By Pastor Jack Hartman
Scripture: Romans 5:1-5
One of the arguments against Christianity is the presence of pain and suffering in our lives individually and corporately. The argument goes like this: If there is a good God, there should not be pain and suffering. If there is pain and suffering, there is no God. However, there is a major fallacy in that argument. God can be good and, at the same time, we and others can experience pain and suffering. You may ask how is that possible. That is the question I would like for us to explore today.
Let us pray. Father God, sometimes the scriptures bring us comfort and joy. Other scriptures really challenge us and our faith. This text today is one that raises a number of questions. So grant us your Holy Spirit that we may rightly interpret your Word. Help us to understand what happens when pain and suffering surrounds us and others. We pray this prayer in the name of Jesus who experienced pain and suffering in many forms in his own life. Amen.
It is important to note in this text that the Apostle Paul begins by reminding believers that we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through Jesus Christ who has extended to us his grace. Paul is writing to those of us who believe in Jesus and desire to follow him. But without taking a breath, Paul then begins to talk about pain and suffering. Here is the bottom line: Being a follower of Jesus Christ does not exempt us from pain or suffering. To follow Jesus does not mean our life will be a life of ease and pleasure.
I know that is a very present theology of some today. Probably its greatest spokesperson is Joel Olsteen. Let me just say up front that God is using Joel to awaken people to the reality of God revealed in Jesus Christ. However, I think he also misleads people. Too often his message is that if you have health issues, financial issues, or relationship issues it is because you do not trust God enough. If you just had more faith, you would have better health, more money, and unhindered relationships. It is not true! That is the point in this passage from Paul. Let me say it again. Paul is writing to people like us and is saying we should expect pain and suffering as being a normal part of our Christian journey in life.
I want to tell you about a person who has had an impact on my life. Anita and her husband Bob in the 60’s were called to be missionaries in Africa. Bob was a medical doctor and would be a medical missionary. So they packed up their three young children and left for Africa. After about one year, Dr. Bob contracted malaria. Before he could be returned to the states, he died. That left Anita a single Mom with three young children thousands of miles from home.
She finally got back to the states and moved in with her parents to have time to sort things out. One day her father took the youngest son with them in his car to run an errand. There was an accident … a bad accident. Anita’s youngest son was killed in the accident. Now she had lost her husband and one son. Fast forward several years. Anita eventually married again. She became pregnant and gave birth to a new son. Unfortunately, that infant died of sudden infant death syndrome.
I have heard Anita share how this was such a difficult time for her. She shared what made it even more difficult. It was Christian people who were saying to her, “Anita, what you have done to upset God? Is there sin you have not confessed?” “Anita, if you just had more faith, I do not think God would have allowed these things to happen to you.”
How do you live with that pain and suffering in your life compounded by Christians telling you it is your fault these things have happened?About a year later, Anita was sitting in the sanctuary of her church on Easter Sunday. She was sitting at the end of a pew where the spring sun was shining on her. In that service, she heard God say to her in his small, still voice, “I know you have holes in your heart, Anita, but it is okay. You can come to heaven with holes in your heart.” God’s love was poured into her heart in the midst of her pain and suffering just as Paul promised.
About fifty years ago Rev. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale was known for his positive messages about Christianity. He was serving one of the most prestigious churches in America at that time, Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. One day when Dr. Peale was walking down a street in New York City, a person recognized him although he did not attend Dr. Peale’s church. He approached Dr. Peale and said that he was tired and worn out from the pain and suffering of life. He said he wanted to go someplace where he could be free from pain and suffering. Surprisingly, Dr. Peale said, “I know of just such a place. My car is just around the corner, come with me, and I will take you there.”
The man was astonished that Dr. Peale could drive him someplace to be free of pain and suffering. They drove for about thirty minutes. “We are almost there!” declared Dr. Peale. Then the car turned into a large cemetery. “Look around,” Dr. Peale said. “Not one of these persons have any pain or suffering in their lives. For you see to live is to expect that pain and suffering will come our way.”
Do you know how Dr. Peale came to that understanding? He got it from the Apostle Paul. So our first understanding of the pain and suffering in our life is that is natural and our faith does not exempt us from it.
So now I want to explore the origin of pain and suffering in our lives. I want you to think of your own life. Who has caused you pain and suffering in your life? You do not have to look very far. Often we are the source of the pain and suffering in our lives. Someone once quipped that if we could kick in the seat of the pants of the person who causes us the most pain, we would not be able to sit down for a week! We make bad decision that create pain and suffering in our lives.
In one of the churches I served, there were two brothers, one a junior and one a senior in high school. Together they were the stars of their basketball team. One night after a game, they were traveling to their home, each in their own car with their respective girlfriend. They both were reaching a one-lane bridge on a gravel road when they decided they would play “chicken” and see which one of them would stop first. Neither one of them stopped. They hit head-on at about fifty-five miles per hour. The older brother was killed, the girlfriend of the younger brother was killed. One month later the girlfriend of the older brother was killed. The younger brother had only got a few scrapes and bruises.
Here are some of the common comments I heard: “When your time is up, your time is up.” Do you see what that implies? It was not their fault. It was God’s fault because in their mistaken way of thinking, God had some hand in the tragic deaths of three people because when your time is up, your time is up. Here is another comment: “God must have wanted those three teen-agers as angels in heaven.” Really? I can tell you that God did not need those three persons as angels at that time as much as their parents did, as their brothers and sisters did.
