It is race day in Boston. As a celebrated race in a historic city, the Boston Marathon draws thousands of hard-training athletes striving toward their goals while surrounded by cheering family, friends and anonymous well-wishers. The weather was ideal. The atmosphere was genial. But no one could comprehend what happened next. Or why. A sequence of ear-splitting concussion-casting bombs exploded and turned the celebration at race’s end into a carnage-filled crime scene. And with the quickness it took for those bombs to detonate, a sense of joy and security would evaporate. Family, friends, anonymous well-wishers were now among the dead and wounded. The most important goal was no longer a race time, but to simply verify that a loved one wasn’t “too close to the finish line” when the explosion ripped through the crowd. And, God help them, the kids. What monster could do this to children?
Suffering. A lot of it. Boston, Sandy Hook, the World Trade Center. Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, cancer. Depression, divorce, unemployment. Tsunamis, earthquakes, flooding. Crime, abuse, infidelity. The list goes on and on. Endless examples of suffering. And the truth of suffering is that it is often unavoidable and thus, has to be endured. As a result, when each of us, in ways great or small, is inevitably visited by suffering which we must endure, it is an occasion upon which we start to ask difficult questions. And a question that is asked time and time again goes something like this: “How can an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving God allow evil and suffering in this world?”. It is a question posed innumerable times by innumerable people. And its consequences are staggering. While some individuals faithfully consider the answer to this question a mystery and go forth continuing to believe, many become estranged from God by paying Him tacit allegiance, yet grudging Him all the ways He lets humanity down. Others, most tragically, lose faith altogether. Why does God allow terrible things to happen? Because there is no God, they answer. How could there be? He simply isn’t there. Period.
Yet, there is something unique and particularly stirring about the Christian God. It both troubles and comforts us. Unlike the gods portrayed in antiquity who are clearly aloof to and disdainful of mankind, the Christian God has a peculiar affinity for His creation.
Biblical stories, so long told in isolation, lose their overarching narrative form and if you take the time to consider the long view – the cohesive narrative – of the Christian God, what you find is stunning. It becomes readily apparent that God created man and woman with distinct dignity and loved them – loved them beyond all comprehension. In loving them, however, God gave them freewill. In being granted this gift from a God Who so desperately wants us to remain close to Him, man chose otherwise and introduced sin and imperfection into paradise. Now surely, a God – to be God – is perfect. And to be perfect, He must be perfectly just, yet perfectly merciful. As a result, to be just, the consequences of our actions must be carried out. Yet, to be merciful, the loving God wants to do everything He can to reconcile us to Him – everything. Therefore, the narrative of the relationship between God and man is God’s constant effort to heal the rupture with us – a rupture we created. While we continue to have wandering eyes in our relationship with God, He employs the full effect of his Trinity to bring us home: God the Father outlining the Law to achieve holiness, God the Son clarifying the meaning of the Law and showing the perfect way to live, and God the Spirit dwelling within us to guide our conscience to perfectly conform our lives to Eternal Truth. And in the Supreme Act of mercy, our God as Jesus Christ would suffer wretchedly at the hands of politicians, religious leaders, mobs, and even his friends and followers. Christ would suffer betrayal, torture, humiliation, death. And yet this was done willingly. For us. Perfect mercy (Christ’s self-sacrifice) served perfect justice (the debt incurred by our sins). In this one Act, God demonstrated two troubling and comforting Truths: 1) He understands suffering because He suffered immensely, and 2) He suffered on our behalf because He loves us without end. It is troubling that the lovely Christ would suffer so grievously. It is comforting that the reason he would suffer is for you and me.
Our God has suffered. Our God suffered on our behalf. But why, if He loves us so much, does He allow us to continue suffering? Person after person, generation after generation, tragedy strikes, pain ensues, and where is that loving God? I will not be so presumptuous to pretend I can give an easy answer to this because there is no easy answer, but a thought on freewill and three Biblical illustrations have helped me cope with the reality of suffering in the world (mine and others).
