Why AreThere Such Extremes of Misery and Suffering in the World?
The six teenagers seated at the table were shifting uncomfortably in their seats. The ten adults at the table, the minister and nine Elders were there to ask them questions about their recent confirmation class experience, and to assess whether they were ready to be admitted as full members to the Church. It was a welcoming gathering. Only a few questions were asked, and those gently. But one question got an interesting response. The question, “What one important question was either unasked or unanswered in your class?”
In response, someone said, “I am troubled by the extremes of misery and suffering in the world. I understand all our normal everyday trials, money worries, job pressures, things like that. But there are such extremes of suffering and human misery in the world. Why?”
A good question. Many ask it, or wonder on it. Theologians and serious thinkers starting with Job have asked this question. The presence of extreme misery and suffering in the world has caused many to doubt the existence of God or to become atheists. Trying to give a short answer, I quoted the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. “How,” He asked, “how could God be both Omnipotent, all powerful, and also be all Good. He could be all powerful, and still condone evil. Or he could be all Good, and not powerful enough to prevent evil. But, how can God be both all powerful and all good and there still be suffering, war, famine, disease, death?” In answer, Bishop Tutu said, “Our all powerful, all good and all loving God looks to us, we frail, weak human beings he has created and says to us, pleads with us in a quiet voice. He asks of us, “Help me. Help me.”
But I could see the kids still thoughtful, pondering what Bishop Tutu might have meant by the plaintive, “Help me. Help me.” plea of God to Man.
Let’s look at what Archbishop Tutu meant. First of all, let's recognize where we are: this is not the Garden of Eden. Skaneateles, like the rest of the world, is located somewhere to the east of Eden and way, way south of Heaven. There was no misery or suffering in Eden. Where was Eden? We probably should ask, "When was Eden?" God does not wear a watch, and God's time is not the same as geological time. Perhaps Eden was sometime after mankind stopped knuckle-dragging, stood up fairly straight, and first began to acquire language. Genesis tells us Adam got to name the animals - which may be the Bible's way of describing our acquisition of language. Remember, the Bible was written in the Bronze Age, long before we had words and concepts for physics, mathematics and philosophy. God speaks to us at the level we are ready to hear. Perhaps it wasn't too long - in geologic time - after the acquisition of language that mankind had the encounter with the snake in the garden. The serpent represents the Devil, the Tempter, the Opposer, the Destroyer. Genesis tells us the Devil spoke first to Eve. Since she came after the male, she was probably a bit more advanced, smarter. Like today. The snake tempted Eve with the deadliest of the sins, the sin of Pride. "Now that you have the rudiments of language and intelligence, wouldn't you like to be as smart as the gods, even God himself?" This is described as a beautiful, delicious looking piece of fruit. Not dissimilar from the temptations of choosing a life guided by our own reason over a life of faith today.
"God says if you taste the tree of knowledge, you will die. Not so." says the Tempter. "Knowledge is good. God is just being jealous because he doesn't want you to be as smart as he is. So go ahead, girl." Eve fell for it. Adam, like most men today, was easily tempted by a beautiful, smart woman - and Eve was the smartest and most beautiful woman Adam had ever seen - as well as the only one.
But it didn't take long for the sin of Pride to do its work. Pride has a good initial taste, but the aftertaste is inevitably shame. You know the rest of the parable. God drove mankind out of the Garden of Eden into the world of briars, thorns, scratchy desert ground and trouble. And he put a guardian at the gate with a flashing sword designed to keep mankind from creeping back into the garden and eating of the better tree, the Tree of Life, before we were ready.
And here we are. Outside the garden, in the rough. Our own Bob Marshall is the Groundskeeper for the Skaneateles Country Club. He sometimes works 80 hour weeks to make the course heavenly. He does a great job with the course. But, Bob is not a shepherd of the golfers. Maybe from time to time the golfers could use a shepherd, but in the main, the course is pretty well marked and well tended. Very different from the course of life. God is not a Groundskeeper. God is a shepherd. He is a shepherd because we need a shepherd to guide us through the roughs, the crevasses and ravines, the rocky paths, the traps and the wild predators that overrun this course of life. Life is not broad fairways and lush greens. Jesus tells us the only gardening God does on the Sabbath is pruning. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and God prunes us for the health and growth of the vine.
All animals while young play games preparing them for their role as adults. Lions, tigers and bears wrestle and play-bite. Humans, as we mature, play games preparing us for the struggles of life, and the games become more mental as we grow. We move from playing House, Hide and Seek and Tag, to sports requiring drill and exhausting practice, to Ken-Ken, Sudoku, Crossword Puzzles, Super Mario and World of Warcraft. We are intuitively preparing for what we know is the difficult course of human life.
Jesus said this course of life would be difficult. It is full of deep traps, tangled roughs, and a very narrow fairway. And the fairway is not mowed. The nature of our earthly life is struggle. Jesus told his disciples this when they asked to follow him. But, the question was not why there were difficulties, financial troubles, anxieties and illness. It was why did there have to be such extremes of misery and suffering in the world.
Let's go back to Genesis. Mankind was created on the sixth of God's days of creation. God liked his work to date, and called it good. Very good. Then God rested. After God created Mankind, God declared the seventh of God's days, the day we are in today, the Sabbath. Then God rested.
This is the Sabbath. I don't mean this Sunday. I mean the past few hundred thousand years of geologic time since Mankind emerged as the first thinking, reflective, speaking animal. We are in the Sabbath, now, and it's time for us to pick up the work. God is resting. We are animals, but animals created in God's own image. And we have a choice.
