Our Responses to the issue of Suffering
I have spoken on the topic of Suffering on the last two occasions that I have spoken here. I am going to continue the series with another aspect of Suffering. This time we will look at ourselves. How do we respond to the issue of suffering.
Leslie and I are studying the different books of the Bible and last week’s book was Leviticus. How many of you have read Leviticus in one sitting? Difficult isn’t it? It is about the laws and rituals that the Israelites needed to perform in order to be Holy, as the Lord is Holy. Before closing the book, the Lord makes it very clear in Chapter 26 that there are great rewards for obedience to the laws, but he also warns of dire consequences for disobedience of the laws. Reward for obedience, great punishment for disobedience. In case they did not really understand that God makes Moses repeat and reiterate the same in Moses’s words in Deuteronomy Chapter 28. Seen in this context, we can easily understand and even accept the suffering that disobedient people go through. They disobeyed. God was clear on his instructions. They were warned. So if they suffer, they deserved it. Even though we might not say it in the open, we will think in our minds like that. The operative word here is “disobedient”. The problem comes when it comes to us. How many of us truly consider ourselves to be “disobedient” to God? Well.. yes.. if we become really spiritual, we may reluctantly, hesitatingly, agree that we have disobeyed God now and then. We will punctuate that admission with numerous statements about occasions when we think we obeyed God. We will compare our Good deeds with a few minor infractions that we might have had with keeping the statutes. Isn’t this true? I don’t know about you, but I sure do that. I would like to think that I obey more times than I disobey. I would even make a list of all the things I do for the “kingdom” and others and the church etc to prove the point that I need a little bit more consideration from God. We also do this when we observe people whom we consider “good” suffering. We fail to understand why they go through the suffering.
So how do we respond to such suffering, my own suffering? Suffering of people close to me? Suffering of good people?
Atheists will of course respond to this issue by denying the existence of God itself, or even if they admit of some greater force above, they may dismiss the goodness of this force and hence may not want to do anything with it. Other faiths might respond with philosophies like Karma etc. How do we , Christians, who believe in the goodness of God, who believe in Grace of God respond to this? It is not uncommon to see Christians sometime respond to suffering by questioning God, questioning the goodness of God, questioning the fairness of God.
To help us understand some of the possible responses, Let us turn to Psalm 44 today. There are a couple of reasons why I chose Psalm 44. Typically when a sermon is prepared on suffering it has to refer to Job. So I decided to stay away from the beaten path and give Job a break. Psalms of course provide opportunities to study many things. And when we chose a Psalm to preach on , the easiest thing is to pick a psalm by David. Everyone loves David, don’t we? Again, over exposed. So I decided that we will stay away from David’s psalms. Why Psalm 44 then? All that we know about Psalm 44 from an authorship point of view is that it is attributed to the Sons of Korah. How many of you know who Korah is? Not many I am sure. (Pastors exempted). Korah was not a hero in the Bible but actually a villain. He was a rebel. Don’t believe me? So let us go to one of rarely read books of the Bible, Numbers. Let us start with Numbers Chapter 3, where God allocates specific responsibilities to the Levite clans. One of the Levite clans are the Kohathites and Numbers Chapter 4 describes their responsibilities. Their responsibility was to care for the items of the sanctuary like the ark, the table the lamp stand , etc. since these were the items of the sanctuary, they were not allowed to use cart to transport them but they needed to carry them on their person. To make matters worse, when they carried it they could not touch it, nor even watch them without a wrapping. The items had to be wrapped up by the priests and then the Kohathites could carry them on their shoulders. Only Aron’s clan were allowed to be the priests. Korah was the grandson of Kohath, and he did not like the idea that Only Aaron’s descendants were allowed to be priests and he and his clan were given subordinate duties. So he along with a couple of others rise up in rebellion and Numbers Chapter 16 describes the rebellion and its devastating consequences elaborately. We don’t have time to read the full chapter , but the gist is that Korah questions Moses and Aaron as to why they are special, and sort of demands equal status. So Moses asks them to gather together and offer incense to the Lord. Moses separates the others from the rebels and tells them what the Lord is about to do. Moses tells them that if they die a natural death, then Moses is not special, but if they die an unnatural death like for example the earth opening up and swallowing them , then that is the sign that Moses is a chosen one by God. Just as Moses finishes speaking God does just that. The earth opens up and swallows all the 250 rebels. Numbers 26:9-11 (NKJV) sums it up. The sons of Eliab were Nemuel, Dathan, and Abiram. These are the Dathan and Abiram, representatives of the congregation, who contended against Moses and Aaron in the company of Korah, when they contended against the LORD; and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up together with Korah when that company died, when the fire devoured two hundred and fifty men; and they became a sign. Nevertheless the children of Korah did not die.
