Canon Barnwell: “Human Suffering: Why God?”
St. Paul says in today’s epistle, “All things work together for good
for those who love God.” He goes on to say, “Neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor
powers [read evil powers], nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in
all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ
Jesus our Lord.”
That is quite a statement, and it is at the heart of the Christian
faith, but is it true? How can we believe in the love of God when such
terrible and unjust things happen in the world and in our individual
Just recently, we read that the earthquake in China killed more than
70,000 people, that the cyclone in Myanmar killed over 100,000 people.
Most every day, we read of how innocent civilians (to say nothing of our
own military personnel) are killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was just
in 2004, that the tsunami killed hundreds of thousands of innocent
people. And on and on.
When such terrible things happen, it makes me want to say with the
skeptics, the agnostics, “Either God is not good, or God is not God.”
How could a good and powerful God let all these things happen? How could
a good God let six million Jews perish at the hands of the Nazis? How
could God let hundreds of thousands of innocent people be slaughtered in
Rwanda or Darfur? How could God have let our own people justify the
murder and displacement of so many Native Americans, or allow slavery to
thrive for so long?
Either God is not good, or God is not God, or so it seems. Either
God does not care or God is powerless to act. Events like these make it
mighty hard for many of us to believe what Paul is saying about the love
of Christ. At times, many of us who would like to claim the Christian
faith do feel separated from the love of Christ.
But you and I do not need to reflect on historic disasters or the
world-wide death and destruction we read about all the time. Innocent,
irrational suffering strikes up-close, in our own lives.
In my own family, we ask: Why did God let our adopted and lovely
daughter Abigail die at age twenty-nine from a condition called fetal
alcohol syndrome? Or more precisely: Why did God let Abby be the one to
suffer from her birth mother’s heavy drinking during pregnancy? Why did
God let our daughter grow up with a subtly destructive condition that
kept her from learning from her mistakes? Why God? How could you?
How can I believe in the love of God that Paul writes about so
eloquently in his Letter to the Romans? Do all things really work
together for good for those who love God? Does our faith, our Book, our
tradition, give us an answer to why human beings suffer so?
The Book of Job in the Old Testament explores in depth the question
of innocent suffering. Many of you know the story. Job, known for his
righteousness and generosity throughout the realm, lost, in the
twinkling of an eye, everything: his estate, all of his family, even his
health. We meet him in the dust and the ashes in chapter 3 bemoaning his
fate: “Let the day perish in which I was born/ and the night that said,
‘a man-child is conceived.’/ Let that day be darkness!…Why
did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?”
Three friends, after sitting with Job for seven days and seven nights
in silence, can keep silence no more. And in their “windy” (to use Job’s
word), in their windy speeches, they tell Job why he lost everything,
including his health. He must have done grave misdeeds to deserve what
Job is defiant and challenges them to tell him exactly what those
misdeeds were that caused such suffering. They cannot do it. Job’s anger
at them boils over, but it is nothing compared to his anger toward God.
Job confronts God not only on his behalf but on behalf of all who suffer
and die, so innocently. Job is magnificent in his defiance:
“I tell you, God himself has put me in the wrong, he has drawn the
net round me. If I cry, ‘Murder!’ no one answers; if I appeal for help,
I get no justice. [God] has walled in my path so that I cannot break
away, and he has hedged in the road before me. He has stripped me of all
honor and has taken the crown from my head.” (19:6–9)
I am not guilty, Job is saying, but you, God, are. You may be all
powerful, but you are not a good God.
After 38 chapters, God finally appears to Job. It is very interesting
what God says and does not say. He does not punish Job further for his
defiance. He never says Job deserved his great loss. God never explains
Job’s suffering or the innocent suffering of all humankind. He never
tells Job why. God does tell Job to rise from the dust and the ashes,
does tell him to get over his self-pity and to stand up and to move on
with his life. And in the end, Job does just that.
