This homily was preached by Taylor Zimmerman at University United Methodist Church on Sunday, June 29, 2014.
Sometimes no matter how intellectually and theologically astute we are, doubts about God can hit us like a piercing dart when we least expect it and leave us feeling helpless. Rosaria Butterfield, an atheist professor working in Syracuse and late convert to Christianity, describes her first run-in with doubt after her conversion and how she questioned the goodness of God. In an excerpt from her book, she describes a broken, unhealthy relationship with a man in her congregation who helped convert her to Christianity but emotionally manipulated her into essentially giving up her life to get married to him.
She writes, “It’s hard to explain what happens when you prepare for your first legitimate relationship, share secrets that you shouldn’t…lose all your former friends for the promise of one, incur a wealth of disrespect in your work place, prepare a two-year research leave by somehow packaging all of this spiritual trauma as intellectually vital, rent out your house… prepare for a wedding, believe the whole time that what you are doing is God’s will for your life, feel love and gratitude for the person who shared over and over again the power of the gospel, and who bridged for your life and ministry amidst two warring communities, only to have him come to you one day, and say: ‘There’s something I need to tell you. You can’t marry me. I’m not ready. And I’m probably not a Christian.’”
In the midst of Butterfield’s grief and anger, she struggled with her faith in a God who would let that happen to her. She asks “Who is Jesus? Who had betrayed me, this man or God? Who is the Jesus who heals some but not others? Who needs a fickle God?” While she was still grieving, her neighbor who was dying of cancer approached her one evening and said “I didn’t [care at all] about who God was to you in your happiness. But now that you are suffering, I want to know: who is your God? Where is he in your suffering?”
Here in Psalm 13, we hear David crying out to God in his suffering. O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide from me? How long must I have sorrow in my heart? Today, I’m going to talk about some serious topics. I’m going to talk about pain and struggle and suffering – what it means to be a human in a broken world. I’m going to talk about where God is in the mess of our lives. And then I’m going to talk about how we as Christians are supposed to live through those desert times and deal with inevitable suffering.
I am the middle child of three, and I grew up going to church very infrequently. I was a Christmas/Easter Christian for sure. As I grew older, I drifted more and more away from the Church and began to spurn anything remotely religious. Religious people struck me as saccharine – almost too happy in a really cheesy way. I questioned the sincerity of a group of people who talked all the time about their long-suffering, cross-bearing God but seemed to experience no problems and no struggles.
I heard several Christians give their personal stories about where they were before God entered their lives, how they encountered Jesus, and then how their life had dramatically changed. My initial understanding of the Christian life then was that once God entered a person’s life, they were completely reformed. So when I finally became a Christian, I thought that my faith story too would be that bottom-left to top-right linear transformation. That I would start out as a skeptic consumed by doubt, shame and issues of self-worth, would encounter Christ and then move on to continually and consistently grow in perfection experiencing minimal problems and no longer suffering from my previous vices.
I was wrong.
American Christians have a problem with pain because America culturally, we have a problem with pain. We don’t really like to talk about it. When I ask “how are you?” you’re supposed to say “good or fine.” We don’t want people talking about their pain too much or we label them as whiny and attention seeking. A few months ago, one of the men that I worked with passed away and the majority of my coworkers went to the funeral. Afterward, I had several people confide in me. “Sarah didn’t cry once. She didn’t really like him. She was just there because we were there.” “Chris was a blubbering mess. He only knew the man for like six days.” “I just can’t believe the parents went with the traditional Catholic service. He definitely wasn’t Catholic. They must not have known him very well toward the end.” We want you to cry at funerals, but not too much. You need to show just enough grief to prove that you’re not a sociopath but not so much that you look like you’re dwelling and not moving on. You should definitely have pain but not ever talk about it. We are not as fine as we seem, but pardon us for bringing it up in conversation.
What’s worse is when we do have pain, we sometimes attempt to cover it up and hide it behind humor. Leslie Jamison a Ph. D. candidate at Yale wrote an essay on pain where she shares a story of a self-defense class she took in college with her female classmates. Each woman had to go around in a circle and say their greatest fear. The first woman says “being raped…I guess.” The second woman believing she had to 1-up the other said, “being raped and then killed.” As each woman spoke, the woman after said something even more violent and graphic attempting to outdo the person in front of her until the once real fears were so exaggerated, they seemed to not matter. Jamison concludes, “I can’t remember what the rest of us managed to come up with (white slavery? Snuff films?) but I remember thinking how odd it was -- how we were all sitting there trying to be the best kid in class, the worst rape fantasizer, in this all-girl impersonation of a misogynistic hate-crime brainstorming session. We were giggling. Our giggling – of course—was also about our fear: One woman screaming and trying to laugh it off to another.”
Jamison tells us something about ourselves here. We don’t like to be honest about our pain. We laugh it off, exaggerate it to a joke (so people don’t get uncomfortable), and brush it aside.
David here challenges us to address our pain head on. He doesn’t sugar coat it. You don’t hear him saying “Well, God, I know you’re busy and all with the order of the universe…and I know that I really shouldn’t complain because there are people far worse off than I am…and…I know I really should have faith…” No! We hear David boldly approach his God and say “God! I’m lost without you! I don’t feel you near! God where are you? I need you!”
