God is Love—True or False?
“Call me…Job,” is how he begins his book, Pastor Gregory Schulz, a WELS pastor, in his book, “The Problem of Suffering.”
His first chapter begins with that nightmare scenario of any parent—he can’t find his little daughter. His little girl, Kyleigh, is missing; he’s searching, and he can’t find her. And then the nightmare gets worse. He finds her. You see, it had snowed the night before so he couldn’t see the grave markers. But as he tromps around the cemetery, he finally finds her grave. Kyleigh Honor-Lillie Schulz, April 26, 1992-April 21, 1993. (p.7-8)
Call me Job, he said. Job, too, lost a child. 10, actually. Seven sons and three daughters. One afternoon, from a freak tornado that came out of nowhere. Destroyed the whole house. And all his children were in that house.
And some of us have lost children. Some even before we had a chance to meet them.
And it’s not right. A parent is not supposed to bury their child, it’s supposed to be the other way around. And it’s not just the dying. It’s the suffering that happens before. Pastor Schulz writes of his little daughter, Kyleigh, “She could not suck or swallow and had to have a gastrostomy so that we could feed her directly into her stomach…At times a mild sound or soft touch could send her into a back-arching seizure…Most days, a bath would make her miserable.” (p.10)
When you hear of such things, and especially when you witness them up close, our reaction is, “That’s not right!” We know in the deepest part of us that this is not right. Who can understand such suffering?
Because there is suffering that we can understand. We can understand when someone drinks too much and gets cirrhosis of the liver, as terrible as a disease as it is. We can understand when a girl breaks up with her boyfriend because he’s treating her badly, even though it breaks his heart and that’s its own kind of pain. We understand when we suffer consequences for our actions; we understand that those consequences are like getting hit in the head with a shovel; to wake us up, to make us aware of our need for forgiveness, and to help burn away sinful lusts and ego, make us more humble. (Zech. 13:9)
We also can understand suffering that’s not our fault but that just comes because of “life.” We can understand when we get water in our basement or we get cataracts and need surgery or the market turns and you lose a whole bunch of money, we can understand that, such things happen in a sin-fallen world. We understand that what God is teaching us at such times is to be content with less and to loosen our white-knuckled grip on this life and learn to relax our balled up fists, stretch out our fingers for home, for heaven. (Phil. 1:29ff)
But what about the suffering that there is no way we can understand? Like the kind of suffering Pastor Schulz’ daughter went through, “severe psychomotor retardation with seizure activity and neuropathic posturing…recurrent unexplained fevers, persistent low grade acidosis,” (p.10)–why would God let that happen to a little baby? Or make her parents have to endure that horrible kind of helplessness and heartache? And now I’m reminded of a dignified Christian man who proudly served his country in WW 2, was a good father, good husband, good church member, so dignified, but in his later years he ended up in the county nursing home, had to endure all kinds of indignities; and he leans in and whispers, “Pastor, why doesn’t God just let me go to heaven? Why do I have to keep on living? I mean, I can’t even go to the bathroom by myself.” And I wonder the same thing, why would God make him go through those indignities? Is it really necessary?
What about that suffering that makes us raise our faces to the heavens and cry out, “This isn’t right!” Yes, what about that kind of suffering?
To start with, here’s a simple truth that means to give us courage when it’s our turn to go through this kind of suffering. And that simple truth is this–God knows it, too; God knows such suffering is not right. We know it’s not right. And so does God. A simple, powerful truth.
And you hold on to that, because the other part of such suffering, of any kind of suffering, really, is that it is a test. This is what it was for Job.
Job was a man whose faith was so strong, God himself said, “Have you thought about my servant Job? No one in the world is like him! He is a man of integrity: He is decent, he fears God, and he stays away from evil.” (1:8 GW) And then every parent’s nightmare gets unleashed on him—his children, all of them, are suddenly, violently killed by Satan. And then every adult’s nightmare gets unleashed on him—his income is suddenly gone, and his savings, and his social standing—all are suddenly wiped out by Satan. And then God even lets Satan ruin Job’s health, he is so miserable he curses the day he was born.
Every fiber of our being says, “That’s not right! God himself said of Job, “No one in the world is like him! He is a man of integrity; he is decent, he fears God, and he stays away from evil.” Why in the world would God let that happen to a Christian like Job who feared, loved, and trusted him so much?
It isn’t right! But it happens. Every day these kinds of things happen. And so we wonder, why? Why, God? That was Job’s question. That was Pastor Schulz’ question. Because we all run into the same problem–if God is good and God is all-powerful, then how can he let these things happen? And worse, drag on?
It’s a test. For Job, for Pastor Schultz and his wife, for us. It is a test that has one question. It’s a true or false question. And the question is, “God is love—True or False?”
When it seems we have every reason to doubt God’s love, you know what God does? God almost never does what we want him to do—we want him to take away the pain, to fix the problem. And he almost never does that, at least not right away. He didn’t for Job, he didn’t for Pastor Schulz and his wife.
Instead his way of proving his love for us is usually not to stop our pain, but to point us back to the cross. To have our pastor or our devotions or a Christian friend point us back to the cross. To the supreme example of his undeserved love for a sinner like me. To the cross where, when the Father had to choose between you and his own Son, he chose you, turned his back on Jesus, so that he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” To the cross and the empty tomb. And to my baptism and to his Supper that connects me to his cross and empty tomb, where there can be no doubt as to whom Jesus died for, whose sins he paid for, who is being forgiven, whose salvation he has promised, who it is that God loves as his own child.
You see, suffering, all suffering, is a test. A true or false test. “God is love—True or False?”
We think we need answers. Why? Why? But it is useful to remember that God is a whole lot smarter than we are. That this painful event is like hitting the cue ball on a pool table hard, which in turns hits other balls and puts them into motion, which in turn hits other balls and puts them into motion—this hard, painful event will put into motion more things than we can’t even begin to comprehend. But God does comprehend it. He’s smarter than we. That’s the point God was making as he spoke to Job, “Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm. “Who is this that belittles my advice with words that do not show any knowledge about it?…Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have such insight. Who determined its dimensions? Certainly, you know! Who stretched a measuring line over it? On what were its footings sunk?” (Job 38:1-7, selected, GW)
We think we need answers. But what we really need is love, God’s love for us in Christ. To be certain that even this suffering, which is not right, which God also knows is not right, even this must come from his heart of love not just for sinners, but for this sinner whom he adopted at baptism, whom he forgave in the Absolution, whom he gives a foretaste of the heavenly wedding banquet in the Lord’s Supper.
Btw, the suffering will end. It always does. For believers, at least. For Job, in the last chapter we find out that his health was restored, his financial portfolio came back and his personal worth was double what it had been at the beginning of the book, he and his wife even got to have more children. Pastor Schulz and his wife, of their suffering he writes, “For the time being I do not plan to be visiting the cemetery so often. Our son Stephen is well enough…for playing some basketball and some baseball. It is a time to read and a time to play, a time to mourn and a time to be happy for a bright eyed girl singing for her God today with him in paradise.” (p.61). Suffering always comes to an end. For believers, at least. Not completely in this life, never; but when we walk out of this crazy, sin-ruined world and into heaven, then nothing but full-bodied exhilaration.
Until then, the test question is, God is Love—true or false. Keep answering it “true.” Because while all are asked to suffer some, and some are asked to suffer a lot, only One suffered everything. On a skull-shaped hill, on a cross, from which he clearly proclaimed, “It is finished,” so the Holy Spirit could write these words, “…neither angels nor demons . . . nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And that is true. That is most certainly true. Amen.