Questions of Faith: Suffering, Prayer, and Forgiveness

by | Nov 20, 2022

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Colossian 1:11-20

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. [[ Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Luke 23:33-43

In my regular communication with people across the diocese, I have invited those who wish to send me their questions of faith. I can’t promise to provide definitive answers to the questions I’ve received, but I will do my best to address them in my sermons and other writings.

I have been moved both by the range of topics in the questions I’ve received and the courageous vulnerability of those who have responded. As a person said in church last Sunday, “These are the questions I have been embarrassed to ask.”

Here is a sample of the questions I’ve received thus far:

– I have been a Christian for over six decades, but still find it hard that God would want Jesus to suffer on the cross. I understand that God is perfect and requires sacrifice from us all, but I often think that Jesus came more as a Saviour who lived an exemplary life to show us the way back to God. However, his life threatened others and they felt they needed to get rid of him. I don’t understand why God would require his sacrifice and shedding of blood in order to redeem us.

– I lost my 42 year old son 2 years ago to an overdose called fentanyl poisoning after he battled his addiction for 25 years. What I don’t understand is why God answers other mothers’ prayers but mine didn’t matter. You hear other mothers in the same situation I was in tell of how their faith and God ended their child’s addiction. So if someone could explain to me why God didn’t feel like my prayers were enough it would help this shattered faith I now have. I still pray every day, go to church on Sundays, hold a prayer group phone meeting every Saturday morning, sit on the vestry but I feel like I am just going through the motions. Where was God when I needed him; where is God when I need Him now?

– How do you pray? More precisely, how does one pray? This is the hardest part of practicing my faith because I don’t know what to do and I feel silly thinking I’m doing it wrong. Am I supposed to sit quietly? Do I use prayers? When I use the prayer book, it feels like I’m reading rather than engaged in conversation with God. More importantly to that point, when people say they hear God in their prayers, is that meant figuratively or literally? I’ve never heard a voice praying; it’s literally me in my head and then I start feeling embarrassed, self-conscious, and silly. Am I doing it wrong?

– You spoke today about how Jesus can help us forgive those who have hurt us. But what if you can’t forgive yourself for something you have done?

Rest assured that these are questions that I struggle with myself, as have Christians across the centuries. We do well to be humble as we approach them, speaking not with definitive authority, but also trusting in the hard won bits of insight that can help us find meaning and peace in living with such questions.

So on this Sunday, with you as my reflection companions, I’d like to briefly address the issue of suffering; the questions concerning prayer, and in particular the prayers we say, or struggle to say, when there is no one else around; and finally the matter of forgiveness–both of ourselves and others. It’s a lot for one sermon, I know, but stay with me.

We just heard a gospel passage in which Jesus prays to God from the cross, asking that those who put him there be forgiven. Hold that image of Jesus in your mind as we begin, with Jesus’ suffering and our own.

You don’t need me to tell you that suffering is the universal condition of humankind. While life experiences vary dramatically, no one escapes suffering. In the words of the theologian Howard Thurman, ”Suffering makes demands alike upon the wise and the foolish, the literate and the illiterate, the saint and the sinner.”1 He also forces us to consider how impersonal and arbitrary suffering can be:

It seems to be utterly unmindful of consequences and blind to both good and evil. Nevertheless, there is something utterly personal and private about it . . An earthquake may destroy a city. Yet to every human being who suffers loss of family, loss of limb or of life, it is a moment of naked intimacy with pain, terror, and disaster.2

Human beings, it’s been said, are the only species to willingly inflict suffering on our own kind, and we do so with both sadistic cruelty and chilling indifference, as well as in complete ignorance. Thurman observes that a precondition of such willingness is to view another person, or group of persons, as somehow less than human, and therefore outside the bounds of the Golden Rule and simple norms of compassion, those to be treated as we ourselves wish to be.

Every known religion does its best to answer the question, why? Why do the innocent suffer? When suffering comes close, we can’t help but ask, why did this happen to me? How can human beings be so cruel? And why doesn’t God do anything to stop the suffering we see in the world and that touches us so profoundly?

