Why is There Suffering and Evil?
Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
January 10, 2016
John 9: 1-7 (CEB)
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. 2Jesus’ disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?”
3Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. 4While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. 5While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. 7Jesus said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (this word means sent). So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.
We live in a world where the answer to nearly every question is right at our fingertips. All we have to do is log on to Google, type a question, and in a matter of milliseconds, we have hundreds and sometimes even hundreds of millions of answers to our query. Or, if it’s a little too inconvenient to get to the computer, turn it on, and navigate to the search engine, we can just press the “Home” button on our smart phones and ask Siri our question. It’s quite nice, really. Except for that fact that we are now conditioned to expect a definite answer to all of our questions, and the simple fact of the matter is that there are some questions for which no good answer exists. This question before us today is perhaps the best example of such a question, “Why is there suffering and evil?”
The funny thing is; this is not a new question. Humans have been asking this same question for thousands upon thousands of years; probably as long as we have existed! It is to some degree the question that is asked by the disciples in this morning’s gospel reading, “Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?” They are in essence asking, “Why is this man suffering?” What’s interesting is that Jesus doesn’t really give them a direct answer. But maybe that’s because as I mentioned a few moments ago, there’s really no one good answer to the question of suffering and evil in the world.
As we seek greater clarity to this question, “Why is there suffering and evil?” I think it best for us to begin by considering why we ask this question in the first place. And for the answer to that question, we have to go all the way back to creation. Genesis tells us that as God created the universe and each part of it, God called it “good”; this includes the light, the seas, the land, the plants and vegetation, the animals and creatures, and even humans. So throughout history, faithful God-followers have looked at this story of the “good” creation, and leaned upon their faith in a “good God”, but that knowledge cannot be reconciled with the fact that there is indeed a great deal of “bad” in the world around us. So we ask, “Why?” And for a long time, humanity had a pretty straightforward answer to this question, which was basically that suffering happened because God was punishing a person or group of people for some specific reason.
This answer begins with Adam and Eve, the first humans who, the Bible tells us, defied God’s instructions and ate of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Their sin broke the relationship of all humanity with God, and subjected us to temptation and sin. We call this original sin. So throughout the Old Testament, we see this sort of cause and effect relationship between humans and God. The humans sin, defy God’s law and mandates, God punishes the humans. God sent ten plagues upon the Egyptians because Pharaoh would not release the Israelites from enslavement. When the Israelites didn’t trust God and built idols in the wilderness, God made them wait 40 years before entering the Promised Land. The Israelites were exiled to Babylon according to the prophets because they had not been following God’s commands and God’s law. So it was for thousands of years. Every earthquake, every disease, every disaster humans explained, was the doing of God, a response to the sin of the people.
But over time, two things have happened that make such a simple response to the question of suffering and evil inadequate. For one, Christ has come, the embodiment of God himself. And in his own suffering and death, we see God’s immense love for all people, and God’s desire to save us, not to harm us. Secondly, science has taught us a lot about the way the natural world works, and with the knowledge we have now, it just doesn’t make sense to point to every natural disaster and say that it is God’s way of punishing humanity (even though some people still like to do this). A good example of this is forest fires. Forest fires sometimes start because of dumb things we humans do, like burning leaves in the middle of a drought, but sometimes they begin with a lightning strike. Often, these fires spread rapidly, they decimate not only forest vegetation, but also animals and birds. They can even force people from their homes. They can cause immense destruction, but forest fires also cleanse the ecology and restore the system to balance, and often the wildlife that returns after a fire is more lush and beautiful than it was before the fire. That’s what we saw in that beautiful video we watched during the Offering. In the same way, the El Nino weather pattern that is causing so much flooding and extreme weather across the U.S. right now, is also bringing California much needed rain after years of extreme drought.
So, we have to acknowledge that some of the suffering humanity experiences as a result of natural disasters is not God punishing us for some sin or wrong-doing, but is part of the natural order of things. And these disasters don’t make God’s creation, or even God, less good. They are in some ways and at some times an unfortunate by-product of keeping creation balanced and healthy. Still, I realize that doesn’t answer for all suffering humans experience. What about this question of evil?
