By Pastor Cherie Dearth
We are in the midst of our sermon series, The Bible Doesn’t Say That, things that we think are in the Bible or our American culture considers generally true. This week it is the idea that suffering always comes from sin, doing wrong. Another way to put it is that suffering is always a consequence of our own actions or decision.
This is another one of those ideas that on the surface we might dismiss. I don’t really believe that. However, when we see things happen to other people, or we are faced with events, our thought process can be very different.
We are in a car accident. Whether it is legally our fault or not, we might question our judgment. Why did I let them get so close behind me? Why didn’t I know that they would turn left directly in front of me even though they didn’t have their turn signal on? Or the classic question of the victim that blames themselves, why was I even there at the time? I should have been home, and this would have never happened. What did I do to deserve this? All of this is blaming or suffering on our perceived mistake.
On the other hand, we do make mistakes. Some of those are simply unintended errors. Others we would classify as sin, and there are consequences for all of them in some way. Like simply feeling guilty. We could call that suffering.
There is also suffering we endure when we have done nothing wrong. I’m thinking of a woman I’ll call Sylvia. She lived her whole life trying to be as helpful as possible. She ate the right foods. She took vitamins and mineral supplements. She subscribed to health journals, and not only read them faithfully, but she did their best to incorporate their advice into her daily life. She exercised daily. She did everything right as far as it depended on her.
After a routine physical Sylvia found out that her cholesterol was dangerously high. She had some pain in her stomach, and her doctor did an ultrasound. She had a fatty liver. Why? She did all the right things, ate all the right foods … DNA. Something she had no control over. She is worried. She is suffering. What she might be suffering about the most is that she doesn’t have the control over her health that she thought she could have.
Today, we are going to look at two things in the Bible. One is from the beginning of the Epistle, or letter, of James, and the other is considering the life of Job. The Book of James is considered by tradition to be written by the brother of Jesus. He was also the leader of the church in Jerusalem for about 30 years (The Early Christian Letters for Everyone, pg 4).
James was a Jewish Christian, understandably, and he wrote from that perspective. He wrote to a church that was not accepted by the Jewish hierarchy or by Roman authorities. He was a man, at least in this letter, who was very direct and did not mince words. He expected people’s walk to match their talk.
James 1:1-4 NIV
1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings. [Joy to you!]
2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
These verses in James are one of those sections that many of us have a hard time relating to. “Consider it pure joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds” (vs 2). Pure joy?! Really? That’s like that passage in Philippians where the Apostle Paul tells us to “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Philippians 4:4). That doesn’t sound like good advice. It sounds like a recommendation to suppress our emotions, which in the long run can be bad news. Whatever we suppress comes out anyway in unhealthy ways.
But James isn’t talking about our emotions here. He uses the word “consider.” He wants his readers or hears (Usually, these letters were designed to be read aloud) to consider, to think about, to think about intellectually, the concept of the great benefit of facing trials. Okay, I’m thinking about it. I still don’t like it very much, but this is something that can be very hard to see in the moment.
Sometimes, it’s easier to see after the fact. This past week I was watching one of those movies where the young teenager wishes they were older. The next day, they wake up, and they are older. Comedy ensues, but before the end they make mistakes. They have regrets. They get a do-over, a chance to make a different choice because they have seen the result. In golf this might be like a mulligan. Try again.
Do I have regrets in my life? Of course. My biggest regrets are when I think I’ve hurt other people by what I have said or done. However, there are other kinds of regrets. I could have said something different in a job interview. If I made a different decision, my life could have gone in the completely different direction. Only one thing. I wouldn’t be here with you right now. Who knows where I would be? What other trials I would have had to go through? I would not have learned what I have. I may not even be the same person that I am now.
Consider it pure joy… Whenever you face trials of many kinds…
There is a quote from a German play which translates as, “Rocks on my path? I save them all. One day I will use them to build a castle.” Those words are all the more powerful when you learn that this play is for and highlights the deaf mute community in Austria. “Rocks on my path? I save them all. One day I will use them to build a castle.” (Zeichmsturm).
Are you familiar with Job from the Old Testament? Most people have at least heard of him. He had what was considered an ideal life in biblical times. He was wealthy. He had many children. He was righteous before God. He may have lived in something like a castle.
