Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
A couple months ago I proposed offering a sermon series this winter entitled “Glad You Asked,” incorporating questions from the congregation. While you’re welcome to submit additional questions anytime, I’ll be tackling the first set with you over the next few weeks.
Notice I use the word “tackling” rather than “answering.” Naturally I can’t promise to offer answers to everything you may be wondering about, but I suspected we’d find areas of overlap, with several of us curious about the same kinds of things, and I thought there would be some value in exploring these topics together on Sunday mornings.
There was indeed a lot of overlap in the questions you sent me, several of them beginning with this single word that is our sermon title this morning: Why?
Granted, the words following the “why?” varied greatly. For instance: Why must my friend suffer from such a debilitating illness? Why are so many children sick and dying? Why does God allow disturbed persons to kill students in their classrooms and to kill Christians sitting in their churches? Why does God allow terrorists to set off bombs in airports and run people down on streets?
That you are asking these kinds of questions proves you are paying attention (and praying attention, as we discussed last week). I think wistfully sometimes of a line I once heard: “life is fraught less for the thoughtless.”1 That may well be true. But you are far from thoughtless. You are deeply thoughtful, faithful, compassionate people, and instead of isolating yourselves in some sort of comfortable church bubble, you have your feet firmly planted in the real world, which is precisely why these kinds of questions come up. How could we possibly witness so much suffering, and so many instances where evil appears to be winning the day - and not ask: Why?
Sometimes we can manage a partial answer. For one thing, God created human beings with free will, which allows us to sin. So, tragically, plenty of the suffering in our world has as its immediate cause horrible choices people have made to inflict pain on others. There are also physical and chemical laws governing our universe, and aspects of the design of human bodies that can explain, at least in part, why a wildfire can ravage such an enormous area, for instance, or why viruses and cancer cells can be so destructive. But for most of us these partial answers aren’t enough, because they really only beg the larger question: Why do bad things like this need to happen at all?
I suppose if we adopted a different philosophical outlook, the question might not be troubling in quite the same way. If we believed the universe was utterly random in its makeup, and that no one was really in charge. Or if we believed that any divine force in the world was capricious, or just plain mean, so that whatever God or gods were out there were just messing with us. That kind of premise would at least make a certain amount of sense of what we see happening around us on certain days.
But I’m guessing most of you are here today because, like me, somewhere at the core of your being you know that’s simply not true. You believe, or you want to believe, that we have a loving God. A kind and compassionate and merciful God. Also a supremely powerful God. So what gives? Couldn’t God spare us all these awful things if he wanted to? Doesn’t he want to?
I think there’s a level at which the question “why?” when asked about these kinds of tragic situations, carries with it an underlying exclamation, an outcry. We ask “Why?” when what we really mean sometimes is “NO” with about a thousand exclamation points. The subtext of “Why, O Lord?” can be “It hurts, God, make it stop!” Or “Enough! Our hearts are broken!” “Why?” can mean “It’s not supposed to be like this; it isn’t right!” or “God, I’m begging you, say it isn’t so!” We ask “why?” because someone we love is hurting, and we just can’t bear to see them hurt. We ask “why?” because we are grieving over the state of our world, and we should be grieving. After all, it was God who planted in us an understanding that the world should be fair and just, that people should treat one another with respect and kindness, that we should be healers and peacemakers and doers of righteousness, that the world was created good. God, you’re the one who taught us this was how it was supposed to be! So why on earth, why in the name of all that is holy, is it instead this horrible mess we see unfolding around us?
We ask “why?” for all kinds of good reasons. And I wish I could tell you why. I’m sorry I can’t. I’m right there with you in the protest, in the emphatic “No!” I want to shout at the injustice of it all, with far too many innocent people suffering far too much. Both people dear to us, and people around the world.
