"Why is Life Hard "
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts January 29, 2006
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2006 by Mark D. Roberts
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I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.
How many of you have seen the film Last Holiday? For the rest of you, it's now out on DVD, and it's a good "date night" film. It's not especially deep, but it's sweet, and has a surprisingly decent message. It's rated PG-13 for some sexual references, though it's pretty mild for PG-13, and the ethics of the main characters are - shock! - right on.
Last Holiday features Queen Latifah as Georgia Byrd, a cautious, sweet, hesitant, choir-singing store clerk who discovers that she has only three weeks to live. Throughout the rest of the movie, we watch as Georgia learns to enjoy life to the fullest, especially by eating lots of gorgeous food.
But before Georgia resolves to enjoy her last days on earth, she goes through a predictable crisis, wondering why God has let this terrible thing happen to her. In one of my favorite scenes, she's standing in her place in the church choir, when she begins calling out to God, "Why, Lord? Why me?" The choir, not knowing what's going on with Georgia, begins to join in, as if she were merely leading them in a song, and soon they're singing a rousing anthem with the "Why me?" theme. But Georgia doesn't get her answer from the Lord, and leaves the church downhearted.
Queen Latifah's ability to play this "Why me?" role isn't just a matter of fine acting. In fact, she had a tough life growing up in a single-parent household, living in a New Jersey housing project. But hardest of all was an experience with she was 22 years old. Queen Latifah's singing career had begun to take off, and so she bought a motorcycle for her beloved 24-year-old brother, Lancelot. But two months later he died in a motorcycle accident.
In a recent interview, Queen Latifah, who is open about her Christian faith, by the way, was asked if she had ever had a "Why me?" moment in her own life. Here's what she said,
I definitely had a "why" moment--"Why us? Why my mom?" You know . . . "Why my dad?" When my brother passed away, that was definitely a "why?" I don't even know if it was just a "why me?" But it was surely a big old "why." . . . Especially at that age -- I'm 22 years old when this happened, my brother's only 24 -- and it's like, whoa. And I'm like, "Why [would this happen] to my mom?" She's such a good person. So, all of this stuff is running through my head.
Some of you here today know what it's like to face this sort of pain and to ask the "Why?" question because you've been there. You've lost loved ones in ways that made no sense at all. And, even if you haven't known the extreme agony of this sort, you've gone through other sorts of hard times when you've cried out to God, "Why? Why me?" All of us have watched in horror as innocent people are destroyed by natural disasters or devastating illness. If we're at all sensitive to what's going on around us, we can't help but wonder why. Why is life so hard?
Why is Life Hard?
Today I want to answer this question from an intellectual perspective. I should say, at the outset, that as important as it is for us to have a solid theological answer to the why question, I do not expect this sermon to take away the sting of suffering. If you're going through very hard things right now, today's sermon isn't meant to make you feel better. But it is meant to provide a solid basis for your effort to find God in the midst of a hard life.
So then, why is life hard?
The "No God" Answer
First, there is the "no God" answer. If you don't believe in a God who created the universe, then the why question isn't a particularly tricky one at all. Life is hard because that's the way it is. There's no reason that we should expect better. Tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes, cancer, HIV, starvation - these are naturally occurring events that need no explanation. The universe is random, so bad things happen. We should expect them and find a way to make the best of life anyway.
For Christians, this atheistic answer isn't satisfactory, though I expect most of us have wrestled with it at one time or another, especially when it seems like the suffering in this world is inconsistent with the existence of God. Yet the "no God" argument has fatal flaws, in my view, even apart from my Christian faith. Most of all, the godless randomness of nature doesn't adequately explain the existence of good in our world, or the fact that there is beauty which we can enjoy. I just can't believe that the haphazard movements of particles and molecules have produced morally and aesthetically sensitive beings.
