Matthew 16:21-23

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.”

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Matthew 16:21-23

So the question is asked yet again, “If there really is a God, and if God is really good, then why does God allow so much suffering in the world?” Every human being has wrestled with that question. We ask it when said suffering happens far from us – a concert in Las Vegas, a church in Texas, a highway in California, a refugee camp in Africa, a village in Puerto Rico – and we ask it when it draws near to us – a loved one in a hospital, a friend with a harsh diagnosis, our own broken hearts.

The closest Jesus ever got to answering this question didn’t really answer the question. In John 9 he told his disciples that a man’s blindness was an occasion for God to do something good. And in Luke 13 Jesus says that hearing about the murder of innocents under Pilate and the tragic accident when the tower of Siloam fell and crushed eighteen people should inspire in us a desire to repent. That helps?

What if we quit trying to answer the question. What if we turn the question around a bit. Is God present in our suffering or is God absent from our suffering? The Bible’s answer is yes. God is present in our suffering because God is present everywhere. We can’t escape God’s presence (Psalm 139). Yet Jesus himself felt God’s utter absence in his own suffering, (Matthew 27:46). God is present but God can seem absent. That is our felt reality. But the deeper reality is that God is never closer to us than in our suffering – and God can come out of hiding in our suffering in remarkable ways.

Peter wasn’t ready to hear that. For Peter, suffering and God’s presence didn’t fit together. That suffering was in inevitable part of Jesus’ journey was not acceptable to Peter. That Jesus would willingly enter a time of real suffering did not fit with Peter’s sense of a future. Peter was following Jesus to ESCAPE suffering, not to enter it. There was that line in the sand again. And here is the sign of Jonah.

The stark reality of creation is that every living thing is going to die. Some measure of suffering along the way is unavoidable. What God opens to us in Jesus is not just life after death but life before death. What God calls us to alleviating suffering and preventing unnecessary suffering. Jesus turns toward Jerusalem and the suffering that awaits him there out of love. Divine, self-giving, self-sacrificing love.

That might not make much sense to Peter when looking at it from a human self-preservation point of view. Later, he will come around.

Let us pray: Gracious Lord, you turn us inside out and around and around when we look at your life and then our own. Where we escape, you enter. What we avoid, you embrace. When we would hold back, you would give freely. Again and again you hold open the door that says “Fullness of Life for All” and it always looks like repenting of our ways and following yours. Keep working on us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.


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