The classic biblical answer to the question of suffering is human sinfulness—all the ways we, as a species, have turned from God from the beginning of our existence. There is indeed lots of hard evidence to support the view that we, as a species, can make quite a mess of things and that much suffering could be alleviated if we acted more lovingly toward one another. But human sinfulness doesn’t take all suffering into account. It’s of no help whatsoever when considering the suffering of the innocent or of the tragedies that befall entire cities or nations.

The most honest answer I can give to this greatest of mysteries is that I do not know. Suffering defies explanation. I’ve often thought in those times when my own faith in a loving, all-powerful God is shaken that if the persistence of suffering were enough to dissuade humankind from faith in a loving God, the religious enterprise would have ended long before now. And for some people, for all the reasons we can well understand, faith does die in the face of suffering and never fully recovers. But for others it doesn’t. For others, and I daresay for all of us this morning, there is something that keeps us coming back to God. Astonishingly, for some blessed few, in suffering their faith in a loving God grows stronger.

Suffering is at the center of the Christian faith. Many of us wear crosses as jewelry, and the cross was, as you know, a most cruel form of state-sponsored execution in the Roman Empire of that era. Our gospel text today describes Jesus’ crucifixion with heartbreaking detail–not dwelling on his personal suffering, which was immense, but rather on his response to that suffering, which, as you heard, was to ask God to forgive his tormentors and to provide consolation to the two criminal crucified alongside him.

Over time there has been much thought given as to why Jesus had to suffer as he did. An explanation which found its way into Christian orthodoxy rather early on, which the person who raised the question with me expressed, is that Jesus had to die, as a necessary sacrifice for our sins.

I confess that I have never found that answer compelling, and if that were the only explanation available to us, that God needed Jesus to suffer for us, indeed needed an innocent sacrifice, I’m not sure that I could believe in such a God. Let me hasten to say that I don’t feel it necessary to argue with those who do hold this view, and there are many, if it is an interpretation that gives meaning for them, and Lord knows I need Jesus to save me from my sins. I just can’t believe that the God of love needed an innocent sacrifice.

What I can tell you is that from the beginning of the Christian movement there have been other ways to find meaning in the cross apart from the one that took prominence. The most powerful minority position for me invites us to see Jesus’ suffering as an expression of God’s solidarity with human suffering and desire to endure it alongside us, and with us, and yes, on our behalf in ways that defy human understanding. In this view, Jesus died because of human sin and in response to our sin–our need for God’s grace and love.

No matter how we view Jesus’ death on the cross, and his subsequent resurrection, the fact remains that suffering is still with us. Now everything about the way Jesus lived and taught suggests that God does not take pleasure in our suffering and works actively in and through human beings to alleviate it. But not all suffering is alleviated. Not the suffering of the woman who lost her adult son. Not the suffering of the parents of a young college student whom I baptized as a child who was found dead in her dorm room of the same fentanyl overdose. Or of all manner of suffering that we see, experience, and grieve over.

But in his suffering, Jesus embodies a kind of love that runs deep and wide, meeting us where we are. However we experience that love, it strengthens us to carry on amid our pain, or to let go, if that’s what we need to do, and simply allow the pain and grief to wash over us. Not once does Jesus make light of our suffering. Jesus doesn’t treat it like a problem to be solved. He comes to us with compassion, grace, even joy when we least expect it. Through the workings of grace and the kindness of others, Jesus does all that he can to alleviate our pain. But when it persists, he is there with a love that won’t let us go, and asks us, as best we can, to choose the path of love and compassion, for ourselves and for others. It is never the easy path, but those who walk it often speak of the redemptive power of their suffering, or their sense of solidarity with Jesus and his suffering.

The question about prayer is related here. Because at heart I suspect that it’s a question less about techniques for prayer and more about seeking a connection, a relationship with the mystery of God revealed to us in Jesus. When I find myself needing to begin again in prayer, as I often do, the ones that I turn to for guidance often ask me how, where and when I feel most connected to God, and how I might make more space for it. That’s my starting point.

