Why do the innocent suffer?
Sermon preached by Lord Alderdice to Shelswell Benefice at the church of St Michael and All Angels, Fringford on Sunday 20th June 2021
Readings: Job 38: 1 – 11 and Mark 4: 35 – 41.
I have long felt an identification with the Belfast boy, C.S. Lewis, whose early years were spent in Little Lea, a lovely house near to the home in east Belfast where Joan and I lived for some thirty-five years. Now I have, like him, come to live in Oxfordshire and spend some of my time at the University, as he did. One of Lewis’s most famous books was “The Problem of Pain” (1940) in which he dealt with perhaps the most challenging issue for anyone seeking a moral meaning for our universe. It is the problem of the book of Job – the apparent contradiction between a good and powerful God and the suffering of the innocent.
In a letter dated 6th July 1949, to Arthur Greeves, his boyhood friend back in Belfast, Lewis wrote this –
“I do not hold that God ‘sends’ sickness or war in the sense in which He sends us all good things. Hence in Luke xiii.16 Our Lord clearly attributes a disease not to the action of His Father but to that of Satan…….. All suffering arises from sin. The sense in which it is also God’s will seems to me twofold (a) The one you mention: that God willed the free will of men and of angels in spite of his knowledge that it cd lead in some cases to sin and thence to suffering: i.e. He thought Freedom worth creating even at that price. It is like when a mother allows a small child to walk on its own rather than holding it by her hand. She knows it may fall, but learning to walk on one’s own is worth a few falls. When it does fall this is in one sense contrary to the mother’s will: but the general situation in which falls are possible is the mother’s will. (In fact, as you and I have so often said before ‘in one way it is, in another way it isn’t!’) (b) The world is so made that the sins of one inflict suffering on another……….. The supreme case is the suffering that our sins entailed on Christ. When Christ saw that suffering drawing near He prayed (Luke xxii.42) ‘If thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will but thine.’ This seems to me to make it quite clear that the crucifixion was, in the qualified sense wh. I’ve tried to define, God’s will.”
John Peters, in his book, “CS Lewis: the Man and His Achievement” (The Paternoster Press, 1985) quotes this letter and says, “Lewis recognizes ….. that there is no easy solution to the problem of pain, and that no intellectual solution or formula can do away with the need for patience, fortitude and courage.”
This is, in essence, the message of the book of Job.
We are “meaning-seeking” creatures. In every circumstance of life, we try to piece things together so as to make sense of them. We want to ‘understand’ what is going on. When bad things happen to someone our first thought is usually “Whose fault is this?” If something goes wrong for any of us, we may well jump to the conclusion that it is a result of what we ourselves have done and on many occasions that may be correct. We may well have done something unwise. However, at other times it is not the case, and the story of Job is of a good man who suddenly found everything going terribly wrong in his life without any obvious reason.
He was doing his best to live a good life and obey the Lord, when one day he lost all his many possessions, and on the same day his children – seven sons and three daughters – were all killed in one single dreadful calamity. What was Job’s reaction? “Naked I came from the womb, naked I shall return whence I came. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Shortly afterwards he began to suffer terrible running sores all over his body, and his wife told him to curse God and die. He did not follow her advice, but he did begin to wish that he had never been born and naturally he asked himself, ”Why is all this happening to me?” He was then visited by three friends who responded much as Jesus’ disciples did in John chapter 9 verse 2 when they asked about the man who was blind from birth, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents? Why was he born blind?” Jesus made clear that he did not believe that either the man or his parents were to blame, but that this was a God-given opportunity to relieve the suffering of an innocent man.
Job’s three friends had the same mistaken view of life as the disciples. Eliphaz, the Temanite, told Job that God was using these terrible experiences to correct him and if he accepted this discipline all would be well in the end. But this was no comfort to poor Job who prayed for death to take him out of his misery. Bildad, the Shuhite, his second friend, insisted that either he or his family must have sinned to be sent this punishment, but Job insisted that while he was not perfect, his suffering was out of all proportion to anything he may have done wrong. Zophar, the Naamathite, the third friend, said that God would put things right if Job put aside his wickedness, and Job asked him what wickedness he had committed.
Job was a good man. In Ezekiel chapter 14, verse 14, Job is one of the three men whose individual righteousness is remarked upon – the other two were Noah and Daniel. He was right to dismiss the explanations given by these three ‘friends’. We call them (and others like them) ‘Job’s comforters’, rather ironically because in fact they gave him no comfort at all, and they were profoundly mistaken in their understanding of the reason for Job’s suffering. When they were finished, the young man, Elihu, also attacked Job, re-iterating all the previous arguments in some thoroughly caustic words of criticism and blame and showing neither respect or sympathy for the older man.
