Perception, Suffering, and the Presence of God

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October 14, 2018

May I speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Our readings today may confuse us if we’re not careful.

We hear three distinct voices in our readings. They communicate sadness, desire, need, and perhaps helplessness.

All of these may fall under the broad umbrella of suffering.

We hear Job’s and his angst about God: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him…”

In our gospel reading, we hear the question posed: “what must I do to be saved?” – Jesus walks thru some commandments in answer…the person – who’s not identified in this gospel is referred to as the ‘rich young ruler’ in the other gospel narratives – he says, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth” --- this response by him in our narrative seems to show assurance is not being experienced. No sense that this is enough or “working.”

We’re seeing individual perceptions of reality.

Perception is a funny thing. It has to do with awareness and understanding – especially through the senses. We all have perceptions of things – situations, people, ourselves, God. Our perceptions are how we interpret and orient ourselves in our daily lives. Our perceptions are our reality…what we tend to forget is that our perceptions can be on point or they can be really wrong…but they tend to feel right because they’re ours.

Perception is the reality to each of us. Though it is not always the same reality.

In Job, his perception is that God is not there.

In contrast, the gospel reading shows an angst that we all, in ways, can dial into. This person is perceiving his obedience as not paying off or doing the trick…this person is not satisfied.


We also catch a glimpse of perception in our psalm appointed for the day. This is a familiar Psalm of lament by one who feels utterly abandoned by God. The psalmist cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The psalmist and Job are asserting that God is not there or that God abandons us. I imagine most of us have at one time or another in our lives have felt similarly – had the same perception.

Let me pause was we delve into this – as I speak about suffering…I feel myself almost tip toeing around the word depression. Which is not a bad word. But as we’re in this place together this morning, let me say this – I’m not trying to provide the 5 or 10 steps to solve depression or suffering. Nor am I saying that being depressed and walking through it is simple, or that we even have the where with all at those times to be active or pursue anything or much at all. I affirm therapy and medication and know that sometimes that’s the best course of action.

But here…in this land of Job and our other readings, let’s be in the place of where things are not okay.

Shouldn’t they be okay?

Well, no.

In our present experience sin exists and its consequences. We refer to the first sin in scripture as “the fall.” The outcome? We live in a fallen world, full of fallen people, in the midst of a spiritual battle.

What can we expect?

We can expect to suffer.

Scripturally, that’s actually normative through Jesus’ example and pervasive in the New Testament. It really is part of the deal.

Culturally, the perception may be: follow Jesus and all will be well…but the real story with Jesus is – Life is hard, all the time.

But this is different than inconvenience…suffering and inconvenience can become blurred in American culture. Suffering is not waiting in line…it’s not having to walk farther because I could not find a parking place.

Our suffering is due to health, it’s in our relationships, it comes to us as we pursue the good, as we seek to deal with sin in our lives, as we follow Christ’s example.

Suffering. In simplicity it means bearing something. Something’s pressing on you. It could be oppressive or dangerous.

We all suffer in various ways.

What’s interesting to consider is how we respond. There are different ways we carry our suffering.

Maybe we’re like Job’s wife, who says to Job: Why don’t you just curse God and die?

Maybe we’re like Peter who later in his life and ministry through his writings encouraged humility, prayer, and resisting the devil.

Or maybe like Jesus, we be present to the pain of it but also are assured of the outcome. Jesus suffered throughout his life and ministry and on the cross. He also said: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”

We heard the take away for us of Jesus’ example of suffering this morning – yes, he provides example in responding to suffering, but he suffered. He knows what its like to feel like Job, to feel like the Psalmist who laments.

Our Hebrews reading spells it out:

15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are… 16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Ultimately there are two ways that our response to suffering can take us. One of my favorite movies illustrates this. It’s called Grand Canyon. Its main characters are contrasted as they respond to suffering in their lives in Southern California. This is shown as they both, unbeknownst to each other, fall onto the Grand Canyon as illustration while they both have time talking with their friend Mack.

Davis says to Mack

“The point is there's a gulf in this country...It's like this big hole in the ground, as big as the Grand Canyon, and what's come pouring out is an eruption of rage, and the rage creates violence, and the violence is real, Nothing's gonna make it go away.”

Simon also talking with Mack – also about the Grand Canyon says:

“...the thing that got me was sitting on the edge of that big old thing. Those so old. Took so long for that thing to get to look like that... and it ain't done either..It happens right while you're sitting there watching it. It's happening right now while we're sitting here…When you sit on the edge of that thing, you just realize what a joke we people are. What big heads we got...Thinking our time here means diddly to those rocks. It's a split second we been here, the whole lot of us. And one of us? That's a piece of time too small to give a name.”

As Davis fuels anger and hopelessness in his life he becomes smaller and smaller as a person in the movie…Mack, as he listens to Simon’s thoughts on the Grand Canyon, gains perspective outside of himself and grows in hope and contribution to others.

What do we do? We look to gain perspective outside of ourselves. We crystallize our convictions about who we are and where we are going. We come to the throne of grace honestly…like job, like the psalmist, like Jesus – and we let it all out honestly…and we stay and get to know whose presence we are in.

“16Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”