Evaluating Evil: Enduring Evil & Suffering
Rev. Sandy Johnson
January 31, 2016
Elie Wiesel was a teenager, not much older than Emily Marlow, when he and his family were taken along with six million other Jews and put into a concentration camp. He was separated from his mother and his siblings and he and his father were sent to the men’s barracks. In his book “Night,” he tells the story of a young boy, they called him a pipel; he had been accused of storing weapons in the camp. He was condemned to death along with two other inmates. Elie says in his book, “One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected on the Appelplatz. Roll Call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us; the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains – and, among them, the little pipel, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows.
This time, the LagerKapo, [the executioner] refused follow through with the execution. Three SS took his place.
The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In union, the nooses were placed around their necks.
“Long live liberty!” shouted the two men.
But the boy was silent.
“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking.
At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over.
Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the child was still moving, too light, he was still breathing…
And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him [Elie said]. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where He is? This is where – hanging here from this gallows…”
That night, [the book concludes] the soup tasted of corpses.”
I don’t believe there are any more poignant descriptions of suffering than the stories that we read from the holocaust. We all suffer and all have periods of time in our life where we are sure we will never be ok, we will never again be happy, or healthy, or able to move ahead. Our suffering likely has no comparison to the memories that we read from the horrific times in the German concentration camps. But we all do suffer.
“The truth is, life is hard. If we look at the way the world really is, we see that bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. That’s just the way it is. And that’s probably why struggling with the reality of evil and suffering in the world has been one of the foundational questions of existence from time immemorial.”
We often ask ourselves, “Where is God?” Why are we forced to endure such suffering? “Jeremiah discovered the answer in his own suffering, as he took on the suffering of his people, as he wept and cried out for them. Jesus discovered it in his being faithful even to death.” In Matthew 27:46 Jesus cried out to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Where is God in the midst of suffering?
“Derived from the Greek word, pathos means suffering. Combined with the prefix sym (meaning “with”) we have the notion of sympathy – to suffer with. The God of the Jews is understood to have suffered their ordeals with them, giving them strength and hope to endure. Alfred North Whitehead calls God the “fellow sufferer who understands.””
“While the concepts of pain and suffering are often lumped together, it’s helpful to be aware of their distinctiveness: pain is something we can’t escape and suffering is what we do about the pain. Suffering is the work we do with the pain. We don’t know what the Apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was. But when Paul prays to have this “thorn” removed, the divine response is, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul then was able to boast in his weaknesses: “I am content,” he writes, “with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. Individually or collectively, the Divine experiences pain, suffers it, and out of the wreckage helps people rebuild their lives – even though things may never be the same as they once were.”
Regardless of the pain and suffering we have experienced or are currently suffering, or will suffer one day in the future, I know that God did not cause the suffering, and I know that when we suffer it is “God’s heart that is the first to break,” along with ours. Although God doesn’t prevent disasters or suffering because if he did then that would remove the most amazing gift that we receive as one of God’s people. That is freewill. The ability to choose or not choose to be a follower of Jesus Christ. To be able to make our own decisions and then deal with the consequences. Sometimes that is for good, and sometimes not so good. There are things that we can’t avoid in our life that produces suffering and God appears as the neighbor who comes over to bring dinner when your husband dies. God appears in the kindness of a good friend who drives you to and from chemo therapy. God appears as a friend who holds your hand when having medical tests done. God is visible when your church pays for your power bill when you are out of work.
There are endless opportunities for God to reach out to us in our suffering. Our scripture today makes it clear that suffering leads to transformation. As children of God we are surrounded by God’s grace, the hope that we are never alone. Through our own suffering we know that in the midst of the situation we have the opportunity to learn endurance. We learn that we can do much more than we ever thought. We learn more about ourselves in the difficult times than we ever do when things are going well. We learn to rely on others, we learn to trust fully in God, and we learn that we can’t do it alone, we need a savior. From this lesson of the results of suffering in Romans 5 we learn that our character is built and as a result we feel hopeful, maybe the first time in a very long time. Feeling hopeful because God’s love has been poured into each of our hearts, through the Holy Spirit and that creates the beginning of the “new normal.”
