Tuesday, March 17, 2015

What do you say to unbelievers when asked those difficult questions like why does God allow murders to happen?

1 Cor 1 v20-31 Responding to Difficult Questions

In the next of our series responding to questions asked by our Congregation, Karen, our Discipleship Ministry leader took as her starting point 1 Corinthians 1:20-31

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

 Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’

Two "Don't Worries"
On reading many of the Big Questions that were provided back in January, I found myself wanting to say two words - don't worry  - but especially with today's question:

What do I /should I say to non-believers when they ask difficult questions, like why does God let murder happen?

Firstly, I want to say don't worry through sympathy because I've been in plenty of situations where I've been asked difficult questions and haven't known what to say. It is often very difficult when put "on the spot" at work, with friends, neighbours or family members. However, being asked questions is a normal part of being a Christian in the world. In the 1 Corinthians v20-31 passage Paul says that

Jews look for signs and Greeks look for wisdom

implying that in his day, different groups of people were searching for answers in different ways too.
But secondly, I want to say don't worry because today's question includes the word should

What do I /should I say to non-believers when they ask difficult questions, like why does God let murder happen?

The word should implies that there is a standard, right and proper "good Christian" answer that we should be able to give whenever called upon to respond which inevitably leads to feelings of inadequacy and guilt because none of us can instantly give this perfect answer every time.

I'm not sure where the word should comes from but I suspect that our families, schools and society can put expectations on us growing up or we put other expectations on ourselves and somehow these get transferred into our beliefs about God and Christian faith. Paul says the direct opposite - he explicitly said that God chose the Christians in the Corinthian church because they weren't wise and didn't have all the answers themselves:

Consider your own call brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many of you were powerful, not many were of noble birth but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to share the strong.

As in so many New Testament passages, Paul shows us that God knows we're not perfect but uses us nevertheless. God's kingdom is counter-cultural and upside-down. In God's kingdom's it's the ones who realise their lack of wisdom who God can use in a way that the self-assured and self-wise can't.
What do the un-wise have that the worldly wise don't? How can God use them? Paul says that as Christians

we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles

The un-wise realise their inadequacy and dependence on Christ. When we do that we shift the whole way we respond to others. We know longer think there's a right answer that we should provide but can learn to trust Jesus "in the moment".

Two Hierarchies

The question seems to imply a trickle down hierarchy of wisdom like that on the left, where answers flow from God to good church goers/Christian believers and on to unbelievers we might meet, with criminals at the bottom. Whereas I think Paul is teaching us that the real wisdom hierarchy is like the one on the right - us, the people we meet, criminals, whatever are all "in it together" like the hierarchy on the right. As human beings we all sin and need God's  grace and forgiveness whether we've broken the criminal law or not.

At communion we often say words which express our need of Christ

Come to this table, not because you must but because you may.
Come, not because you are strong, but because you are weak.
Come, not because any goodness of your own gives you a right to come but because you need mercy and help.
Come, because you love the Lord a little and would like to love him more.
Come, because he loved you and gave himself for you.
Come, when you are fearful, to be made new in love.
Come when you are doubtful, to be made strong in faith.
Come , when you are regretful, to be made whole.
Come, old and young, there is room for all at the Lord's table.

My Answer
It was some time after I'd chosen to preach on this question that I realised a particular significance for me. I have met some female murderers and those convicted of manslaughter and other crimes. They haven't got forked tails and horns but look just like us. And they ask difficult questions too and, perhaps more interesting, they can provide insights which can help us.
Journalists write clever slogans about murder and other crimes but often the story behind the headlines is much more complicated. When I led prison bible studies, the women liked a series about the story of Joseph best.  Joseph felt abandoned by God when he was in prison in Egypt and their instinct was the same. However, I don't think the feeling is restricted to those "on the inside".  When awful things happen and we hear about atrocities, we can feel a sense of abandonment too.
Joseph's case was complex, with many reasons why he was in prison:
·        jilted Potiphar's wife wanted revenge
·        Potiphar was too busy with his work and not attentive enough to his wife
·        human traffickers took Joseph into Egypt and sold him as a slave, but that was only after his jealous brothers nearly killed him
·        but Joseph must have been a terribly sibling himself, continually boasting about his superiority
·        and Jacob favoured one wife and her children over others which was always likely to cause trouble
·        Jacob's mother Rebecca deceived her husband Isaac and both their parents made mistakes too and so on and so on back to the beginning of the bible where Adam and Eve turn away from God and think they can do things better themselves on their own

So my personal answer to the question about murder is that God gives each one of us the freedom to make choices and make mistakes and each one of us is affected by the choices we make and the choices others make which affect us - for good and ill - including murderers, you and me. We all sin and are affected by sin and only Jesus, the sinless one, could break the cycle by coming to earth and absorbing the hurt on our behalf.

That's my answer to the difficult question about murder - a variation of Romans 3: 22 for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God - and it chimes with Jesus' response to the woman caught in adultery too when he told her to sin no more but also challenging her accusers about their own sin.

How I would respond
However, I wouldn't always respond to the question in the same way. Going back to the two wisdom hierarchies and realising our own limitations can stop us concentrating on our own predicament and leave us free me to think what the other person needs in a situations. There isn't a "one size fits all" answer for all circumstances.

There may be times when a pastoral response is appropriate and it's best to say nothing but show support or ask:
·        is there a particular situation that's on your mind?

or times when it's best to dampen conflict
·        shall we talk later when things are a bit calmer?
·        Do you really want to know what I think or are you just trying to have an argument?

And you can don't have to be personal, you can draw on other sources:
·        Jesus tells a story about a woman caught in adultery ...
·        The Question Course says that God knows what suffering is like, because he himself suffered loss

But sometimes you just have to be brave and open your mouth and give an answer that's honest and authentic for you at that particular time.
There are some practical tips:
·        read the bible, listen in church, try to understand the words of the hymns and these will come to mind  in different situations
·        pray that God will help you in that moment
·        keep conversations  grounded in Jesus rather than abstract philosophy about God
·        but mainly just open your mouth and trust that God will use you for his purposes and help you find helpful words as Jesus promises us.

Don't worry - God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise

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