Monday, September 12, 2011

Burning Question on Suffering

TITLE: Burning Question on Suffering
TEXT: Luke 13:1-5
Written by: Conrade Yap
Date: 12 Sep 2011

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
MAIN POINT: Suffering is blind. It affects the wicked and the innocent. It afflicts both adults and children. It kills one or many. Suffering often evokes the burning question 'why?' Learn to ask a better question.

Last Sunday, I preached on "Burning Questions: Suffering." After going through burning questions on topics like Bible, Salvation, Anger, and Homosexuality, it is quite fitting for a 9/11 sermon to be on suffering. Simply put, the burning question appears like this:

"If God is good, why is there so much evil and suffering in this world?"

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Personally, I don't like suffering. I also don't like my own sermons. Whenever I listen to it played back to my ears, I can find many faults. I don't like my tone. I don't even like my style. What I do like is that, the Holy Spirit can use my clumsiness and my weakness for his glory. That way, when I see lives touched, it is definitely because of God's work, not my own glory. That said, I hope that my own dislike of my sermons will spur me to improve each time, and every time.

Regardless of like or dislike, this topic of suffering is always asked. Despite many attempts, there are few that can adequately address this difficult topic. Nevertheless, I shall try again.  For this week, I like my reflection to parallel my sermon's main point: "Turn burning questions into a better question."

A) The Burning Question

Whenever there is a disaster, whenever there is a load of hurts going on somewhere, invariably the question WHY comes up.
  • Why evil?
  • Why do people suffer so much?
  • Why don't God prevent suffering?
  • Why don't God wipe out evil?
  • Why can't God just get rid of sin and evil once and for all?
Many questions. Few answers, if any. This 'why' question is not just asked by people in our modern era. It is asked by all people in every era. Even during the time of Jesus, people are also asking about it.

B) Judgment on those who 'deserved it.'

In Luke 13:1, Jesus was told about Pilate quelling a rebellion by some Galileans. During that time, many in Galilee were known for their wickedness and rebellious nature. They even boasted about not paying taxes to Caesar at that time. Pilate who knew about the rebellion decided to strike the Galilean rebels at where most of them would be gathered. In other words, the wicked who failed to obey the law, but who planned to fight the rightful authorities were punished. Rightfully.

Jesus, instead of agreeing about the guilty being punished accordingly, prefers to deal not with the 'why' question. He asks: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?" In other words, are the people implying that those who were not killed are LESS guilty of sin? He brings out his key point, that unless one repents, one will be punished too.

C) Judgment on those who do NOT seem to deserve it.

Remarkably, Jesus brings out the story of 18 people who died when a tower at Siloam collapsed and killed them. If there is any part of Scripture that is close to describing the many senseless natural disasters happening around the world, this is it. While little is known about the tower falling and killing 18 people at that time, there is no reason to doubt that this actually occurred. It must have been something well known at that time, just like how the world has come to know about the terrible recent earthquakes in Haiti and the tsunami in Japan. These people do not seem to deserve the harsh calamities and suffering inflicted on them. Jesus asks the question again: "do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?"

Interestingly, Jesus compares the dying of the Galileans to the rest of the people in Galilee. He also compares the dying of the 18 persons in Siloam to the rest of the people in Jerusalem. Regardless of whether one deserves punishment or not, whether one is a Jew or not, whether one's death is a result of one's fault or not, the end result is the same.

"But unless you repent, you too will all perish."

D) The Better Question

We need to learn to turn 'burning questions' into a better question. Instead of asking why this or why that suffering, ask: "What then do we do about it?"

The former tempts us to become stuck in analysis to the point of paralysis.  When we keep asking why, especially during times of suffering, we unwittingly fail to address the hurting heart. Can answers to the head heal the heart? Can philosophical theories comfort the hurting person? Can nicely structured solutions bring the dead back to life? No.

There is a time for everything. When it is time to mourn, mourn. When it is time to weep, weep. When it is time to comfort, comfort. Do not be like those who are afraid to see suffering in the face, and hide. Do not try to avoid the reality of suffering, but brushing it aside with insensitive statements such as:

  •  "It is the will of God that you suffer now." (Be careful, lest you confuse the will of God, with the wilfulness of man)
  • "God has a purpose for your suffering." (Be careful, lest you make God the perpetrator of suffering.)
  • "You are suffering because of your sins." (Be careful, lest you start behaving like Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar in the book of Job)
The truth in Jesus's word is this: "Unless you repent, you too will perish."

At the face of suffering, we can repent and ask God for help. Ask God to help us forgive one another. Ask God to help us recognize that we are sinful, and not to pre-judge other people. In times of suffering, mourn with those who mourn. Weep with those who weep. Comfort those who need comfort. Learn not to ask 'why' but to ask:

"What can I do about the suffering right now?"

This is the question that helps more than the question why. 'Why' tickles the head, but NOT the heart. 'Why' is most appropriate at other times, but NOT during times of suffering and pain. 'Why' does not bring us closer toward the need to repent. It may even draw us away, just like it has caused some to turn away from faith. Charles Templeton is one such man. In struggling with pain and suffering, this famous sidekick of Billy Graham decides to give up his faith, and stopped believing that the Bible is true. He became an agnostic, refusing to embrace God, and at the same time not dismissing God totally. Templeton died in 2001 a bitter man, because he failed to solve the problem of evil.

On the other hand, his friend Billy Graham continues to grow in faith. He feels closer to God each day. He encourages others to continue on in faith in spite of suffering. He lets burning questions become opportunities for expressing faith.

Suffering is a mystery. We cannot pretend that it can be solved. If so many theologians who have gone before us have not solved this question, what makes us think we can? In times of suffering, turn away from 'burning questions' of why, and move toward a better question that asks: "What can I do about it?" "Is there someone I can comfort?" "Is there anyone I can pray for?" "Is there hope that I can introduce?" Very importantly, regardless of whether we face suffering personally or not, whether we see others suffer or not, all of us have a responsibility to repent from our sins. All of us. This will prepare us for faith.

Kent Annan, who has personally witnessed great suffering in his ministry in Haiti has this to say about faith in the light of suffering.
"Faith is gratitude. Faith is vulnerable. Faith is humble and does not boast. It is a leap but only toward truth (otherwise it's just a resounding delusion). Faith is hope but not escape. Faith is love for truth, vulnerable to truth, open to truth, being slowly turned toward truth, ready to soar with truth or crash under it. Faith is honest, always honest, and a kind of prayer." (Kent Annan, After Shock, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2011, p75)

Let our faith turn every pain into prayer. Turn every prayer toward God. Turn every hope toward reality in Christ.


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