Living With Unanswered Questions

Welcome to my new blog.  I served as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (USA) from 1991 – 2000.  Here I am creating an online archive of sermons I gave during and after my years as a pastor.  I hope these old messages are still of some relevance today and that they are a blessing to all who take the time to read them. ~ Morgan

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The following post is a sermon originally delivered on August 4, 1991 at First Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Alabama.  Though I had preached several times before and during seminary, this is the first sermon I gave after being ordained as a pastor. Some of the names of actual persons have been changed in order to preserve their privacy.  The sermon has also been edited for clarity.

Ps 89:46-51

46 How long, O Lord? Wilt thou hide thyself for ever?
How long will thy wrath burn like fire?
47 Remember, O Lord, what the measure of life is,
for what vanity thou hast created all the sons of men!
48 What man can live and never see death?
Who can deliver his soul from the power of Sheol?
Selah

49 Lord, where is thy steadfast love of old,
which by thy faithfulness thou didst swear to David?
50 Remember, O Lord, how thy servant is scorned;
how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples,
51 with which thy enemies taunt, O Lord,
with which they mock the footsteps of thy anointed.

Mark 15:21-39

21 And they compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyre’ne, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. 22 And they brought him to the place called Gol’gotha (which means the place of a skull). 23 And they offered him wine mingled with myrrh; but he did not take it. 24 And they crucified him, and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. 25 And it was the third hour, when they crucified him. 26 And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. 29 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads, and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 So also the chief priests mocked him to one another with the scribes, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.

33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “E’lo-i, E’lo-i, la’ma sabach-tha’ni?” which means, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Eli’jah.” 36 And one ran and, filling a sponge full of vinegar, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Eli’jah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry, and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (RSV)

While I was a seminary student I took a year off from my studies to serve in a church full-time. This internship, as they call them, took me all the way to Tacoma, Washington, where I assisted the pastor in a 230 member congregation. I got some important experience there and learned a lot about the realities, both joyful and otherwise, of parish ministry.

One of my many duties while serving that church was the visitation of shut-ins–people who are unable to leave their homes due to poor health. On a certain summer afternoon I had the privilege of visiting with Barbara, an elderly woman whose health had deteriorated to the point she wasn’t able to get out much, and she was usually in a fair amount of pain.

When I arrived at Barbara’s apartment, in one of Tacoma’s apartment complexes for the elderly, she greeted me warmly and invited me in, and we became engaged in a lively conversation about her children and grandchildren. After a little while, though, the discussion took a turn I was neither expecting nor ready for.

In my few short years of active ministry I’ve learned that when you’re a pastor, people will come right out and say things  they might not say in the presence of others. Sometimes people will be very honest with you about how they’re feeling. This is a good thing because it opens doors for ministry, but it can also catch you by surprise if you’re not careful. That talk with Barbara was one of those times.

Out of the blue, Barbara looked me straight in the eye and asked, “Morgan, why am I still here? Why doesn’t God just take me? Why does he make me hang around here and suffer like this?” I was silent for a moment, then responded only that I didn’t know. I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say. Frankly, her candidness surprised me. I figured some folks must ask themselves that question from time-to-time, but it caught me off guard that this woman would entrust such a personal feeling to a young whippersnapper like me, not even ordained yet and very wet behind the ears. In my few years of experience I felt like I had no wisdom whatsoever to offer this seasoned matron. Sure, I had my opinions, but who was I to be telling this lady why God still had her on the earth? I simply sat and listened, which she seemed to appreciate very much.

Barbara’s question went unanswered that day, though I feel certain no answer I could have offered would have settled the uneasiness she felt about living.  Her question arose from deep within, from a heart perplexed about life–one of those questions that nags at us when things don’t go as expected, when God doesn’t seem to be doing what we think he ought to be doing.

Melissa was another person I encountered with an unanswerable question. I met Melissa and her husband Tom while serving with a pastor I’ll call Ron last summer at a Presbyterian church in Arizona.  Melissa and Tom, a couple in their 20s, were members of Ron’s church and very involved in it. Both worked with the senior high youth group, and in addition, Tom was an elder and Young Life leader for the local high school. He was also a fledgling cotton farmer, which is quite a feat in Arizona since it rarely rains there. All their farming is done by irrigation. Tom was just beginning to get his crop off the ground financially. Even though I only worked at that church for two and a half months, I got to know Tom and Melissa very well because of our work together with the youth of the church, and because I happened to live next door to them.

One week during the summer, Pastor Ron and his family went on vacation, leaving me with the ship, so to speak. On Tuesday morning of that week, which was normally my day off, I was awakened by a phone call around 7:00 a.m. My initial response was irritation at being disturbed on the one morning on which I could sleep in. That quickly disappeared, though, when I learned of the nature of the call. It was the church secretary, who also happened to be Melissa’s aunt. She said gravely, “Tom was out irrigating the fields last night, and he had a seizure which threw him into the irrigation ditch, causing him to drown.” I was stunned. Only a day or two earlier Tom had just been telling me himself that he was an epileptic, but that with medication the doctors had been able to control it so that he had not had a seizure in well over a year. How very sadly ironic it was that Tom just happened to have a seizure at that time and in that place.

