© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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Why do evil and suffering exist in our world? Why, for instance, do young children regularly get sick, suffer through long illnesses and then die? Why are there tremendously destructive natural forces at work in our universe which spawn death and sorrow – earthquakes that kill and maim, tidal waves that drown and obliterate, cancers and other diseases that cause suffering?
As Epicurus, the famous ancient Greek philosopher noted, if there is a God who is unable to prevent such evils, then that being is not all powerful. If there is a God who is unwilling to prevent such evils, then that being is cruel and malicious. If there is a God who is able and willing to prevent evil, then why does evil exist? As a final proposition, according to Epicurus’ reasoning, if there is a God who is both unable AND unwilling to prevent evil, then why is that being called “God”?
We are thus faced, as Epicurus and all humanity has confronted, with the problem of evil and suffering. This is not a problem with the fact of its existence. We experience the reality of suffering from the moment of birth. The problem is in how we reconcile evil’s observable reality with notions that this ought to be a just, perfect and loving universe – controlled by a loving God or other force for good.
But my concern today is not in a theological or philosophical discussion on why the god force of our personal understanding does not eliminate suffering. It is, instead, with how humanity in general – and then each person specifically – comes to terms with the truth of evil and suffering. In keeping with this month’s theme, we will use spiritual poetry – today, the Psalms of the Bible – to hopefully find insight.
Unless we are pathologically unstable without empathy for others, each of us yearns to not only be good, but to help create and then live within a good universe. Nevertheless, we confront evil inclinations in ourselves as well as in our world. We see people inflict horrible suffering on themselves and on fellow humans and creatures. We witness natural forces wreak random havoc, death and disease. We understand that all living beings die but also, often, suffer in that process.
Just as much as we acknowledge the reality of evil and suffering, so do we also experience moments of pure transcendence. There are great forces for good in the universe. If we open our hearts and souls, we are often profoundly moved by sensing forces beyond our understanding – forces of goodness, love, peace and well-being. Such forces move people to acts of great compassion, selflessness, and heroism. Gazing out on the natural realm, we are also struck by the sheer beauty and inherent goodness of creation – the immense eternity of our cosmos, the inner workings of living beings, the wonder and joy of life itself, and the mere fact that we breathe, think and function. Whatever it is that animates existence, we are in awe of that breathtaking power. Evil exists but we know that the essence of the universe, and all life, is good and loving.
Such dual realities – the existence of evil and the truth of goodness – give us pause. Therein lies the source of our discomfort. Spiritually speaking, how do we reconcile the existence of evil in a good universe? What is our response? Do we retreat in fear, sadness, anger, and doubt? Do we block out the bad through destructive behavior or attitudes? Or might a spiritual response be to accept both, acknowledge the existence of evil and suffering but find in the persistent and yearning good of humanity a cause for celebration? Instead of seeing the existence of evil as something incongruent to how we believe things should be, and then despair, might we instead find joy in the reality of good despite evil? When love can exist despite hate, when compassion exists alongside indifference, when the wonder of creation and the richness of life exist despite disease and death, is that not reason for joy?
Whether one is Jewish, Christian or a skeptic, the Biblical Psalms have endured as deeply meaningful poetry because they speak to the universal questions about the problem of evil in our world. How do we make sense of a universe where evil exists alongside love and truth?
Throughout the 150 Psalms, there are three distinct voices of poetic expression found in them: praise at the goodness of life and creation; bewilderment and hurt at the dissonant reality of evil; and finally joy at the understanding that despite suffering, life is still good.
In the first type of Psalm, much like people have always done, the Psalmists revel in the beauty and delights of creation. Whatever it is that created us – God, natural selection, or other unseen forces – that power is good and worthy of praise. Such words are exemplified in Psalms like the following:
From Psalm 8, verses 1-8
You have set your glory
in the heavens.
