8:18My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
19Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” (“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”)
20“The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
21For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
22Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
9:1O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!
The ancient Greeks had a prophetess named Cassandra. It was her misfortune to always prophesize the truth, but also always to be ignored or dismissed. And it seems that every age has its Cassandras, people who very courageously speak the truth, but who are in the end ignored. And only later – often much later – is it recognized that they were giving accurate warnings about the future.
One such Cassandra in the Old Testament was the Prophet Jeremiah. He was known as the “weeping prophet.” And we see why in this passage in this morning’s reading where he says, “Oh, that my head were a spring of water and my eyes a fountain of tears! I would weep day and night … ” He continuously warned his people that they were facing an invasion from Babylon, that many of them would be led away in captivity, that the nation would be utterly destroyed, and that all of this destruction would be a just punishment from God for their sins.
In this morning’s reading, Jeremiah envisions what this national catastrophe will be like, with all the wounded and mangled bodies. And so he cries out: “Is there no balm in Gilead that will heal the people, are there no physicians there that can tend to the wounds of the fallen?” (Gilead was a region of Jordon just across the Jordon River from Israel, and it was a place known for its medicinal herbs.) And of course, Jeremiah was entirely right. In the early years of the sixth century BC, Babylon invaded the county and utterly devastated it. The king watched as his sons were put to death before him, and then his own eyes were gouged out, and he was led away with hooks in his mouth to captivity with all the leading citizens of the country.
Thinking about these terrible times raises questions about why there is so much suffering in the world. Why does God allow it? Is God responsible for it? Could he have somehow designed the world so that such things could be avoided? Suffering of any sort raises questions in people’s minds about the goodness of God and about his intentions toward us. This is always true when it strikes home in a personal way, to us or to someone we love: a car crash, or cancer, or a debilitating disease. This is also true of the major catastrophes – wars, famines, earthquakes, tsunamis – because of course every major catastrophe is experienced by individuals as a personal event: “O Lord, why me? Why now? What did I do to deserve this?” What do these things say about God’s love for us, about his care of us?
What the Bible Says
The Bible gives us many examples of suffering, and it provides a variety of explanations for why certain people suffered from a particular evil. Judah’s first born, Er, was evil, so the Lord put him to death (Genesis 38:7). Jesus says that a certain woman had an issue of blood for eighteen years as a result of an evil spirit. In the Old Testament story of Job, Satan is the culprit, but God gave him permission to do evil. In the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, such as Proverbs, we are given lots of perfectly rational advice and told that if we don’t follow it there will be natural consequences that we will not like. And the Old Testament prophets are constantly warning about judgment from God if the people continue in their sinful ways.
Do any of these teachings apply to us today? With the exception of the wisdom literature, I would have to give a qualified “no.” In Proverbs and Psalms we see that our actions have natural consequences. If we trust God and are truthful and hardworking, we will probably get ahead in life. If we reject God and are dishonest and lazy, our world may eventually come crashing down around us. The same kinds of common sense ideas apply today. If you exercise and eat right, you will probably be a healthy person. If you always eat greasy food and smoke cigarettes, you may well have heart and lung problems.
The other biblical passages are dealing with very specific incidents, which may or may not apply today. So we shouldn’t extrapolate from them to the modern world. But people do, and the result is that many Christians have very muddled views about suffering. Phillip Yancey tells of a young friend of his who was hospitalized with Hodgkin’s disease – cancer of the lymph glands. A number of her well-intentioned church friends visited her in the hospital. One said that God was using the disease to teach her something. She had to figure out where she had stepped out of God’s will, and then set things right. What is God telling you? she asked. Another person adopted the role of professional cheerleader. She came bearing flowers, singing hymns, and reading psalms – as if all this woman needed was a positive attitude. But she only came once. Another was the inevitable faith healer. This one said that it was never God’s will that anyone be sick. So all she had to do was name the promise in faith, and then claim the victory. This implied that if she wasn’t healed it was her fault because she lacked sufficient faith. Another recommended total acceptance of the disease. She needed to come to the place where she could pray, “God, I love you for making me suffer like this. It is your will, and you know what’s best” – as if God were a cosmic sadist. Even her pastor came to her with odd advice. He said that God had chosen her for this disease because of her strength and integrity so that she could be a model for others. Therefore she should feel privileged.
