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A sermon delivered byWendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on September 26, 2010. 

Lamentations 1:1-6; 3:19-26; 2 Timothy 2:1-14

There is no quick or easy way to discuss the problem of suffering, pain, and hope.  None of us needs to be convinced that suffering and pain exist.  There is too much of it for any sensible person to ignore.  And there’s also no reason to try proving to anyone that hope exists.  We see too many people living and acting hopefully.

This presents a tremendous moral, ethical, and spiritual problem that is illustrated in the lessons we read from Lamentations and 2 Timothy today.  Lamentations was written by someone—some scholars believe it was the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah—about the suffering and pain that followed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.  The city was besieged for eighteen months before it fell.  Scores of people died from starvation, disease, and other wounds of war.  The people who survived the siege and remained in the ruined city were shocked, grief-stricken, poor, and desolate.  The rest were taken as exiles to Babylon, or escaped to other nations as homeless immigrants. 

Lamentations was written by someone who remembered that the defeated Jerusalem had one time been the national and religious capital of a proud people.  The city that had once been so great had become a subject of other nations.  The suffering is too real to ignore, and the pain is too oppressive to mistake.  How lonely sits the city that was once full of people!  How like a widow she has become … [Lamentations 1:1(a)].  She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies [Lam. 1:2].   Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.  The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter [Lam. 1:2-4].  At Lamentations 1:5, the prophet summarizes how low his people have fallen and why their fall is so bitter.  Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions …

Some suffering occurs in life because of our transgressions.  We prefer to think that what we do in life does not matter so much that it might hurt us.  And it is especially painful to think that God might make us suffer for our transgressions.  But what we do matters, for better and for worse.  The loneliness, bitter grief, sense of betrayal, and devastating realities of defeat and loss of national status was bad enough.  What made it worse was the sense that God had ordained it. 

We don’t want to believe that God would ordain some suffering.  We want to believe that God will always put up with our transgressions.  We want to believe that God will never foreclose on our moral mortgages, never stop issuing credit for our self-serving and self-indulgent excuses, and never turn off the blessings.  It’s hard to admit that our actions can carry painful consequences—personally painful, socially painful, culturally painful, and even nationally painful—because God chooses to make us suffer for our transgressions.  If God loves us, why does God make us suffer for our transgressions?  This is the awful issue of divine judgment. 

Unlike the prophet who wrote Lamentations, Americans seem to have never recognized that the hellish decision to build the very economic, political, and social foundation of the nation on enslaving African people and practicing genocide and wholesale land theft against Native American people was blatant transgression against the justice of God.  Arkansas and the South have not recognized that we may suffer much of our bad health, poverty, and disdain because of political, commercial, social, and cultural actions that violated divine justice.  If Americans realized the transgressions, it seems someone leader would have admitted and repented about them long before now. 

Will there be a Lamentations written for us?  Perhaps it is already being written in the statistics that show the nation falling despite all its historic blessings.  Perhaps our rulers and people cannot see the decline because they refuse to confess the transgressions against God’s justice and repent of them.  Are they morally backward?  Or is the situation even worse?  What if we have sinned against God’s justice so long that we are morally dead?  These questions are part of our pain.

We suffer pain when others violate us.  We are devastated when trusted friends betray us.  We are wounded when enemies attack us for no legitimate reason.  We are confused when disease strikes us and those we love, and we cannot prevent it, cannot stop it, and cannot save ourselves and our loved ones.

We suffer pain in loving.  Douglas Greshem was the step-son of C.S. Lewis, the brilliant 20th Century Christian writer and philosopher who wrote many powerful books and articles about faith, life, and relationships.  In the introduction to the book Lewis wrote—actually it was a series of journal entries that Lewis was finally persuaded to be published as a book—titled A Grief Observed, which Lewis wrote after his wife died from cancer, Greshem wrote the following words.

 

My stepfather …had written before on the topic of pain (The Problem of Pain, 1940), and pain was not an experience with which he was unfamiliar.  He had met grief as a child:  he lost his mother when he was nine years old.  He had grieved for friends lost to him over the years, some lost in battle during the First World War, others to sickness.

