The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12), Year A
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all day long;
we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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 8:26-39
“Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” A surprisingly grim statement from the otherwise light-hearted The Princess Bride. Even in comedy, the specter of suffering lurks in the background of our existence. Like all good comedy, even dark comedy, the humor comes from an examination of the truth. Firstly, that no one, no matter how privileged and comfortable, goes through life without suffering. Secondly, that many who try to explain away suffering have some kind of vested interest; whether it be a salesmen hawking a product promising to dramatically improve our lives, or a politician promising to return us to the “good old days” when we fear the future, or a preacher promising eternal bliss in heaven, especially for those who turn in their pledge cards.
The problem of suffering, and its evil twin, the problem of evil, have beguiled humanity since Eden. Every culture across the span of history has had its own cultural experience of suffering, and salesmen to capitalize off it. Entire philosophical worldviews, and arguably a few religions, have been developed strictly to understand, and hopefully defeat, the problem that evil and suffering present.
But what is suffering? What is evil? For such a universal human experience, simply explaining what suffering and evil are is notoriously difficult. Like many seemingly basic philosophical and theological problems, a step in any direction causes us to fall into a chasm of historical and emotional baggage, as well as half-baked answers that further compound our problems. But because there is enough suffering in the world, to understand suffering we will rely on intuition and subjective experience: suffering occurs when a sentient being lacks something they need, are injured emotionally or physically, are robbed of opportunity, loses someone or something they love, etc. Evil is harder to define, though it is certainly related to suffering, it lacks the immediate subjective experience that we know suffering from. Though this is likely a vast oversimplification, as a working definition let us say that evil is anything that causes suffering.
For Christians and other theists, we grapple with another layer of complexity: If we believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God, why is there suffering in the world? This is commonly known as The Problem of Evil and is best summarized in a quote commonly (though perhaps wrongly) attributed to the stoic philosopher Epicurious: “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not all-powerful. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
Epicurious’ questions are not entirely perfect, as they contain some suppressed premises and weld together two separate problems: the Logical Problem of Evil (i.e. how is it logically possible for evil to exist in a universe created by an all-powerful, loving God),1 and the Evidential Problem of Evil (Why does evil exist? But if it must exist, why is there so much of it?).2 Again, to prevent adding more suffering into the world beyond what is morally sufficient, we will limit our focus to the evidential problem of evil/suffering, as it is the harder problem to solve. Generally, the logical problem of evil can be solved by demonstrating that God has a morally sufficient reason for permitting evil in creation (for example, the pain of an immunization shot is morally permissible because it prevents the greater pain of the illness). The Evidential problem, or the sheer amount and degree of suffering and evil that we witness in the world, is harder to explain.
Though it may be harder to explain, there have been no lack of explanations; none are quite complete, and some certainly fare better than others. We still need to air some of our philosophical dirty laundry and unload our intellectual history baggage before we can move on to the next part of the sales-pitch (think of this as the black-and-white “before” section of the commercial), what follows is a brief list of the explanation, and primary objection.
- “Stuff happens”: The Bible, various ancient traditions, cosmic nihilism & absurdism
- Objection: If everything is random, then God is neither good nor all-powerful
- God is punishing a sinful world: The Bible, especially Job’s friends, various ancient traditions
- Objection: victim blaming, the punishment does not fit the crime, God is not all-good.
- God’s ways are too mysterious to understand: The Bible, various ancient traditions
- Objection: God seeks a personal relationship & gave us reasoning, if we are completely shut-out, God is not all-good.
- Free Will: The Bible(?), Augustine of Hippo, Irenaeus, Arminius, Alvin Plantinga
- Objection: it is far from clear whether free will actually exists, it has been a subject of serious debate both within Christianity and other philosophical arenas.
- Soul-Making (Suffering is Good, “builds character”): Irenaeus, Dostoevsky
- Objection: Some suffering is so severe it only damages rather than builds-up, especially with creatures that lack higher cognitive functions like animals. God is not all-good.
- This is the Best of All Possible Worlds: Leibniz
- Objection: Really? Why then can most intuit a better world? Why even strive for making the world better in the ways we can? God is neither good nor all-powerful.
