Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Trinity: The Place of God in Suffering – preached at Mattins, Castleton Church, on Sunday, 2 October 2022 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes. (Habakkuk Ch 1: v 1 – 4; Luke Ch 17: v 5 – 10)
It is not immediately apparent, as one reads Habakkuk the Prophet, what is going on, apart from general O.T. violence. A closer reading reveals that he is not simply lamenting the bloodshed and gang culture he finds around him – “the wicked doth compass about the righteous” – but also asks one of the most significant questions of all: “How long shall I cry out unto thee of violence, and thou will not save?” In other words, how is it that a caring and benevolent God allows humans, His creation, to suffer in so many ways? It is a problem that has probably put more people off religion than any other – as I know from many conversations over the years, some purely philosophical, others intensely personal. Habakkuk gives an answer in the second part of our O.T. reading, and we shall come to it later. First let us have a look at some other answers to this vexed and intractable question, in the hope that you may find something which resonates with you. So this sermon is going to be less spiritual and more theological than usual, though I hope I shall make it comprehensible too, and give you some ideas concerning an area of life and belief that is of crucial importance and which I am sure you have wrestled with.
Let us stay in the O.T. to start with. If you know the book of Job, you’ll remember that his ghastly so-called “comforters” try to explain his terrible sufferings by suggesting he must be guilty of serious moral lapses. Sometimes people do feel that they are being punished for things they have done wrong, when they suffer. This explanation is almost always inadequate and generally downright wrong – unless of course you are the cause of your own suffering (as a trivial example: eating too many unripe apples may give you a stomach ache). In Job’s case it is clear – as he knows – that he is entirely innocent. Indeed the book is a classic study of innocent suffering.
During and after the holocaust, there was a body of Jewish thought that went along the same lines: that, as a race or as individuals, they must have done something terribly wrong. A sentence from the prophet Hosea was much cited: “they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea Ch 8: v 7). The only problem was that it was not clear to anyone what this great guilt might be. Other Jews reckoned that God had deserted his people, but couldn’t say why; others again lost all faith and belief in God. For some though, they found their faith strengthened.
In Christian thought, suffering has sometimes been seen not as divine punishment but as a divine test or trial – or perhaps discipline to shape our character. You may recall John Mason Neale’s hymn, “O happy band of pilgrims”. Verses 6 and 7 run:
“The trials that beset you,
The sorrows ye endure,
The manifold temptations
That death alone can cure,
What are they but his jewels
Of right celestial worth?
What are they but the ladder
Set up to heaven on earth.”
This is a brave, and indeed stoical, sentiment. But I am afraid I cannot accept that God would deliberately send pain and sorrow on any of His creatures. Disasters, personal or more universal, may certainly foster virtues in others like compassion and courage: good so often comes out of evil – but does that justify or condone the evil in the first place?
Similarly I find it difficult to go along with the breezy assertion that, because God is in charge, and omnipotent, those visited by natural disasters or illness must be all part of His plan and scheme of things, although it is obscure to us now. This was the message in the Address at a memorial service we went to recently for a friend who had died, not young, but well before his time. It did not explain why such a divine plan should encompass the grief of his widow and family, or the death of a priest still ministering to his flock.
So what can we say about the place of God in the suffering and evil of the world? We know of course that we have free will, and believe that it is God-given: God does not try, or desire, to force us to embrace what is good and to come to him in love. It must be our choice. By the same token we can choose to do evil and inflict suffering on others. More problematic is pain or disaster caused naturally – disease, floods, earthquakes and so on.
What we can say is that the natural world contains elements which are ambiguous: they are beneficial but can be harmful. An obvious example is fire: it warms and enables many creative processes, including making food for sustenance. But it can also be harmful and destructive. In the total picture of our world, therefore, it is not possible for life to evolve and continue, in a good and creative way, without the possibility of accident, pain or damage. Furthermore, the universe needs stable natural laws. Having created it, therefore, God the Creator must in general stand back somewhat from its process and development.
There are two caveats. In particular cases, God can and does intervene, sometimes as an answer to prayer, occasionally through miracles. That is why Christians believe strongly in the power of prayer. Second, even though God may stand back from the operation of the natural world, He is not an impassive observer: He cares intimately about each one of us, and “knows the secrets of our hearts.” As Jesus said, “Even the very hairs of your head are all numbered.” (Luke Ch 12: v 7)
So to the Lord’s answer to Habakkuk’s question. He speaks about the completion and culmination of God’s purpose for His creation: “the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it, because it will surely come.” In the meantime the righteous man “shall live by his faith” – that same faith which the disciples asked Jesus to strengthen, in our second reading. And he compared it to a tiny mustard seed, showing how a fraction of the right kind of faith can yield huge results and the confidence to face the powers of evil. Not a great faith, but faith in a great God, whose will and purpose for good must ultimately triumph. In the famous words of Julian of Norwich, “And all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” When we ask how we can be sure of that, God points to a figure hanging on a cross, suffering alongside us – His own. He redeems us, and all shall be well.