The "Bad God" Answer
If the "no God" answer doesn't work, some have tried the "bad God" approach. Many who accept the existence of "higher powers" don't have a problem with life being hard because they believe in morally ambiguous gods, or even outright bad gods. Life is hard because the bad gods send famine or disease or other tragedies. Life is hard because the good gods aren't fully in charge.
In a similar vein, some have argued that the one God isn't fully good either. This would certainly account for why there is pain in the world. But, without going into detail, it's obvious that the "bad God" perspective is inconsistent with Christianity, which is predicated on the love of God.
The "Weak God" Answer
In recent times, one of the most popular answers to the question of why life is hard is what I would call "The Weak God Answer." This view was proposed by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner in his best-selling book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. For Kushner, like for Job's friends, the suffering of the righteous is simply inconsistent with the classic view of a good, all-powerful God. Kushner cuts this Gordian knot by arguing that God is not all-powerful. There are some things, according to Kushner, that God cannot do even if He wants to.
Many people, including quite a few Christians, found Kushner's answer to the problem of a hard life to be a great relief. It does let God off the hook, big time. No longer do we have to wonder why a good, all-powerful God allows suffering, because now we know that God can't take away all suffering. God can't be held responsible for the devastation of a tsunami, for example, because God didn't have the power to stop it.
Though Kushner's response lets God off the hook, it also leaves us with a greatly diminished God. We must recognize that the God of Harold Kushner is not the God of the Bible, the God who is all-powerful and who is indeed ultimately responsible for what happens in this world.
Those of us who base our theology upon the Bible face a confusing conundrum. We affirm the following truths:
1. There is a God.
2. God is good.
3. God is all-powerful.
4. Life is hard.
Life is hard, not only for bad people who deserve what they get, but for good people who honor God with their lives, and for innocent people, like little babies stricken with grave illnesses. Although the intensity of suffering varies, in the end, life is hard for all people. So, we wonder,
if there is a God, so we reject the "no God" answer, and
if God is good, so we reject the "bad God" answer, and
if God is all-powerful, so we reject the "weak God" answer,
how can we make sense of the fact that life is hard?
The Genesis of a Hard Life
The biblical answer to this question begins right in the opening chapters of Genesis. There, God creates the heavens and the earth, demonstrating His superlative power. Surely the God of creation is an all-powerful God. Furthermore, after God surveys His work, he declares it good, and then "very good" (Gen 1:31). Arguing backwards from this declaration, we begin to see the "very goodness" of God Himself, something that echoes throughout the whole of Scripture. As Psalm 34:8 celebrates, "O taste and see that the LORD is good."
In Genesis 1 God creates humankind in His image, and then assigns to the man and woman a "godlike" stewardship over all creation. Genesis 2 clarifies the scope of human responsibility for God's creation. But it also defines the limits of human freedom. They are not to eat from one particular tree in the garden.
In Genesis 3 the man and the woman disobey God, and everything begins to unravel. The perfect intimacy between the man and woman is broken as they seek to hide from each other. Their intimacy with God is broken as they seek to hide from Him. Even the order of nature is broken because of sin, as the woman will experience pain in childbearing, and the man will experience pain as he works in the world. The paradise God had intended is locked away, so that human beings may not enjoy it again, at least not in this age.
Input from Romans
Genesis answers the question of why life is hard by pointing the finger at humanity. Our sin, we're told, is the reason God's creation is broken. This assumes, of course, a profound connection between people and the natural world.
This connection is reaffirmed and clarified in the New Testament book of Romans. There, in the eighth chapter, we find another clear acknowledgement of life's sufferings. Creation itself, we're told, "waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God" (8:19). In other words, when God completes His work with humanity, creation itself will be restored. Why is this necessary? As Romans explains, "the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it" (8:20). God, for His own reasons, subjected creation to the authority of human beings, so that it might be broken by the impact of sin. Yet this isn't the end of the story. In fact, we have "hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (8:21). When God finally sets us completely free from our bondage to sin, creation itself will enjoy freedom as well. Until this happens, creation is not at peace. Romans says, "We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies" (8:22-23).
