Pastor Jon Heikes
First Baptist Church
“Oh, the nonsense spouted by philosophers—philosophers who know nothing of hunger, thirst or illness, with no medication, rest or even the most basic care; who don’t know what it is to have to ask permission to go to the toilet, to not have enough water to wash, to be sticky with sweat, to have stinking breath because you can’t brush your teeth, to be crawling with lice. . . . Philosophers who know nothing of all this will assure you in their customary pedantic fashion that mental suffering is far worse than physical suffering. Here we suffer physical pain in all its manifestations, and we are not spared mental torture either.” With these words Agnes Humbert, who ran an underground newspaper for the French Resistance, and was imprisoned by the Nazi’s in a concentration camp, talks about how words are not adequate to answer the real world suffering she and others like her experienced. I begin with these words because we need their reminder to not too quickly try to smooth over the pain and suffering of our world with words. Facing the stark reality of suffering, we want to avoid talking about it at all, but we actually can’t, it seems, stop. And so in times of trouble, we ask questions like, “Why did God do this or allow this to happen?” Daniel Harrington, the New Testament scholar, asked the question in the title of his book on the subject, “Why Do We Suffer?” C.S. Lewis dealt with it theoretically in “The Problem of Pain,” and very personally in his book, “A Grief Observed.” Rabbi Harold Kushner tried to address it in, “When Bad Things Happen To Good People.” I guess we could say that we can’t stop talking or writing about it. I would like to suggest two important things for us as we understand suffering. First, let’s look at God’s response to our suffering world. While the book of Job seeks to understand the evil that befalls us, I think we see God’s primary response to our suffering world in Jesus Christ. God doesn’t try to smooth over the hurt of our world with words, but instead comes and joins us in it. Through his life, death on the cross and resurrection, Jesus gives meaning to our human lives and even to our hardships and suffering. Because of this, we are able to experience His presence through the Holy Spirit while we are submerged in suffering.
This leads to the second thing I would like to say about suffering in our lives. It matures and strengthens us. When it comes to sports, we have no problem understanding that hard and painful practice helps us to become stronger and better. We say, “No pain, no gain.” Hal Higdon writes about Rick Wohlhuter, the Olympic 800-meter track bronze medalist from Chicago. When he interviewed him several years ago for an article in Runner’s World, Rick admitted that he could have fled the Midwest for Southern California, as many track runners have, but that working outdoors on the Chicago lakefront with the cold midwinter wind blowing out of the north made him tougher and so he stayed. Christian writer Tito Colliander states, “Nothing happens accidentally or in such a way that you cannot learn from it.” This is not to say that God inflicts suffering on us, but rather that nothing happens to us that God cannot use to mature and strengthen us. I believe this is what Paul means in Romans 8:28, when he says “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” I would like to close with these words from C. S. Lewis, “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” Life is not easy. As Christians we can be confident that we do not face suffering alone, but in fact are joined in our hard times by our God who knows suffering himself and can give purpose to our suffering.