If God is so good why are things so bad? - Ecclesiastes 9:1-10

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 3rd May 2015.

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‘A pastor is cutting his front lawn. He looks up from his task just in time to see a heavy dump truck back out of his neighbour’s driveway- right over the neighbour’s eighteen-month old son, who had been squatting behind the huge tires. The pastor accompanies the hysterical mother and ashen father to the hospital in the ambulance. There is no hope for the little boy; he has been crushed beyond recognition.  Where is God?’[1]

 

We have to admit that such suffering doesn’t make sense. We might possibly see a connection between certain forms of behaviour and the suffering they occasion, for example, sexual promiscuity and STD’s, but what possible link could there be in terms of desert to account for the appalling atrocities undergone by the Jews during the Holocaust for instance? As we contemplate the holocaust in all its naked evil, can we honestly believe that all those children tortured by the Nazis were not innocent suf­ferers?  This is when the question is raised in earnest: If God is so good why are things so bad?

Sometimes believers in the God of the Bible are accused of looking at the world through rose tinted spectacles. Only that which is good and the beautiful are seen, it is said, the bad and the ugly are simply filtered out. How else is a believer’s faith to remain intact when it is confronted with misery- the Tibetan earthquake? That might be a question we would want to put to the person described as the Teacher in the Book of Ecclesiastes. What is striking to observe is that as this man ploughs on relentlessly, chapter after chapter, concluding that everything is ‘meaningless’ or better rendered, ‘mist’, ‘bubbles’- the Hebrew word is ‘hebel’- nonetheless his faith in God does remain in tact and shows no signs of diminishing. He can hardly be accused of wearing rose coloured glasses! In particular, it is when he faces up to the great leveller, ‘death’ and what appears to be the shear randomness of life where the good is not always rewarded and the bad seems to thrive, that inspite of the absurdity of it all, the call is still to look to God and to enjoy his benefits which are signs of his goodness. This is the great theme of chapter 9 we are looking at tonight.

First of all let’s think about the mockery of death- if God is so good.

Today there is a tendency to romanticise death. Not only do we use euphemisms such as ‘passing away’ to avoid the ‘D’ word, but we wrap up its cold reality with hazy, hopeful notions that all will be well in the ‘sweet by and by’. That is not the way of the Teacher.

The writer of Ecclesiastes says there is an ‘evil under the sun’ namely, that the ‘same destiny overtakes them all.’ The righteous and the wicked both end up occupying graves, maybe even the same grave. There seems to be no correlation between the way people have lived and the way they die. It is proverbial: ‘As it is with the good, so with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so with those who are afraid to take them.’ (v 2) Death does not seem to right the wrongs of life or mitigate the ‘evil in men’s hearts’. Death is not very discriminating, it is impartial. Indeed, it would seem that clinging to life at all costs is the preferable option- ‘better a live dog than a dead lion.’

The Teacher looks at reality with both eyes wide open and admits that even personal piety is no safeguard against the grim reaper,v2, ‘All share a common destiny…. the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.’ The priest and the pimp, the judge and the junky- death is no respecter of persons.

This haphazard nature of suffering and death striking has been called ‘the terror of randomness.’[2] This was the experience of the Christian Jerry Sittser, ‘He remembered an earlier conversation with his wife about an accident reported in their local newspaper. It haunted him now. A station wagon driven by a mother had skidded off the road killing, three of her six children. “We shivered with fear” he recalled of the conversation with his wife, “before the disorderliness of tragedy.”[3]

For Sittser, it was not simply that something bad had happened, but that it had happened so randomly, there being no rhyme or reason which could remotely be conceived leaving him to ask ‘Why these people? What had they done?’ But then tragically it happened to Sittser himself as he lost his mother, wife and one of his children in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. Life is unpredictable and so, in the main, people are unprepared. Under the sun, life, in the face of death, can be terrifying- it’s like walking into a thick mist- hebel.

Of course, what adds to the apparent absurdity of suffering and death is the context of normality in which they occur, namely, joy and life. The Teacher has made reference to these throughout his essay, and even here encourages a delight in such things- v7,  ‘Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart’, and so on ……8 

 It is this tension and incongruity between the life and death, pleasure and pain that renders everything- ‘hebel’ as insubstantial as bubbles or a curling wisp of smoke-that is what life feels like for all of us- especially when you look at the prospect of your own death- what does that do to your ideas of leaving a legacy behind?

