Edited By Zachary Guiliano and Cameron Partridge
13. To Speak of Horrors: Preaching Suffering, Human and Divine
Joel C. Daniels
IN JANUARY, 1983, Alex Coffin, the son of William Sloane Coffin, was killed in a car accident. Alex was 24 years old. William Sloane Coffin was at that time the senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City, and he gave a eulogy at his son’s funeral two weeks later at Riverside. It is a beautiful sermon, often reprinted and frequently quoted, where the faithful preacher addresses not only his own loss, but the nature of human suffering and its relationship with God’s providence. Present as both pastor and mourner, he preached:
The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.1
God’s heart was the first to break. It is a sentiment that has resonated with many people in the thirty years since it was given, including the present writer. God does not intend violent deaths, of this much we can be sure; how then to explain such things? Coffin doesn’t attempt to give an explanation, but reaches more modestly for the fact that God remains with us even in the depths of suffering, even feeling himself the pain that we undergo. Reeling from...
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