A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy Hammer, January 31, 2016
Job 2:11-13; Acts 17:1-3 ESV
Have you ever struck your thumb with a hammer? I mean really hard? I have. The pain hurts like the dickens. And chances are when you do so, you let loose a string of non-church words. As a teenager, I spent some time working with my uncle in new home construction. On occasion, while driving a nail, I would strike my thumb with the hammer, as all carpenters do every now and then. And when I did so, one of my co-workers had the habit of saying, “Oh, it will feel so good when it stops hurting.” And he was right. But put that thought on hold for a bit, as I will return to it later.
Perhaps you took notice of the recent passing of colorful and somewhat controversial one-time Tennessee political figure John Jay Hooker. Hooker died under Hospice care in Nashville on January 17. One family friend referred to him as being “larger than life.”1 Hooker had been suffering from metastatic melanoma. In his political career heyday, Hooker had success and notoriety as an attorney whose work caught the eye of U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and he worked as special counsel to Kennedy and even lived in Kennedy’s house for awhile. He was an original investor in HCA (Hospital Corporation of America). Then during the sixties, seventies and nineties, Hooker unsuccessfully ran for the office of Tennessee Governor, and he even had aspirations for the office of President. But a failure in a fried chicken franchise cast a shadow upon Hooker and his career, from which he never really recovered.
But the point that is pertinent for today’s topic is this: when Hooker was diagnosed with terminal cancer last year and was told he had about six months to live, it proved to be a turning point for him; he dedicated the remainder of his life to a new purpose. Hooker became a Tennessee voice for the cause of physician-assisted suicide. Of course, Hooker died without realizing his latest dream of seeing Tennessee enact a physician-assisted suicide law. And such a law is a sermon topic in itself for another day.
But the point for today’s purposes has to do with human pain and suffering. And I think that may have been what John Jay Hooker was really concerned about—the reality and universality of human pain and suffering, especially in instances where there is no hope of recovery or cure. The truth is, human pain and suffering is common to each and every one of us. Suffering is part and parcel with the human condition, and not one of us is going to escape it forever. Indeed, human suffering and the eventual end—death—is the great leveler of all creatures on the earth.
The problem of human pain and suffering is one of the oldest topics to be wrestled with, questioned, and debated by thinking men and women, as seen in the ancient book of Job. One of the primary questions that the book of Job wrestles with has to do with the source and cause and reasons for human pain and suffering. As the book unfolds, the so-called friends of Job have their answers regarding the how and why of human suffering, answers that Job does not buy. And Job has his own perspective on the how and why of human suffering. And ever since then, humankind has added to the laundry list reasons for human pain and suffering in the world.
Now, I would not pretend to think that my thoughts on human pain and suffering are exhaustive or the final say on the topic. To think such would be ludicrous. After searching through my own paper files, I went to the Internet in search of some poignant thoughts on the topic of human suffering, and as you might imagine, there were dozens of such websites. One website alone posted 1,472 quotes related to suffering. It is sort of overwhelming and daunting to even think about it.
But what I thought I would do is just think out loud for a bit, mentioning some of the more common responses to human pain and suffering. And as different forms of media often include a disclaimer, “The sentiments contained herein are not necessarily the opinion of the publisher (or preacher, as the case may be).” So may it be today. That is to say, I don’t personally agree with each of the common responses to human suffering that I am going to share with you.
- One of the oldest and most common responses to human pain and suffering is that suffering is God-sent. Such is the stance taken by the friends of Job—“Your suffering, Job, was sent to you by God. What other explanation could there be?” We also see this idea in some of the psalms.
- Following closely on the heels of this belief is that suffering is punishment for sin or wrongdoing, either known or unknown. Again, we sometimes see this in the psalms.
- A third belief is that suffering may not be God-sent, but suffering is sometimes permitted by God so that good may result. Such seems to have been one of the early Christian beliefs as the early Christ-followers wrestled with the whys and how of the crucifixion of Jesus. If Jesus was the Son of God, God’s Annointed One, why did God allow him to die a shameful death at the hands of evil men, the political powers of the day? To many, it just didn’t add up. One explanation was that God must have allowed Jesus to suffer and die (as Paul is said to have preached in the book of Acts), in order to accomplish his redemptive purpose for the world. To many it was the only explanation that made sense.
- A different view is that instead of God sending suffering, God draws closer to those who suffer. This seems to be writer Anne Lamott’s theological frame of reference. Hence, writer Lamott writes, “God is present wherever people suffer. God’s here with us when we’re miserable. . . The suffering of innocent people draws God close to them.”2
- Another contradictory view to the idea that suffering is God-sent is suffering is just the way with earthly existence; suffering often comes to us without rhyme or reason. We should not try to find a reason for it or explain it, but rather, focus on finding a way to deal with it. Such we see in the wisdom book of Ecclesiastes, a philosophical work that often contradicts the black and white certainty that suffering is punishment for sin as we see it portrayed in the psalms, proverbs, and by the friends of Job.
- Another view is suffering can be turned into something good. “The wound is the place where the Light enters you,” Sufi poet Rumi A good example might be parents who lost their children to drunk drivers on the highway who later founded MADD to help educate the public about the problem with drinking and driving.
- Suffering is actually good for us, as it tends to purify, mold, refocus, and possibly strengthen us. This seems to be a popular response of many in order to get the upper hand on suffering, to turn suffering on its ear, so to speak, so as to not be defeated by suffering. For instance, the writer Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” Likewise, contemporary Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote, “The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.” And Rachel Naomi Remen, in Kitchen Table Wisdom contends, “in denying our suffering we may never know our strength or our greatness.”
- Suffering can give us a new perspective on things. Remember my opening illustration of striking my thumb with a hammer, and the idea that it will feel so much better after it stops hurting? Suffering can lead us to feel differently, think differently, and look at our lives differently. When he learned that he had less than a year to live, John Jay Hooker saw life in a totally new light and found a whole new purpose in living.
- A view held by some, a small some, is suffering should be welcomed. Mother Teresa of Calcutta seems to have embraced this view. “I think it is very good when people suffer. To me that is like the kiss of Jesus,” she said.
- And then a view of suffering that all of us can embrace is suffering, when supported by others, is so much easier to bear than suffering borne alone.
Again quoting Rachel Naomi Remen, “Perhaps the healing of the world rests on just this sort of shift in our way of seeing, a coming to know that in our suffering and our joy, we are connected to one another with unbreakable and compelling human bonds.”3
What do I believe about pain and suffering? You may be asking. I believe suffering is not God-sent, nor is it punishment for sin. I believe that pain and suffering are part of life on earth and often happens by chance. Sadly, often suffering is human-inflicted. But I also believe that suffering can give us a new perspective on life, and it often can be turned into something good.
The truth is, whenever we are in situations where people have or are suffering—in hospital rooms, the Emergency Room, funeral homes, and other places—we often hear all kinds of statements that people give in response to human suffering. Some of them are not so good, when you stop to think about them. And I cannot dictate to you your beliefs about human suffering, and you cannot dictate to me my beliefs about suffering either. But what we all can do is stand with each other, support each other, encourage and help each other when we endure times of suffering, as we all will at one time or another. May it be so with all of us. Amen.
1Knoxville News Sentinel, Monday, January 25, 2016, 11A.
2Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead, 2005, p. 8.
3Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom, p. 140.