I’m not asking you all to suddenly share every little thing that’s on your mind and spill your heart to total strangers. I merely propose that we stop lying about our faults, stop acting like we have everything together when we don’t, and be honest about the struggles we have, the doubts that are consuming us and the scars that we bear. I ask that we take these struggles before God and say “God, I’m hurting.”
But what’s going on in our pain anyway? Is God even there? And how is God present in our suffering? Where is God when I don’t feel God near?
Prior to becoming a Christian, I got my theology from my culture and I believed that the Christian God was a moralistic dictator. This god set the universe in motion, stepped back far away, sat with some binoculars and peeped on us. This god cared less about sex trafficked girls or boys being recruited as child soldiers and more about whether I said grace before every meal and wore a tie on Sundays. This god would send people to heaven or hell on a whim keeping a strict chart of those humans who were naughty or nice that would make Santa’s list look tame. This god was a hard-nosed judge who didn’t care about me, my struggles or my pain.
It is unfortunately easy to picture this view of God when we’re in pain. It’s the picture that our society often presents to us. We feel we’ve done something wrong and God’s punishing us. We know we’ve made mistakes so God must not care about us anymore.
I knew a woman who got pregnant at sixteen by her high school boyfriend. She married him and then they divorced three years later. She married another man and had three children with him. He emotionally abused her and her kids and was frequently physically violent. This carried on for years before he abandoned them, moved away with some other woman and committed suicide. Growing up her kids had many expensive health problems, and she watched as her children repeated many of her mistakes. When I spoke with her, she claimed she had no problem believing God existed but just wanted to know why God hated her so much.
We frequently find ourselves stuck in the muck and mire. We who were made in the Imago Dei, the Image of God, are covered in our own sin and the sins of others, self-wounded and wounded by others, and shackled by our guilt and shame. We cry out to God for help and those around us say, “God won’t help you like that. Put yourself back together, pick yourself up, and brush yourself off. Maybe then God will help you.”
But Christ who is faithful humbled himself. He sees us as we are, walks into the mud, muck and mire and lifts us out of it healing our wounds, lifting our spirits and forgiving our sins. Jesus shows us that God is not content being a passive spectator but is actually active in our lives.
The life and work of Jesus in the New Testament paints the picture of a God who rejoices and celebrates with us, understands our struggles and temptations as “one who has been tempted in every way,” and weeps with us.
In the Gospel of John, when Jesus shows up in Bethany after Lazarus has been dead for 4 days, Mary angrily exclaims, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus gathers with them and weeps. Jesus who several verses ahead knew that Lazarus had died before he had even arrived at his tomb, who knew that Lazarus wouldn’t be dead for long, and who knew ultimately that God would have the victory over death, entered Martha and Mary’s world, empathized with their pain and wept. The eternal God of the universe cares about each and every life created.
Christ offers this for us. God does not promise an easy life free of suffering. In fact, all throughout Scripture, the authors always talk about suffering when it happens, not if. God doesn’t promise answers to our suffering either. What God does promise is that God will be there with us sustaining us and pushing us forward so even when we don’t feel the Holy Spirit, God is there.
So where is God in your suffering? God is next to you holding you close.
If a relationship with God and an indwelling of the Holy Spirit gets us through our pain, how do we grow that relationship? Through the means of grace.
In the midst of his feelings of abandonment, David concludes the Psalm with “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me.”
David fixes his eyes on God and worships.
John Wesley, the man who began the Methodist movement that helped to form the United Methodist Church, preached that God’s grace is unearned but that we should not sit idle waiting for God to act but rather pursue God through the means of grace. It is through these that God strengthens us and affirms our salvation.
The means of grace can be divided into works of piety and works of mercy. Works of piety include Bible study, prayer, fasting, worship, evangelism and the sacraments. Works of mercy include doing good works, visiting the sick, visiting those in prison, feeding the hungry, seeking justice and ending oppression and discrimination.
Our inclination when we’re hurting is to run from God like Adam and Eve ran in the Garden of Eden. The means of grace draw us back in.
Do you confess your sins and seek accountability in Christian community? Do you worship God passionately? Do you pray and fast regularly? Do you seek justice and address the needs of the poor?
These are not boring acts that only excessively devout Christians do, but common things all can do to grow closer to God in holiness and joy.
I’ll conclude with one final image. One time, when I was feeling particularly out of sorts and when my future seemed bleak and chaotic, I confessed my pain to a friend. She gave me an analogy that has stuck with me since then and I remember it when I feel the pulling tide of sorrow. Christians are like seaweed in a raging ocean. Where other plants and particles get tossed about and thrown side to side, we are rooted. We may sway back and forth but we’ll never be torn away.
As the author of Hebrews says, “For I am sure 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.”
So understand that our faith stories are often not these linear bottom left to top right journeys. We’ll have ups and downs, lefts and rights. Some parts of our journey will be steep periods of growth and others will be growth at a snail’s pace. But continue on.
Confess your pain to God. Know that God cares. Grow with God in piety and mercy.
Copyright Taylor Zimmerman, 2014.