Regarding actual prayer practices, I do my best to sit quietly for a few minutes most days, either in a chair with a lit candle or in my car before turning on the radio. Typically nothing earth shattering happens, but I’m always glad when I make the effort. Every once in a while, I experience something that I can only describe as God’s voice. The way I distinguish what I hear from my own voice is that what comes to me is almost always a surprise. It can feel like a gift; although just as often, it feels more like a push in one direction or another.

Whenever I fall into the trap of thinking that I’m a bad person or a bad Christian for not sitting quietly to pray, or conversely, or that I’m a great Christian for doing so, then I know I’m going astray. For the point is openness and connection. And, truth be told, I’m the kind of person for whom prayer is something that happens best when I’m in motion. I need to move–to walk, ride my bike, clean the house. As I do, my mind settles, and I can attain an inner stillness that allows me to feel God’s presence in and through all that is happening around me.

All the great spiritual practitioners assure us that there isn’t a right and a wrong way to pray, and while, like many, a part of me struggles to believe that it’s true, I take comfort in their reassurance. There are practices of prayer that have been passed down to us from our ancestors, including what we are doing right now, which is to gather once a week in a place set apart to open ourselves to God, hear words from sacred texts, listen to one person offer a spiritual reflection, pray the ancient prayers of the church, and participate in a symbolic reenactment of Jesus’ last supper with his friends. It may indeed feel as if we’re going through the motions sometimes. But going through the motions is its own form of prayer, and gives us words and images to help us to pray when we need them most.

Let’s go back to Jesus for a moment, for his words are instructive. We heard two such words today, but there were others, according to the biblical texts. The first word was a cry of anguish–do you remember?

Eli, Eli lama sabachthani.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

In his darkest hour, Jesus cries out to God using the words of his sacred prayer book, the Psalms. We can find comfort that even Jesus feels abandoned by God in his suffering as we do. Yet in abandonment he continues to pray, asking, as we heard, forgiveness for his tormentors, offering consolation to those suffering at his side. In one text he asks one of his disciples to take his mother, Mary, as his own. Finally, he releases his spirit to God.

This is, as the author of the Letter to Colossians whom we heard a moment ago, Jesus as one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. He is one we can look to for the fullest expression of what God looks like in human form. His presence, in those moments when we experience it, is one of deep, unwavering love. As our Presiding Bishop likes to remind us, “If it’s not about love; it’s not about God.” Jesus is also our model, inspiration and the one who makes possible in us what we cannot do ourselves.

In closing then, let me say one final word about forgiveness–a topic I will return to in greater depth another time. Forgiveness is, for most of us, a lifelong journey, as we find the grace to forgive others for the wrongs they have done to us, to forgive ourselves for the things we regret, and may I suggest, even to forgive God for the world as it is, and our lives as they are, rather than how we long for, or sense they should be.

Sometimes forgiveness comes easily to us, costing almost nothing. Other times, it is something we struggle with and frankly, resist doing because it feels wrong, impossible, or even a betrayal of something deep within us.

What I leave you with is the image with which I began, that Jesus on the cross forgiving those who put him there and surrendering himself to the God who did not prevent this horrendous event from happening. This is the most important window into the heart of God that we have.

In the coming weeks, as we prepare once again to celebrate Jesus’ birth, his coming into the world in complete vulnerability as a sign of God’s continued presence among us, remember, too, the man he would grow up to become. Remember his love, mercy, and compassion; his capacity for forgiveness, or you, for those you love and for those you struggle most to love and to forgive. He is our best image of the invisible God, the one in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.

Jesus came into this world to show us God’s love embodied in human form, and to show us how to live. I believe this, in the sense that I put my whole trust in his grace and love. And I pray, from the bottom of my heart, the same for you.


1Howard Thurman, Disciplines of the Spirit (Richmond, ID: Friends United Press, 1963), 63.
2Thurman, 64.