I realize that all of this can be rather confusing. But the main points seem clear enough. God created all things so that there is an inexorable link between human experience and universal experience. When human beings sinned, the "very goodness" of creation itself was broken. But when God completes his work of human restoration, then creation will also be renewed. That's why Christians hope, not merely for life after death somewhere up in the sky, but for a new heaven and a new earth (Revelation 21:1).
I know it's a bit of a stretch to grasp the interconnectedness of humanity and creation, but this is something we need to find a way to wrap our minds around. I'm helped by a very mundane illustration.
Recently the Dutch television firm Endemol set a world record by setting up and then systematically knocking down 4,155,476 dominoes. The toppling began when one, and only one domino, was knocked over. Soon, all 4,155,476 dominoes fell, all from one little domino. That's rather like what happened when the first human beings sinned. They set in motion a chain reaction that impacted all of creation.
Now perhaps the toughest part of this for us is the realization that God set up the cosmic dominoes. It was God's decision to form creation so that human beings had genuine freedom both to do good and to do evil, and so that human evil would corrupt creation itself. When we're faced with terrible suffering, it's easy to think that God's idea isn't the best. Surely He could have come up with a better idea? we might wonder.
Though there are ways to defend God's choice here, in the end we come down to faith. Are we willing to trust that the God revealed in Scripture, the God who is both powerful and good, the God who is most perfectly revealed in Jesus Christ, a God of love, mercy, and self-sacrifice, are we willing to trust that this God chosen what's best, even when it's hard for us to see it? I'm not suggesting this is easy. Indeed, this is tough faith, risky faith, sometimes even desperate faith. But it is the faith we need to sustain us in the midst of a hard life.
Accepting What We Can't Fully Understand
When life is hard, and when life's suffering just doesn't make sense, at some point, by God's mercy, we come to a place of acceptance, a place where we acknowledge God's power and goodness, where we recognize God's sovereignty, where we admit that we can't fully understand God's ways, and yet where we sense God's presence in our lives.
This is exactly what happened to Queen Latifah after the death of her brother. Let me read a couple more excerpts from the interview I mentioned earlier:
When my brother passed away, that was definitely a "why?" I don't even know if it was just a "why me?" But it was surely a big old "why." And luckily I was able to come through that and kind of open myself up to the divine design of it all. That's not something that I liked or expected. . . .
I always leave open that things happen for a reason, and I don't understand that reason always, but it's something I have to accept. So, it's kind of where I left that situation. . . .
I really believe that God had his hands on me the whole time, and my family as well, and we've come through it and we really probably didn't think we could.
Queen Latifah was able to accept God's divine design, even though it's not what she liked or wanted. She was able to accept that God has His reasons, even when they don't quite make sense to us. And she was able to see that God's gracious hands were upon her, upholding her through a time of intense pain.
Hope Beyond the Pain
As I close, I want to mention something in Romans 8 that I'll develop further as we move forward in this series. Remember that rather complicated passage I read earlier:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.
God subjected creation to the authority of human beings, who broke God's masterpiece. Yet in forming this plan, which led to creation being subjected to futility, God did so in hope of the time when creation itself will be set free. Hope, in this case, doesn't mean wishful thinking on God's part. Rather, it's God's foresight, His long-range plan, His ultimate vision. God's design for the cosmos includes the ultimate mending of all things, when creation, alongside humankind, will enjoy freedom and glory.
As Christians we live with this hope, and it keeps us going when life is hard. We realize that God isn't finished with us yet, and He isn't finished with creation either. The time will come when He will restore all things. So now we wait, yet with the confident hope in a God who "works all things together for good," as it says later in Romans 8 (v. 28). And we're sustained by faith in a God whose love for us never lets go. Let me close by reading the last sentences of Romans 8:
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.
With this confidence in God's love, we are able to endure the hard things of life, until God finishes His work of the new creation.