Job was so good that one angel in God’s court in heaven said to God that he’s only good because he has all of this wealth, because of all of his children. If it was taken away, he would curse God. The Bible calls him the accuser, satan, but it doesn’t mean the Satan we think of, the one who tempted Jesus in the desert. He was literally an accuser who was unconvinced that Job’s righteousness was true or authentic. God allows the accuser to test Job, but he is not allowed to kill him.
Our sensibilities today don’t like the idea that God would allow someone to be tested in that way, but Jesus never promises that it will be easy, quite the contrary. In the meantime, Job is suffering. His wealth is gone. His children are gone. He has sores all over his body. He is sitting in sackcloth and ashes, the traditional thing that was done when one was in the mourning.
Job is asking the question. What have I done to deserve this? We know the answer. Nothing. Job has done nothing to deserve this, but his so-called friends have a different answer. You have sinned. This wouldn’t have happened to you unless you had done something wrong. Just admit it. Ask for forgiveness, and repent. You know you did something. Job repeatedly asserts his innocence, and his friends continue their accusations. This goes on for 34 chapters. They are all asserting that suffering always comes from sin, even Job, who is pleading his innocence.
God finally comes. He does not respond directly to Job’s accusations. In the end Job is changed. This man who have been pronounced by God is righteous before any of this happened has learned more about God and deepened his faith.
In chapter 42 Job says, “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to understand” (Job 42:3b).
Despite all the awful things that Job had to endure, he actually obtained the result that James talks about. Job faced a trial, to be sure, but it produced perseverance. He matured further in his faith (James 1:2-4).
That reminds us of something else. Being righteous, learned, knowledgeable, doesn’t mean that there is nothing more for us to learn. Sometimes thinking that we have it figured out is a hint that we are about to have a new lesson in our lives. Sometimes suffering is a lesson. It could be a consequence of our actions. It could be to prepare us for something in our future. It could be to bring about a greater good.
There is a man named Vano. He had been an elected official in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He had retired and immigrated to the United States. He went home to get married and bring his wife to the United States. He was stopped at the airport and arrested.
That day he became a political prisoner. He had denounced the killing of a peaceful protester. He publicly objected to the president of Congo trying to get the Constitution changed so that he could run for a third term. By the way, the president has not done that. He just postponed the elections. They still haven’t happened yet. Maybe next year.
Meanwhile, Vano was in prison. He had malaria and diabetes. His family did not think he was receiving the treatment and diet that he needed for these conditions. By any account he was suffering.
What did he do? He prayed. He sang songs. He spread the gospel to his fellow prisoners. As a United Methodist evangelist, he was authorized by his bishop to perform baptisms, which he did. He was so effective at spreading the gospel, at spreading hope, in the prison that the government transferred him to a harsher prison where he would be less likely to be able to talk to others.
With God’s help, and the involvement of many including his family, other representatives in the government, the US state department, and the United Methodist Church, he has been released.
Vano suffered, not for doing wrong, but for doing right! This is the kind of thing that Jesus was talking to the disciples about on the night he was arrested. In John chapter 16 he says, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:35b-c).
The main problem with our phrase this week is the word “always.” Suffering always comes from sin. We certainly suffer at times. Sometimes we can suffer due to our own sin. We can suffer due to the sins of our loved ones. (Our sins can cause suffering for our loved ones. A good thing to remember, but a different sermon for a different day.) Sometimes our suffering can have no discernible, blamable cause that we can point to.
The people suffering from the recent hurricanes, especially in Puerto Rico, we could say that they are suffering from sin. Their own? Due to humanity’s failure to take care of the earth? Perhaps. Failure of planning? Again, we are grasping at straws trying to affix blame. How would we explain the suffering of people 200 or 300 years ago who had no warning of an approaching hurricane, who could make no preparations, who simply -not easily, but simply- had to endure.
When that happens, we can rail against God, and that’s okay for time. God can take it. One third of the Psalms are Psalms of lament, basically asking the question “why?” Communicating with God, can help us to draw closer to give us comfort.
Yay, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil colon for you are with me. (Psalm 23:a-b NKJV)