Nearly every day the news is filled with war and genocide and terrorist attacks that are causing innocents to suffer around the world. Why doesn’t God, who is all-powerful, prevent such evil? Why doesn’t God stop people from doing evil things? To find the answer to this question, we have to consider free will. Going back again to creation, we are reminded that humans are created in God’s own image, and we were created with the freedom to choose between good and evil. I suppose that God could have created humanity so that we would always choose to do good, but that’s not really freedom, is it? That’s more like robots that have been programmed. And devotion or faithfulness to God would be awfully empty if it were something that were coerced rather than chosen.
So God has given us the freedom to make choices for ourselves. Joshua says, “Choose you this day whom you will serve…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” That is a wonderful choice to make; a life-giving, saving choice; the best choice any person could make. It is the choice God WANTS us to make, but does not coerce us to make. But we also have the freedom to choose to act against God, and it is often such actions that are evil, harmful, and the cause great suffering. In his infinite power and knowledge, God clearly chose to allow for human freedom even knowing there would be negative consequences. Even still, God does not want to see us suffer, whether by our own doing or for any other reason. God really does want good for us, even when we make bad choices.
So it is that suffering, however horrible it may be, provides an opportunity for God’s grace to be at work. And it is God’s grace we need to lean upon in the midst of suffering. This is especially true when we face illness, disease, even death, which are often the most difficult types of suffering to comprehend. You all know that question that goes, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” As we consider such suffering, let’s now take a closer look at our Scripture reading from John.
John tells this story of a blind man. Unlike blind Bartimaeus and other afflicted people in the gospel stories, this man does not approach Jesus seeking healing. Rather, he is noticed by the disciples as they walk by him in the midst of their work with Jesus. The disciples see this man who has been blind his whole life, and they revert to the common explanation at that time for such affliction, original sin. But the disciples want to know now, since this man has been blind since birth, if his blindness is due to his parents’ sin, or his sin. Jesus’ answer, as you heard, is neither. “This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him,” Jesus tells his disciples. Now, let me just pause for a minute right here to make clear that God does not cause suffering and harm so that he can subsequently heroically sweep in to “save the day.”
Life happens; we make poor choices, natural disaster strikes, our physical bodies fail us. But God does not wish harm for us, in any way. God does not want us to be sick, or hungry, or lonely. Such an idea is completely contrary to the entire Biblical story. God desires good for us. God loves us. God wants to save us. So it is that in the midst of suffering we can find hope. So it is that in the midst of the bad, we can look for the ways God is still working good. Indeed, that man had been suffering from blindness for many long years, not because of his own sin or that of his parents, not even because someone evil had harmed him. Without giving an answer as to the cause of the man’s suffering, Jesus healed the blind man so that his disciples, all of us, can see that God does not leave us alone in our suffering. God is with us and God works to bring good even in the midst of all the bad.
Could you imagine living in this world without such promise and hope, without such faith in a good God? Why is there tragedy? Why suffering? Why evil? These questions can cause us to doubt God and one another. But if a flood comes or a child is born with a heart defect and there is no God, then what answer is there to suffering and evil? What meaning and purpose? Life is nothing but one tragedy after another, and the only thing before us is fear. I would rather live in a world of hope than a world of fear. “I would rather live in the world that has a possibility of God than one that has none, particularly one like ours where evil and suffering” are such a part of our existence. Because “with the possibility of God comes the possibility of meaning, purpose, and hope being found [even] in the midst of tragedy and suffering.” Indeed, we are still left with questions, but at least with faith in the promises of a good God, in the midst of tragedy and suffering, we can always have hope in a better day.
So you’re in the coffee shop with your friends and one says, “Okay, I don’t want a long, complicated answer, but explain this: If God is so good, how come there is so much bad in the world?”
You might respond with something like this, “That’s a tough question with no straight answer, but I know that God is loving and works for good in all situations. In the hardest times of my life, I have experienced God’s love in so many ways that have helped me make it through. I know there is suffering and evil in this world, but I also know that God is a force for good. And I’m a Christian because I want to be part of God’s good work in our world.”