Does disaster come to a city,
unless the Lord has done it? – Amos 3:6
How many of you have experienced bad things in your lives?
Painful, hurtful, overwhelmingly stressful, devastating things?
How many of you have wondered – why did this happen?
It's the million-dollar question, isn't it: Why DO bad things happen?
Why did you suffer? Why do you suffer? Why are there so many millions of people in the world, suffering the most horrible things, each and every day?
That's the question – why...
It's the reason countless throngs of people say that they can't believe in God at all – because of all the bad things that happen.
This question is one that people, Christians and non-Christians alike, have asked for many centuries now, and it's not one I can pretend to fully answer in 20 minutes on a Sunday morning. If there was a simple, satisfying solution that would put the question to rest, it would have already been found, and it wouldn't be a problem anymore.
No, I can't answer the question fully, but I want to offer you some partial answers this morning. Answers that I have come to through my own suffering of the bad things of the world, and answers which God led me to right here in the Bible.
I can't answer the question fully, but I can offer some thoughts that – for me – at least put the question to rest a little bit.
And these thoughts come by way of asking the question in a different way. Rather than just standing as a philoshoper and asking, “Why do bad things happen?”, I think we need to begin with the more Christian question, of “WHO is responsible for them?” Only when we switch from philosophizing to inquiring of our Maker will we get anywhere worth going.
So, to that end, as Christians, we believe, right?, that God the Father created the whole world, and that in God the Son, the whole universe is held together, as God the Spirit is actively involved in the manifesting of God's work everywhere.
In other words, we believe that God is all-powerful, and that he is in charge of everything that happens.
If he wanted to make a giant mountain appear overnight here in Opelika, he could do it. If he wanted to guide your neighbor to leave a $1000 in your mailbox, he could do it. Nothing is impossible for him.
And even more than that – we believe God is actively involved in life here on earth. That in fact, his Kingdom has been established here by Jesus.
That he hears our prayers.
That he provides for our needs.
As our Lord said – he knows the number of hairs on everyone's head, and not a sparrow falls to the ground that God doesn't take notice of (Matthew ch. 10).
He isn't just present here on earth, he's intimately present. Infinitely present here.
As Psalm 139, which we just prayed, testifies: Lord, you have searched me out and known me; *
you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar
You trace my journeys and my resting-places * and are acquainted with all my ways.
Indeed, there is not a word on my lips, * but you, O Lord, know it altogether.
And this truth that has been revealed to Christians – it renders the existence of all the bad things all the more problematic doesn't it?
If God is in charge of every atom in the universe, how are all these bad things still happening?
Who is responsible for the bad things that happen?
Well, let me read to you some scriptures, and you tell me who's responsible:
21 And Job said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.
I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.
1 Samuel 2:6
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
And again, the verse from which I am preaching, Amos 3:6:
Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?
So, you tell me – who is responsible for the Bad things that happen?
It's a startling answer, but it's true. We do so much fancy intellectual footwork to try and get God off the hook with all this talk of causes and divisions of will and so on, but the Scriptures are happy to just witness to the bald fact: GOD is responsible. HE did it.
Recognizing that God has the power to stop bad things, and clearly, sometimes he doesn't, the inspired writers of Scripture recognize that the buck stops with him. God is not puppeteering the monsters of the world in their evil actions. But he is permitting them. As we learn from the book of Job – even Satan has to ask God for permission to do things.
But God, evidently, grants that permission.
Just as he grants permission for all of mans inhumanity to man, and to natural disaster, and all the other slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that trouble us during our life here on earth.
And what at first is quite a shocking thought, is actually full of comfort.
If the bad things come from God, we know they are coming from someone who is good, and we know they are being permitted intentionally. It means we are not living in a world that's run by chaos, or by the demons, but is, really, run by God.
We rarely get to know WHY God intentionally has permitted what he has, but just knowing that it is from him is some consolation in itself. We actually don't NEED an answer, when we can trust him as a person.
We can confess our inability to understand, and throw ourselves into his arms, trusting the outcome to him who is all-knowing. This is what the psalmist does, right? And what we are encouraged to do. Again, Psalm 139 that we just prayed: Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; * it is so high that I cannot attain to it. How deep I find your thoughts, O God! * how great is the sum of them!
It's the response of the clay to the potter. A figure that the Bible uses no less than six distinct times when speaking about these deep mysteries of why God has allowed what he has. Job 10, Isaiah 29, Isa 45, Isa 64, Jeremiah 18, Romans 9, all say the same thing: quoting Isa 45 here – “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?
Our first “answer” to the question of “Why are there bad things” is to punt, to recognize the tinyness of one's finitude, one's 'clay' status, and to let the potter be the potter.
But having said that, God has revealed some – SOME, not all – of his reasons in the past, for why bad things have happened.
One recurring theme in the prophets, and this is what Amos is addressing this morning also, is that God permits bad things as punishment for sins. Sins that we have committed, and sins that those around us have committed. As a people, our destiny is tied up with each other. Not every Israelite was an idolater, but because of the sins of the idolaters, the whole nation was taken into exile. The scriptures reveal that God actually orchestrates the occurrence of bad things as punishment for sins.
