The problem of suffering
Suffering as a challenge to faith has been around as long as human beings. But it’s still immediate. We wrestle to make sense of pain and suffering, taking both our faith and our questions into account. We hesitate to express what we are thinking and feeling about suffering because we are afraid that we might offend God, or shock people around us, or embarrass ourselves. Our scripture for this morning, Psalm 13, gives voice to the things we might hesitate to talk about: our sense of being forsaken or abandoned by God, anxiety and inner turmoil, and the fear of death. But it does more than just give voice to our thoughts – it acknowledges that, as Walter Brueggemann says, “precisely such dimensions of our life are the stuff of prayer.”
“How long, O Lord?”
When we are suffering, we quite naturally cry out to God. This phrase, “How long, O Lord?” has been used in the Psalms, in Job, and in situations of oppression throughout human history. How long will we suffer from pain, from evil inflicted upon us by our enemies, how long will we feel abandoned by God? How long, O Lord?
In Psalm 13, the psalmist cries out to God because there is trouble. The series of questions at the beginning functions to both describe a situation of severe disorientation and accuses God of being responsible for the troubles. God’s absence creates disorientation and so do the troubles themselves (pain, sorrow, enemies prevailing) -- and there is a sense that something wrong in the relationship with YHWH is at the bottom of the mess.
We have no trouble relating. We have all had some suffering in our lives – it comes to all human beings, if we live long enough.
Some of us are born into suffering with physical challenges from birth. Some babies struggle from birth with problems breathing, with their hearts, and/or brain functions. And some don’t make it. We suffer right along with them. These things are not punishments from God.
Others of us have diseases or accidents that bring much pain and suffering later in life: repeated surgeries, physical limitations and enduring pain. These things are not punishments from God.
Some of us lose people close to us, sometimes in a series of devastating losses that make getting out of bed a victory. These things are not punishments from God.
And now we are living in a time of two pandemics: racism and COVID-19. We all know people who are suffering greatly from one or both of them: reliving past traumas; magnifying battles with depression, overwhelming fears for the future. These things are not punishments from God.
We compound our suffering with FORGETFULNESS. In forgetting God’s presence with us and God’s tender and unconditional love for us in the midst of our troubles, we actually make our suffering worse. We forget our belovedness, our sacred worth, and then magnify our suffering by our self-destructive actions that send us in a downward spiral into a pit of despair in which we feel lost and alone.
Julian of Norwich lived in14thc England – in the time of the Bubonic Plague, famines, floods, wars, and corruption in the nation and church. 60% of the people around her died, and things kept getting worse --the Inquisition began in England, the Peasants Revolt arose and was brutally put down, and a whole series of climate disasters – famines and floods worsened desperate poverty. And there was suffering also from the widespread explanation of these events as punishments from God. Julian stood against that idea, insisting that the deepest truth is of God’s love for us – no matter the circumstances. Suffering has many causes, but punishment from God is not one of them. Suffering is just suffering, a part of life – NOT who God is. Julian wrote that we compound the suffering of our circumstances by the idea of God’s rejection of us. Sometimes we are blinded to God’s presence in the midst of trauma and suffering. We feel abandoned, like a lost child, bereft of the comfort and security of the one who loves us.
The truth is that we ALL – all people – were made for the Beloved – God -- and we are all deeply loved by God. The Source of life is deeply, unimaginably good – but life is a hot mess,” as Wendy Farley says.
And when we suffer, we cry out to God. Of course we do.
Our experience of suffering is very different if we feel God’s loving presence supporting us through it. Remembering God’s love doesn’t change the situation, but not feeling alone helps give us strength. People of faith often say, “I don’t know how people manage without God to help them through the hard stuff of life.”
In verses 3 and 4, the psalmist reaffirms the relationship with God: MY GOD with a petitions containing a motivational hook. God is requested to consider the person, answer the needs, and lighten their darkness. The psalmist knows God’s intervention is needed to emerge from the troubles. My God: Look – notice the problem; Answer – because YHWH sees; Give Light – light is the power of life for the psalmist who is about to sink into oblivion. Saving is needed here and God is the only one who can do it!
Similarly, Jesus encouraged his followers to ask in prayer for what they needed in a three-fold teaching that matches the structure of this psalm: ASK …and it will be given to you, SEARCH….and you will find, KNOCK…and the door will be opened to you. In this psalm, verses 1-4 really parallel the acts of asking, searching and knocking. Jesus’ teaching on prayer is a summary of the form provided in this psalm.
Asking for help reconnects us with God -- which makes our experience of suffering less overwhelming. Wendy Farley suggests that forgetting that we are loved creates a terrible wound within us, which tends to escalate self-destructive behaviors, and intensifies our anguish.