All of these approaches derive from faulty readings of the Bible. Probably the most common one is the assumption that suffering is the result of God punishing us for something that we have done. We arrive at this from the Old Testament where God did punish the ancient Israelites for their sins of idolatry and immorality. But we can’t necessarily extrapolate from the ancient Israelites to ourselves. Those people had a very specific national covenant with God. And they were warned repeatedly – for many centuries! – that they would be punished if they did not live up to the covenant that they had accepted. This is what the Prophet Jeremiah is saying in the passage we read this morning. He was giving them a very accurate vision of exactly what punishment lay in store for them if they didn’t change their ways. This is not the same situation today when someone falls ill or has an accident. God doesn’t punish us and then make us try to guess what the punishment is for. This would be like a parent spanking a child and not telling the child why. The result is not going to be a well behaved child; the result will be a neurotic.
The other explanations that Yancey’s friend received from her Christian friends are beyond our knowing. We don’t know if God wanted her to learn some specific lesson, or if healing is an absolute certainty in every case if only the person believes enough, or even if she should simply accept her lot.
Jesus and Suffering
In the Gospel accounts, Jesus often deals with illness and human suffering, and how he dealt with these things should be instructive for us. He never told anyone that they should simply accept their illness as the will of God, let alone that they should actually be thankful for suffering. And when he was asked about a young man who had been blind from birth whether this was inflicted as a punishment from God because of the man’s sins or his parents, Jesus answered, neither. God doesn’t target people like that. When the Tower at Siloam fell and killed eighteen people, Jesus made a point of saying that it wasn’t because they were greater sinners than anyone else. We all want to know “why” something occurred, but Jesus doesn’t give specific answers to that kind of question.
The Creation Groans
I think that the best we can do to answer the “why” question is to point in a very general way to the nature of the creation. When we look at our very complex world, we see that most things have a dual nature. Fire can keep us warm and cook our food, but it can also burn us. Water is essential to our lives, but we can also drown in it. We might want to get rid of all the bacteria in the world, but then we would find that we couldn’t digest our food. I’m sure that the Bangladeshis would like to eliminate typhoons, but then they would find that they had eliminated the life-giving rains as well. The same nerves in our bodies that feel pleasure can also feel pain.
You may ask, wouldn’t it be possible to do away with pain? It is possible, but you wouldn’t like the results. People who have leprosy have done away with much pain because the leprosy bacteria attacks the nerves in the body, completely deadening them. People with leprosy often don’t have figures or toes. It used to be that people thought that this was part of the disease. It’s not. When people stop feeling pain in the hands and feet, they don’t protect themselves. The result with leprosy patients is that they slowly wear down their toes and figures until they simply disappear. As leprosy doctor Paul Brand has taught us, pain is a very important gift from God.
Taking all of these things into account, the Philosopher Leibniz argued that this is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire quipped in Candide, “If this is the best of all possible worlds, I’d hate to see the other ones.” I don’t want to argue that this is the best of all possible worlds; but I think that it’s fair to say that no one has been able to imagine a better one – not one that would really work. And God in creating this world made very difficult choices, balancing many different factors.