Through the praise of children and infants,
you have established a stronghold against your enemies,
to silence the foe and the avenger.
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
This creation or wisdom Psalm – and others like it – reflect human words of hope, promise and awe. While Jews of that era and believers today read in such a poem words of praise to a creator God, even the skeptic might see it as expression of delight in a complex and wondrous universe. While we now have far greater understanding of the cosmos and the forces that dictate its function, we are still spellbound by its intricate beauty and vast expanse. Much like the Psalmist points out in Psalm 8, who and what are humans compared to the infinite wonder of galaxies, solar systems and an ever expanding universe? Implicit in such words are the wonder and awe of how small we are within the created order. Similar Psalms point out the beauty of the natural world, of mountains, animals and desert landscapes that speak of a powerful creator God or creative force.
When we ponder such reality, when we gaze upon endless forests, soaring mountains or teeming wildlife, who cannot help but be inspired? From the smallest of essential building blocks to life, to the miracle of any creature’s birth, we are amazed and in praise of all created glory. As the Psalmist wrote, all life and all creation figuratively shout in praise at the majesty of God – a force we know by many names.
The second type of Psalm gives voice to the confusion and even anger at the reality of pain and evil in a supposedly beautiful world. Such sentiments are expressed in Psalms like the following:
From Psalm 102, verses 1-11
Hear my prayer, Lord;
let my cry for help come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
when I am in distress.
Turn your ear to me;
when I call, answer me quickly.
For my days vanish like smoke;
my bones burn like glowing embers.
My heart is blighted and withered like grass;
I forget to eat my food.
In my distress I groan aloud
and am reduced to skin and bones.
I am like a desert owl,
like an owl among the ruins.
I lie awake; I have become
like a bird alone on a roof.
All day long my enemies taunt me;
those who rail against me use my name as a curse.
For I eat ashes as my food
and mingle my drink with tears
because of your great wrath,
for you have taken me up and thrown me aside.
My days are like the evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
I recall that when my oldest daughter Sara was about a year in age, her mom set her in front of a large mirror. She was in awe. Most children have similar reactions at the first such experience. Sara stared in wonder at this person looking back at her. She reached out to touch the other, she twisted her arms in wonder that her reflection mimicked her. She was delighted in the attraction, miracle and fun of this other life form. She echoed the sentiments of the creation or first type of Psalm.
A few days later, Sara fell off of one of her riding toys and scraped herself up in a bad way. She was bloody and sore and she wailed in pain at the hurt – pouting her little lips in seeming disgust at a cruel world. I happened to take pictures of both reactions – memorializing her wonder at an image of creation, contrasted with her cry – the universal cry – at the pain life also brings.
Her realizations mirror our own unease and dis-ease. After our awe at the reality of a beautifully complex universe and mysterious creative force, we very quickly understand that our world is full of hurt and evil. Others seek to harm us, death stalks us from behind every corner, suffering is a real and present reality. Where, oh where, is God or other forces of good in our universe to prevent such evil? Why, oh why, must such evil exist? Expressions like these are found in the Psalm we just read and others like it.
David is supposed to have written many such Psalms – ones of lament, sorrow and confusion at the strength of his enemies, the shame of his own errors, and the sharp pains of life. Indeed, he often cried out like Job does to God – a God who seemed to hide his or her face in the midst of great suffering.
In times of our distress, we ask how such evil can exist. Where is the good in our world? Where is God and why does she allow such hurt? We cry out, much like Jesus is said to have done on the Cross, why God, why have you forsaken me?
When our suffering endures or when death itself knocks at our door or at the doorway of a loved one, we seek answers. We submerge ourselves in fear, depression, anger or destructive behaviors – all as ways to cope with the reality of suffering. These expressions, while harmful if they last too long, are normal human responses to pain. Indeed, the Bible implicitly understands such expressions. They indicate the struggle of our minds to make sense of God and the universe. Ultimately, they are expressions of faith in the reality of goodness. If we had no faith in healing, compassion, generosity, love and mercy, we would not cry out in their absence.
