The Problem of Pain
Probably one of the biggest theological challenges that a hospital chaplain faces is answering the question “Why do bad things happen to good people?
As you might think, most people don’t get angry at God when they end up in the hospital with conditions that are related to behaviors that they’ve been warned about.
The other day, I was talking with a woman who had just had a very serious operation that was a direct consequence of her neglecting to follow her doctor’s instructions regarding her diabetes. So we talked about her being compliant with her diabetes regimen and how taking care of her diet and medication was a spiritual as well as a behavioral issue.
In my experience, people will illnesses related to their own bad habits don’t usually blame God for putting them in the hospital. The vast majority of the time, such individuals are asking God for a chance at forgiveness and at repentance – for a chance to change their ways.
As you might expect, the real theological challenges come with people who have had unexpected accidents or situations like new parents whose babies have been born with severe medical issues.
I remember last winter, the parents of a thirty-something young man who contracted the H1 N1 virus (remember that one?) and died within days of getting the ‘flu. They wanted to know why God had taken their son who was a good man, a good husband and a loving father.
Or the 25-year old new mother with whom I sat crying in the Neo-natal ICU last January. She asked me why God would allow her baby develop in her womb in such a way that he had no chance to live a productive life. I had to tell her that I didn’t have an answer and that I didn’t really know.
I’ve heard the sorts of theological answers that people have given for why bad things happen.
I couldn’t in good conscience tell her that her baby was born without a chance of life because sin had entered the world through Adam and Eve. I don’t believe that.
And I couldn’t say to her “Well, we can’t understand everything that God does but we believe that whatever God does is always for the best.” I don’t believe that it was for the best that her child was born with no hope for getting to his first birthday.
But the one that I could do was sit there with her and hold her and let her cry.
She turned to me and said “How am I supposed to hold on to my faith?”
I said the honest thing that came to my mind: “I don’t know.”
And then I “heard” another answer in my mind and I said it out loud: “Maybe this is one of those situations where you have to let your faith hold on to you rather than you trying to hold on to your faith.” She looked at me strangely, but then seemed to understand what I was saying and she nodded her head.
The problem of pain is called “theodicy” and it’s one of our most difficult theological questions. Humanity has been wrestling with this issue since we became conscious beings and I don’t personally think there is a neat answer.
Here’s what I believe. I believe that sometimes bad things happen that are not the consequence of human behavior and which we simply can’t explain with a simple philosophy or theology of cause-and-effect.
And, when such things happen, I believe that God is right there with us, present in the mess with us and weeping with us. From my experience in the hospital, I personally believe that God is there when we are unaware of God’s presence and even when we don’t believe that God is there.
The Problem with The Problem of Pain
But I also think that there is a problem with the problem of pain. And the problem with the problem of pain is thinking that life is supposed to unfold the way we want it to unfold, and that when it doesn’t, that we have a legitimate grievance against God.
I could blame this viewpoint on modern society, but that wouldn’t be accurate. Buried deep in the human psyche is the conviction that if I am a good person, I deserve to get good things.
Most societies down through the ages (including ours, I think) and many religions have a simple answer for the problem of pain.
That simple answer is that if something bad happens to you or your family, it’s because you deserve it. Either the person afflicted with the pain did something bad to deserve their tragedy, or someone close to them did.
In this simple philosophy, the opposite belief also holds true: If I am powerful, successful and/or rich, it’s because I am a good person and because the gods are rewarding me for being good. We see this all throughout history: emperors, kings and aristocrats are regarded as having been appointed by God and serfs and peasants are regarded as slaves and/or cannon fodder.
In Scripture, we also see people who exhibit this idea that “God blesses the good people and curses bad people”. We see it in Job, and we see it when Jesus has to tell people that the man born blind was not being punished for his sins, nor were the people who died when a tower collapsed.
The Upside Down Transfiguration
By now, I’ll bet you’re trying to figure out what any of this has to do with the Transfiguration.
Well, I think that there are two ways that we can interpret this story: we can interpret it in a Gospel way, or we can interpret it in the worldly way.
Before we get to the Transfiguration itself, I want to quickly point out what was going on in the Gospel of Mark before Jesus and the three disciples went up the mountain.
In Mark 8:27,28, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say the son of man is?” Anyone here sing in the Easter Cantata last year? (Some say you are Elijah, some say you are a prophet.)
