15See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. 16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess.
17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess. 19I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, 20loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live in the land that the Lord swore to give to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.
14For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 21So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.
Theology is the study of God, and for people who like philosophy and Bible study it is a great area of study to really immerse oneself in. It’s important too, because without theology we don’t really know what we believe about God, but those unconscious beliefs have a big impact on how we live our faith. So it’s important to be thoughtful about what we believe.
It’s also been important historically in the church. Last week was Reformation Sunday, a day to reflect on our history as a church founded on bringing the church back to God’s calling. The reformers saw problems within the institutional church, ways that the teaching and structure of the church were actually getting in the way of people’s faith. Their close attention to scripture made the whole church stronger and more faithful.
The trouble is that anytime we think or talk or write about God, we’re trying to capture something that is beyond our ability to understand. We can approach truth about God, but we can’t capture it all. We can’t grasp the height and depth and breadth of God’s love and holiness and power. God is limitless and we are limited. So our attempts to express the truth of God will always be imperfect and incomplete.
Classic reformed theology teaches that God knows and determines the way things are going to happen; that’s where the idea of predestination comes from. Predestination expresses an important truth: God is really in charge of the world and we aren’t, and salvation is a gift, not something we earn through our actions or choices.
Like everything else, too much of a good thing isn’t good. While a lot of power in the Protestant tradition comes from knowing we’re saved by grace instead of by works, we have sometimes let that truth take over so much that we forget how important individual choice is. So today, I’m talking about choice, human free choice.
This is the most intellectual of the sermons on suffering because I’m taking my best shot at explaining why God allows suffering. It’s in the middle of the series, because I don’t think, “why “is the most important question to ask about suffering. I think the more important questions about suffering are the ones we’ve talked about over the last few weeks: How can we stay faithful when the world is a mess? How can we be good friends to those who suffer? What are we doing that contributes to other people’s suffering? What do we need to change in our life? How can we help those who suffer. Those are the most important questions. And the best response to the problem of suffering is the one Sally’s going to work through on November 24th. God responds to suffering by joining human suffering in the life and death of Jesus. God is not distant from our suffering.
But it’s impossible to avoid the “why” question. So I need to take a shot with my best answer, even though it’s incomplete. When we see the enormous suffering in the world our first reaction is to ask why God allows it. That leads many people to doubt either God’s existence or God’s love, because we feel like a loving and powerful God should do something to prevent the terrible suffering we see.
When God created people God decided to give us free will. It would have been simpler to just program us to do the right thing all the time, but God chose instead to let us make our own decisions. I guess that’s part of what it means for God to love us. God wants us to have the freedom to choose how we will live. A lot of our suffering comes from human choice, and God loves and respects us too much to take away our freedom.
Our first passage is Moses’ farewell sermon to the people of Israel. He’s been God’s appointed guide and leader to bring the people out of slavery into freedom. Along the way God has tried to teach the people how to create a just, loving, holy society through rules that structure community life. Moses knows he’s not going to be with them as they build that society in their land. God has given them great laws, but the crucial question is: will the people follow the law? Will they chose the way of God or not?
We each face that question every day. When we get up in the morning are we going to choose love or chose defensiveness? Are we going to treat our coworkers with respect and care or suspicion and contempt? Are we going to respond to negativity with hostility or forgiveness? Are we going to build community despite our differences and the difficulties created by everyone’s issues or are we going to retreat into the isolation of only letting the “worthy” into our lives? Are we going to choose caring for those in need or caring only for our family? What will we choose?
Paul gets at the difficulty of that choice as he thinks about the law of God. He says he wants to do what’s right; his soul, his best self delights in the ways of God. He loves the grace and peace that comes from loving others. He feels joy at the contentment that comes from controlling our urges through reason and restraint. In his depths he wants to follow God’s will.
But it’s not as simple as that. The word he uses is flesh, but that’s not really it; a better word for our time might be temptation. The power of temptation is strong. It’s so tempting to respond to a cruel comment from a neighbor with biting sarcasm. It’s tempting to put aside our resources for what we need and want instead of sharing with others. It’s tempting to simply check out and turn away when a coworker is acting in a way that is hurtful to the team instead of confronting them with love and honesty. It’s tempting to look out for ourselves and let others do the same.
That’s why God gave the law, because our good intentions aren’t always strong enough to overrule the temptation we face. The law, the rules remind us of the obligations our best self wants to fulfill. They put a fence between us and our temptation so it’s harder to make the wrong choice and easier to make the right choice.
The crazy thing is that temptation is so strong, the power of evil is so strong in our world and in us that even those laws can be used in the wrong way. If the law says we have to care for the poor, we can take that law, do the bare minimum and feel justified carrying on with our own selfishness. We can hear the law against murder and see only that killing a person is off limits without also seeing that it’s our duty to protect those in danger. And, like any system of rules, clever, unethical people can use that system to take power over other people.
We see the suffering that comes from free will in the devastation of the Congo where violence, pillage and rape are rampant. We see it in the rule of warlords in Afghanistan and central Africa. And we see it in the hesitation of the rest of the world to find a way to address that suffering.
God calls us to love, to work for peace, to take care of others. Temptation pushes us the other way. When temptation overrules our best nature we make others suffer and we suffer ourselves. So what will we choose, and how will we give strength to our choices for good?
A lot of our suffering comes from free will, but human free will doesn’t do much to explain the natural disasters: the typhoon that just killed a thousand people in the Philippines, the earthquake that devastated Turkey last year, the hurricanes that flooded New Orleans and destroyed villages throughout Haiti. And free will doesn’t do anything to explain the enormous suffering of someone dying of cancer or Alzheimer’s or HIV. It doesn’t explain the suffering of a wife or husband or child watching someone they love suffer either.
Part of me wonders if God’s gift of free will extends to the turning of the earth and the out of control growth of cancer cells. Maybe God’s decision to give us free will includes setting the physical and natural processes of the world free to create and destroy. Maybe the balance of water and minerals and a molten planetary core that enables life to flourish on this globe goes hand in hand with earthquakes and devastating storms.
Maybe the freedom for us to make bad choices and pursue our interests and desires instead of the flourishing of others is the same freedom at work in the renegade cell that divides until it is a metastatic tumor. Maybe the freedom for humans to pile up wealth instead of distributing it is the freedom of a virus to seek out new cells to take over as it expands its empire. Maybe the thoughtless greed of bacteria killing its host and thus itself is the same as the freedom for us to destroy the environment we count on for survival.
Maybe all free will is the same. I don’t know; there are things about the universe I will never understand. We can’t change the laws of climate that lead to hurricanes; maybe if we could it would mess up something even bigger. But we can reach out to those who suffer. We can try to comfort those who mourn. We can pray for those in need, and feed those who are hungry. And we can work together to make this community a home for some who are lonely.
Like the people of Israel standing at the border of the promised land, each day, each week, each moment brings us a possibility and a challenge. Are we going to choose life, community, love, nurture, faithfulness, welcome and gospel life? Are we going to do the good we see before us or allow the temptations surrounding and inside us keep us down? We are free to choose, free to love, free to risk and dare and act. So choose love and stick fight for that choice no matter what.
Thanks be to God.