Sunday, 15 June 2008

God suffers with us in Jesus!

1. Sickness brings patience, patience brings perseverance, and perseverance brings hope.

If you’ve ever been to the Galway Clinic, you’ve most likely seen these words, written on the wall in the reception area close to the chapel, and attributed to St Paul. When I first saw them, I thought what a strange thing to write on the wall of a hospital. If I were sick - in pain, frightened, suffering – I think I would rather resent the suggestion that I should display the virtues of patience, perseverance and hope. I would much rather someone just made my suffering go away!

These words are of course a variant translation of Paul’s words in his Epistle to the Romans, which we have just heard. ‘But we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.’

Now we all know about suffering – to some degree or another it is a part of our common experience as human beings. And surely suffering is a bad thing, a manifestation of evil within the world. I don’t mean pain. Pain can be a good thing, when for instance it teaches us as children not to put our hands in the fire. And a little pain can even be pleasurable, like the slight ache I get when I’ve done a couple of hours hard digging in the garden. Suffering is more a psychological torment that comes from feeling bereft, out of control, in danger, unloved, hopeless, only sometimes from unremitting pain. Suffering drives us to forget everything and everybody else around us in our rage to be rid of it. Suffering is evil.

So how can Paul possibly ask us to ‘boast in our sufferings’? Doesn’t that sound a bit like glorying in something evil? Today I want to try and tease out some thoughts about suffering.

2. First let’s think about the causes of suffering.

Much of the suffering that we see about us and experience ourselves is caused directly or indirectly by you and by me, and by other human beings. The wholesale suffering caused by war, oppression and famine is driven by human greed and thoughtlessness. What you might call retail suffering, from hurtful words to a loved one up the scale to violence, rape and murder, are caused by individual people like us not living up to God’s loving message, expressed by Jesus when he summarised the Law - ‘You shall love the Lord your God, and you shall love your neighbour as yourself’. This suffering is the result of human sin. We are moral beings, souls, who know the difference between right and wrong. Yet we know too how we seem to be drawn to do what we know to be wrong or not to do what we know is right. We seem to be born that way - theologians call it original sin. We are all sinners, we all need forgiveness, and Jesus assures us that our loving-father God will forgive us if we truly repent.

But there’s an awful lot of suffering in this world which we really can’t trace back in this way to human sin. I’m thinking for instance of the suffering caused recently by the cyclone in Myanmar/Burma, and the earthquakes in Szechwan in China. I’m thinking of the suffering caused by illness and disease, for instance by viruses and cancers. And I’m thinking about the suffering caused by the fact of death – each one of us must face up to the fact that in the long run death will separate us from all that we know and love. All of this suffering seems to be due to the working out of the natural laws of physics, chemistry, biology, in the universe created by almighty God.

3. As Christians we believe our God is both almighty and loving.

But surely if God were really both, he would not allow such a burden of suffering to exist. He would not have made us humans subject to original sin, we would always be perfectly good, and we would never cause others to suffer. He would have created a universe in which natural disasters and disease were absent, and where we would be immortal. Therefore, some say, if God exists he can’t be both: if God is almighty he can’t always be loving, and if God is always loving he can’t be almighty.

This is known as the Problem of Suffering, or the Problem of Evil, and it has been debated by philosophers and theologians since time immemorial. I think the apparent paradox at the heart of it is something that prevents many thoughtful, caring people from accepting our Christian view of God. So how can we as Christians resolve it?

Many Christians, using an argument first made by St Irenaeus in the C2nd, suggest that God made us with free will, and therefore capable of sin which causes suffering, because only that way could we be souls, moral beings made in his image, capable of freely choosing good.

More recently others have extended the argument to suggest that it may be logically necessary for God to establish the universe with the natural laws it has, in order that beings like us can emerge who are free to choose to love. And surely a universe without freely given love but without suffering would be worse than one with both. One such is the eminent physicist John Polkinghorne, who is also an Anglican priest.

These are only speculations, and there are many others, which you can accept or not. But for myself, I think that I must accept as a Christian, with all humility, that I just do not know why God has made both human-kind and the universe such that suffering exists. I believe God is both almighty and loving, so I must also believe that he had sufficient reason to do so. But what that reason is is hidden from me. There is so much that is hidden from us, at least for now!

4. The Romans would have understood Paul’s reference to ‘our sufferings’ to mean their persecution.

Scholars say the letter was probably written by Paul around AD55. The Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome in AD49, ‘because the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus’, a likely misspelling of Christus, Christ. No doubt the authorities continued to make life difficult for the early Christians, and we know that in AD64 Nero was able to scapegoat them for starting the great fire during which he fiddled.

The way human psychology works, groups who are persecuted tend to be strengthened by it. No doubt these persecuted early Christians were proud of the endurance, character and hope they showed under persecution. I don’t think we should take the word ‘boast’ too seriously. No doubt Paul skilfully drew on their pride to get them to listen to his difficult theological message. But I don’t think in the context we can accuse Paul of glorying in something evil.

Rather I think what is important is to see what we can learn from Paul’s message.

5. What St Paul is teaching us, I think, is that God suffers with us in the person of Jesus.

As he puts it, ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us’. Jesus, with perfect obedience to his loving father God, suffered a cruel death on the cross in order to show us all how to deal with the suffering and death which every one of us will know.

‘God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’, Paul says, just as Jesus promised us. It is this love which gives us the character to endure suffering, and never lose hope.

Our Christian hope is that by God’s grace our faith will justify us – that is our faith will put us in the right relationship with God – and so bring us ‘peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ’.

God sent us his son, Jesus, to ‘proclaim() the good news of the kingdom’, as Matthew’s Gospel has it, and to show us his way of eternal life. He is always full of compassion for those who suffer.

How amazing it is that almighty God should make such a gesture of loving solidarity toward sinful people like you and me!

How comforting we find that solidarity when we ourselves suffer!

Let us thank God for expressing his solidarity with us in the life and mission, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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