Then, in verse 29, Jesus asks Peter who he thinks Jesus is. (The Messiah)
The scene then switches and in verses 31 & 32, Jesus tells the disciples that the Messiah will be rejected by the religious leaders, be killed and then rise again after three days. Peter rebukes Jesus at the end of verse 32, and Jesus responds in verse 33 with his rebuke to Peter, telling Peter that his view of The Messiah is the human way of seeing things rather than the divine way of seeing things.
And then we get to the story about the Transfiguration.
Now, the Transfiguration is undoubtedly an Epiphany. In Christian theology, an “epiphany” is when Jesus is revealed for who he truly is.
Some may say that Jesus is Elijah or a prophet, but here we have Jesus revealed as The Messiah. On the mountain-top, like Moses receiving the ten commandments, Jesus’ very being glows with the presence of God and he is revealed as clearly separate from and greater than the two greatest men in Jewish history.
The Transfiguration is very clearly a foretaste of glory divine. If no-one else is aware of it yet, on that mountain-top Peter, James and John are let into the secret that The Messiah has indeed come to Israel and that the Savior is present among them.
The only problem is that Peter (as well as James and John) has still got his mind set on human things rather than on divine things. In other words, Peter is still seeing this magnificent event through his own perspective that anyone who is blessed by God will be spared suffering and will receive absolute glory.
As Charlie Sheen might put it, Peter still thinks that being The Messiah is about “Winning, stupid.”
And this Transfiguration is just the kind of “winning” that Peter had imagined. Peter does what all of us would want to do: He sees this perfect scene of (what he believes to be) the great men reigning in triumph and he wants to pitch a tent and stay there forever.
That’s the worldly fantasy, isn’t it? The hero kills the bad guys, puts the good guys into power, and we all live in this good kingdom happily ever after.
Except that Jesus has been repeatedly telling his disciples that “it” – his mission – is not about “Winning, stupid” but about dying and rising again.
The Good News of Jesus’ Death
Well, that certainly puts a damper on things!
I’ve managed to take what looks – at first glance – like a complete triumph and change it into something kind of depressing.
Where is the Good News in the Transfiguration if the shadow of Jesus coming death – his coming murder – is lurking in the background?
That, of course, is what is called the scandal of the cross. It’s the scandal that the Messiah didn’t kill all his enemies but instead sacrificed his own life at the height of his political and physical power. And, who could possibly see that as Good News?
Well, I personally think that the parents of the 30-something young man who died from H1N1 can see it as good news and take heart from it.
And the mother of the baby who will never live to his first birthday can let her church’s faith in the Gospel keep her, because they know that the Trinity understands personally what it means to suffer and to die in a way that the world deems to be meaningless.
By becoming incarnate in the human form of Jesus, God demonstrates the dignity that has been endowed in us by our Creator. Because the God revealed to us by Jesus is not a God who sits triumphantly in heaven watching our lives with Spock-like detached interest, never getting divine hands dirty in all the mess of being human.
In Jesus, God gets down in the mess with us – Jesus accompanies us – in the chaos and confusion of what it means to be human. This Son of God accompanies us to the point of experiencing our sins and even undergoing death.
Please don’t think I’m looking at this story of the Transfiguration – which is clearly a story of triumph – and saying that there is no victory in it. Because I think that there is great victory in it.
Not the least because Jesus keeps telling the faithful over and over again – and he demonstrates throughout his life - that God is present in events that the world sees as meaningless. And Jesus demonstrates that God’s blessing is upon people who the world sees a useless waste of space.
After all, what good is a God whose only message to us is “Nothing succeeds like success”? To paraphrase Jesus, the successful already have their reward.
The Transfiguration is a sign of God’s sort of victory rather than the human (Charlie Sheen) version of victory.
Walk with Jesus in Confidence
What an appropriate text, then, for the Sunday before Lent.
Jesus takes his friends up the mountain with him and they can see that, even though Jesus must suffer and die, that nonetheless there is divine triumph and victory on this mountain-top.
What will look like the sort of defeat that confirms to human values that Jesus most certainly cannot be the Messiah, will in fact be God’s victory over sin, death and the power of evil (to quote Martin Luther).
Although the problem of pain will always be with us, our faith witnesses to us that we can trust that God is always with us and that we can allow our faith to hold us in times of darkness.
As we come before the Lord’s table this morning, I pray that we will first be able to go up the mountain with Peter, James and John and experience a little bit of that assurance that they must have felt that God knows what God is doing. And then may we take that confidence with us, and come back down the mountain secure in the knowledge that the risen Jesus is always walking with us and sharing table fellowship with us.