[A version of the following piece was published in The Living Church after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. It's still my best attempt at making some sense of such things.]
We live in a world where we are regularly confronted with the reality of natural phenomena like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, famine, disease, etc. Each of these events raises with fresh urgency the perennial question of belief in God in the shadow of destruction and suffering. The magnitude natural disasters and their seeming randomness is awe-inspiring and dumbfounding. What can one say to make sense of such a catastrophes? Where is God in all of this and what kind of God would allow such things?
Christians should be wary of nice and tidy answers to such questions. But, it is also unsatisfactory to allow ourselves to slip into a speechless agnosticism. What, with due caution and humility, can we say?
Among other things, it is good to remember that removing God from the equation does not resolve the mystery of suffering. The flipside of the question, “How can there be a good God when there is so much suffering in the world?” are the questions, “If there is no God and no meaning, why do I care about the suffering in the world?” and “Why should I?” Indeed, if there is no God, reality is indifferent to all suffering. And there is no real reason for us not to be indifferent. Our inclination otherwise is only conditioned sentimentalism. If there is no God, we can only conclude that we have evolved into an existential cul-de-sac in which we have now come to see the emptiness of the belief in meaning and human worth that helped us evolve this far but are still stuck with the deep vestigial instinct for meaning and worth.
But, that is a dry and weary land where no water is. And humans cannot live there. However much the logic of our minds, absent God, might say that there is no meaning, our hearts cry out in contradiction, “No!” Our hearts insist that there is meaning. It’s not a matter of indifference. We do not believe that the offense and sorrow we feel in the wake of the devastation of a natural catastrophe is not just an offense against our personal preferences. It is an offense against the very fabric of reality.
Still, the questions remain. Where is God in all of this? What kind of God allows such things? These are questions that beg answers. And so, we create answers. Whether to protect God or to bring tragedy under control, we invent ways to explain the suffering that befalls us and others.
One way that some have sought to resolve the questions is to suggest that God cannot intervene in historical and physical reality. But, that hardly seems to do justice to the Christian revelation even if it appears to get God off the hook.
Another common answer is that it is God’s way of getting back at us for our sins. Tragedy and suffering are divine payback.
The idea of reincarnation is a related way of addressing the reality of suffering. You get what you deserve, if not in this life, in the next. And whatever you get in this life, good or bad, is the result of what you earned in lives before. Everything that happens to you is karmic payback. The karmic ledger, sooner or later, will be balanced. Reincarnation is a clear and logical answer to why there is suffering.
But, to all such attempts to explain suffering, Jesus says, “No.” In Luke 13:1-9, some people come to Jesus, and ask, “What about the people who were murdered by Pilate and whose blood was mingled with their sacrifices? Were they killed because of their sins?” Jesus responded, “No.” “What about the people who were killed in the accident in Siloam when the tower fell on them? Did they die because of their sins?” Again, Jesus answers, “No.” Jesus does not offer a nice and neat answer to why there is such suffering. His response in the gospel is uncomfortably blunt. In essence he says “The suffering of others, the tragic deaths of others, might well give us pause to remind ourselves that our time also is short and we have no guarantees of how long we will be around. Therefore, today is the day to repent. Today is the day to turn and seek God. Today is the day to love God and neighbor.”
It is not a very sentimental approach. But, Jesus is not sentimental when speaking of God or the human condition. And for that I am thankful. Sentimental images of a Nice-Guy-in-the-Sky don’t cut it when we are confronted with real tragedies like earthquakes or tsunamis or hurricanes, or, for that matter, real personal tragedies like injury and disease. Nor do romantic notions of human nature or the nature of creation. Reality demands something wilder.
The world is a wild place. In creating the world in which we live, God makes space for us and for all creation to be free. That means God also makes space for us to make a mess of it, to make a mess of one another, and to make a mess of ourselves. And it means there is space for things like cancer cells and earthquakes. It also means that the God who creates such a world must be as wild as the wildness it contains. Why does God have to make so much space for freedom? Why does God tolerate so much suffering and injustice? Why has God created such a world? If God is at the heart of it all – the Creator and Sustainer – God is not off the hook.
Which is, of course, the point of the gospel. On the cross, God himself is on the hook. In Jesus Christ, God enters into the mess that we have made of the world. And God enters into the wildness of the world God has created. On the cross, God in Christ takes on the sin and suffering of the world. The world’s passion becomes Christ’s passion. God transforms that passion into the promise of resurrection. There is the promise that we too will be transformed – the suffering of the world will not be lost, but gathered up and transformed in resurrection. By his wounds, we will be healed. And so will be the rest of creation which eagerly awaits being set free from its bondage to futility and decay (cf. Romans 8:18-24).
We live in a world of great suffering and great injustice. It can be a hard place to live. It can be a hard place to believe in God – especially the generic God of human imagination. But the God we know in Jesus Christ is not a God of our own imagining. The God we know is the God of the cross. William Temple, who was Archbishop of Canterbury during WWII, wrote,
The revelation of God’s dealing with human sin shows God enduring every depth of anguish for the sake of His Children. . . All that we can suffer of physical or mental anguish is within the divine experience. . . He does not leave this world to suffer while He remains at ease apart; all suffering of the world is His.
– Christus Veritas
French poet, Paul Claudel, wrote, “Jesus did not come to remove suffering, or to explain it away. He came to fill it with His presence.” Jesus does not explain suffering. He fills it with his presence and the promise of its transformation in the final resurrection of which his is the foretaste.
It does not resolve all the questions or remove all the pain, or eliminate all the anger resulting from something like the devastation of a natural catastrophe or man-made tragedies. But a God wild enough to create and sustain such a world as ours and wild enough to pour his love out on the hard wood of the cross is wild enough to absorb our questions, pain, and anger. And such a God is wild enough to take it all into himself where it will be transformed by his love, joy, and peace in ways we can barely imagine.