There is no answer to suffering. Sermon on Passiontide


Well I’m afraid that the jokes are few this morning. So you’ll have to find some other way of keeping awake. Forgive me also for preaching on the season rather than on the text – because we enter a very serious time this morning, the season of Passiontide, which in this context means the time of pain, suffering. And it is about suffering that I want to speak today.

“Why do we suffer” is a question which echoes down the centuries of human existence, with every cry of pain, every tear of grief, every shout of injustice. “Why do we suffer” is a question every religion and philosophy seeks to answer.

But sadly the answers to that question are often thin and shallow answers, more geared to satisfying the needs of the person saying them, rather than the needs of the one who is suffering. And those thin, shallow answers, really misrepresent God.

When you do a lot of funerals, and a lot of pastoral visits, and see various people in all sorts of pain, you often hear certain phrases which are said by people to try and comfort them. “It’s all part of God’s plan”, they say. “It’s all part of God’s plan”.

Now I know people mean well when they say that, but surely better not to give an answer than to give this one. “It’s all part of God’s plan”. Do we really believe in a God who will deliberately make people suffer, for some reason which he refuses to reveal? Do we believe in a God who plans our suffering.

Similarly, when we discuss Christ’s suffering, our need to somehow make sense of the torture he endured often produces very bad theology. Sadly, one of those simplistic arguments is found in a favourite lentern hymns. “There was none other good enough to pay the price of sin. He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in.”

Now all our creeds have a rather beautiful idea, that Christ was suffering for our sake, for the love of the world.  But our need to answer the question “Why suffering”  is changed into a doctrine where Jesus had to suffer on the cross, to pay his father God, to let us into heaven. So God says to his son, “I’m not going to let them into heaven until you are tortured to death by way of recompense.”

Simplistic answers make for bad theology, and that is not the God we worship.

Not to mention a favourite of the truly unsympathetic –  “you’ll get your reward in heaven”. Oh I’m afraid I really, really don’t like that one. The old “pie in the sky when you die”. This is poisonous in so many ways – but the chief way is that it stops us trying to prevent suffering. How Christ must weep at that one – the person who worked so hard for the poor and dispossessed. As Marx said, if we look towards heaven as a way of dealing with the present, then we are indeed the opium of the masses, alleviating the symptoms of suffering, without trying to tackle the cause. It would be a spineless, compassionless ,sedentary religion whose response to suffering was this.

If our answers to the question of suffering produce a theology of a god who imposes suffering us, and who tortures and kills his son, then our answers are wrong, and we would better remain silent.

I’m afraid I come away from that sort of theology not just not liking the answers, but not liking the whole way of thinking. It’s very male, it’s exclusively cerebral and compassionless, and it tells us nothing of any worth about God.

In my experience, when people say “Why did God do this” they’re not really asking a question they want an intellectual answer to. They are saying “I’m in pain. Please help.” What they want is compassion. Not logic.

I don’t really believe that there is a “reason” for suffering. Jesus didn’t die because God ordained it, he died because people wanted him dead. He suffered because people wanted to hurt him.

The Pharisees could have let him go, Pilate could have let him go, but it was they, not God, who demanded his death.

But although there is no real answer to the question “Why do we suffer” – at least no answer in this life – I believe that our Christian story does enable us to make a response – not give an answer, but make a response, to the question of suffering.

I think to give any sort of meaningful response to the problem of suffering, (and I mean a response, not an answer) then I think we look towards Christ in this passion season, and try and see the world through his eyes. It is in the context of a loving and powerless God, as Christ was on the cross, that we can make a response to suffering.

The first thing our Christian story tells us is that is that we should not be content with suffering. Our passion story gives us a precious gift, of feeling moved with compassion for our God. Our God is a ragged man on a cross, and we would do anything we could to help. It teaches us never just to let suffering be if we can prevent it.

It also tells us that God will not take away our pain. Christ’s pain is real and our pain is real. The message of the cross is uncompromising. Good people suffer. Good people suffer for no good reason. And it is alright, to cry in anger and anguish to God and say “Why? Why have you forsaken me?” If Christ himself can do that, then we can do that too.

But more than anything, our Christian story, the story towards the cross of Passiontide, tells us not why we suffer, but rather how to respond to it.  

The story which unfolds over the next fourteen days, through the shouts of hosanna to the cries of “why have you forsaken me”, is the story of Christ’s suffering, but also of his implacable, immovable response to suffering. Which is love: reckless, gratuitous, unconditional love. And how even suffering, even death can be transformed into something wonderful and strange. Not taken away, but transformed by love. 

And let me end with a story of how love can transform suffering, from Desmond Tutu.

When Apartheid collapsed in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was headed up by Bishop Tutu. The rules were simple: people said what they had done, and they were not punished.

“One policeman called Van de Broek  said he and others had shot an 18-year old boy and burned his body. His father kicked up trouble, so they arrested him, and a couple of years later, called on his wife to watch him being burned to death.

The widow, who was there, was asked what she wanted from the policeman. She said she wanted him show her the place where they had burned her husband’s body so she could gather the dust and give him a decent burial. She also said this.

“Mr. Van de Broek took all my family away from me, but I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month I would like for him to come to the township and spend a day with me so that I can be a mother to him. And I would like Mr. Van de Broek to know that he is forgiven by God, and that I forgive him too. I would like to embrace him so he can know that my forgiveness is real.”

Such suffering. And such love. Found upon the cross, and in the heart of a lonely widow inSouth Africa.

Why do we suffer? I don’t know. Suffering is real. But with passion comes compassion, and love can transform even suffering into something beautiful. The message of passiontide is this, Love always wins. Love always wins. Always. 

About frpip

Priest, Dad, A long way away. You can call me Father Father Father.
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