Now here’s the thing: If life (and death) ‘under the sun’ is all that there is, the only perspective because, according to the secular humanist we live in a ‘universe without windows’, it is difficult to see where the protests come from when facing suffering. Who is the atheist shaking his fist at- the God he doesn’t believe in? If there is no God, and so no absolute basis for deciding between right and wrong, having no sufficient warrant for distinguishing the value of pain from the value of joy, then suffering, and the grief it occasions, are mere data of existence like the redness of a sunset or the wetness of water- they are just there. We can no more object to the presence of suffering than we can to the presence of the wind. You see, the ‘problem of pain’ appears to be a problem for the believer because of what he affirms about God, viz., that he is good and almighty. It is what is called a ‘trilemma’: ‘If God is perfectly loving and good he must wish to abolish evil; if God is all powerful he must be able to abolish evil. But evil exists therefore God cannot be both perfectly good and almighty.’[4]

This philosophical problem seems rather removed from the concerns of the Teacher and, indeed the rest of the Bible. He would be able to sympathise more with the down- to-earth anguished cries of those wrestling with the absurdity of suffering and the ‘why?’ questions, someone like C. S. Lewis as he looked upon in anguish at the struggles of his wife Joy Davidman, dying of cancer:

‘Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened again: the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering in the stomach, the nightmare unreality, the wallowed-in-tears. Meanwhile where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy.. and turn to him in gratitude and praise, you will be welcomed-so it feels- with open arms. But go to him when your need is desperate, when all other help is in vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence.’[5]

What might come as a surprise, given the ‘no holds barred’ nature of the Teacher’s observations, is that he does not raise questions about God’s goodness- not once. The evil of such things are acknowledged (v3), but the blame is not laid at God’s door. Why’s that?

Well, first of all it is likely that Genesis 1-3 have shaped his beliefs, not least that death in some  way is to be regarded as God’s judgement upon sin ( Gen. 2:17; 3:19; cf. Ecclesiastes 3:20; 12:7)- which therefore covers all of us. He appears content to leave matters there.[6]  In the background is the thought that what is remarkable in the light of our sin and God’s judgment is that there is so much good we experience and not more bad. In fact given God’s holiness and his implacable opposition and repugnance to our rebellion, it is his judgement which should be the norm, and his kindness which comes to us day by day should be the exception, but we don’t experience it that way-it is the other way around. That is why we assume that life should, by and large, be hunky dory, because many of us experience it like that. But it is not a well based assumption given our track record in snubbing the one who gives us good things. The fact that we experience so many good things to enjoy are signs of God’s remarkable goodness and great patience towards us. The real question then is not, ‘if God is so good why are things so bad’, but, ‘if God is so holy why are things so good?’ Part of the problem is that we have too narrow a view of what the goodness of God is. We tend to think of it as pure benevolence (and it certainly includes that), but it also embraces his holiness, it is a holy goodness that we see in God. As Jesus said to the Rich young Ruler, ‘No one is good but God alone’- his character defines what is good.

But there is another aspect of the teaching of Genesis which may also have influenced the Teacher which enabled him (and may well enable us), to come to terms with the apparent randomness of suffering and death, and that is the sovereignty of God.

What enables the Teacher to retain his faith in God despite the absurdities and apparent injustices of life is his view of God as King over all, which is rooted in the first few chapters of the Bible.

What God is doing in his world maybe confusing to us at times but it is hardly capricious. God is not an absentee landlord who has wound up the universe and let it go its own sweet (and sometimes bitter) way. The God of the Bible, while being distinct from the world (‘God is in heaven and you are on earth’ 5:2), is nonetheless intimately and personally involved in the world, as we see for example with the patterns of the seasons reflecting something of his providential rule (1:6f). Even the language used here in v 1 speaks of concerned, personal divine rule, ‘what they do are in God’s hands’. Providence implies purpose, and although there will be times when the specific purpose of what God is doing at any given moment may be hidden from us, God’s overall purpose has been revealed together- to unite everything under the rule of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:10) together with what our duty is whatever the circumstances: ‘Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.’ That is the conclusion at the end of the book. And there is a reason why we should fear him, because he is fearsome-you do not trifle with him. It’s like the remark of Mrs Beaver to the question as to whether Aslan was safe, ‘Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” God may not be safe in that we can’t domesticate him, but he is good because he is the King.

So, to the question: ‘How can I stand it?’ living in a world riddled with pain and injustice, as well as pleasure and righteousness (which is a more important question than: where did evil come from in the first place), two answers present themselves.

The first is down- to- earth and practical- we are to get on with the business of living under God’s rule v7ff:

‘Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labour under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.’ Just get on with it, enjoy God’s gifts, do good where you can.

When the writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch, (who was wonderfully portrayed in the movie ‘Iris’ by Dame Judy Dench) showed signs of sliding into Alzheimer’s disease, her husband, John Bayley, divided their days into simple and yet discrete units- posting a letter, going for a walk and so on. This was something which could be handled; it was very much a matter of taking things ‘one day at a time’. Bayley would cite Jane Austin’s kind clergyman, the Reverend Sydney Smith, who would counsel members of his flock who were gripped by depression, “take short views of human life- never further than dinner or tea.’ It is at points like these we can utter the honest prayer: ‘Father, I may not understand you but help me to trust you.’

