In a world filled with pain and suffering, and a Church that often portrays God as angry and wrathful, our imagination of a good God can get stunted. Remembering that God is compassionate (“suffers with”) and whose nature is primarily love and grace enables us to imagine God’s goodness in our lives and our world, and gives us hope as we await the coming of Jesus—God in the flesh–at Christmas.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Luke 21:25-3
I come from a family of short people. My dad is 5’5”, and my mom is 4’11” if she stands up straight and tall. So my siblings and I were destined to be “vertically challenged”—of us 8 children, the tallest is 5’7” and the shortest is 5’2”. I’m in the middle.
So it was in our genes, but we still looked for any edge we could get that would help us grow taller or at least not stunt our growth any more than our genes did.
One common thing we heard was that caffeine could stunt your growth. But we really didn’t start drinking coffee until after we had grown to our full height, so that didn’t help much.
Whether or not caffeine or other things can stunt your growth, I believe that there are some things that can stunt our belief in and imagination of a good God.
Our theme during Advent is “Can you imagine…”, and today we are looking at the question, “Can you imagine the goodness of God.”
There are many things that can stunt the growth of our imagination of a good God. Our passage from Luke today where Jesus talks about some of the signs of the end times can make it hard to imagine that there’s a God, not to mention a god who is good.
The passage tells of nations in turmoil over destructive weather patterns, and fear and trembling about what the future holds. Imagining that there’s a good God in the midst of all the upheaval and pessimism is a pretty hard thing to do.
This is true whether it’s the end times, or the middle times, or the beginning times. Actually many biblical scholars would say that when Jesus is talking about the end times or “last days”, he’s referring to all the time between his first Advent, when he is born, and his second Advent, or second coming, when he returns to establish his Kingdom in all of its fullness.
You see, all throughout history, people in every corner of the earth have experienced pain and suffering caused by things like war, poverty, natural disasters, disease, accidents, and oppression and injustice.
And especially when the suffering happens to innocent, vulnerable, good people who do no harm to others, it begs the question that people have asked for centuries:
If God was truly good, why would God allow bad things to happen to good people? I have heard that this is the top question that people who aren’t Christians have about God, and I would guess that it’s a question that all of us ask, especially when we or people we love go through really hard times.
And when we search for the answer to why a good God would allow good people to suffer, but come up empty with an explanation, it’s easy to get disillusioned and angry with God, and we’re tempted to turn our backs on God because we think God has turned his back on us.
And that can stunt our imagination in believing in a God that is truly a good God.
Now I’m not going to try to come up with a completely satisfactory answer to the question “Why would a good God allow bad things to happen to good people?”. It’s one of those questions that is a mystery, that I and probably no one can fully understand or explain.
But here are a few of my thoughts about it:
First, God doesn’t promise an easy life to anybody—whether you’re a model Christian or adamant atheist, or anyone in between. Jesus says that the rain, the bad weather, falls on both the just and the unjust; in other words, we’re all subject to pain and suffering. No one can claim an exemption like we can do on our taxes.
Now sometimes our pain and suffering is the result of our own sin, selfishness or bad choices; and sometimes we suffer as a result of the selfishness and sin of other people.
Or sometimes suffering happens due to natural disasters and accidents we have little or no control over. They just happen…and they could happen to any of us.
Now let me say something about prayer. Some Christians have this view that prayer can be so powerful that it can protect us like a shield from disaster or disease or other kinds of suffering.
Now I believe that God hears our prayers and that prayer can be a powerful thing. Prayer can change us, and I’ve seen God moved by it as well. At the same time, no amount of prayer can guarantee a pain-free life, or total protection, or complete physical healing or any other kind of result that we desire.
If it could, then we would be in control, and not God. And if we think about it, that would not really a very good world to live in, for humans to switch places with God.
But what I have seen and experienced in the face of suffering is this: how God walks with us and comforts us when we feel alone and scared and when we’re hurting. And how God has compassion for us and suffers along with us.
That’s what the word “compassion” means—to suffer with.
And I’ve seen how God can take whatever broken pieces there are and put them back together, in surprising and miraculous ways.
God is able to bring beauty out of brokenness, bring reconciliation, redemption and healing in situations where we didn’t think it was possible, where we had given up hope.
It’s like what the apostle Paul says in Romans 8:28—God can work all things together for good.
And knowing that God is present, that he doesn’t abandon us, that he cares, and that he brings healing to our lives reminds me that even in the midst of the pain and suffering in the world and in our lives, that God is truly a good God.
Knowing these things about God helps me to imagine the goodness of God breaking into our lives and the predicaments we find ourselves in in unexpected and powerful ways. It gives us hope and the expectation of good things from a good God.
Now there’s one other question I want to mention that people often ask, which can lead to stunting the imagination of the goodness of God.
That question is, “Why would a good God send people to eternal punishment in a hell?
Now, just like the previous question, I want to start of by saying that I do not pretend to have a nicely packaged answer to this question.
First of all, I don’t know exactly what hell is like, and how it exists in space and time. As I mentioned last Sunday, I believe that when Jesus talked about hell, he was referring at least as much to the present life, while people are living here and now, as he was to what happens after our bodies take their final breath.
