A Sermon by The Rev’d Peter Jin
This morning I am going to reflect on a thorn in the flesh in our second reading. St. Paul has begged the Lord three times to remove this unnamed thorn, but it remains. Commentators suggest that it can be his bad eyesight, or his speech impediment like Moses, or maybe a chronic physical suffering. We don’t know. He is clearly not talking about some little passing problem. He is talking about some steady painful physical, psychological or spiritual experience. We all have a thorn in the flesh, don’t we? Why do we suffer? What is the point of suffering?
Last Tuesday my friend, Pastor Nicolas Jian Hu died suddenly and unexpectedly at the site of St Stephen’s Lutheran Church in the city. He lived at the campus of Lutheran Seminary in North Adelaide. He just finished his study last year and looked forward to his ordination, and he looked after a Chinese congregation at St Stephen’s Lutheran Church. He was only 4 years older than me. We played table tennis at his church a week ago. His death leaves his wife and two sons, one is 2 and the other is 5 years old in a very difficult position.
Six years ago, my father in law died of medical misadventure in China when Wei and I were at St. John’s Anglican theological college in NZ. During her grief, I gave Wei many theological lectures, exactly like what three crazy friends did in the book of Job. And to make things worse, I pointed out that his late father wouldn’t die if he had given up smoking and had stopped drinking too much wine every day. Thanks to God, Wei was very merciful. She just asked me to shut up. She didn’t divorce me because I stole her passport. Lol, I am kidding. Jenny Wilson might have a second thought after hearing my ‘crime’ to still allow me to be part of her pastoral care team. So if you don’t see me this Wednesday at the pastoral care meeting, don’t be surprised.
Many friends of mine are non Christians. They are struggling with the Christian theology which is God is love. They asked me why tragic things happened to good people and all the horrific and underserved suffering among us. They don’t even want to get into heaven to spend eternity with such a cruel and stupid God.
Almost every major theologian from St Paul, St Augustine, all the way to C.S. Lewis, has wrestled with this problem of suffering. There is a famous objection to God’s existence. It goes like this. If one of two contraries would be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. If there was infinite heat, it would eliminate all cold. We call God the infinitely good, so would not it eliminate any evil. But there is evil, therefore there is no God.
This is the most hard and puzzling theological question of all. Any answer this morning I am going to give will necessarily be inadequate, but as you know I am bold and stupid enough and I still hope I can perhaps gesture in the direction of an answer.
St Paul clearly understands his ‘thorn’ as an agent of Satan, not God: God did not cause his affliction any more than God causes a child to develop leukemia. But God is present even in the most difficult things God does not cause. So we should not say God who creates evil.
But this just postpones the question a bit. Why does God permit evil in God’s creation? The classical answer by the Church is that God permits evil so as to bring about a greater good.
We all have experienced of this from time to time. An illness, a failure, and the loss of a loved one, results over time in some good that would never have come about in another way. We sometimes sense that growth comes through pain.
But in the presence of truly profound evil, the concentration camps, The Nanjing Massacre in 1937 (thousands of Chinese women were raped and killed in China), the September 11th attacks in 2001, and now the COVID-19 pandemic, doesn’t the explanation from Christian tradition seem superficial and simplistic?
Well, the Bible understands this. We all know the story of Job. I don’t read it literally, but the book does give us some great light to wrestle with the problem of suffering.
Job loses everything and everyone dear to him: wealth, livelihood, family and health. In one of the most dramatic scenes in the Bible, Job challenges God to explain why he has to suffer this way. Here Job speaks for anyone who has gone through underserved suffering.
Then there is the longest speech of God in the bible. God takes Job on a great tour of the cosmos, revealing to him all of the mysteries and with all of its puzzles.
God is not answering the problem in the book of Job. God is situating the problem within ever wider frameworks of meaning. God is all of space and all of time. God has providential care for all of space and all of time. What we are experiencing is in the context of God’s infinitely wider and more complex situation that we in principal couldn’t even begin to understand.
Let me give you one example. Let us imagine my daughter has never read the whole story of Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. One day she finds one page of the book, that page is about Snow White eats the poison apple and dies. Then Wei reads her one paragraph of that page. My daughter says to Wei, Mom, it is a terrible story. It is not a happy ending. The author is terrible and so cruel. But that sad incident belongs in a page which belongs in a chapter, which belongs in a book. We all know the story and that terrible death of snow white is just part of the big picture, and it is just part of this joyful story with a happy ending.
Here is the point. What do we see God’s providence? We see one tiny bit of space and time. One little fragment of space and time.
One more example, let us imagine, if you look at a big painting in an art gallery with your nose pressed against it (of course you are not allowed to do this especially in COVID situation. Highly possible you will get a ticket or be asked to leave.) But let us just image, your nose pressed against the painting, you can not see at all. But if you step back, you begin to see how the points have formed themselves into patterns. Then, as you step back ever further, how those patterns have arranged themselves into figures and groups. When you stand at the back of the room, you take in the entire picture, you see how all of those points of colour, all the lights and darkness have arranged themselves into a composition of stunning harmony and order.
God is an artist. But what do we see of God’s creation as we look at our little bit of space and time? Just a few blotches, perhaps a hint of pattern. It is only when we see creation from the vantage point of God, we can see how all of the points of nature in history, all the darks and lights have arranged themselves into the great pattern.
Another example of the conversation with my daughter: I have to say I am fascinated with her ability of creatively using language, organising words sometimes in the wrong but amusing order. But at this stage, she has a great difficult to understated abstract words and concept. So it is same to us human being and God. Given the limited capacity of our minds, God could not even in principal began to explain it to us.
I bet you are still not unsatisfied. Me, too. I am struggling with this all the time. I believe that the images, perspectives and insights the Christian theoglicans over the centuries presented to us are helpful, but none finally solves the problem of reconciling a loving God and a universe marked by great cruelty.
For the Christian faith, the only adequate resolution of this dilemma is to look at the one on the cross: Jesus Christ. On that cross, the darkness of the human condition met the fullness of the Divine love and found itself transfigured into life. On that cross, God went to the limits of God’s forsakenness and made even death itself a place of hope. We call Good Friday is the day Jesus died. How in the world would you call that day good? In Chinese Bible, it’s translated into Suffering Friday. It is very accurate to match what really happened on that day. But I also love English translation. GOOD Friday. Because that day is not the final day, because that is not an ultimate ending, but beyond that there lies resurrection. Amen!