Not all of our actions have such dire circumstances. But I am suggesting that when we make wrong decisions those decisions can inflict us with pain and suffering. We become flirtatious with someone not our spouse. We think one more drink, one more drug won’t hurt us. We overeat and make us susceptible to heart attacks. We think our anger is justified when we lash out at those closest to us. I do not have to make a long list. You can make your own list from your own life.
But I do not want to leave you here. God has an answer when we mess up our life and the lives of those around us. Paul, after talking about pain and suffering, also states that “God pours out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.” God is the very one who helps us overcome and be redeemed from the mistakes we make.
Here is a second source of our pain and suffering. It is not us; it is the people around us. It is they who make the wrong decisions that cause us pain and suffering. I cannot think of any sin a person commits that does not affect those around them. They may think they are only hurting themselves, but they are not. We have all been affected by the bad choices of others.
My wife Carolyn and I experienced this in a painful way. After our daughter graduated from high school, she got in the wrong crowd. The bottom line is that she became highly addicted to cocaine and other drugs. There were a couple of times that she would come home to us, but she did not want to change or did not know how to change. During those times she was with us, it was a battle. Finally she left. I can remember Carolyn and I talking that we cannot try to rescue her like that again.
There was a year, we did not know if she was dead or alive. No contact from her. Our pain was great. I would go to sleep every night wondering where she was and if she was still alive. One night the phone rang. It was her. She was at the lowest point of her life. My immediate response, I think led by the Spirit, was to ask her to come home. But I knew the agreement Carolyn and I had made. But then Carolyn said to me, “Tell her to come home.” It was the right time. She wanted to change.
I told you earlier that God is always trying to pour his love into our hearts by his Spirit in the midst of our pain and suffering. One of our rules as a family was that our daughter had to attend church. After being with us for a month or so, it was Ash Wednesday which we all attended. The next morning after that service, my wife Carolyn asked me if I wanted the bulletin from that service that had been left on the table. I told her it was not mine. Our daughter spoke up and said it was hers. She wanted to keep it because in her words, “That was the night she gave her heart back to Christ.”
Eventually, she became the praise leader of our contemporary worship service. I would sit there and watch and listen to her with tears in my eyes. In the midst of her and our pain and suffering, God poured his love into our hearts by his Spirit. That is always the desire of God. He is with us. He is working in us and to deal with our pain and suffering.
But it is not just individuals that can create pain and suffering in our lives. So can institutions. Institutions have a broader effect because they affect more people. The church is not exempt. Our United Methodist Church has created pain and suffering for the LGBTQ community with the action of the last General Conference. The action of the General Conference was to denounce and exclude homosexual people from the life of the church. Many of you have felt that pain and discrimination. There are numerous persons working fervently now to try to reverse the last General Conference’s decision.
Another institution I want to focus on is our government. We are nationally in a situation that has created and is continuing to create pain and suffering. I will confess now that I do not have all the answers about immigration. However, to separate children from parents and place them in deplorable conditions is inhumane, and it breaks God’s heart. What is even more deplorable is how long this situation has existed, and still there is no resolution. It seems that the only focus of our President is to build a wall while children and families who are seeking asylum are being turned away. Many of them are coming here to escape the violence and crime in their own countries that makes living there difficult. We need to call on our President and Congress to change the direction and do it now!
Let me tell you one story I just learned about this last Friday. Maria Sut, from Guatemala, fled her home in 2015 after she was threatened and her home set on fire with her entire family inside. Her family survived. She filed for asylum but received a notice from Immigration and Customs Enforcement that she would be deported on Sept. 30, 2018.
She sought sanctuary at Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, which has been the home of her family since Oct. 1, 2018. Just recently Maria received a bill from the federal government for $214,000. According to a report by National Public Radio, the Department of Homeland Security sent out notices across the country to targeted individuals imposing civil fines of up $500 a day to immigrants who were ordered to be deported.
Now it is possible this morning that she may be one of the persons targeted for deportation by the President. Can you feel her pain and suffering just thinking of what might happen?
I know these issues are political, and some here may be uncomfortable about talking about politics in the church. However, what happens in politics affects God’s people and, therefore, has to affect the response of the church. As Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men (people) to do nothing.”
Although we do not directly feel the pain and suffering of the immigrants, it does not lessen its impact on God’s children. Remember the prophetic words of Jesus, “When you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me.” Jesus calls all of us to be advocates for those affected by pain and suffering. There are now revelations that children who have been separated from their parents are living in deplorable conditions and some of them may have been sexually molested. We cannot be silent. Why has it taken our government months and months to reunite families and end the separation of children and parents?
Let’s look at just one more governmental institutional cause of pain and suffering. All Christians need to be concerned about our environment and particularly global warming. I know that there are some scientists who disagree with global warming, but they are a minority. Unfortunately, our President has disengaged our country in the protection of our environment while the majority of other nations stand amazed at his disengagement. From my perspective, it is very possible that already people are suffering and feeling the pain of global warming.
These are just a couple of examples of how institution can produce pain and suffering on others. Martin Niomiller was a member of Nazi Germany. He saw the pain and suffering that Hitler and his regime were producing. But he said nothing and did nothing. Later he wrote these words:
First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.
I don’t know where you have or are experiencing pain and suffering. I do know broken relationships and inept institutions can create pain and suffering in our lives. But let us never forget that God is still at work. As the hymnist wrote so well, “Though the wrong seems oft so ought so strong, God is the ruler yet.”
My prayer is that in the midst of our pain and suffering – regardless of the source - we will allow God to pour his love into our hearts by his Spirit. He can and he will!
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