The motivational hooks are intended to remind God that rescue is actually in God’s best interests. Act, God -- Lest I die, lest my enemy say there is no God, lest my foes rejoice. God will look bad if the situation continues much longer – assuming that the psalmist is known to be faithful to God. In these asks, the psalmist reminds God that God has something at stake in this. Maybe the reminder will help nudge God into responding. But if what is needed most is the connection with God, if the separation from God creates the greatest crisis, the psalmist as begun to remedy that. The address is “My God.”
Motivational arguments are fairly common in the scriptures, and not unknown to us. Perhaps you have a “motivationalist” in your family. Ours is 8. “Nana, I just know you would like for me to have this.” “Nana, I would like a necklace just like yours so we could match. That would make you happy, wouldn’t it?” “Nana, I know you want my room to be a special place – don’t you think this would be perfect?” I know what she is up to – I raised her mother, after all. But in another, less manipulative sense, she is not wrong. I DO want her to be happy, it DOES mean something to match and remind, and I DO want her room to be her special retreat. Maybe the reminders, even to God, don’t hurt after all!
We are neither alone, nor abandoned, in our suffering. God who loves us is with us, even when we are not aware. And reminders of God’s loving and supportive presence DO give us strength.
It changes us. Knowing that we are loved by God – that all people are loved by God – changes us. It’s a metanoia: a transformation and change of heart and mind. God’s mercy, shown in the past reminds us of God’s love.
For us, when we remember our innate self as beloved of God, it is turning point, a remaking of our sense of self that is a kind of resurrection in the midst of life. “By remembering that Divine Goodness is love and loves us, we remember who we ourselves are: children of the Beloved, who love the Holy One’s much-cherished creation. This metanoia (or turning around) is the heart of the contemplative way.”
Or, as a poet of our time, Andrew Lloyd Webber put it, “Love, love changes everything.” Love, love changes everything Hands and faces, earth and sky Love, love changes everything How you live and how you die Love, can make the summer fly Or a night seem like a lifetime Yes love, love changes everything Now I tremble at your name Nothing in the world will ever be the same
Love, love changes everything Days are longer, words mean more Love, love changes everything Pain is deeper than before Love will turn your world around And that world will last forever Yes love, love changes everything Brings you glory, brings you shame Nothing in the world will ever be the same
Knowing we are the beloved of God reminds us of who we really are. It’s like the Harold McGrath version of the fairy tale of the Goose Girl, where the Duke’s daughter is stolen at birth and raised as a goose girl. She doesn’t know who she is until the king to whom she was engaged from birth falls in love with her -- without knowing who she really is. It is love that reveals who she was all along. If we can awaken to the beauty of our soul and the belovedness that is an essential part of who we are – it changes our self-perception.
Knowing we are beloved also helps us realize the belovedness of other people, including those we’ve previously overlooked. A contemplative life helps with this too – as we journey into a deeper relationship with the divine, it stretches both our awareness and our imagination and increases our openness to love. We see the beauty in those around us more clearly.
Time with God restores us to wholeness despite the damage and brainwashing by society, propaganda, or the destructive theologies in the airwaves – all things that steal our vitality and distort relationships. Time with God re-members us, telling us the fundamental truth of our identity as “a beloved child of God connected in love with every other being.”
Verses 5-6 of the psalm show the change. Trust is restored. Rejoicing is happening. Singing will take place. God has acted and the relationship is restored. The troubles aren’t gone – but God is present in their midst. This is the truth behind many of the African-American Spirituals. The troubles of the world are still there – but God’s love and sustaining presence make living possible nonetheless.
Martin Luther says this psalm demonstrates “the state in which hope despairs and yet despair hopes at the same time.” God is involved in all of life, even at its worst. Even at, say, a crucifixion. “We are simultaneously people of the cross and people of the resurrection.” Suffering is real – but God is with us. Thanks be to God.
1 NIBC, Volume IV, Psalms, 728.
2 Walter Brueggemann, Praying the Psalms, 31.
3 Walter Brueggemann, The Message of the Psalms, 58.
4 Sermon Fodder, Beguiled by Beauty and Interview with Wendy Farley.
5 Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr, Psalms. 76.
6 Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr, Psalms. 78.
7 Interview with Wendy Farley.
8 Interview with Wendy Farley.
9 Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Love Changes Everything,” Aspects of Love.
10 Harold McGrath, The Goose Girl, 1909 – based on a Grimms Brothers fairy tale by the same name. (McGrath’s
version is less gory.)
11 Interview with Wendy Farley.
12 Interview with Wendy Farley.
13 J.L. Mays, Luther, 281-2. Ref. in NICB 727.
14 NIBC, 728.