So it is those descendants of Korah who survived who are ascribed to be the authors of Psalm 44 and 10 other Psalms including Psalm 42 which gives us the beautiful Hymn As the deer panteth for the waters… I gave you this long background of the Sons of Korah because now, possibly, we can appreciate the fact that they knew the price of disobedience more than anyone else. They knew the might of the Lord whom they were asked to serve. They know the Lord probably better than you and me. This is evident the way they start the Psalm. Psalm 44:1-8 is all about remembering what the Lord has done for the Israelites, thanking God for His provisions, and asserting what they have heard from their ancestors. The Sons of Korah acknowledge that it was the Lord who gave them the promised land and it was not by any human effort.
So what does Psalm 44 tell us about the possible responses to suffering?
Psalm 44:9-16 (NKJV) But You have cast us off and put us to shame, And You do not go out with our armies. You make us turn back from the enemy, And those who hate us have taken spoil for themselves. You have given us up like sheep intended for food, And have scattered us among the nations. You sell Your people for next to nothing, And are not enriched by selling them. You make us a reproach to our neighbors, A scorn and a derision to those all around us. You make us a byword among the nations, A shaking of the head among the peoples. My dishonor is continually before me, And the shame of my face has covered me, Because of the voice of him who reproaches and reviles, Because of the enemy and the avenger. What do we see here? One of the first reactions when we encounter suffering is most likely this. God, have you forsaken me? Is your presence not with me anymore? I want to fight the enemy, but you are not helping me. Why? Have you given us up like sheep to be slaughtered? I love Verse 12 especially. You not only sell us, but you sell us for nothing. You are not even becoming any richer by selling us whole sale to the tormentor. Why Lord? why? Why have you allowed me to be scorned and ridiculed? I don’t know about you, I have certainly asked these questions when I was faced with suffering. I have questioned God in those and many more un-parliamentary words. Even Jesus did the same on the Cross. Father why have you forsaken me?
Let us move on to look at another possible response to suffering. Psalm 44:17-21 (NKJV) All this has come upon us; But we have not forgotten You, Nor have we dealt falsely with Your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, Nor have our steps departed from Your way; But You have severely broken us in the place of jackals, And covered us with the shadow of death. If we had forgotten the name of our God, Or stretched out our hands to a foreign god, Would not God search this out? For He knows the secrets of the heart. From complaining and questioning God about why He has forsaken us, we move to the next stage where we start highlighting our innocence. We start defending our actions, and start reiterating instances where we have been faithful, where we have obeyed the Lord, where we did not stray away from our faith despite the sufferings that fell upon us. We even challenge God to search out our heart to see if this is not true. Again, I do not know if you have done this, but I have. I have asked God when I went through suffering, God , Am I that bad a person? Am I suffering because I have not spent enough time in my prayer? Haven’t I done by church duties even while I was going through suffering? Have I not carried on with my “ministry” activities though I was afflicted with suffering? I have asked such questions. Have you?
So what is wrong with these responses? Is there anything wrong with those responses? The answer is yes. The first response we saw was when we question whether God has forsaken us, and is short selling us etc. This basically comes from the belief that I have a choice in what I am called to do. I have a choice to decide what God should do with my life. What does the Bible tell us? Romans 9:20-23 (NKJV) 20 But indeed, O man, who are you to reply against God? Will the thing formed say to him who formed it, “Why have you made me like this?” 21 Does not the potter have power over the clay, from the same lump to make one vessel for honor and another for dishonor? 22 What if God, wanting to show His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much longsuffering the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, 23 and that He might make known the riches of His glory on the vessels of mercy, which He had prepared beforehand for glory, We might not like this passage, but it is true. As our sovereign creator, God has every right to decide how he would like to use us. All of like to be used in a nice manner, but that is our will. Lord Jesus in his human form did pray that the cup be taken away from Him, but he immediately added, “not my will but thine”
The second response to suffering that we saw above, is where we start highlighting our innocence, highlighting our righteousness, highlighting the right things we have done and in that light argue against the need for my suffering. But the Bible tell us Isaiah 64:6 (NKJV) But we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away. Wow!! Our own righteousness is like filthy rags….Powerful isn’t it? Paul makes it even more clear when he prays for the unbelief of Jews Romans 10:3 (NKJV) For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. When we seek to establish our own righteousness, we are stubbornly refusing to submit to God’s righteousness that comes only through Jesus Christ. Romans 10:4 (NKJV) For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. Many of us remember the story of the Pharisee and the Tax collector in Luke 18:10-14.
In my earlier sermons we have already seen what the appropriate response to suffering is. So let us close with remembering that once again. Especially so, since we are in the period of Lent. The cross is not there just to give us a reminder of Christ’s sufferings. The cross offers proof that God cares about our pain and suffering. It is there to give us the assurance that He was, is and will be part of any suffering that we can imagine. He has Himself gone through those sufferings. Hence we should consider it a joy and a privilege if we are chosen to suffer. Then we can say with Paul 2 Corinthians 4:17 (NKJV) For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory, And we can have the strength to repeat after him 2 Corinthians 4:8-10 (NKJV) 8 We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed– 10 always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body.
Let us Pray
1 Peter 5:10-11 (NKJV) But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.