But could this be the best of all possible worlds? No! Absolutely not. We have to remember that we live in a fallen world. The world that we are living in was not God’s original intention for us. Paradise was the original intention. This world is the result of human rebellion – what theologians call the fall. The creation, the Apostle Paul tells us, was subjected to frustration, and it groans now waiting to be redeemed and restored (Rom 9:20). God, in fact, cursed the world, and the result in general is that there is much suffering in the world. Some of this is caused by the nature of the creation. And much of it is caused by the misuse of human freedom that results in wars, famines and preventable diseases. But the ultimate reason for suffering – in general – is to get our attention. God cursed the world so that we who live in it would know that this is not where we belong. He cursed it with disease and death so that we would look beyond it to him. As C.S. Lewis put it, pain is God’s megaphone to get our attention.
Lessons to be drawn
Jesus, as I said, does not dwell on the specific “whys” of tragic events. Why did that tower fall on those people in Siloam? The answer is no doubt that it was poorly constructed and was bound to fall at some point. But people aren’t satisfied with that; they want a theological answer; they want to think that there was something about the eighteen people who died that caused this to come about. But Jesus rejected that answer. The lesson he wants us to draw from this is the very general one – that life is brief and uncertain, that the tower could have fallen on anyone. Just as in our day any one of us might have died when airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers, or when Katrina struck New Orleans. The point is that we should all therefore be ready for some similar event.
A great seventeen-century English poet and writer knew something about pain. This was John Donne. He was a frustrated man in his career. He had studied for the law and practiced for a period, but then he angered his father-in-law who had him blackballed from the profession. He eventually became an Anglican priest, but just when he seemed to be coming into his own, his wife died, leaving him with seven children. A few years later he became ill and was diagnosed with the bubonic plague. He didn’t actually have the plague. He probably had typhus. And so the disease lingered on. Donne stayed in bed thinking that he was going to die at any time. Profoundly depressed, he wrote a friend at this time and signed his name “un-Donne.” During this time he wrote a book, Devotions, which is a series of meditations. In one of them he says plaintively to God, after all the confusion and missteps in my life, now that I’ve finally gotten into a position where I can serve you, my wife dies and I am struck down. How can you do this to me? Then one day he hears a church bell toll. Church bells were always tolled when someone died. At first he thought it was tolling for him because his friends, who thought he was nearer to death than he was, had it wrung in his honor. Then he realized that it was being wrung for a neighbor who had just died of the plague. As he thought about this bell, it became like a revelation to him. He wrote one of the most famous passages in English literature, mined by Thomas Merton and Ernest Hemingway for book titles:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less … . Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The tolling of the bell reminded Donne not only of his mortality but of his connection to his fellow human beings. And as he lay in bed reflecting on his life, he also began to see that the pain in his life could be redeeming. He reflected that his poverty had taught him to rely on God. His disgrace had cured his ambition. And now his physical pain was causing him to reexamine his life, to consider his connection with his less fortunate neighbors, to seek a closer relationship with God. He had begun by praying that the pain be removed; he ended by praying that the pain be redeemed. And of course, in the end he did recover and his life was different. He became a great preacher and one of the most distinguished writers in English history.
We don’t know why bad things happen to good people, or why good things happen to bad people. We don’t know in any specific instance why God allows suffering. We do know from what Jesus says that we are not to feel like victims; we are not to feel as though God has targeted us. He says that the general reason for suffering is simply to concentrate the mind – to remind us that this world is not God’s ultimate intention for us, that there is a better world to come. It was because people would not look ahead and take in the broader picture that Jeremiah became the “weeping prophet,” the great Cassandra of Israel’s history.
But having said all of that, having seen the general reason for suffering in this world, we also have to say that individual cases will differ, and that it is for individuals to workout how God wants them to respond to suffering, however it came about. For God can heal the sick, and there is a balm in Gilead; God can use disease to teach us important lessons (as he did with John Donne); those who suffer can be models of strength and integrity for the rest of us; and sometimes there is even a time for accepting suffering, asking not that it be removed, but that it be redeemed. Finally, we might see it all from the perspective of eternity, as the Apostle Paul did when he wrote, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us.” (Rom 9:18)
The foregoing sermon was given by Rev. Michael Parker at the United Parish of Bowie.
© 2008 Michael T. Parker