that most of us quickly lose interest in theories about suffering.
In any case, as we travel with Job – or as we travel through our own experiences of suffering – it slowly dawns on us that the question “Why?” is just the wrong question.
Even when there is an answer to “why”, it doesn’t help.
A smoker coughing up blood because of lung cancer is not comforted by understanding the links between her Marlboros and cancer.
“Why” is the wrong question to ask … yet Job’s prolonged outburst at God ultimately brought him into His presence.
An angry “why?” when addressed to God can become like a prayer that leads to better question, “Who?”
Who will be with me through this suffering, whatever its cause?
Now we’re starting to ask the right questions – no longer looking backward to affix blame, but looking forward to find hope.
In a sacred moment, God comes to Job, reminding him that he is but a creature who will remain unable to understand the mind of his Creator.
I used to wonder why Job was satisfied with this … especially because God ignores Job’s real question and blatantly offers no meaningful explanation for his suffering.
But the fact that God showed himself to be there was enough for Job.
Psalm 23:4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,[why?] for you are with me.
You see, hope comes not from what we understand, but whom we trust.
God’s greatest self-revelation is found in Jesus Christ.
He is our “who”.
He didn’t come in a whirlwind as God did to Job, but in the form of a vulnerable baby who would grow up to experience all the pains and disappointments humankind would know.
So, no matter where you go, what dark valley you must travel, Jesus will walk with you … walk with you through your desperation, fears and brokenness that he, himself, experienced.
As I mentioned, in Luke 13, his disciples ask Jesus about why two tragedies have occurred.
Jesus’ answer is both enigmatic and brilliant.
He doesn’t explain what was most on their mind, “Why did this happen to these innocent people?”
As we just saw, he makes it clear that it had nothing to do with sin or punishment.
But Jesus does not stop there.
Instead, Jesus uses both tragedies to point to eternal truths:
But unless you repent, you too will all perish.
Jesus uses both these tragedies to teach that we “bystanders” of catastrophe have as much to learn as the victims.
A tragedy should alert us to make ourselves ready in case we are the next victim.
Catastrophe prompts the victim and the bystander to remember their vulnerability and the brevity of life.
Or as my friend reminded me – out of the blue a bus wheel might roll over even the most fit cyclist.
So, ask yourself, have you lived your life in such a way that you are ready to “meet your Maker?”
If not, then what do you need to change?
Are you, this day, living life fully …appreciating each moment, even if it is not going exactly the way you would choose?
If not, repent – meaning, turn around while you can.
Life is fleeting.
Live it faithfully, and fully in the only moment you really have … the present.
Some time or other you will face tragedy:
Maybe you’ve heard the verse:
Hallmark 3:22 God never gives us more than we can handle.
There’s only one problem with that … you won’t find it anywhere in the Bible.
Beyond that, it assumes all our problems come from God, and then it assumes we can handle all our own problems.
False on both counts.
Most of us cannot carry the burden of big catastrophes … nor does our loving Father expect us to.
The promise that really is in the Bible is that the Lord will help us carry our burdens.
The Apostle Paul says that it is when he was weak, overwhelmed and over his head, that a strength coming from God was revealed.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (The Lord) said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
Demanding answers from God about why something happened will never bring a satisfying answer, but it can lead to a more mature question: Who will be with me through this hard time?