I don’t know about you, but it’s not uncommon for someone willto make a comment about Christian faith that I find careless or uninformed, if not offensive. The person may or may not be a Christian, but they seem to have a sense of “this is what all Christians believe” when in fact there are Christians who feel quite differently.
It might be a letter to the editor in which Christians are set up as narrow-minded literalists, and the writer in one stroke discounts the whole of Christian faith by arguing against something that I don’t believe. There is a whole host of beliefs commonly ascribed to Christianity that are really not the core of our faith - beliefs that we really don’t have to believe and in many cases should not believe.
“Good Christians don’t doubt. If you have enough faith, you will never have doubts.”
“The world was created in seven days. A Christian can’t believe in evolution.” This is a key component of a larger belief that if science appears to disagree with a literal Biblical perspective, then science has to be wrong.
In that vein, you will also hear, “Everything in the Bible is literally true. I don’t interpret it, I just read it and believe it.” Nobody actually does that, but you will hear that claim.
Another one is, “When it comes to church, men are leaders and women can be good helpers.” That is more or less the position of the church I grew up in.
“Christians should stick to saving souls and keep out of social issues.”
“Bad People will be Left Behind and fry in hell.” The whole Left Behind series of books tapped into a stream of Christian faith that is obsessed with End Times prophecy. There are those especially enamored with the idea of the Rapture – even though the word “rapture” never appears in scripture.
Well, I could go on and on, but you get the idea. For the next few Sundays, we’ll be looking at some of these statements and beliefs; I’ve imaginatively titled this “Stuff Christians Don’t Have to Believe.”
And the first of these beliefs, which I want to look at today, goes something like this: “God is in control, and for reasons we don’t understand God causes tragedies.”
Jason Berryman, a former Iowa State football player, died a little over a week ago. He was one of the most talented players we’ve had here – as a freshman he was named the team MVP. But he had a troubled life and was released from the team after run-ins with the law. He played briefly in the NFL and also played Arena Football for the Iowa Barnstormers.
He was found dead of gunshot wounds in his home in East Texas. He was 28 years old. Former players remembered a tremendous talent, but also a good teammate who was easy to like but had a troubled life. Trying to make sense of things, his former coach, somebody I like and respect a lot, said, “God works in mysterious ways.”
But that’s the question. Was this God’s work?
A woman wrote, “My mother in law suffered in terrible pain with liver cancer. When she finally passed, the nurse told my husband, “God wanted a special angel and she’s an angel now up in heaven with God.” The nurse doubtless was trying to make this man feel better, but it only made things worse. The woman wrote, “So what this nurse is saying is that God had my mother-in-law suffer terribly and die just because he needed an angel?”
Or consider the experience of a woman named Dorothy:
I was nine years old when my mother died and I was very, very sad. I did not join in saying prayers at my parochial school. Noticing that I was not participating, the teacher called me aside and asked what was wrong. I told her my mother died and I missed her, to which she replied, “It was the will of God. God needs your mother in Heaven.” But I felt that I needed my mother far more than God needed her. I was angry at God for years because I felt he took her from me.In order to feel that there is meaning in tragedy and maybe to justify God, people will sometimes say that God needs a person and so God takes them from us. But there is also the line of thought that bad things happen as a punishment for sin.
John Killinger is a retired pastor and professor and the author of over 50 books. I first became familiar with Killinger when I spent a year doing a campus ministry internship at Virginia Tech. We were just down the road from Lynchburg, home of Jerry Falwell and his growing empire that included the Thomas Road Baptist Church, The Old Time Gospel Hour, Liberty University, and the Moral Majority. Falwell was a well-known fundamentalist. But there was another preacher in town with a growing reputation, and a very different perspective, a different take on what faith and the spiritual life is about – John Killinger. It all made Lynchburg a very interesting place.
In one of his books, Killinger shared that the church he grew up in attributed everything to God – even disease, heartbreak and death. To believe otherwise would have somehow lessened the power and sovereignty of God. When his nine year old sister died, the pastor said at the funeral, “God has taken her to be with him in heaven.” Killinger said this may have comforted his parents, who were in shock and probably didn’t reflect on the theology of it.
But just as often, Killnger’s community would equate tragedy with God’s punishment. They had a neighbor who was a decent enough guy during the week, but on the weekends he drank heavily and was mean and abusive to his family, terrible to his wife. One night when he was too inebriated to know better, he went to sleep outside in a cold rain, got pneumonia and died. Everybody said God had done it because of his sins. Some even said he was going to burn in hell.
When a respected citizen in town was stricken by a muscular disease, people said that there must have been some dark, secret sin in his life. When the wild, hard-living son of the minister crashed his plane into a mountain on a rainy night, people said that it was God’s punishment for being a thorn in his saintly father’s side.
Does God send tragedy as punishment for sin? There was that stream of thought in the Old Testament, but Jesus disagreed. In our gospel reading, two tragedies are mentioned. Pilate had slaughtered some Jews in Galilee; was this was because of their sin? No, said Jesus. A tower in Siloam fell, killing 18 people – was it because of their sin? Again, no, said Jesus.
