“The Defense of God”

A sermon by Donald R. Frampton John Calvin Presbyterian Church Metairie, Louisiana

Exodus 17:1-7

A few years back at one of our kids’ soccer games a parent pulled me to the side. “I’ve got a faith question,” he said. He was a fellow “soccer dad,” a casual acquaintance, and not a member of my church. He had a background in another church, however, and for years was a regular worshipper. “Now I don’t go at all,” he said. “Why not?” “Because I no longer believe in God,” he said. “Here’s why.” He explained that a few years back his best friend’s wife was diagnosed with cancer. Unfortunately, it wasn’t caught in time and she died. “I had prayed and prayed for her, to no avail. Her death was terrible, the pain and suffering, all that she went through. “What kind of God would do such a thing?” This was his theological question. I appreciated it. I get it from time to time, you might say it “goes with the territory.” Still, as many times as I’m asked something like this, asked to make a defense of God, I’m not very good at it. Even my best answer feels inadequate. The first job I had right out of seminary was as associate pastor at a historic church in Charleston, SC. The senior pastor there was a wonderful man named Phil Noble who, during our short time together, modeled ministry wonderfully well. The best thing about Phil was how honest he was in the pulpit about real human life, including his own. One of the things people remember about Phil was a sermon he gave about the tragic death of his son, Scott. On Christmas day of 1966, he began, the day our twelve-year-old son, Scott, was to make his public profession of faith and unite with the Church, he fainted and was carried out of the sanctuary in the strong arms of an Elder of the church who was also a doctor. It was the first sign of an illness that led to the discovery of a cancerous tumor in his chest. Three months later, after surgery that only partially removed the tumor, it was discovered that he had leukemia. From the end of March until the next Easter, we fought the disease with all the treatments available to medical science. He died on Black Saturday and was buried two days later, the Monday after Easter. During that period of time I agonized days and nights about why, but one of the things that bothered me most was that a God whom I called Father and whom I believed loved me as a father would inflict this kind of punishment on an innocent young child. And, if I had to believe that God was inflicting this kind of punishment on my son, it would have been a near impossibility of both reason and faith for me to continue having faith in him. Eventually, Phil and his wife, Betty, worked their way through those questions to the understanding that God didn’t cause their son to die. Indeed, they came to see that God was
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closer to them during this terrible time than ever before, and, like the elder, held them in God’s strong arms throughout. But if a Christian minister can have times when he wonders about God, even doubts God, then anyone can. “Why would a good God let bad things happen, especially to people we know and love? Most of us here today have grappled with this question, maybe we brought it with us today. What kind of God allows bad things to happen to good people? What about dear ones who are infected with the coronavirus, who are elderly, vulnerable, and may not make it? At the least, during this unprecedented time, we should certainly “do our part” by abiding by everything health experts tell us, including keeping a “social distance.” That’s one of the hardest things in the world for me to do! I love putting my arm around friends, patting them on the back, and, of course, am a big hand-shaker. But no more, not for awhile. Why does a good God allow suffering and evil? If God is all powerful, why doesn’t God do something about wrenching poverty, homelessness, bigotry? Why doesn’t God do something about crippling disease? How could a good God allow it? What kind of God is that? It sometimes makes you wonder if there is a God in the first place. Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with this question forever. In general, they have come up with five distinct “proofs” of God. This morning, we present them. The first argument is that the world doesn’t explain itself, is not self-explanatory, and consequently there must be some other explanation for it. When we look around us, the beauty of nature, the wonder of human love, at some point we have to ask how did it happen? Did it cause itself. Or was it caused by something or someone else? I guess you could say that it happened on its own, that it was all happened “out of thin air.” Nothing stopping us from thinking this way. Just know that the moment we do is the moment we conclude that life is meaningless. We are born, we go to school, we work, we love, we hate, we experience joy and pain, and eventually we die. Nothing more than that. But do we really think this is the case? Do we really think that life somehow created itself? Most people don’t, including, of course, we people of faith. We people of faith are persuaded that creation is not self-explanatory, that behind the wonder of human life, there is an Ultimate Reality, a First Cause, eternal and unchanging. And as we do, we conversely conclude that life has meaning, that our joys and sorrows, our successes and failures are leading to Something Else, point to Someone Else. Something bigger than ourselves…a Creator, a First Cause, from whom we come and to whom we will return. The first argument for God is that the world doesn’t explain itself. The second is like it, that creation itself hints at something intentional, planned. That creation makes sense. There are many signs of order and design in the world of nature. Think, for instance, of the regularity with which the earth turns on its axis and how it orbits around the sun at precisely such a distance that life is possible on earth. Coincidence? Or evidence of a grand design? What I’m about to tell you blew my mind when I first ran across it. It is statement from a leading physicist of our day:. “If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been