He had written before also about the great poets and their songs of love, but somehow neither his learning nor his experiences had ever prepared him for the combination of both the great love and the great loss which is its counterpoint; the soaring joy which is the finding and winning of the mate whom God has prepared for us; and the crushing blow, the loss, which is Satan’s corruption of that great gift of loving and being loved.

 … [A]ll human relationships end in pain—it is the price our imperfection has allowed Satan to exact from us for the privilege of love.

Suffering forces us to ponder providence and theodicy.  At the bottom of all suffering and pain are two troubling questions:  How can God be omnipotent—all powerful—but unable to prevent us from suffering like this?  This question deals with what we call “providence”—how we understand God’s activity in a suffering world.  And if God is able to prevent suffering and evil, how can God be good and allow undeserved suffering and evil?  This question deals with what we call “theodicy”—why there is suffering and evil if God is both powerful and good.

Providence and theodicy are what Paul wrote to Timothy about.  He was imprisoned, attacked by enemies, and denied liberty and companionship because of enemies.  This was not a divine judgment on Paul’s misconduct but because Paul followed Jesus.   

However, Paul didn’t blame or lose hope in God.  Instead, he urged Timothy to continue living and proclaiming the gospel of Jesus despite this pain.  At 2 Timothy 1:11 and 12 we read Paul’s words:  For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do.  But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him

Paul endured the suffering and pain associated with his ministry because of a hope.  He was not hoping that God would somehow pay back the people who were attacking him.  His was not a prosperity-religion kind of hope based on the idea that God was going to make him rich or strong.  No!  Paul’s hope was based on a personal knowledge of and trust in God like the prophet who wrote these words at Lamentations 3:22-26:  The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.  “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, therefore I will hope in him.”  The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.  It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.

Despite the bitter memories and other pain of all that had been lost in the defeat and destruction of Jerusalem, the prophet hoped.  Despite imprisonment, Paul hoped.  In the throes of agony and tormented by the taunts and insults of his enemies, Jesus screamed, My God,my God!  Why have you forsaken me? [Matthew 27:46]  But with his last breath, a deep personal hope was clear.  Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.  [Luke 23:46]. 

People of faith hope because we know God can be trusted, even in our pain.  The prophet who grieved the plight of his nation and people, Paul writing from imprisonment to Timothy, and Jesus at the lowest point of his strength, teach the same lessons.   God can be trusted with our hope even in our suffering and pain.  God is good and loving and merciful and faithful.  God is worth our hope.  God is worth waiting on until we are delivered from whatever suffering and pain we experience.  We do not and will not always understand why we suffer.  Ye knowing God gives us reason to hope even in our pain.

Whether we suffer because of our transgressions, because of violence done to us and those we love, or from the terrible loss that comes when we lose those we love, we live with hope because God’s love doesn’t cease even when we suffer.  God’s mercies are not ended even when we fall from our own transgressions.  God has new mercies beyond our grief.  We hope for new mercies because God is faithful.  We wait for deliverance because God is faithful.  We live and hope, hope and wait, and wait and love because we trust God’s love and faithfulness–anyway.  What Martina McBride sings is true:  “God is great, but sometimes life ain’t good/When I pray it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should.”[1]  But people who know God is good and faithful hope, wait, love, and pray, anyway.

 

You can spend your whole life building

Something from nothin’

One storm come and blow it all away.

Build it anyway.

 

You can chase a dream that seems so out of reach

And you know it might not ever come your way.

Dream it anyway.

 

God is great, sometimes life ain’t good

When I pray it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should.

But I do it anyway.

I do it anyway.

This world’s gone crazy and it’s hard to believe

That tomorrow will be better than today.

Believe it anyway.

 

You can love someone with all your heart

For all the right reasons

In a moment they can choose to walk away.

Love ’em anyway.

 

God is great, sometimes life ain’t good

When I pray it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should.

But I do it anyway.

Yeah, I do it anyway.

 

You can pour your soul out singing a song you believe in

That tomorrow they’ll forget you ever sang.

Sing it anyway.

Yeah, sing it anyway.

God is faithful.  Sing, dream, love, pray, and wait, anyway. 

[1] Anyway, by Martina McBride.

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