Also, I can’t tell you for certain what the exact criteria are that guarantee entrance into heaven, that will get St. Peter to take that key and open up the pearly gates for you and me.
When I was growing up Catholic, I got the impression that we had to be cleansed from original sin, which took place at baptism. And then we had to make sure that we didn’t have mortal sins that had not been confessed to the priest and cleansed through saying some prayers of penance.
When I was in college and got involved with different evangelical and fundamentalist Christian groups, “salvation” was defined as going to heaven, and to be “saved” all you had to do was pray a “sinner’s prayer” and accept Jesus into your heart.
And now as a Mennonite, we emphasize obeying the teachings of Jesus as the most important thing. I think of Jesus’ words “Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom, but only those who do the will of my Father”.
But then sometimes this mindset, if taken too far, can lead to a works righteousness where you earn your way into heaven. And that’s something I’m not comfortable with either.
And that’s because I believe in this thing called grace. I believe in a God of grace who loves each one of us unconditionally, no matter what we have done, no matter how cruel we can be to each other, no matter how hard we can be on ourselves.
And believing in a God of grace, which is at the essence of love, leaves me with wondering whether a God of grace would send people to eternal torment in a place called hell.
Like people who have never had a chance to hear about Jesus, whether they live in 2021 AD or 2021 Before Christ. Or people like Gandhi or Anne Frank or maybe your Muslim or Hindu neighbor who show so much love and kindness and courage, people who live more like Jesus than so many professed Christians do.
So I don’t have a clear answer to the question, “Why would a good God send people to hell?” Nor cand I say who would be on that list. That’s God’s realm, not mine or yours to decide.
I know there are Christians who say they know for certain, but sometimes it’s because they think we need to have a clear answer for every question about God and the Bible.
And I don’t think we need to in order to have an authentic and growing faith. In fact, sometimes claiming to have all the answers can stunt your growth—when you stop asking questions, you become stagnant and rigid and proud and judgmental.
But here is one thing that I do believe about this question. I believe that sometimes Christians throughout the centuries have emphasized more the anger and wrath and judgment of God than they have the love and mercy and grace of God.
Too many preachers and Christian foot soldiers have tried to use the threat of hell as a way to scare people into believing in God and accepting Jesus into their life.
Now, sometimes this strategy has worked and people have had the fear of God knocked into them, and they believed in order to escape the fires of hell. But I don’t believe that the ends justify the means. To me, love should always be the motivator, not fear.
You see, even though people may have gained a belief in God and committed their life to Jesus, what is so often lost in the process is a belief in a loving God, a gracious God, a good God.
Instead, people carry around this idea of a God who is angry, and full or wrath who is more interested in punishing people and beating people down than lavishing grace upon them and lifting them up.
And I believe that this has caused much anguish and self-loathing among people, many who later turned away from the faith because it was oppressive and life-draining instead of freeing and life-giving.
And it has stifled their ability to imagine the goodness of God in their lives and in the people and world around them.
One of my current favorite authors is Brian Zahnd, pastor of Word of Life Church in Missouri. He talks about this contrast between a wrathful God and a loving God in his book, Sinners in the hands of a loving God.
His book is sort of a response to a famous sermon given by the 18th century preacher Jonathan Edwards called “Sinners in the hands of an angry God”. Edwards’ sermon has had a big impact on Christians since he first preached it, yes, converting many through his “turn or burn” message.
But at the same time, Zahnd says that it has caused generations of people to get a distorted view of the nature of God. Zahnd’s book was written to offer a sort of corrective to that view, emphasizing that God’s nature is first and foremost as a loving God, not an angry God.
Zahnd makes the point that Jesus is the incarnation of what God is like. In fact, one of his favorite sayings is “God has a face and he looks like Jesus”. Jesus is God’s perfect revelation of who God is, and above everything else, God is love.
This is the true meaning of this season that we are in now, and the reason why during this season of Advent we wait with hope and expectation for ‘the word to become flesh and dwell among us’, in the words of the apostle John.
Love in its purest and most powerful expression will invade the world this Christmas, and the world will never be the same again.
And this love, this God in the form of Jesus is a God who will always be with us, always love us, always believe in us, always work to find a way to pick up the pieces when we are broken, a God who will lift us up, restore our hope, and make something new and beautiful.
This God is a God who as the psalmist says time and time again, is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. This is a God who the psalmist also dares to say “I am confident of this: that I will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living, while I am still alive on this earth”. (Ps. 27:13)
So during this Advent season, this time of waiting for the coming of the God of love into the world, let us open ourselves up to new ways, new experiences where we can “taste and see that the Lord is good” with all of our senses.
Let us take risks to share the love and goodness of God with those who are desperately hungry and thirsty for it.
And because we know that a God of love is a truly good God, may our imagination of what God can do not be stifled or stunted, but let us dare to imagine the goodness of God in new ways, what it looks like when it’s fleshed out in our world.
May our imaginations run wild with the possibilities of what a good God can do within us, among us, and through us. AMEN.