Meantime, in chapter 10, Job had been pleading with God for an explanation, and God responded in the words of our reading today from chapter 38. Speaking out of the tempest, God thundered at Job, asking him, who did he think he was? “Can you measure the boundaries of the universe? …. Were you around when creation came into existence? …. Have you ever called up the dawn or ….walked in the unfathomable deep?” In poetic language, God pointed out in no uncertain terms how limited Job was as a human being, in his power, knowledge and understanding.
Job accepted the reproof with humility, and God responded that He is a just God, but that He is the Almighty, and uses the picture of a powerful and frightening beast to describe how fearful He should be to the proud and the wicked. Job’s contrite response acknowledged the power of God and he said “I have spoken of great things which I have not understood, things too wonderful for me to know. I knew of thee then only by report, but now I see thee with my own eyes. Therefore I melt away; I repent in dust and ashes.”
Job bore his suffering with great fortitude and courage and with remarkable patience. In the New Testament book of James written hundreds of years later, we are told, in chapter 5 not to blame each other for our troubles but to follow the example of Job in his ‘pattern of patience under ill-treatment’ – as the New English Bible translation puts it.
Job stood firm in times of trouble however this does not help us much in our search for meaning in the problem of suffering. The book of Job started with a rather anthropomorphic story of Satan teasing God about whether Job was only faithful to Him because God prospered him. The story then has God permitting Satan to take away Job’s cattle, his family, and his health, but Job remained steadfast and at the end of the book, God restored to him even greater wealth than he had before. He had exactly twice as many animals as previously and seven new sons and three daughters even more beautiful than those that he had lost, but this outcome does not explain why it was justifiable for Job to suffer so terribly, and perhaps more importantly, we know that for many people such a ‘happy ending’ is not the story of their lives.
Many of the Hebrews of Job’s day believed that life simply ended as it did for the “grass that withers… and the flower (that) fades”. Others believed that our spirits continued in a kind of shadow existence in Sheol, the place of darkness. It was partly to address the unanswered paradox of the justice of God and the suffering of the innocent, that the idea of heaven and hell developed later. If in this life all the rights and wrongs were not resolved, then in the next life the good would be rewarded with the bliss of heaven and the wicked would be eternally punished. This did however leave the question of who God would regard as ‘good’.
In our Gospel reading, from Mark chapter 4, the disciples were in a boat with Jesus when it was caught in a storm and while Jesus slept, they were frightened. They woke him up and scolded Him – “Do you not care that we are in danger of drowning?” He rebuked them for their cowardice and lack of faith and the disciples’ memory of the event was that Jesus spoke and the wind and waves calmed down. However, they seemed to pay less attention to what Jesus said to them about their lack of faith and courage, than to the miraculous response of the elements to the words of Jesus. Similarly, earlier in the chapter where Jesus had been speaking to the crowds in parables, he tried afterwards to explain to the disciples what he meant, and it is clear that he was frustrated by their inability to grasp the essence of his message. It seems to me that this is still the case. Like the disciples we often focus on that which is beyond our comprehension, instead of following Jesus’ example in how we live our lives.
Jesus never developed a systematic theology; that all came later when men tried to fit the extraordinary actions of God into theories that made sense to them, and then declared ‘heretics’ anyone who did not believe their explanations. Jesus trusted God and told stories that showed people how to live their lives and conduct their relationships. Whether or not we understand any better than Job why suffering comes upon the innocent, we should be doing what we can to ameliorate that suffering, as Jesus did in John chapter 9 with the blind man.
The church, as it grew and developed, increasingly insisted that people should believe in their explanations of what God was doing, declare their loyalty to those explanations, and observe the religious practices they ordained. The reformers spoke out against some of these explanations and especially against corrupt practices that promised people everlasting life if they observed the correct rituals and gave money to the church. However, things then went to the other extreme and many Protestants came to believe that it was all about what you believed and not how you behaved. This was not what Jesus said at all. He pointed constantly to a Gospel of Love in our relationships. God created human beings that will always try to find meaning and make sense of our world, but ultimately God does not call on us to believe the right things. These beliefs will change from culture to culture and with the passage of time. In all times and in all places we are called to live lives of humility, love and concern for others – lives lived in imitation of the timeless example of Christ. He is the ultimate example for us of the suffering of the innocent who remained steadfast to the end.