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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.

01 September 2005

A Christian Response to Suffering and Death

Q: Why?

New Orleans FloodedA: Already, questions concerning Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath swirl about. Much as in the days following the terrorist murders in September of 2001, the British subway and bus bombings, and other horrendous losses of life, shock becomes anger, grief, and fear. People ask, “Why?”

Christians seem to have it worst. We believe in a loving God. We know that “His mercy endures forever.” Now we wonder, “Where is God’s mercy?” Some even ask, “Where is God?”

Why did evil men hijack aircraft and smash them into buildings filled with people? Why did they blow up unsuspecting British commuters? Why do some people hate the Western world with such passion? Why did Katrina form and track as she did? Why is New Orleans flooded and much of coastal Mississippi leveled? Ultimately, we are asking, “Why did God allow this to happen?”

We aren’t alone in wondering, nor is this the first time the question has been asked. Many horrors lead people to ask God, “Why?” Miscarriage happens after parents begin planning and dreaming for a child’s future; we ask why. Small children are killed by accidents, afflicted with cancer, or crippled by disease; we ask why. Drunk drivers run down young people while others are paralyzed by sports accidents; we ask why. Disease, disaster, and death take away parents, spouses, or friends; we ask why.

We ask more aggressively when our loved ones die and we see the families and friends of others still alive. We complain bitterly when open, unrepentant sinners live long and prosper while believers face and trials and difficulties. We don’t understand the looting, shooting, and other acts of terror perpetrated against those already rendered helpless.

Scripture echoes our questions. Losing children, possessions, and health, Job asked, “Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? (Job 21:7)” The Psalmist wondered, “Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? (Psalm 2:1)” Jacob wondered why Joseph was taken from him, apparently torn apart by wild animals. Joseph must have wondered about his brothers’ hatred that led them to sell him into slavery. Moses must have been practically screaming at God, wondering why he’d been burdened with leading such a stiff-necked, sinful people as Israel.

Sometimes we see restoration in this life. Job received back even more than he lost (Job 42:10-17). The widow of Zarephath must have wondered why God sent His prophet to eat the last of her food, yet she saw that God kept replenishing the supply. Even more, she asked how one who housed a man of God could have God take away her son. She cried, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son! (1 Kings 17:18)” The Lord chose to raise the child to life through Elijah’s prayer.

World Trade Center AirplaneYet often, God doesn’t answer why. He basically told Job (chapters 38-41), “When you’re God, then you can demand an answer.” He’s never spelled out why He created the angels, only to see so many of them fall into sin or mankind, only to watch the rebellion of our race unfold.

At other times, God reveals His purposes for troubles. Joseph was taken away so he could save his family. Moses was called because God knew he was right for the job. Sometimes disaster is a call to us to repent and trust God. He sent invaders to chastize Israel and Judah for their sins. Jesus used the fall of the tower of Siloam (Luke 13:4-5) to warn others that their fate would be the same without repentance. The disciples asked, “Why was this man born blind?” Jesus didn’t blame the sins of the parents or God’s foreknowledge that the man would also sin. He said, “It was so the works of God would be shown in him,” then He restored the man’s sight (John 9).

When Lazarus was deathly ill, his sisters sent for help. Jesus intentionally stayed away. When He finally got to Bethany, Lazarus was dead and Martha asked why He was not there sooner to help, saying, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus used this incident both to evoke a confession of faith in the resurrection from Martha and to show His mastery over death as He called the dead man from the tomb and Lazarus heard and was made alive (John 11).

This very miracle of life also took Jesus to His own suffering and death. The leaders resented and feared His influence and popularity: “If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation. (Luke 11:48)” This led to their plots against Him.

However, God planned things to happen in just this way because it was only by the death of Christ that death would finally be defeated. Only by our sins being crucified along with His flesh would we be forgiven. Only if Satan struck Him down could Jesus deal the devil’s deathblow. In all of this, God is pleased to reveal much of His will and His “why.”

In many other things, however, He hides His purposes. We can speculate, resist, or accept His will, knowing that it is ultimately for the best. The apostle said, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. . . . For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:28, 38-39)”

During the post-9/11 memorial service at the National Cathedral, President Bush quoted this section of Paul’s epistle, urging us to trust that the will of God is always best. Perhaps because he leads a nation with many religions, he neglected to complete the final verse. He stopped with “the love of God.” But the love of God without “Christ Jesus our Lord” is impossible for us to receive. Without Christ, we are all children of wrath and enemies of God. In God’s eyes, natural mankind is a band of terrorists who bring chaos to His order, lies to His truth, betrayal to His blessings, and death to all that He gives life. God could rightly blame each and every one of us for every evil that has ever happened. However, He doesn’t!

Instead, God blamed His innocent Son. To reconcile Himself to sinners, God “made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)”

In His agony on the cross, Jesus cried out with and for us sinners, saying, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46)” As He quoted Psalm 22, Jesus identified Himself with every person who has ever been devastated by untimely loss. No one was ever more innocent, yet no one ever suffered more severely both the attacks of Satan and the divine justice of God. The greatest miscarriage of justice was also its highest expression, for in the holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death of Christ, we are forgiven and invited to become citizens of the heavenly kingdom.

Simply knowing that God knows best and that all things work out for good doesn’t take away our pain. But the pain Jesus felt sanctifies and gives purpose to our suffering. Believing in the resurrection doesn’t immediately call the dead to life, but it guarantees that the dead in Christ will rise. The Christian still asks, “Why pain, suffering, and death?” God still answers, not from the whirlwind, but from the cross: “Because I love you and desire to make My strength perfect in your weakness.” He saps our strength through tragedy that He might provide His strength for this life and for life everlasting.

A prayer I use at the cemetery says, “Almighty God, by the death of Your Son Jesus Christ You destroyed death, by His rest in the tomb You sanctified the graves of Your saints, and by His glorious resurrection You brought life and immortality to light so that all who die in Him abide in peace and hope. Receive our thanks for the victory over death and the grave which He won for us. Keep us in everlasting fellowship with all that wait for Him on earth and with all in heaven who are with Him who is the Resurrection and the Life, Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

We are not eternally separated from the departed faithful. We are in communion with them as we worship and receive blessings from the same Savior. We know that they have joined that great “cloud of witnesses” and are an encouragement to us to “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” They tell us to look to Jesus, “the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1-2)”

Remaining in this life, God now calls His faithful to acts of selfless love. Ephesians 2:8-9 reminds us that our salvation is totally dependent upon the grace of God, that none of our works merit His love. However, God does not save us to watch us sit idly by as our needy neighbor suffers: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Eph 2:10)”

The Lord now places your needy brothers and sisters of Mississippi and Louisiana before you. As “His workmanship,” He now invites you to walk in the good works which He “prepared beforehand” for you to do, to the glory of His holy name.

This post is revised and expanded from an earlier response to the 9/11 terror.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

Send email to Ask the Pastor.

Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.


Blogger Kobra said...

The most comforting truth to me is that when the SHTF I know it is happening because God loves me. When I get sick, I get sick because God loves me. When I fall off my bike and skin my knee, I bleed because God loves me. When my world crumbles before me, I stand firm on the fact that God loves me. He said so in Romans 8, and I believe it. Thanks for the great post.


02 September, 2005 00:13  

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