Why Does God Allow Suffering?

Over the last 2 weeks of my vacation, I sat in the passenger seat each day while my 16 year old practiced driving in all kind of conditions and strange places. After he turned left in front of a car that had a green light, or started up from a stop sign, failing to realize that cars on the cross street did not have a stop sign, I couldn’t help sharing my fatherly wisdom and experience with him.

“You know, when I was 21, 22 years old, Elijah (sounding too much like “When I was your age,” I know) when I was in my twenties, buddy, I started up from a stop sign one day like you just did, and didn’t realize there was no stop sign on the cross street. I didn’t even see the school bus coming from my right and I had no idea it wouldn’t stop. BAM! It threw my little Honda like a bumper car at Coney Island!”

“Yeah, Dad, you told that story like 5 times already.”

And I’ll probably tell it a few more times before we’re through!

It’s one of those times in my life when I wished I could just go back in time 10 minutes. Ten minutes, God. Would that be so hard? Ten minutes back, so I could stay stopped at that stop sign. Ten minutes so the kids in that bus would not be thrown from their seats. Just 10 minutes, please!? Everybody should be allowed a do-over or two in their life don’t you think? There should be some kind of button, like those Staples “That was Easy” buttons – God should be able to push, saying, “Whoa, that didn’t work. Let’s go back.”

Any one of us in 5 minutes, could come up with 5 times we wish God had a button like that, times we wished we could time travel back 10 minutes to stop something bad from happening, to change something we or somebody else did.

I remember having these kinds of thoughts ten years ago on September 11, and just after. Why couldn’t God have some kind of giant do-over button to go back a few hours or a day to keep those guys from getting on those planes? If God is all-powerful, and completely good, how could God let something like the horrendous 9/11 attacks happen? How could God let all those people die; let all those people jump who had to jump from 80 stories up in the air?

This classic question is the one we are going to ask today and next week as we prepare for the multi-faith 9/11 commemoration that will be happening here next Sunday. Let me state it in its classic formulation:

1.       God is omnipotent – all powerful, totally in charge of what goes on in this world.

2.       God is totally benevolent – completely good, cares about every sparrow in creation.

3.       Evil pervades our world.

How can all three of these statements be true?  One of them must be wrong. One of them must be off, because they seem to contradict each other.

Philosophers and theologians have struggled with this dilemma for centuries. It is one of the key arguments against faith in God – this problem of evil. And you can be sure that some people after 9/11 lost their faith, even as others had their faith grow stronger. How could there be famine in Somalia, babies dying of hunger every few seconds, children dying from malaria, unsafe drinking water, gun violence, war, sex slavery, homelessness? How could so many innocents suffer so much from mental diseases, auto accidents, birth defects, leukemia, cancer, Parkinson’s, divorce, unemployment, and on and on?

Where is God? Where is the God who appeared in the burning bush and said, “I see my people’s pain and oppression? I will lead you out of slavery in Egypt. I will save you?  Where is that God?

On 9/11 I am quite confident that God was in the burning building. God was in the World Trade Center buildings; God was with the people in the Pentagon; God was with the people on the planes; God was with the firefighters and office workers and police. God in particular was with Welles Crowther, who worked on the 104th floor of one of the towers.

A survivor of the tragedy that day reported later that a man, who was later identified as Welles, came onto her floor of the building. He was already carrying a woman on his back. He came in to show her where the stairs were so she could get out safely.  After Welles got those two women out of the building, he ran back in and helped 2 more people out. And then you know what he did? He ran back into the building with some firefighters, with a Jaws of Life rescue tool to try to help get some others out.

John 15 quotes Jesus saying it this way, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”  When we look for God to have a magic button to turn back time or to prevent all the bad things in the world from happening, we have great trouble seeing.  But when we look for God in the burning bush, in the burning building; when we look for God in our own call to be God’s hands and feet, we find much greater success.

As we come to receive communion this morning, I invite you to let go of the magic button, let go of the false hope that God will turn back the clock or step in magically to make evil go away. Put your hope in the God of Life who calls you to life, who calls you to choose to live, and to give your life for God’s people. Put your hope in the Living God in Christ Jesus who gave his life so that you might live as God’s beloved.