After I recovered from the initial shock, I threw my clothes on and dashed out to my car. Melissa was by now at the home of Tom’s parents, who were also members of the church. As I said a moment ago, it almost never rains in that part of Arizona, but on the few occasions when it does, it pours. That morning as I drove out to Tom’s parents’ place, the sky was dark with storm clouds and the rain was coming down in sheets and buckets. Because it rains so seldom there’s no drainage system in the streets, so the water was gathering in huge puddles, some so deep the police were having to close the roads. As I drove through the rain and the gloom I remember thinking one of those irrational thoughts that come to you in moments like those–that the timing of the storm made it seem as if the creation and God himself were weeping over the tragic death of this special man.

When I arrived at the home of Tom’s parents, they welcomed me in between sobs and then the four of us, Melissa and Tom’s mom and dad and myself, just stood there for a long time, the three of them weeping, and myself stunned by my own grief and my awareness that I needed to be a pastor in this situation even though the experience was completely foreign to me. As we stood there arm-in-arm, I think one question was on all our minds, though no one ventured to speak it: “Why? Why Tom of all people? Why did he have to have a seizure right then at that particular place?” And behind those questions were others we may have been scared to consciously think, much less say: “Why did God let this happen? Why did God let Tom have that seizure right then? Why didn’t God send one of Tom’s helpers along to rescue him?”

This kind of question confronts each of us at some time in our lives. It’s almost impossible to live on this earth without experiencing some sort of tragedy, either in our own lives or in the lives of those we love. Therefore, at one time or another I think we all have these questions — questions about God and life and the nature of things for which we’ve never really found an answer. In Barbara’s case it was why God allowed her to go on living in the midst of her suffering. In the case of Tom’s family and friends it was why God allowed this young man with so much promise to die so tragically. Many others of us may share these kinds of questions wondering, for example, why a loved one has been afflicted with cancer and now must seemingly travel the long, slow road to a painful death.

For others, unanswered questions may not relate to issues of life and death, but they haunt us nonetheless. There’s the woman whose husband divorced her who still can’t understand to this day why the marriage didn’t work — why, if marriage is so precious to God, God didn’t make things work out. Or the man who wonders why God allowed his business venture to fail. Or the person who has never married and can’t understand why God doesn’t seem to provide him or her with that lifelong companion they’ve been seeking for so long.

For still others, our questions may be of a more theological nature: Some may wonder why the Bible, which shows us a loving God, also talks about hell. Or why the Bible seems to say that Jesus Christ is the only true way to God when so many religions in the world each claim to lead to Truth. Some may question the very nature of the Bible itself–how can we know for certain that it really is the Word of God? What about the Koran and the Vedas and the scriptures of other religions? Is it necessary to accept the Bible over these? If so, on what grounds, and how do you know? And there are always questions about why there is evil and suffering in the world if God is truly good and all-powerful. In fact, I suspect that the majority of our unanswered questions relate in some way or another to the problem of evil and suffering.

Contrary to what some may think, the Bible is not unfamiliar with the idea of unanswered questions. Today’s Old Testament lesson from Psalm 89 (quoted above)  is but one example. In this passage the psalmist is questioning God in a very pointed and direct manner. We don’t know a lot about the historical background behind this psalm, but it appears to have been written many decades after the time of King David, during a low point in the kingdom of Israel, when things are going poorly and the nation is surrounded by many enemies and threatened with defeat. In the verses before the segment we read this morning, the psalmist cries out to God to remember the promises God made to David regarding the restoration and strength of his kingdom for generations to come. As one of David’s descendants, the writer is perplexed by the seriousness of his situation and openly wonders why God doesn’t seem to be keeping the promises he made to David.

The interesting thing about this psalm is that it ends there. Though there is the blessing in verse 52, most scholars agree that this verse was added to the psalm much later and was not originally part of it. You see, the psalms are divided into various subgroupings called books. Psalm 89 happens to be the last psalm in book III of the psalms, and it is believed that verse 52 was added as a closure for the entire third book, not just for Psalm 89. Therefore, Psalm 89 ends on a questioning note. No attempt is made to defend God’s action or seeming lack thereof. The psalmist’s questions go unanswered…

Today’s New Testament lesson from Mark 15 (quoted above) offers us some comfort regarding our unanswered questions. For in it we see the very Son of God himself, the one member of the human race least deserving of suffering, nailed to a cross, mocked by the very religious leaders who ought to be worshiping him, suffering a slow and agonizing death.

Think about the situation. He was a relatively young man, only 33, in his prime, obviously very gifted in many ways, a captivating speaker, a doer of much good, a champion of the underprivileged and the oppressed and, according to the scriptures, sinless, innocent. A very promising member of society. His unjust death would be seen as a tragedy even if he were not the Son of God. But the fact that he was the Son of God makes the meaning of his suffering and death even more profound.