There are those who will imagine that difficulties in their lives must be because of some sin – that the hardships they face are punishment from God. And maybe more commonly, we want to hang that on others, as seen when somebody like Pat Robertson blames national tragedies on the sins of Americans (though not his own, of course.) He agreed with Jerry Falwell that the ACLU, pagans, feminists, and gays had to take a lot of blame for 9/11 and he said that the earthquake in Haiti was because of a pact slaves made there with the devil 200 years ago. (Of course, those who allegedly made the pact didn’t suffer from the earthquake, but logic didn’t play a real big role in all of this.)
Well, it is natural to want to make sense of tragedy and death. We want an explanation; it’s human nature. But as Paul says, “We see now through a glass dimly,” and there are some things we will never make sense of this side of eternity.
In an interesting take on this, Rabbi Aron Moss while we want an explanation for why the innocent suffer, it’s best that we don’t have an answer. He asks us to imagine being in a hospital and hearing a woman screaming with pain. Outside her room, her family is standing around chatting, all smiling and happy. So you yell at them, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you hear how much pain she is in?” They answer, “This is the maternity ward. She is having a baby. Of course we are happy.”
When you have an explanation, the pain doesn’t seem so bad anymore. We can tolerate suffering when we know why it is happening.
But what if someone came along and gave us a satisfying explanation? What if the mystery were finally solved? What if we asked God why innocent people suffer, and actually got an answer? Then we would be able to make peace with the suffering of innocents, and that, says Rabbi Moss, is unthinkable.
If we could make sense of innocent people suffering, we would be able to hear the cry of children in pain and not be horrified. We would tolerate seeing hearts broken and lives shattered, because we could explain it all away. But as long as we can’t explain suffering, says Moss, we have to work to alleviate it.
Though as a theologian he no doubt gave thought to the problem of why bad things happen to good people, I am glad that Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t stop there. He gave his life to alleviating suffering and improving the lot of the oppressed.
William Sloane Coffin was pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City. I once had the chance to hear him preach there, on St. Patrick’s Day in 1985. A few years later, Coffin’s 24-year old son, Alex, was killed in an automobile accident. A week later, Coffin climbed into the pulpit at Riverside and preached about Alex’s death.
He said, “When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and at least one thing that should never be said.” The night after Alex’s death, he was sitting in his sister’s living room when a woman came in carrying a bunch of quiches. She walked into the kitchen, looked over her shoulder and shook her head and said, “I’ll never understand God’s will.”
Coffin said he was up in an instant, and said, “I’ll say you don’t, lady!” He followed her into the kitchen.
He said to her, “Do you think it was God’s will that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper, that he was probably driving too fast in that storm, that he probably had a couple ‘frosties’ too many? Do you think it is God’s will that there are no streetlights on that stretch of road, and no guard rail between the road and Boston Harbor?”
Tragedies in our lives are not God’s will. God doesn’t want such pain for anyone. The God we worship, the God whom we know as Love, does not capriciously strike down people. The notion violates everything we believe about the nature of God.
So – where is God in all of this? Where is God in our pain? Where is God in times of tragedy?
God is right there, alongside us. Even in the worst of times, God is there. As William Sloan Coffin put it, God’s was the first heart to break when his son died in the icy waters.
The story is told of a man lying on his deathbed, reflecting on his life. At his bedside was his wife of seventy years. The husband turned to his wife and said, “I remember when we were just starting out and I got fired from my job; you were there by my side. And then when the house burned to the ground, you were right there by my side. And then there was the car accident. When I woke up in the hospital, you were the first person I saw. And when I had the heart attack, you were right there by my side.” The husband, lying on his deathbed, said to his wife, “Do you know what I think?” His wife, her heart filled with love replied, “What do you think?” And her husband said, “I’m beginning to think that you are bad luck.”
It’s a great joke, but there is also has a great message there. Whatever happened, the man’s wife was there, with him. Whatever happens in life, God is right there, with us.
We read earlier from Romans chapter 8: “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.” That’s the way most of us remember the verse. But that may not be the best translation. “All things work together for good” sounds an awful lot like saying, “it’s all for the best.” “All things work together for good” sounds as though God is behind everything, that God causes everything to happen, and that whatever happens is by definition good.
But that may not be the best translation of the verse. The New English Bible reads, “in everything, as we know, the Spirit cooperates for good with those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes.” It is not that everything works together for good, but rather in all circumstances, God is working for good. Even in terrible circumstances, even in pain, even amidst tragedy and loss, God is working with us to bring good.
Why do bad things happen to good people? I really don’t know. We can give answers like humans have free will and can choose to do terrible things. We can use things like weather patterns and tectonic shifts to explain tornados and earthquakes and tsunamis, but none of it is very satisfying when we have suffered loss.
There was another tragic death for the ISU football team just a few days ago. Defensive line coach Curtis Bray, 43 years old, a much-loved coach, a man described as a gentle giant, a beloved husband and father, died after collapsing at work.
Bill Fennelly, the woman’s basketball coach, was quoted in the paper, talking about Coach Bray. He said, “Every time he’d see me, he’d put his arm around me. He goes, ‘You got any linemen for me?’” The article in the Tribune said that as he spoke about Bray, Fennelly got choked up.
“Those things are hard,” Fennelly said. “I don’t understand those things. I don’t know how that happens.”
If we want to look to coaches for our theology, I’m going with Coach Fennelly on this one. We want to make sense of things, but sometimes it’s better to just say, “I don’t understand,” and to trust that in the midst of our pain, God is there alongside us, working together with us for good. Amen.