Such words of distress and confusion are found throughout the Psalms. They speak to a spiritual search for truth and to the problem of evil. The Bible has not ignored or censored such expressions but, instead, uses them as ways to inspire and strengthen all people who can relate to the reality of pain. Expressions of lament and protest at a cruel world lead us to a dawning understanding of life, suffering and ultimate joy.
At such an epiphany, we find final resolution to our questions and the dissonant reality of suffering. Evil exists in a world of great beauty. It will darken any day. It will haunt every night. But, despite that reality, God is still good and love remains a constant truth. Such a view is expressed in the third and final type of Psalm, ones of joy, examples of which read as follows:
from Psalm 30, verses 5-7, 11-12
Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people;
praise his holy name.
For his anger lasts only a moment,
but his favor lasts a lifetime;
weeping may stay for the night,
but rejoicing comes in the morning.
You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
Lord my God, I will praise you forever.
And finally, from Psalm 35 verses 9-11:
Then my soul will rejoice in the Lord
and delight in his salvation.
My whole being will exclaim,
“Who is like you, Lord?
You rescue the poor from those too strong for them,
the poor and needy from those who rob them.”
Our souls cannot help but shout with joy when we understand the enduring truth of beauty and goodness in our world. Numerous Psalms express these emotions. At his own epiphany about suffering, David exults in the ultimate goodness of his God. He wants to sing God’s praise forever. In the story of his crucifixion, Jesus shouted in victory, just before his death, that his life’s work was finished. Job claimed joy in the assurance and realization that God had never abandoned him. We too, no matter our beliefs, can claim in our moments of solace, in the peace we find through meditation, in the love that surrounds us and reaches out to touch us, in acts of justice that have advanced the cause of equality throughout history – we too can claim victory and joy at the persistence of goodness in our universe and in our lives.
My friends, much as we looked at last Sunday two Japanese poems that point us to live in the eternity and peace of the present – to let go of the past, not worry about the future but exult in the sights, sounds, smells and pleasures of the here and now, so too do we find in the Biblical Psalms insights on how we might find resolution to our never ending search for lasting joy.
That comes not just with a focus on the wonders of life. Nor is it absent in our suffering. It is found, according to the Psalms, in a new understanding that no matter the hate, hurt, death and destruction we witness in our world, God is not absent, goodness is also a reality, the cause of justice marches onward, new life still springs up all around us, hope is not lost, life remains a glorious experience. When we fully understand this fact, when we deeply feel that no matter what life throws at us, that good is not dead, we inwardly celebrate. We find anew the joy that seemed to die when suffering came upon us. We gain a new wisdom – one that accepts the truth of suffering while celebrating all of the wonder we see around us.
Such is a primary reason all of us are here today and why we continue to come back to this place. Pain may exist outside these doors, but in here there are deep friendships, in here are some keys to happiness, in here we make commitments to help heal a broken world, in here are found moments of goodness. Like the Psalmist noted in the last two passages we read, we may weep at night, but we rejoice in the morning. From the ashes of our personal despair, in here blooms hope and wisdom. The poor, needy and lame remind us of an imperfect world, but our purpose and our hearts direct us to make it better. Even though hate and intolerance exist, we choose to be a force of love and acceptance to any and all people.
When I visited John Curley in the hospital last Monday, two weeks after a surgery that did not go well and after several days in the intensive care unit, John choked up – with tears in his eyes – as he looked to the window mantle filled with cards of love from many of you…..filled with beautiful flowers from our congregation and others in his life. With his partner Ed at his side, John knew in that moment the joy and wonder and awe of genuine goodness. Pain had visited his room but so too, in a strong and loud voice, had compassion and hope. Life, it seems, remains a…very… very… beautiful… thing.
I wish each and every one of you much peace and even more joy.