For the man who died on the cross that day was more than just simply a man. He certainly was a human being like us, but he was unique. For the Bible and the ancient creeds of the church teach us that Jesus Christ was and is a member of the Trinity — that he was and is divine. In the Apostle’s Creed which we say every Sunday, as we will do in just a few moments, we affirm that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. This very brief line of the creed says some very important things. For the child who resulted from this mysterious union between the Holy Spirit and Mary was both God and man, both human and divine.

This doctrine of the Christian faith is a stumbling block for many people, because it sounds strange and hard to believe. How can a person be both God and human? Yet those who dismiss this teaching are robbing the faith of the one doctrine that could make sense of it all if they would follow it to its logical conclusions. For the doctrine of the incarnation — the idea that God clothed himself in human flesh and allowed himself to be bound by human limitations — has radical and cosmic implications for us. It means, first and foremost, that when Christ hung on the cross, God himself was suffering. So the sacrifice made that day was not just an act demanded by a distant and uninvolved God; God himself was making it!

The fact that God deliberately became a human being and allowed himself to experience all our limitations says volumes about the value of the human race. It is the highest honor and compliment to us that God would choose to become one of us. This in itself ought to tell us how much we are worth to him.

The idea that God allowed himself to suffer the trials of human existence and even execution shows us several important things about his character and his love. First of all, it shows us God is familiar with the human condition. He came and participated himself — not by proxy, but on his own — in the human experience, so that he has tasted our plight firsthand. The fact he was willing to do this shows that God desires to identify with us in a way we can grasp.

The incarnation also reveals something about the role of suffering in the overall scheme of things. It’s significant that God chose a way of redeeming humanity that involved suffering. Theoretically, since God is all-powerful, he could have simply wiped all our slates clean and gone on from there. But he didn’t. Instead, God chose the way of the cross. Perhaps this was to teach us about the seriousness of human sinfulness, and about the consequences of our actions. Would we learn to be responsible for our actions if God had simply let us off scott-free, without any price to pay for our sinfulness? But, the astounding part of it all is that though God demanded a price be paid for sin, he then turned right around and paid it himself!! The suffering God endured on the cross was suffering we deserved, not he! But instead, God endured it for us. As the hymn says so eloquently and so simply, “Love so amazing, so divine/Demands my soul, my life, my all!”

God did not exempt even himself from experiencing suffering, and that suffering was at the hands of the very ones he loved, his own creation; indeed, it was for their sakes that he suffered, and for ours. This is  disturbing, for if God didn’t save himself from tragedy and suffering, then we may have to endure it from time-to-time, too. But this can also be a source of comfort, because many of our unanswered questions have to do with the problem of suffering. The fact that God allowed himself to suffer on our behalf when he could have done otherwise implies that suffering may be more than just something in life to be avoided. It may actually serve a purpose in the shaping of our character, as the Apostle Paul says in the book of Romans, Chapter 5: “. . .we rejoice in or sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.” And the good news is that because of Christ’s death on the cross, death– even tragic death–is not the end. All who trust in Christ have assurance of eternity with God.

The gospel does not guarantee that all of our questions will be answered in this life. But the good news is that the scriptures show us a God who is ever present with us, even when we don’t feel his presence — a God who is with us even when we doubt and when we question, and who can relate to us in our questioning. Yet the scriptures call us to a faith that’s able and willing to trust God even when we don’t have all the answers. I invite each one of us to turn our questions over to God and to decide to live with our unanswered questions and even in spite of them, trusting that our lives are in the nail-scarred hands of a loving and caring Lord, who knows what it’s like to suffer, and who knows what is best for us.

How have you dealt with unanswered questions in your life? 

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3 thoughts on “Living With Unanswered Questions

  1. Today I would add that I do believe all our questions will be answered in the afterlife. I would also add that some of the questions I described as unanswered, such as those about the nature and reliability of the Bible, can be answered with careful, in-depth study. Maybe that will be the topic of a post on my main blog at morgantrotter.wordpress.com some day. 🙂

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  2. I struggled with this question a great deal until my father-in-law died.
    My father-in-law just might have been the most singularly impressive human being I ever knew. He was born literally dirt-poor in rural Indiana, into a true farm family where part of the reason you have kids is that it means more hands. He worked demolitions in the Marines in World War II, here and there on various crappy little islands in the Pacific with the Japanese military trying its level best to make him dead all the time. He returned and married his high school sweetheart, in a union that ultimately lasted more than 60 years. He moved to Huntsville to work on putting a man on the moon, and then the shuttle, before retiring. He had four beautiful girls. (I got the youngest and best one.)
    He had the kind of life that makes me look at mine and say “yeah, so what have you brought, man?”
    He died a horrifically painful and slow death, and about 20% of the way to his end, it was resolved with me that everything was not necessarily “God’s plan.” Some things just happen.

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    • Thanks for commenting, Bo. I agree with that totally. I think saying God causes everything is an overly simplistic explanation that leaves out a lot of other realities in a fallen world, like sin and the power of evil. God gets blamed for a lot of things that aren’t his fault. Some might ask: if he is all-powerful why does he allow bad things to happen, and I don’t think there’s a simple answer to that either. It sounds like your father-in-law was a truly great man.

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