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smaller by even one part in one hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed before it ever reached its present state.” Think about that! And then think of the human body, its wonderful structure, its parts working together in such perfect harmony. Creation and the universe point to a purposeful God. So goes the second classical argument. The third is that world history and personal experience argue for God’s existence. My friend’s bitter conclusion about the death of his friend’s wife notwithstanding, in the long run we are invariably able to look back on people and places and events and conclude that things have a way of working out. Maybe not the way we have wanted them to, but in a way with which we are truly satisfied, even fulfilled. Maybe they were even blessings in disguise. Over and over again throughout the course of history forces of injustice and evil have ultimately been defeated and forces of righteousness and justice have eventually prevailed. “The arc of the moral universe is long,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., “but it bends toward justice.” “I know this is a very hard time for you, and you don’t know that you can go on,” wrote Abraham Lincoln to the mother of a dead soldier. “But if you can just imagine that one day things will be better, you will be able to carry on.” Live your life believing in that day. Live into that day. If you do, you will see that it was the right choice. Creation, history, life, your life…has a way of working out. John Claypool was a noted 20th century preacher and wise counselor. One of his famous sayings is that despair is presumptuous. What he meant was that to despair – about finances, relationships, work, family, the country, the climate, coronavirus…is to jump to a conclusion we have no way of knowing is certain. He’s right. Take it from me: in my nearly 40 years of ministry I can attest that despair is nothing more than speculation. One of my favorite verses of the Bible is Romans 8:28. It was certainly the favorite verse of my mother who made sure it was drilled into me! During WWII, she lost her husband, an Army pilot, to a training accident. Her world turned upside down. She was devastated. Had it not been for a close friend who took charge of her life for a while, until she got better, she wouldn’t have made it. I’m glad she did! She ended up meeting my father and the rest, as they say, is history. Still, she clung to that Bible verse, all the way to the end. In fact, it is the inscription on my parents’ tombstone: “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love God.” No matter what happens, God can bring good out of it. World history and human experience argue for the existence of a providential God. The fourth argument is that human conscience bears witness to the existence of God. In contrast to animals, all human beings feel within themselves a sense of moral responsibility, a sense of right and wrong, a feeling of duty to do what is good and true. Is this not an indication that we owe our existence to some great Moral Power, and that this Power is at work in us? N. T. Wright, in his thoughtful book Simply Christian, further develops this idea. He talks about how we come into the world with an inborn sense of fairness, of how things are supposed to be. We don’t always see it or realize it, but it’s there. Test it out, he says. Go to any school or playground where the children are old enough to talk to each other. Listen to what they are saying. Pretty soon one child will say to another, or perhaps to a teacher, “That’s not fair!”
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Where did this come from? Wright says that each of has this voice within us, whispering in our inner ear, someone who cares very much about this present world and our present selves, and who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, things being “put to rights.” As we heed this voice, we live our lives in accordance with the loving and just will of the Source. Theologians have steadfastly explained that it is the voice of God. Finally, the fifth classic argument is that human beings seem to have a spiritual awareness of a divine presence deep within ourselves. We are not only rational and moral and physical beings, but spiritual beings as well. Perhaps this is why people who don’t go to church still describe themselves as “spiritual.” Theologian Shirley Guthrie writes: “An important dimension of life is left out if we ignore the creative presence of a Spirit that we sense but cannot explain. The awareness of God is more like the knowledge of a poet or artist or religious mystic than the knowledge of a physicist or mathematician or scientist. But then he asks a great question: Why should it be any less trustworthy? In fact, why should it not be more trustworthy?” In conclusion, an analysis of the world around us and of our own lives actually points to the reality of God. We are able to see evidence of God’s eternity, wisdom, power and goodness. It furnishes a foundation upon which we can discover the answer to questions that seem never to go away: Why am I here? Where did I come from? Where am I going? What is my purpose? Would this satisfy my friend? Would this bring him back to church? I would hope it would help, and that maybe it would start him on a new journey of faith. Perhaps it has been of help to you this morning as well, for your times of questioning and doubt. Faith comes first. This we know and espouse. But it can work the other way to, that a better understanding of God can lead to a deeper faith in him. May it be for us, all of us, as we continue our Lenten pilgrimage.

Sources: Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 39ff.

James Phillips Noble, Getting Beyond Tragedy, A Minister’s Search for Answers to the “Why, God?” Question Which Torments Grieving Families (Montgomery, AL: MBS Press, 2005), 19ff.