- “The Devil did it!”: The Bible, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, various ancient traditions
- Objection: Why did God allow the Devil to do it? If God defeated the devil through Jesus, why is there still suffering? God is not all-powerful.
- Evil/Suffering doesn’t Exist (State of Mind): various ancient traditions, Stoics, new-age salesmen
- Objection: even if only a state of mind, suffering bears consequences, it is real enough.
- God Suffers With You/More Than You: various modern traditions
- Objection: Why should God suffer too if He could prevent it? God is not all-powerful.
- Apocalypse/Eschatology (God will make everything right at the end of time): The Bible, especially the New Testament, various ancient traditions
- Objection: A nice hope for the future, but later repayment does not justify current suffering, God is not all-good.
Something that becomes clear even from that far from comprehensive list, is that many explanations are so focused on defending God, or at least some image of God, that they forget those who are actually suffering; trivializing their experience and marginalizing them further. The response is far more public-relations than pastoral. The most offensive responses that we all-too-often encounter are variations of victim-blaming, the idea that God suffering too is somehow supposed to do anything other than weaken God and give no comfort to the suffering, and the common claim that it is not our place to try and understand our suffering, that we should simply grin and bear it.
As you may have observed, in our faith tradition, the Bible grapples with suffering in many places and in many different ways. One could argue that much of the Old Testament, especially the “histories” and prophets, are entirely dedicated to explaining the national suffering of the Babylonian exile. Little changes in the New Testament, where much of Jesus’ teachings and most of the Epistles are aimed at comforting those who are persecuted, especially the new followers of Jesus. Our reading from Romans today is one of several times Paul grapples with this problem in his letters, though this is perhaps Paul’s most complete exploration of the issue.
Paul, having completed earlier in the chapter his explanation how Jesus’ incarnation, death, and resurrection has redeemed creation, moves immediately to the most pressing and important question in light of that revelation: Why are we still suffering? And how are we to deal with it? From this and other parts of the letter, we can tell that the intended recipients of the letter are experiencing some kind of persecution. Paul’s answer to them comes not from the luxury of philosophical inquiry, or the privilege of a sales-pitch, but an answer to a dire spiritual need.
Though Paul did not conceive of his answer in the strict philosophical terms we have set before us, and he did not bother to package his answer into an easily-marketable catchphrase, a name that suitably describes it would be “Redemption”. Or in longer-form, “Jesus redeems all suffering”.
What does this mean? And how is it different than the other less-than-satisfactory explanations that we have already seen? In short, it is a hybrid of several of the previous explanations, though what distinguishes it from the others is that rather than “defending God”, Paul emphasizes the partnership between God and humanity in the project of returning creation to God’s original purpose. That with due effort and understanding, all suffering can be redeemed to something good, something contributing toward the goal of healing creation.
Paul begins his explanation by emphasizing God remaining with us through all things, especially in suffering. Not only is God with us, but has suffered alongside us through the Incarnation, God understands what suffering is, and is constantly working to redeem suffering in creation.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Paul goes on to observe that through the Incarnation and defeat of Death by Christ, we have been given a helper and an example of how to turn the greatest evil into hope.
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
I must note that the language and translation of that sentence (and the whole paragraph) is tricky, and carries with it quite a bit of historical baggage through the use of terms such as “foreknew”, “predestined”, “elect”, etc. Yet the idea that Paul is trying to convey is that those who know Jesus recognize that Jesus has transformed suffering and death from meaninglessness into hope, that the world is good, God is good, and God is willing to give everything to redeem the world. “All things work together for good…” is our task and comfort; to take our suffering and any evil in the world, like Jesus and with Jesus, redeem it into something good. This is not to minimize suffering or brush it off as “for the greater good”, but rather a task to ensure that no one suffers in vain. We are charged with transforming that suffering into good, especially helping those who have suffered so much that they cannot on their own. All the while we recognize in hope that we too are being helped by God,
“It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.”
The final comfort and help is that while some suffering we are powerless to justify or fully restore, God has and will redeem that pain. That as His beloved creation, the world will be fully healed and all pain will be transformed into something good, something holy. And while we still are in this present life of confusion and suffering, we know that God is with us, and no matter what in this transitory life, we are loved.
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, 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.”