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"Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?" (Summer Sermon Series) - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on July 21, 2019 by Kathy Miller

“Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?”

Matthew 2:16-18

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

July 21, 2019


(Summer Sermon Series)

 

Our scripture this morning comes right after the story of Jesus’ birth.  In the gospel of Matthew the story of Jesus’ birth primarily focuses on Joseph and the Wise Men.  But what happens after Jesus’ birth is not often preached on. Meant to be read the Sunday after Christmas every third year in the lectionary, many pastors skip over it when it comes up.  Which means, many people haven’t heard this little part that comes next. 

 

Just after Jesus’ birth, Joseph has a dream where an angel tells him Herod is coming after them and they need to flee to Egypt.  Joseph has learned to trust dreams and so they go.  The Magi, three kings, also warned in a dream, don’t return to tell Herod where they found the baby.

 

Now, we don’t know anything about the holy family’s time in Egypt – who took these Israelite refugees in, what they did while they were there without any family to help them, what friends they made or trials they faced.  The next we hear of Jesus’ family, Joseph is visited by another angel in a dream who, after Herod’s death, tells him it’s okay to go home, which they do.  But Matthew tells the story of one more thing that happens in Israel after they’ve left and it is our reading this morning from Matthew 2:16-18:

When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.  Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

 

Can you see why pastor’s might skip this especially the Sunday after Christmas?  Like, Merry Christmas, oh, and here’s a little story about a mass slaughtering of children. And, sadly, this isn’t even the only story of a massacre of children in the Bible – maybe you remember how Moses ended up in a basket floating down the Nile? But this story, has a direct correlation to Jesus’ birth and untold numbers of baby boys ripped from their parents’ arms, rounded up and murdered.  It’s an awful, awful story of suffering and evil.

 

And it isn’t just these few stories.  The Bible is filled with stories of suffering and evil. The Psalms are full of laments, like the one we used as our call to worship and first hymn.  The main characters suffer plenty – people flee from their homes under threat of violence, people are kept in slavery, people lose their loved ones, prophets are shunned, disciples are persecuted, imprisoned and martyred, and a savior suffers death on a cross.  And that doesn’t count all the stories not told in the Bible but implied – what about all the people who aren’t saved by Noah’s Ark?  What about all the people the Israelites defeat in war and we read every man, woman, child and animal is killed?  Still, the story of Herod’s massacre of innocent children has always stood out to me as one of the most terrible examples of how suffering and evil have persisted in all times and all places.

 

But, for all the ways the Bible can teach and instruct us, we don’t really need it to tell us there is a lot of human suffering and evil in the world. We have witnessed suffering and evil in our own lives.  We see it firsthand in our communities and in the world.  Every news source makes it is all too clear.  Some of us may have hoped that with all the technological advances, the globalization, the increased knowledge and spread of information in the last century there might be more peace and understanding in the world, but in that same century there have been so many wars, genocides, and holocausts that it is clear suffering and evil are alive and well. 

 

Which is why one of the most asked, most persistent questions of our faith and every faith is “Why?”.  If there is a God and if that God is loving and powerful, if that God cares about us even a little, then why is there so much suffering?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why do innocent children suffer? Theologians call the attempt to answer this question “theodicy”, or the study of God's goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil.

 

Now, one can only preach on this question from a place of humility because we just don’t have a clear answer to this great problem.  If we did, you’d know the answer already.  Theologian Daniel Migliore writes in his book Faith Seeking Understanding that “all grandiose theological systems that purport to have an answer to every question are exposed as illusory by the monstrous presence of evil and suffering in the world.  Radical evil is the disturbing “interruption” of all theological thinking and speaking about God.”[1]  In other words, beware anyone who tries to give you a clear-cut answer to this question. But, now that you have been fairly warned, let me try to offer an answer anyway. 

 

There are at least two things we need to agree on to go forward.  The first thing we need to agree on is that God cares for this world.  If we don’t think God cares, then the answer to suffering is easy – God just doesn’t care.  But Christians believe God does care, and cares greatly.  It is a fundamental premise of Christianity that God created this world - and out of love for us, continues to be engaged and involved in it.

 

The second thing we need to agree on is that God is powerful – incredibly so.  If we don’t think God is powerful, then the answer to suffering is also easy – God just can’t do anything about it.  But Christians believe God is powerful, even omnipotent or all-powerful.  This, too, is a core belief of Christianity - that God is the creator of the whole universe and such an ability indicates a great deal of power, a power unmatched on earth.

 

So, if you agree that God cares for us and God is all powerful, then we get to the problem. Because if God cares and God has the power to change things in the world, then why wouldn’t God put a stop to all the ways we suffer?  How can God be both all-loving and all-powerful?

 

Well, you won’t be surprised to know that there have been many thoughts and theories on this.  And I think it is helpful to name a couple of the most popular answers which all come with a kernel of truth as well as their challenges:

One teaching is that suffering is God’s divine punishment.  This is the one Pastor Sarah eluded to last week when she said the reason bad things happen to good people are that people aren’t as good as they think.  In other words, suffering is reaping what you’ve sown – it is getting what you deserve for the sins you’ve committed.  This was the predominant belief for a long time and still is in many circles.  It is why the Israelites sacrificed animals on altars to try and gain God’s forgiveness. 

