Today we look at one of the hardest questions we hear not only from those outside our religion, but one that fearfully echoes within our own minds. “Is God really good?” Usually we hear or ask this question in the wake of a tragedy, and I find it good to look at this question when the emotional turmoil of tragedy is not pressing on us. This question comes in many forms and flavors, but usually boils down to the question of meaning. We want to know what possible meaning pain, suffering and sorrow have. We want to know why God allows injustice. We want to know how a good God can allow the tragedies that strike human life on a daily basis. These are messy and hard questions that each of us must wrestle with. Quite often the answers that we come up with are reassuring to us, but somehow fall flat when we share them with others. There is of course a good reason for that. Our answers are not as important as the process of wrestling with the questions. In the process of wrestling, we encounter Jesus and eventually realize that he is wrestling with us not against us, and that he is right there ready to help us engage the hard questions. After the text we will look at how the church has wrestled with these questions over time, and hopefully we can gain some insight for our own struggles. Listen to Peter’s words as he shares the outcome of his process.
24For “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, 25but the word of the Lord endures forever.” That word is the good news that was announced to you. 2Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. 2Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— 3if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. 1 Peter 1:24-2:3
Peter states the problem pretty clearly in his quote “The grass withers and the flower falls.” Turn on any news channel and you will see and hear the worst that humanity has to offer, the tragedies that come from living on a stressed ball of rock orbiting a nuclear inferno in a galaxy slowly spiraling in to the black holes at its center. If that is all we experience or look at we will have a fairly bleak outlook on life, and will begin to wonder whether God is good, and if he is good is he aware of what is going on or is he just not paying attention. We aren’t the first ones to ask these questions and there are tons of writings that try to come to terms with the cognitive dissonance that arises when we see or experience suffering. In the second century Irenaeus wrote of evil being necessary for us to grow as moral beings that possess free-will. God was good because he did not force us to do what is right, but gave us the ability to choose our own actions. He taught that we human creation involves two parts, the image and the likeness of God. The image is the potential to achieve moral perfection and the likeness is the achievement of that perfection. Though we all bear the image, the likeness develops as we face adversity and overcome through the grace of God. In the fourth century Augustine spoke of the results of the fall distorting what is good. That because of the fall we have limited our own agency and only through God can we come into righteous action. Evil arose as a consequence of being disconnected from the source of goodness and suffering resulted because without access to its source the goodness within us dries up. These ideas have been refined, recycled and restated by every generation of Christians. Western Christianity, for the most part is Augustinian in its understandings and Eastern Christianity is primarily Irenaean. I find that both viewpoints complement each other and that they are not mutually exclusive, both have helped me as I wrestled with the question of God’s goodness. The most recent example of this wrestling is William Young’s book The Shack. Now that I have done a lot of study I recognize his ideas as having their roots in the ideas of Irenaeus, and to a certain extent calling into question some of the more problematic areas of Augusitian thought.
The reality for us is that the goodness of God and the problem of evil exist in a dynamic tension that cannot be resolved through someone else’s experience, so let us be careful to not resolve this tension too quickly. We do a disservice to ourselves and the people we care for if we accept or give out pat answers or clichés. Honest doubt, wrestling with hard questions, and admitting our struggles will serve you, the church, and God better in the long run than a false or pretended sense of certainty. I just have one piece of advice for you if you choose to wrestle: Never give up. Relentlessly pursue the truth and don’t let the voices of others distract, discourage, or draw you away from the struggle. Even when we doubt and question God desires to engage us, that is why he gave the name Israel to his people. Israel literally means wrestles with God. You see, the word of the Lord endures forever. That word is not our opponent, but is our ever present help in times of trouble. We get a bit tripped up in modern times by taking the word of the Lord to mean the scriptures. We have invested those words with that meaning in our culture, but those words in the New Testament refer to Jesus. Peter gives us a hint of that meaning in our text, but as Christians we need to remember that when we read “the word of the Lord” in the New Testament, we aren’t talking about a book, but about the person the book is about. The good news is that God is so loving that he desires no one to be out of relationship with him, and he gave up everything so that we could freely choose to live in his presence. He experienced everything that we do, joys and pains, just so that he could give us his love. He took on the hardest pains humans have inflicted on each other and offers redemption through a life in forgiveness and love. The good news is that God no longer holds our brokenness, nastiness, pettiness, and outright wickedness against us, and offers each of us the chance to redeem the wounds and hurts of life, even the ones that are self-inflicted.
I know there have been times in which I looked at things and wondered if I was deluding myself, that this faith stuff might just be the equivalent of whistling in the dark. Often wrestling with hard questions leads us to places where we question our own faith or just give up on the struggle. I made it through that time and learned humility, because the answers I thought I had weren’t enough anymore. I had to make a choice, do I try to stick to what is familiar and not address the questions that kept coming up or do I face into the questions and take what comes. What I found was that before I faced into the hard questions and tried to ignore them or rely on others’ answers I lived out the second half of our text. My faith became insincere, I envied those who seemed unshakeable, and I attacked those who disagreed with me using whatever rhetorical tricks were at my disposal so I looked like I was OK, even when my faith felt dead on the inside. What I eventually came to realize was that the answers I was looking for could not be found outside of the process of wrestling for them. I couldn’t accept someone else’s answers, although they did help direct my struggle. If I tried to put Analise into one of Amy’s shirts today it would be too big for her, she would fall out it and end up walking around naked. Analise is going to have to grow before she fits her sister’s 5 year old clothes. The same thing will happen if we try to force the results of someone else’s wrestling into our own lives. They won’t fit and if we try to force others to accept the results of our wrestling for their own those results, right as they may be, could be rejected. We each have to seek out that pure, spiritual milk, through the fear and trembling that comes from wondering if it is really there, or if it really is good.
The fearful thing for us is that there is only one way to find out if it is good for us. We have to taste it! We have to follow Jesus to see if we grow in good ways, away from malice, envy, and the rest. That is much scarier than intellectually coming up with propositions of faith that act as walls of defense. It is a fearful thing to stand exposed in the face of suffering and try to trust in God to get you through. Hold on, and taste, surrender your defenses and you will see that the Lord is good and that his divine word Jesus will guide you and sustain you. To trust in God’s goodness comes, as it does in any relationship, through experience of that goodness. James intentionally put that qualifier from Psalm 34 in there to remind us of our experiences to get us to look and ask again the question and know the answer for ourselves. After I read Psalm 34 we will enter into our time of Open Worship to experience communion, to taste together and see the goodness of our God.
1I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
3O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.
4I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
5Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
6This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.
7The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.
😯 taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
9O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.
10The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
11Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
12Which of you desires life, and covets many days to enjoy good?
13Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit.
14Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
15The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.
16The face of the Lord is against evildoers, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
17When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears, and rescues them from all their troubles.
18The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
19Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord rescues them from them all.
20He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.
21Evil brings death to the wicked, and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned. Psalm 34
May you leave this place having tasted the goodness of God, and carry that goodness with you in such a way that the brokenhearted, the crushed in spirit, and the afflicted will see his goodness in you. Go with peace.