Psalm 37 (2)

Do not fret

‘I don’t believe the arc of the universe bends toward justice. I don’t even believe there is an arc.  I believe in chaos.      [Ta Nehesi Coates]

Do not fret—it leads only to evil.    [37.8]

Tom Long, fresh out of seminary and pastoring his first church recalls an incident which had a profound impact on his ministry.  He writes:  One beautiful spring Sunday morning in the early 1970's, the boiler exploded in the educational building of the First Baptist Church of Marion, Ohio. Amid the rubble left by the blast were found the bodies of several Sunday school children and their teacher. The newspaper accounts specified the exact time of the tragedy, and the best I can calculate, my congregation and I were in worship and singing the hymn "Fairest Lord Jesus" at the precise moment that the disaster happened. "Fairest Lord Jesus, Ruler of all nature," we were singing, as children in a Sunday school room far way, possibly hearing stories about the very same Jesus, innocently lost their lives.

I heard about the accident later that day on the radio and silently said to myself, "I'm glad I am not the pastor of that church." Fresh out of seminary at the time, I was frightened, overwhelmed by the magnitude of such a tragedy. What could I say? I could never begin to respond to the questions that must surely be in the hearts of the parents and the other members of that congregation. I was to learn, however, as I grew in my understanding of ministry, that in truth I -was the pastor of that church. Every pastor is the pastor of that congregation — not that all pastors encounter suffering in such staggering proportions — but all congregations do experience innocent and inexplicable suffering in ways large and small. All pastors and preachers must face the pastoral and theological questions that follow in its turbulent wake.

Last week we looked at three possible responses to the problem of evil, sometimes named theodicy.  Today I want to suggest one more response, a response I feel is true to scripture and the stories we tell in light of scripture.  My key teachers here have been Tom Long* and Kenneth Surin**.

For Kenneth Surin the problem of evil and suffering arises when particular stories (narratives) of events of pain, dereliction, anguish, oppression, torture, humiliation, degradation, injustice, hunger, godforsakenness, and so on, come into collision with the Christian community's narratives, which are  bound up with the redeeming reality of the triune God. The Christian "answer" to the problem of suffering and evil, then, is not a philosophical claim that allows one to say, "Now this explains it, this solves the problem," but rather a retelling of the Christian story in such a way that people are enabled to live one more day, one more hour, with the anguish. "  The Christian 'answer' to the 'problem of evil,'" Surin maintains, "is the hesitant, stammering bringing of [God's] reconciling action to speech....[This] is supplied by the texts which contain the narratives of the passion of Jesus Christ and the passion of all victims."

We know this as pastors and all who offer care-giving to family and friends in deep anguish.  At the bedside or the graveside all we can and should do is to weep and to tell the old, old story once again.

Of course, our our minds demand more. We have questions, philosophical and theological puzzles, we should not avoid exploring them at the appropriate time.

But we can only go so far down the path of theodicy (the attempt at rational explanation). Finally we come to the place on the way where we must once again assume the narrative voice, the voice of lament and doxology. We must admit that we have been placed into the middle of life and that, from our vantage point, suffering is an unsolvable mystery. We must affirm that the meaningful question is  "Is God a God of salvation -- is God one who can help?"   And our only response to that question is a story, the story of the love of God and the passion of Jesus Christ. It will seem too little to go on, given the magnitude of human suffering and the insistent urgency of the questions, but the story of God's redemption is finally all we have, and the retelling of it is all we can do. By the grace of God it is enough, enough to keep us moving in hope for another day.

The psalmist sees pain and evil all around yet he counsels us – three times no less – ‘do not fret’  (v.1,7,8).

And to be sure, there is no proving the promises of God to the ‘wicked’, except as we (the church) embody those promises in our lives.  The only proof we can offer that God rules the world is the tangible existence of a community that is shaped by the character of God and God’s claims.  We prove that God rules the world when we:

  • Trust in God (v.3,5).
  • Do good (v.3,27).
  • Commit our way to God (v.5).
  • Give generously (v.21).
  • Speak justice (v.30).
  • Open ourselves to God’s instruction (v.31).
  • Take refuge in God (v.40).

Such humble dependence on God is, in effect, to ‘inherit the land’ – it is life as God intends it, abundant and eternal.    

One night, William Sloan Coffin’s twenty-one year old son died in a traffic accident during a powerful rainstorm.  Coffin, pastor at Riverside Memorial Church in New York, preached the funeral sermon.  After having described the futility of preachers and other well-intentioned folk attempting to use the Bible to somehow explain the tragedy, Coffin returns to the biblical affirmations, as narrative promise rather than as philosophical solution:

“And of course I know, even when pain is deep, that God is good. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Yes, but at least, "My God, my God;" and the psalm only begins that way; it doesn't end that way. As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow the truths in the "right" biblical passages are beginning, once again, to take hold: "Cast       thy burden upon the Lord and he shall strengthen thee;" Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning;" ..."In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."      [cited in Tom Long] - Fairest Lord Jesus



*Long, Tom – What shall we say? Evil, suffering, and the crisis of faith.

**Surin, K. – Theology and the Problem of Evil.