However, it would be difficult (and, some would argue irresponsible), to trust a God who is not in sovereign control and who does not have the ‘righteous and the wise’ in his hands (v1). These tie in with the deeper issue of how human beings are enabled to conduct their days ‘under the sun’ by having a sense of purpose. 

So let me tell you about Victor Frankel, who himself experienced the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp, in order to develop his treatment called ‘logotherapy’. It was here of all places that he noticed the positive way in which some people approached their tragic and nightmarish situation. This observation led him to quote Nietzsche with approval, that ‘Men and women can endure any amount of suffering so long as they know the ‘why’ to their existence’. In other words, if the suffering can be placed within some wider context of meaning and purpose, much, but by no means all, of the sting of mental anguish is relieved. What often makes suffering so morally objectionable is its occurrence in a form which is wholly negative and irrational, apparently devoid of any significance. It is this which lies at the root of so many tormented human cries, “Why should my ten day old baby die?’ ‘Why should such a gifted man be reduced to a mere shell through cancer?’ It is this seeming lack of purpose, what is often referred to by philosophers as ‘dysteliological’ suffering that provides the twist which calls for such pain to be viewed as evil.

Let it be said quite clearly that from a purely humanistic perspective such suffering cannot but remain meaningless, unless one invokes an evolutionary explanation along the lines of the ‘survival of the fittest’ which requires suffering. In which case, we can’t complain about it any more than we can complain about having the digestive system we have.  But if, there is a personal, sovereign God who has purpose in pain, although not always revealed to us, then even when we don’t know ‘why’ we can at least begin to ‘trust the God who does know why’.[7] And it is because of the cross of Christ that Christians can do that, because they look at the cross which from one point of view is the worse thing that could ever have happened-the murder of the divine Son. And yet from another point of view the best thing that ever happened- God’s means of rescuing us. Inspite of the way things can sometime look- nothing but a disaster-like the cross on that Friday afternoon, a Christian can say, ‘God will bring about a good’- like the resurrection on the Sunday morning and you can’t have the second without the first. That is the Gospel. That is what enabled Horatio Spafford to keep going on and to write that amazing hymn. In fact it was this which enabled Jerry Sittser who I mentioned earlier to go on, so he writes, ‘Since I knew that darkness was inevitable and unavoidable, I decided from that point on to walk into the darkness rather than try and outrun it, to let my experience of loss take me on a journey wherever it would lead, and to allow myself to be transformed by my suffering rather than think I could somehow avoid it.’[8]

Professor Don Carson gives a very moving illustration of this approach and the difference it makes knowing the Gospel- that God is all good and all powerful and all wise and works ‘all things to the good for those who love him’ because this is what God has revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ. It concerns a young man who was a 6 foot skinny something who worked in Latin America for about 15 years as an effective church planter and trainer of others. He met his wife over there, a daughter of a missionary family and they had a little girl together. The missionary agency wanted this man to get a PhD so he could be more effective in training and so he embarked on a course at TEDS where Don Carson is a professor. Six months into the course his wife was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer. She underwent the usual treatment- mastectomy, chemotherapy- fighting for her life but she came through it all and for a while it looked as if she was cured. He started up his studies again. 6 months later he was diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer. The local hospitals which were good ones said there was nothing they could do for him. The mission board eventually sent him to the Mayo clinic who suggested a course of treatment which involved taking out 90% of his stomach and supplying him with drugs which were normally used for colon cancer. 6 months later, skinnier than ever, eating about ten times a day, he resumed his studies. He did another six months and his wife’s cancer came back- and she died. Eventually he came back to Trinity and finished his PhD. The last time Dr Carson saw him, his daughter was nine and a half, they were getting ready to go back to Latin America and he spoke at the church Don attends. As he spoke that Sunday morning for about half an hour- all he talked about was the goodness of God. How could he do that? Because he understood the Gospel.

This world is broken terribly because of sin. Jesus was broken terribly because of sin. And God in all his goodness and mercy bears with us terribly in our sin, so that one day when Jesus returns all will be made new.

‘The righteous and the wise are in God’s hands.’ Thank him that it is so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


[1] D.A. Carson, How Long O Lord? Reflections on Suffering and Evil (Inter Varsity Press, 1990), p.15

[2] Os Guinness,  Unspeakable- Facing up to Evil in an Age of Genocide (Harper/ Collins, 2005), p. 53

[3] Ibid., p 54

[4] John Hick ‘An Irenean Theodicy’ Encountering Evil,  S. T. Davies Ed (T and T Clark 1981) pp. 38-52

[5] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, (Fount 1962).

[6] ‘The early chapters of Genesis represent the single most important influence on the ideas of Ecclesiastes regarding the nature and destiny of man, the character of human existence, and the fact of God.’ C.C. Foreman, ‘Koheleth’s Use of Genesis’. Journal of Semitic Studies5 (1956), p.263

[7] Os Guinness, Doubt: Faith in Two Minds (Inter Varsity Press, 1976), p 209.

[8] Sittser, A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Loss (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004_, p 42.

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