And this is not because he is cruel. Or because our sins need additional atonement. Not at all. He's a kind Father, and like a kind Father, he disciplines us to steer us away from sinful behavior – to provide us with a chance to come back to our senses – like the prodigal Son – and to come back to him. And so he brings bad things – sickness, pain, and disaster – on a people, as fatherly discipline.
Our new president on Friday said that God protects America. In context it's clear that Trump meant that God will prevent bad things from happening to us, because he has our back. And this is simply untrue. When it comes to politics, I concede that all politicians, including President Trump, know far more than I do, but when it comes to theology, Statesmen don't make the rules, the Bible does. And it clearly doesn't give these sort of blanket statements to this or any other nation.
What the Bible DOES say, is that if we continue in our sins, then God WILL actually let bad things happen to us, as a punishment.
And as I look around America, I don't see a mass repentance from sins. I still see Greed, and Lust, and Pride, and Sloth, and Anger, and Idolatry making up the fabric of our culture in these United States. So, far from protecting us from bad things, if we persist in these Sins, the Lord will actually intentionally LET bad things happen, to provide us with a chance to change our course, before we come before him at the Last Judgment.
So that's one reason he permits some bad things to happen.
Again, often times – most times – we don't know – we can't know – as the clay, why the potter permits what he does.
But in looking at what he permits, it is also useful to think about what he is also preventing all the time as well. Yes, God permits bad things, sometimes for years, but He also actually prevents thousands upon thousands of terrible things happening every day, but, humble as he is, he doesn't make a big show of it. But think how many things could have gone wrong each and every day, that you have been spared. Right now, you have a body that is mobile, a home to go back to, people who love and care for you. All of these things could have been stripped away for one reason or another, and yet, here we are enjoying them. This is visually represented in a powerful way in the image you can find on page 20 of your bulletins – a picture of all the things that God in his mercy has held back, and the few things he permits by comparison.
Check out this image, by a Christian artist named Chris Powers. I've printed it here in the bulletin, so you can take it home with you, because it sums up visually the complex, mysterious truths – of Amos 3 and Psalm 139 – that I am trying to speak about this morning.
See – look how much God is shielding us from. Not only earthly calamity, but all of the just deserts our sins have earned for us. Death and hell. And all of the attacks of the Devil that he saves us from, in keeping with our constant prayer, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”. The Lord is graciously hedging us in, as the Psalmist this morning, again says, You trace my journeys and my resting-places...You press upon me behind and before * and lay your hand upon me.
But still, the things that do come our way. The bad things. The trials. Even the temptations. The Lord himself has permitted them, as we see symbolized by the one arrow he let's by. Which, admittedly, still hurts! It has cut the cheek of the man in the picture. It is undoubtedly a bad thing. But it has been permitted. Like the man in the picture – when this happens, we're not to just focus on ourselves, not just to look at the arrow, or linger on the wound it has made. No we are to look the one who sent it straight in the eye. In prayer, to come to God, the potter, and say, as the clay – I don't know why you sent this. But I trust you. I trust that you are a good and a loving Father, and I accept this as part of your sovereign lordship over me and over your whole creation.
In other words, like Job, to accept the bad as we accept the good, from the Lord's own hands.
And when we do this, how we suffer the bad things that are permitted is radically transformed.
We realize that we are not alone in the bad things. It gives the lie to the false idea that when bad things happen, God has abandoned us. No – God is as near to us in the bad, as he is in the good. David in our psalm this morning again highlights this truth when he writes, starting in verse 6:
Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?
7 If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
8 If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
9 Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast.
10 If I say, “Surely the darkness will cover me, *
and the light around me turn to night,”
11 Darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day; *
darkness and light to you are both alike.
In other words, no matter where we are. No matter how good things are. No matter how bad things are – whether it is bright as day in our souls, or dark as night, GOD IS WITH US.
The continuation of the Christmas theme of emmanuel is manifest most acutely when we suffer.
And it's actually here. Here that deep Christian discipleship begins.
Because, do you see the pattern? Receiving bad things from God. Accepting them as from his hand, even though they are painful. Trusting him, and trusting in his goodness. Who does that sound like?
When we accept the bad things in this way, staying in a prayerful, trusting relationship, we are accepting our cross, as Jesus accepted his, in Gethsemane.
And when we live like Jesus in this way, we become like him. We are made to look more like him, in our witness to the world, and we learn to enjoy the depths of the riches of the goodness of God the Father, in the way that only the Son knows.
So, I encourage you to take this picture from your bulletin, and perhaps the text of Psalm 139 also, and put it on your fridge, on your desk, or on your bed-side-table, and when you see it, bring these things to mind, and look to your heavenly father, who is good and who brings forth good. Who works all things together for the good of those who love him, and who will never, ever, ever, leave you or forsake you.
No matter what bad things he permits to come your way.