I can at least assure you that people of faith have been asking these same questions for millennia. The Psalms, for instance, have been the prayer book of the Jewish people since well before the time of Jesus. Christians, too, have prayed through The Psalms in every generation and on every continent. In the Church we’re likely best acquainted with psalms of praise, psalms of trust, psalms of rejoicing – which isn’t surprising since those are the ones we do tend to lean on most often in worship – but did you know that a full 40% of our biblical psalms are actually psalms of lament? Like those read this morning, they often ask the same kinds of questions we’re asking: “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1) “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1) “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” (Psalm 22:1)
I find it really quite brave that monastic communities pray through the psalms – all of the psalms – regularly, gathering for prayer multiple times a day to lift up these ancient words. They’re not picking and choosing their way through the book the way we sometimes do, selecting the sweeter, gentler words. Those who commit themselves to praying through the entire Book of Psalms learn very quickly that they are going to have to let it all hang out with God. To pray from the depths of pain, and the heat of anger sometimes, rather than simply offering up the kinds of pious-sounding words we think God wants to hear. The Psalms not only encourage, they require from us deep honesty in prayer. They don’t shy away from asking hard questions of God - a whole lot of tough, tough questions.
It’s not only in the Psalms we find this kind of biblical language either. We find it in the book of Job too. In some of the prophetic books. A couple weeks ago I mentioned the biblical book of Lamentations, which is just what it sounds like – an entire book of laments. So wherever it is some of us got the notion that God demands we stay cheerful and upbeat in our prayers, it certainly wasn’t from the Scriptures!
We are in good company every time we ask tough questions of God. In fact, we’re in the very best company. For Jesus himself cried out on the cross those same words we read this morning from the opening of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So when we find ourselves contending with questions we can’t answer, at the very least, let’s keep on asking them. And keep asking them of God. Let’s follow biblical precedent and get right up in God’s face about it all. And if we’re too upset sometimes to even be able to put words around the cries of our hearts, let’s pick up the Psalms and let them be our guide.
If you really pray through the Psalms – not just the more cheerful highlights – you’ll see why our Jewish brothers and sisters have been able to pray them in the worst of all possible situations. In exile in Assyria and Babylon. At the destruction of their beloved temple in Jerusalem. Through the pogroms – regular massacres of entire Jewish villages - in Russia in the 19th century. In places like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Nazi concentration camps of the 20th century. Prayers written hundreds of years earlier given gut-wrenching new meaning in those new settings.
I’m afraid we won’t get adequate answers to “Why?” questions of this magnitude, at least in this lifetime. But that needn’t stop us from asking, or from protesting.
And there are related queries to which we actually can find answers in Scripture. I was also interested to see among the questions you sent me things like: How do we pray about what’s happening in our world? How do we keep from being frozen with fear in such a world? How do I talk about my faith to people I know who are suffering? We’ll explore some of these themes in coming weeks.
Meanwhile, when the question is as stark as “Why do bad things happen to good people?” the answer biblical authors offer us is essentially: “None of us know either. That’s why we’re asking that question right along with you.” But remember that their response doesn’t end there. As we read our way around the Scriptures, we find right alongside those honest questions and doubts plenty of reassurances too. Like: I don’t know why innocent people have to suffer, but I do know how much God loves us, so much that he gave his only Son. I don’t know why evil seems so often to gain the upper hand, but I know that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. I don’t know why God’s children must wait so long, and endure so much, before God wins the ultimate victory, but I know that victory is coming, and it’s as certain as if it’s already happened. In a way it has, for if God can conquer death in Christ’s resurrection, there is no battle he cannot win.
Both biblically and historically, God’s people have continued to worship even in the most awful circumstances because while it is true that there is far too much suffering in our world, it is a greater truth that God will never leave us or forsake us, that God can equip us with strength for the battle, and that God holds us and loves us through it all, with a love stronger than any we can imagine. Like other psalms of lament, Psalm 22 actually ends with words of praise, and with a strong affirmation that God is in control, in spite of it all. In fact, we’ll use those words later on this morning as our own affirmation of faith.
If we’re not asking “Why, O Lord?” we’re not paying attention. If we’re not asking why, we’re not showing we care about the way it should be. And God created us to care. If our hearts hurt as we witness suffering, it’s because he put within us empathetic, compassionate hearts. He designed us to long for and work for a better world.
So when we join that chorus of faithful voices, thousands of years old, and when we stubbornly insist on keeping God in the conversation and directing the question to him, it can be an act of profound faith to ask: “Why?”
1 From the song "Dancing Through Life" in the musical, "Wicked."