Why does God allow suffering?

Why does God allow suffering?

Here’s my answer in the form of a sermon.

To be strictly honest, I’m not sure that it is particularly my answer. I think it may be the only answer.

And I’m moved to have seen that this has been shared by people since I preached it and has been avidly watched in New Zealand. It has also, apparently been used by a religious studies teacher today to engage with Higher Religious, Moral and Philosophical Studies students in a school in Glasgow.


This is a church which helps people to articulate questions.

Not just little questions but big questions.

I hope that we can help people to answer questions too, but in a way I’m more concerned that we keep building this place as a place where good questions can be asked and articulated.

Good questions. Big questions. Questions that matter.

That was a part of the diocesan pilgrimage days that we have had over the last couple of weeks welcoming friends from around the diocese. A key part of the day was gathering the questions. Indeed, one of the things that I’ve learned from working with Cedric is how important it is to devise processes for gathering questions and allowing people to give voice to what matters to them.

We’re now running God Factor 12 or 13 or something like that. I’ve started to lose count.

But one question keeps coming up – I think it has come up in most if not all the God Factor session at one time or another.

And it is some variation on one of the questions that is behind the gospel reading for today.

Why does God allow suffering?

Why does God allow bad things to happen?

Why do disasters happen and what is God’s part in it?

Why does God let people suffer? Make people suffer? Allow suffering at all?

And in the gospel reading this morning we have an attempt to answer that question.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s only one real answer to that question and that Christians keep on asking the question because they don’t like the answer but it is the only one that exists.

In this morning’s gospel reading we get the same and only answer that I can give to the question. But then we get a wee story tagged on the end.

And maybe the story is interesting.

Firstly, Jesus is asked about the Galileans who have been killed by Pilate. Were they worse than other Galileans?

No he says, but then says, “Repent, or you will die as they did”.

Then he remembers 18 people killed in a disaster when the tower of Siloam fell on them. Were they worse than all the others in Jerusalem?

Why do disasters happen to some people?

Why does God allow suffering?

No, he says, but then repeats, “Repent, or you will die as they did”.

So, does repentance stop you getting killed then Jesus?

The question lingers on the lips of people through the centuries. If you put things right will God will that stop bad things happening to you.

The trouble is, he’s already answered that. No, he has said clearly – the ones killed by the tower were no worse than the ones who were not killed. Repentance doesn’t stop bad things happening to you.

So why does he tell them to repent?

Well, I think it is because repentance isn’t a way to stop death, it is a way to bring life.

And that’s maybe why we read this difficult gospel in Lent rather than at some other time of the year.

Repentance, metanoia, turning around – it is good for us to turn ourselves around. Good for us to change. Good for us to put things right. It is life enhancing to take stock – to stop, to work out where we are going wrong and to turn towards what it good; to turn towards God.

Will it make bad things stop happening – well it might make us stop doing bad things, but no, it won’t make suffering come to an end

The Buddha said life is suffering. Jesus says take up your cross and follow me.

Part of having a mature grown up faith is accepting that this is just the way life is – being alive means knowing suffering and also knowing that it doesn’t seem to come fairly or equally. There’s a randomness to life that we can’t fathom and it won’t make sense even if we project it onto God and talk as though God afflicts us.

God never afflicts us. God loves us.

Bad things happen but not from God.

God still loves us.

Terrible things happen unfairly to some rather than others.

And God goes on loving us even as we rage about how unfair life is.

But Jesus isn’t finished there. He tells us this perplexing story about a man with a fig tree that won’t produce figs.

“Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”

His gardener replies – ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

What on earth do we make of that. We never find out whether the tree ends up cut down or not? We never find out whether it bears fruit or dies? We never find out who the gardener or the man are supposed to be.

People say Jesus was good at storytelling but this time there’s no plot – no development, no conclusion.

Just the image of a tree that isn’t growing and a gardener who believes in second chances.

And the smelly reality of what they used to fertilize their trees with in those days.

Our translation describes it as manure but there are other rather earthy words that could be used.

You want my learned interpretation of this passage?

You want to know what I think Jesus might have been trying to convey in telling this story – a fragment, surely only a fragment of which survives in our gospel today.

It is a free translation and a flight of the imagination to be sure, but I think he’s saying this.

You grow best when the manure is piling up around you.

God loves you there just as much as anywhere.

You grow nearer to God when you just can’t seem to shake off the dung.

God loves you whether you smell of heaven or the “earth” from which you were made.

And, yes, oh yes, you grow most when you are in the shit.

God loves you anyway.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon – 11 October 2009 – Job

Here is this morning’s sermon. There is a short hiatus near the beginning whilst microphones were sorted out. Fortunately one member of the congregation decided that she did want to hear me preach rather than just see me preach and waved her arms until it was sorted out. Many thanks Peggy.

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Let me begin by making sure that you know what polyphony is? This is a congregation where quite a lot of people probably do know what polyphony is. It is usually used as a musical term. It is used to describe different musical parts being sung together. Polyphony is where different parts are sung at the same time and sound lovely together.

At least that is the idea. Most choirs know of the experience of trying to sing different parts together and it not sounding lovely. Musical directors sometimes use different words to describe that experience – sometimes many descriptive words. [Read more…]