When we suffer it is likely that our “normal,” whatever that is, will be forever different. It is up to each of us to discover our own “new normal.” One of the ladies that comes to our Thursday morning bible study at Lakeview Terrace, lost her leg several years ago. She was an active and vital woman who had to come to grips with a dramatic change in her life. No longer could she just jump up and do the things she was used to. It took years for her to adjust to this new “normal.” She says that throughout the ordeal she relied most heavily on God. She was able to maintain a positive attitude and as a result grew in her relationship with God.
Our friend Ida broke her shoulder a few months back. She was in horrible pain and was unable to take care of herself for several weeks. She was not able to drive for eight weeks. As much as she was suffering, she said after it was all done that she wouldn’t have traded her injury for anything. She learned through that experience, to rely on others, she spent time with people she wouldn’t normally have spent time with and she felt God’s love most completely through the kindness of her friends at church.
When I was dealing with the grief of my divorce many years ago, I clung to the promises of the first chapter of James. Beginning in verse 2 it reads:
2 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; 4 and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.
As difficult as it is, in the midst of challenges and suffering, it is vital that we cling to that promise of joy. God will not leave us alone, he will not allow the suffering to be for naught. Jesus endured horrific suffering for our sakes. James 1 verse 12 says that anyone who endures temptation is blessed, those who are tempted and their faith remains firm “receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”
James goes on to say that we should not blame God when we are tempted. God doesn’t tempt us. Unfortunately the temptations are much closer at hand. The greatest temptation comes from within us. It is difficult to ignore, but not impossible. God doesn’t cause suffering, but He is always there to intervene, to guide us through the valley of the shadow of death. To lift us up and encourage us throughout the trials and periods of intense suffering. God never leaves us. Scripture assures us of that.
Deuteronomy 31:6 says, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” And then in Isaiah 41:13 it reads, “For I am the Lord, your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you.” It is not only from the Old Testament that we learn this lesson. When Jesus commissioned his disciples he told them to go out into the world and teach, preach and heal those they come in contact with. And in doing so, Jesus told them, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Sisters and brothers, we all will endure suffering and evil at some point in our lives. We all are put in a position where we have to choose whether we will blame God, or derive our strength from God, in spite of and in the midst of the challenges we face. It was a mother’s grief that led to the creation of MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She refused to do nothing and her healing came when she began to fight against the evil that took her teenage daughter. She chose to endure the suffering and turn her suffering into hope for others. We will never know how many lives have been saved by the courageous actions of this one mom.
Will we choose to live and grow; or will we allow ourselves to die when the suffering comes? I think one of the greatest advantages of being a member of a church is that we are all in this together. We know that God will never leave us and he proves that within the relationships of this congregation. Look around. You can all probably all remember a time when you helped someone or when someone helped you.
Suffering will come but God doesn’t leave us alone. When we ask, “Where is God?” He is there, next to the executioner, hanging on a cross, in the ultimate sacrifice for us, because he loves us that much.
Let us pray: Dear God, you are a fellow sufferer who understands our suffering. We thank you for being with us always and everywhere. We thank you for never leaving our side. We thank you that through Jesus you understand perfectly what we go through and more. Strengthen us in our resolve and give us the confidence to boldly proclaim our love for you. Guide our footsteps and lead us through temptation. Help us to experience the joy of surrendering our hearts to you this day. We ask this all in Jesus name. Amen.
 Wiesel, Elie. Night. Hill and Wang. New York. Page 63-64.
 Felten, David & Jeff Proctor-Murphy. “Living the Questions: The Wisdom of Progressive Christianity.” Harper One, New York, NY. Page 92.
 Ibid page 94
 Ibid, page 95
 James 1:12
 Matthew 28:20b