 

And it has been ingrained in us enough that many people, who wouldn’t ever say they believe in a punishing God, when they come face to face with their own suffering do ask questions like: “Did I do something to cause this?”,  “Did I bring this upon myself?”.  The truth in this understanding is that God did create a world in which actions have consequences, many of which can cause suffering.  But this is not the same as God choosing a punishment for someone.  One danger of this understanding is that it too often blames the victims of suffering while ignoring the victimizers.  And perhaps worse is the implication is that God is punishing all those who have been made slaves or killed in genocides or those who suffer from disease.  There is plenty of suffering in the world that seems far out of proportion as a punishment to any action someone could take.  Ultimately, many people have found it impossible to reconcile the God of love we know through Jesus Christ, the God who sent Jesus to bring redemption to the world with a God who would cause such great amounts of suffering as punishment.

 

Another traditional teaching is that God causes our suffering to help us to grow and turn more to God. God uses suffering to teach us greater empathy, understanding and love.  This is sometimes what people are getting at with the clichés “everything happens for a reason or it’s all a part of God’s plan.”  These clichés try to express that all our suffering is an opportunity for spiritual growth and coming into closer relationship with God.  This has a truth to it.  Many of us know, at least some of the ways, we have grown through our struggles and become better for them while also experiencing a deepening of our relationship with God through them.  But, there are plenty of people for whom suffering seems to have the opposite effect – causing them to be bitter, angry or to turn away from God altogether.  This teaching also runs into problems with mass scale suffering like hurricanes or bombs that wipe out whole towns or the annihilation of entire peoples.  What is the lesson of such catastrophes meant to be, especially to those who die?  And this teaching has led to terrible deductions like, the Africans who were brought from Africa to the United States as slaves needed to learn through their suffering something their white owners never did.  Ultimately, for most people in the midst of suffering, there is little difference between believing in a God who causes suffering for our good and a God who causes suffering for our punishment – neither feels particularly loving.

 

Of course, plenty of people have argued that God just isn’t both all-loving and all-powerful.  In his famous book with the same title as this sermon, Rabbi Harold Kushner concludes that while God wants the righteous to escape suffering, sometimes even God can’t bring that about. It is too difficult even for God to keep cruelty and chaos from claiming their innocent victims - meaning, God is not all-powerful. God is just doing the best God can.

 

And those are just a few of the answers people have come up with over the years.  And there is biblical support for all these teachings. Which is why whenever we turn to the Bible, it is good to look at the individual books and stories and accounts, but it is also important to look at the whole book together.  When we do that, we see a prevailing theme of a God who is moving towards salvation and the redemption of suffering in this world.  And within that story, we find the unique story of a savior who suffers. Two thousand years later, we have become used to the story of Jesus’ death on the cross, but we could not overstate how radical it was and continues to be, to have a savior who does not stand removed, does not only orchestrate or observe from above, but who suffers as we do.  Theologian Jurgen Moltmann says “all the suffering of the world is encompassed in the affliction of the Son, the grief of the Father, and the comfort of the Spirit who inspires courage and hope to pray and work for the renewal of all things.”[2]

 

The Bible also regularly reminds us that on this side of eternal life, there is much we don’t understand, much that won’t be explained to us.  We may never get a reason during our time on earth which fully and adequately satisfies the problem of evil and suffering in this world.  In fact, we likely won’t.  But all of scripture does point to a God who chooses to remain with us amid our suffering. A God who understands suffering and grief.  A God who continues to work for redemption.  A God who walked this earth bringing healing and wholeness, who performed miracles so we might see glimpses of the kingdom of heaven, who was not willing to step away from his teachings of God’s great love, even in the face of his own suffering death.  A God who may not tell us all of the “why” of suffering but who does offer plenty of instruction on “how.”  Scripture is full of wisdom about how we should go through suffering ourselves and how we should respond to others who are suffering.  How do we respond?  We pray and we take action to relieve suffering where and whenever possible.

 

Pastor Tom Are preaches: “Suffering is less a reality Christians explain and more a battle Christians engage.  (Our) spiritual practice (should be that): When suffering comes, (we) don’t focus on the suffering; focus on the sufferer.”[3]

Jesus models this throughout his ministry.  Jesus doesn’t go to the suffering and preach to them about how their suffering is their fault.  He doesn’t tell them their suffering is God’s will.  He doesn’t tell them about people who are worse off.  He doesn’t try to defend God with lengthy sermons on theology.  Rather, Jesus goes to the suffering and prays with them, sits with them, eats with them, sometimes heals them and ultimately, he suffers with them and gives his own life so we would know that even in the greatest suffering, even in the greatest grief, God is still there, and there is still hope.

 

And if, in this world where we like to know the answers, where we like to understand and feel in control of our lives, we could work instead to accept that God has not offered us a full answer to this question.  Then we could focus more on how we have been called to respond.  “For this is what is true: God is not found in the hurting, but in the healing; not in the breaking, but in the mending; not in the hating, but in the reconciling.”[4]  And God has given us the amazing gift of being capable of bringing healing, mending and reconciliation into our own lives, into our families, into our communities.  May we each come to know deeply and closely the God who weeps with us in our suffering, who understands our suffering intimately, and who promises never to leave us alone in our suffering.  And in our relationship with that God may we find the strength, wisdom, courage and love to respond to all others who suffer following the example of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

 



[1] Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

 

[2] Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014.

[3] Are, Tom. "Village Presbyterian Church - Prairie Village Kansas." Village Presbyterian Church - Prairie Village Kansas. January 27, 2019. Accessed July 22, 2019. https://www.villagepres.org/.

 

[4] Are, Tom. "Village Presbyterian Church - Prairie Village Kansas." Village Presbyterian Church - Prairie Village Kansas. January 27, 2019. Accessed July 22, 2019. https://www.villagepres.org/.

 

 
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