The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


In Pain with God

Sometimes love for God puts us in pain.

by Will Willimon

Old Testament Reading:  Jeremiah 1:4-10

For Sunday, August 25, 2013: Year C—Lectionary 21

So, are we all agreed that God is love and that God is merciful? God reaches out to those in need and in their time of trouble. That is a common theme throughout scripture.

And yet Jeremiah 1 reminds us that another common biblical theme is that God also reaches out, calls, commissions people to do God’s work and thereby God puts people in trouble.

Called, for Trouble

Jeremiah is called by God to be a spokesperson for God (i.e. prophet). Jeremiah, though young, knows enough about God to beg out of this prophetic assignment pleading that he’s not good at public speaking and that he’s much too young to represent God. (v. 6)

God is unmoved, commanding young, afraid-to-speak Jeremiah to “go” and speak the words God gives him no matter the reaction he receives, promising, if Jeremiah gets into trouble, “I will rescue you.” (v. 8)

In Pain With God

I can’t go into all the horrible things that happened to Jeremiah along the way:  imprisonment, mockery, pain, and near death. God always came to Jeremiah’s rescue—sort of.

Each time Jeremiah got knocked down, God returns to him. But God not only rescues him but immediately commands him, “Go!” Time and again, when he speaks God’s truth, Jeremiah is cast into the worst sort of pain, only to have God reiterate the command, “Go!” Let’s just say that Jeremiah’s reservations at responding to God’s call were justified. Presumably, young Jeremiah had a nice life—until God called.

Merciful God?

In our day it has become conventional to present God as a beneficent being who does nice things for us. Want greater prosperity and happiness? Well, you’ve tried drugs and alcohol, now why don’t you try God? God has got good things in store for you; put your life into God’s hands and God will put a smile on your face. Miserable? Come to Jesus and he’ll fix that. In pain? No problem for an always available and merciful God.

Jeremiah may be young, may not know all that much about God’s ways, but he knows enough to know that when God shows up and comes into our lives, sometimes there are blessings and benefits; sometimes there is pain and trouble. God comes to Jeremiah, not offering him a more meaningful life, but rather assigning him a job to do. We who have been taught to think of God as a way to get what we want may find it hard to hear that we are God’s way to get what God wants! Time and again in scripture, God seems to think nothing of placing otherwise contented, happy people’s lives in peril.

Trouble or Troubling

For his merciful fidelity and compassionate obedience, Jesus got a cross. (Perhaps even more troubling was that Jesus said that if we were faithful in walking with him, we would get crosses too!)

Or, as a woman told me, “I was happy until my pastor insisted I go on the church’s mission trip to Haiti. That made me miserable. Now, every time I open the refrigerator door I’ve got photos of three Haitian orphans staring at me. There are people in this town who avoid me because they’re afraid I’ll say, “Give me two hundred dollars now! I’ll feed a child for a year.”

The Hardest Question

In this Sunday’s gospel Jesus gives a hurting person compassion and healing. In Jeremiah 1:4-10, God gives a young man a brutal, deadly assignment.

Here’s the hard question: Can it be that a loving and merciful God is also willing to hurt and imperil faithful lovers of God?

willwillimon.sq Will Willimon is a bishop (religious authority, brother to the Pharisees) of the United Methodist Church, retired. He is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC where he tries to get future pastors to ask hard questions. Will is the author of many books. His latest book is a novel (!) about a church, its clergy, and members, Incorporation, from Cascade Press, Eugene, Oregon. Will blogs at “A Peculiar Prophet”—


  1. Bob Scharf says:

    Thank you so much for putting into words what has been troubling me for some time.

  2. Thomas Carr says:

    I am reminded of Fred Craddock’s description of receiving a call from God: “Receiving a call from God is a lot like throwing up…you can only put off for so long.”
    In some ways, I think Craddock’s analogy is more appropriate than perhaps even he has considered: many times receiving (and responding to) a call from God is (at best) as pleasant as throwing up… it wrenches your whole body and wears you out…and you often wonder, “what good did that do?”

  3. Amigo Cowboy says:

    Will, to play on Thomas’ reference, this passage does indeed inspire me to puke…or at least something akin to the feeling. As far as your question goes, yea, I think you’re onto something with bringing it up. But it always, always, always begs the practical questions that naturally arise. I find myself at odds even with my denomination when I think of looking people squarely in the eye and quote something like what Shane Claiborne said: “Jesus wrecked my life…I am still recovering from my conversion” (paraphrased). Jesus is a home wrecker, a church-wrecker, a small-group wrecker, and even a potluck wrecker. But the evidence of our culture is increasingly raising these sorts of issues already. The reality is that church as we’ve known it (at the version of it going back for the last 25-45 years) is over. It’s time to celebrate our uncomfortable reality and live into it. The questions I ask in response to yours: Does the “hurt” and “imperiled living last forever? Is it worth it? If I read the gospels correctly, Jesus answered no to the first question and yes to the second.

How do you read?