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A Response to Suffering

July 27, 2020

His love endures forever.” (Psalm 136: 1-9)

Why does God allow suffering?   One thing we learn from the book of Job is that no one is immune from suffering.  There is no vaccination against or antidote for suffering.  Job lost his children, his health, and his wealth through no fault of his own.

We want to know why God allows bad things happen to good people. And we want to know what he is doing about it.  Many things happen to us and around us that we have no control over.  There is suffering around the world, and in our country, state, city, and in our families.  We suffer with friends and family members.  Sometimes we can see a cause and effect in tragedies—bad lifestyle choices leading to ill health or death or drunk driving leading to an accident.  But often we see no cause and effect for the suffering around us.  Why was a child stillborn?  Why are families wiped out in a tornado, hurricane, tsunami or other natural disasters?  Isn’t God in control of nature?  Why would he let that happen?

A lot of people are wondering now where God is during the pandemic.  Did he take a vacation?  Or as Time Magazine asked in 1966, Is God Dead? As of today, 647,159 people have died from the coronavirus world-wide—146, 889 of them in the United States. Where is God and when is he going to show up?  Where was God during the holocaust when six million Jews were killed?  Where was God when George Floyd was killed?  Where is God when innocent children are abused daily around the world?  Why does God allow such tragedies?

The short answer is that we don’t know.  Scripture gives possible explanations for some tragedies, but not all.  The most egregious example of a bad thing happening to a good person was the crucifixion of Jesus.  Yet, that single terrible act secured our salvation.  God allowed his own Son to suffer terribly to pay for our sins. Paul tells us to trust that God’s ways are beyond our ken: “Have you ever come on anything quite like this extravagant generosity of God, this deep, deep wisdom? It’s way over our heads. We’ll never figure it out” (Romans 11:33, The Message).  God’s ways are just too far beyond our understanding. We need to hang on to our hope in Christ Jesus.   It is incomprehensible to me how folks survive without faith—without hope—when tragedy strikes.

Our Scripture texts[1] this week speak of the faith and hope that will see us through the darkest times.  A few years ago I commissioned a friend to make a quilt with black, grey, and light blue blocks divided by slim strips of gold.  I called it “Here Comes the Sun.”  It spoke to me of the hope that is ours through Jesus Christ.  That even in the blackest nights and the darkest stormy days, when we are overcome by the clouds in our lives, there comes a glimmer of light and the hope of a patch of blue sky at dawn—“Tears may flow at night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30: 5b).  As David well knew, a “night” of suffering often lasts more than 12 hours, but he also knew that the time would come when the pain would give way to joy.

Isaiah assures the spiritually thirsty and hungry that they will be nourished by God when they come, listen, “seek the Lord” and “call on him” (Isaiah 55:1-6).  If you are empty, spent from the tears you have shed—then come, listen, seek, and call on the Lord.  He will be there for you.  Don’t deny yourself the comfort that the Spirit can provide to you.  Jesus’ Spirit is there with you, holding you in his arms, crying with you, mourning with you.  Come, listen, seek, and call on the Lord.

The psalmist repeats “his love endures forever” 26 times in Psalm 136 for one reason—to emphasize to us that in all the circumstances God’s love is always there, and it will be always there for us.  The psalm was designed as a responsive reading.  The antiphon “his love endures forever” is our rally cry during tough times.

God’s love is his response to the suffering we endure. His love is a bottomless well that will never dry up.  His kindness, mercy, faithfulness, and love will be expressed to you through people and circumstances that he puts in your path while you are on earth.  And you will be enveloped personally in his incredible love and warmth always and forever at your life’s end on earth.  At that time, the Creator of the universe will tenderly wipe each tear from your face, and will take your hand, and lead you to the loved ones who have gone before you.  There is such power and hope in the phrase, “His love endures forever.” Forever means just that.  God will never remove his love from you.  His love is constant, and it will endure forever.

Jesus expressed his great love and mercy for all peoples while he walked the earth.  Even when he was tired, he was there for the people: “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick”  (Matthew 14: 14). And then he proceeded to feed thousands of people: “The number of those who ate was about five thousand men, besides women and children[2]—for a total of 10,000-15,000 people (Matthew 14: 21).  He always took care of the physical needs of those around him before he nourished their souls.

While expressing his anguish over his Jewish brothers who had not accepted Christ—“Great is my sorrow, how endless the pain in my heart for my people, my own flesh and blood!” (Romans 9:2, Good News translation)—Paul reminds us that God’s love is not assured by a bloodline: “It is not the children by physical descent who are God’s children, but it is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham’s offspring” (Romans 9: 8, NIV).  The promise is the promise of love, mentioned by Isaiah: “I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David.” (Isaiah 55: 3b).  It is God’s promise that the psalmist wrote about: “His love endures forever” (Psalm 136).  It is the promise and response to suffering that Jesus modeled while he walked the earth expressing his love and concern for all people–in healing them, in feeding their body and souls, and in mourning with them.

God is not a distant or sculpted deity separated from you by time, distance, and dimension.  He sent his Spirit to be with you and to comfort you.  Discover the Spirit who lives within you.  Let him comfort you.  The assurance that his promise of love is always there for us reminds me of the refrain in Chris Tomlin’s song, “Forever,” based on Psalm 136:

Forever God is faithful, Forever God is strong, Forever God is with us, Forever and ever.

God is faithful and his love endures forever.

Prayer:  Forever faithful and loving God, be with us in our pain and sorrow. Help us navigate the choppy and uncertain waters of social injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic, record unemployment, and children who are in abusive homes cut off from social workers and teachers to watch out for them.  May your love reach all who are suffering for any reason.  Protect, heal, and console them and us.    Amen

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan

[1] The Scripture texts for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost are Isaiah 55:1-5 (I added v. 6); Psalm 136:1-9, 23-26; Romans 9: 6-13; Matthew 14: 13-21.

[2] In the Jewish culture of the time, men were listed separately because they ate apart in public from the women and children.