First, a word on freewill. Remember that God, in His infinite love for us, gave us freewill – a choice. We could follow Him or go our own way. Again, He desperately wanted and wants us to follow Him, but He gave us the greatest wild card in the history of existence. Yet this greatest gift and trust, could become our greatest curse. In choosing wrongly, we separate ourselves from God, from Truth, from Perfection. In effect, we are seeking our own version and definition of perfection. But that which is separate from God is simply imperfect and fallen. Choices made at the inception of human existence – choices made by MAN, not God – introduced sin and evil into the world. A contract had been struck and violated – by us. And so, in violating our contract, in introducing sin and evil into the world, we introduced suffering. A suffering which God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit worked (and work) tirelessly to alleviate through historical and personal interventions (if we would only recognize them).
Now, to three illustrations:
1) Job and God’s operation of the moral universe
Job was a good and decent man, but soon found himself afflicted. Disease, poverty, family loss, betrayal of friends. It couldn’t get any worse. And just when he had heard enough times from friends that he MUST have done something to deserve this, he is granted an audience with God. In insolent and self-righteous fashion, Job the man insists on an accounting by God regarding his suffering. God answers Job with a question: ‘Were you there, Job, and can you comprehend the majestic and extraordinary creation of the physical universe you are living in?’ And with a panoramic display that renders Job mute and humbled, God asks one last question to drive a point home about human pride and arrogance (even among the most righteous). ‘Job, if you can’t comprehend my running of the physical universe, how much less can you comprehend my running of the moral universe?‘ In effect, there are two truths we can know about God. He loves us endlessly and His ways are mysterious. These two truths warrant our faith in Him…even when we suffer.
2) Christ and the adulteress
Nearly everyone is familiar with the story of the woman caught in adultery who is brought by the Pharisees to Christ. The encounter is a shrewd attempt by the religious elite attempting to trap Jesus into either contradicting Moses’ Law that this sinner should be stoned or carrying out the Law and, thus, reinforcing the position of the Pharisees and lessening Christ as a merciful teacher. Christ says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” One by one they fall away leaving the adulteress standing alone with Christ. “Is no one left to condemn you?”, He asks. “No.”, she responded. “Then neither do I condemn you. Go, AND SIN NO MORE (emphasis mine).”. The adulteress could be considered in a state of suffering. Guilt-ridden, humiliated, and about to die, she is spared by the mercy of God. Yet Christ also charges her to sin no more. Our sin perpetuates evil in this world and causes suffering to ourselves and others. God has done His part, but she must do hers.
3) Christ feeds the five thousand
Jesus steps ashore in the midst of a large, desperate, pain-filled crowd. The disciples noting the hour of the day ask Him to send them away to eat. “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”, Jesus instructs them. Desperately, the disciples find a boy with five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus subsequently gives thanks to God, prays further, and feeds five thousand with food to spare. What is often obscured in this story is the first thing that Jesus said to his disciples. “You feed them.”. Yes, Jesus performs a miracle, but not without first commanding his followers to find a way to help their fellow-men and women. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to Heaven came Pentecost in which the Holy Spirit was bestowed upon the Apostles. Just as Jesus commanded the disciples to feed the masses, the Holy Spirit charged them to use their God-given gifts to evangelize, to heal, to love, and to serve. The story of God’s relationship with man is filled with love for us, but also filled with instructions and commandments to love our neighbors as ourselves. In so doing, we lessen the sufferings of others and ourselves.
Suffering is often incomprehensible and unbearable. But in the midst of suffering, we should find some solace. Our God loves us to no end. Our God suffered with us. Our God suffered for us. And our God continues to suffer with us. It is incumbent on us, even in our most trying moments, our most faithless moments, to call on God with anger, tears, or even muted, shocked silence. He understands more than we can imagine. Indeed, He will bear us up. And maybe in our suffering… in our broken-down, crumpled weakness that seems devoid of any reserve, just maybe we can pull ourselves up and see that other person who has even less reserve than we. Maybe, in that moment, that is the neighbor we are meant to reach out to, to love, to help heal. And it may be that without the suffering we experienced, we would not be equipped to ache and mourn and hurt with that person…and heal with that person. Suffering changes us. And in some ways, it changes us so that we can be more honest and open to God and others. Because while God has the indispensable role in helping people in their suffering, perhaps God intended us to have a part to play as well… Perhaps…Yes. Yes. Perhaps He did.