Only man among the animals is capable of hoarding more than he can possibly eat, own, tend, wear or manage. Only man among the animals has the intelligence and will to act beyond instinct. Our choice is simple, but hard to do. We can act in faith, struggling to discern God's will here on earth. Or, we can let our animal natures mix with our intelligence. This deadly overlay of animal nature and human cunning will lead us to act in Pride, Envy, Anger, Lust, Gluttony Greed and Apathy. The seven deadly ones.
We are created in God's image, but we are not God. Jesus gives us the clue to our two natures. Every icon, every inspired image of Jesus shows him with two fingers extended. This is not a Boy Scout salute. Jesus is signaling his - and our - two natures. We are both of the earth and of heaven. Mankind, uniquely among all of creation, has an earthly nature and a divine nature. God has given us a mind.
In today's Old Testament and New Testament readings we heard two versions of the summation of the meaning of the Law. Yes, there are two versions. They are almost identical, but with an important difference. In the Law of Moses, the Old Testament Law, we are taught, Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. And, you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your strength. And, you shall do to your neighbor as you would have done to you.
This was the Law for mankind given in the Bronze Age. This Law required obedience to the specific laws God laid down through Moses. This Law was designed to shepherd mankind through the dangerous, tangled, difficult, tortuous course of war of all against all. It was and is the groundwork of salvation from this forest. It was God's roadmap of obedience to lead mankind back to a newer and better Eden, past the flashing sword of the guardian angel. The flashing sword no man could pass was this Law, which cuts deeper than any humanly forged sword, to the place where body and spirit are joined. It was a glittering, flashing Law impossible to keep fully, but which caused mankind to look back to the gate of Eden, yearning to be back in the loving presence of our Creator, eager to eat of the other tree, the Tree of Life. But, we could not pass through this flashing sword on our own.
Then when the time was right, God sent Jesus into this forest. Jesus introduced this Age with a clarification of the Law for which the modern evolution of mankind was now ready. The clarification: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind. And, you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Did you catch the difference. In addition to heart, soul and strength is added one little word... mind. And to obedience is added, love. Jesus immediately follows this declaration with a story, a parable we call the Parable of the Good Samaritan.
In this parable, the Priest and the Levite, paragons of religious leaders, obedient to the letter of the Law, ignored the injured Israelite lying wounded and beaten by the side of the road. After all, it is the Sabbath, and no work should be done on the Sabbath. That was the misguided interpretation of the Law Jesus corrected. Jesus taught us that the Sabbath is made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath. The Sabbath Law was that you should do no work for your own pleasure or business on the Sabbath - there are six days for that - but on the Sabbath you are to do God's work. This is the Sabbath. The Samaritan, freed from the restrictions of the rigid interpretation of the Law because of his humble status, the Samaritan acted in the will of God and through faith began the work of God with this injured man. And God gave the increase. He bound up his wounds, he put him on his own animal, he carried him to an inn, he paid for his care, he promised more payment as required for continued care. He gave selflessly with no thought of personal reward. He did God's work. God rested, but the Samaritan picked up God's work.
We pray for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is not heaven. This is earth. This is a wilderness, a rough forest filled with dangers and predatory beasts - the worst of which are our fellow humans. There is no predator as dangerous as a cunning human filled with intelligence and malevolence.
God has made a world with rules for us to follow, and Jesus clarified the rules. Act in faith, in God's will, and the rules God has put in place will accelerate and multiply your efforts. Act in malevolence and the rules God put in place will multiply and accelerate those efforts - and the rules will cause equal and opposite reaction to bring this on your own head, either now or in the time to come. Our minds tell us this. Our reason is the active agent that should bring us to act in faith. It is plain for anyone with reason to see.
Pondering the question, "Why are there such extremes of suffering and misery in the world?," can lead us to question our faith – or it can be a great aid to our faith. Who can know the extent and intricacy of God's plan; why there are natural disasters, earthquakes, tornados, tsunamis, drought, pestilence and death? Who knows why there is not plenty for everyone? Who can know the mind and plan of God? Extreme misery and suffering have caused some to fall away from faith. But, suffering and sharing the suffering of others also wakes us up to our dependence and reliance on God, And, the presence of extreme misery and suffering in the world has aroused the compassion and charity of mankind throughout history.
But, we do see that Man, through exercise of the seven deadly sins, amasses more than he needs, grabs what he can, exploits, inflicts, imprisons, ignores or tries to control. Man can exacerbate or ease the suffering which is common to us all. Mankind, us, you and I have the will and reason to ameliorate, to ease, to prepare for, to comfort, to bind up wounds, to carry the world to an inn, to pay what is necessary for healing, to promise all that may be required in the future. But do we do this?
Do we feel and act with compassion in the face of suffering? Do we act as the hands and heart of God, and thus accelerate our transformation into the likeness of God? Here we are on earth, somewhere to the east of Eden and way, way south of Heaven. Do we help God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven?
God speaks to us in a quiet voice. He reminds us this is the Sabbath and he is resting. He is resting for a reason. He is looking to us to help him complete creation. He is looking to adopt us as sons and daughters, co-heirs with Christ, to make us divine. To bring us to the New Eden, the New Jerusalem, to his kingdom. And he speaks to us quietly asking in a still, small voice, "Help me. Help me. Help me."