You can no more find the answer to why—why God?—in the New Testament
than you can in the Book of Job. Let me take you all the way back to
the Garden of Gethsemane, outside of Jerusalem, the night before the
crucifixion. Jesus knew what would happen the next day. He knew he would
die the cruelest death on a cross; he knew his movement would fall
apart. He knew those he loved most in the world would desert him. He was
feeling “a sickness unto death.” He begged his three closest disciples
to be with him, to watch with him. Three times, he asked them. Each time
they went to sleep.
Jesus pleaded with his God, our God. Will you, dear God, my Abba—as
he often called God—my Poppa, will you at this terrible hour remove the
cup of suffering from me? My heart is breaking. My energy is gone. I am
already dying inside. Will you help me, my God? But there is no answer.
Only silence, the silence of eternity…
The next day, nailed to the cross, Jesus, the one person who carried
out the will of God, the unconditional love of God giving everything he
had, asks again, “Why? Why, God, have you forsaken me?” But there is no
answer, only silence. Like John Milton’s “darkness visible,” the
silence shouts at us: Either God is not good or God has no power.
The Bible does not tell us why. We may say, “Well you know God gave
us freedom to build a just world, and if God steps in to save the six
million Jews, steps in to prevent slavery, steps in to put an end to the
innocent suffering we see up close—if God steps in to save Jesus, his
ever loyal child—well that means that God is doing us, at least in the
long run, a disservice because God is taking away what we need most: our
That may be the way some of us answer the question of why so much
innocent suffering. But that is not the biblical answer. The Bible no
more explains innocent suffering to us than God explains it to Jesus
that night in Gethsemane and the next day on the cross. God’s silence is
palpable. Either God is not good or God is not God…
But wait a minute, wait a minute. Maybe we are going about this the
wrong way. Or, I should say, maybe I am going about this the wrong
God—through our Book, our tradition, our worship—does give an answer
to the question of innocent suffering, but it is not the kind of answer
that we demand, at least at first. We want a logical explanation as to
why the innocent suffer. We want an intellectual answer. But God gives
us something much more than what we ask for. The answer God gives may
not bring intellectual satisfaction, but it brings more. It brings
Again, let me take you back to that last night in Gethsemane. What
Jesus was asking from the disciples that heart-breaking night—for his
closest friends to be fully present to him—is exactly what God gives to
us through Jesus himself: in his birth, his life, and his death. God, in
sending his son to live among us, shares in all of our suffering. And
sharing our suffering, he helps to lift its burden. Sharing in our hurt
and pain, God helps to lift the burden.
That is what the Incarnation—God becoming one of us—is all about,
God giving us power over our finitude, our mortality, our suffering.
Before Katrina destroyed Charity Hospital in New Orleans, a doctor
friend would make evening rounds on one of the welfare wards. Late one
night, my friend passed by a very elderly man who was dying, all alone.
“Doc,” the man said as my friend approached. “That priest fellow came by
a little while ago and said some nice words. But what I need tonight is
something for my pain, and someone to stay here and talk with me for a
while.” My doctor friend did stay, holding the old man’s hand, until
about dawn when the hand finally fell limp and a voice from far off
said, “It is over.”
Neither Jesus nor the old man in Charity hospital needed an
explanation as to why there’s so much human suffering. That was not the
kind of answer they needed. What they needed was the answer my doctor
friend was able to give—the kind of answer the disciples during their
Gethsemane moment were not able to give. Jesus and the old man at
Charity needed something for their pain and someone to stay with them
and talk with them for a while, to watch with them.
I know it takes a leap of faith to imagine God through Jesus—being
there every time a child is hurting, a mother is weeping, a lonely old
man is dying, a bomb is exploding, every time we hurt beyond what we can
endure… I know it takes a leap of faith to imagine Jesus being
We must move out on our faith journey from where we are, not from
where we would like to be. If it is hard for you to imagine Jesus being
with you when you are hurting the most, then think of how we can be
there for one another during those sad, those hurting times, like my
friend, the doctor at Charity Hospital. We can be fully present to
others and we can let others be fully present to us. We can do that.
Belief in God Who Is With Us will follow.
I mentioned how our Abby died at age twenty-nine. On that final
night, after there was no chance of her regaining consciousness, my wife
and I and our other children stood by her bed all night and told
wonderful stories about Abby when she was young and Abby when she was
older. The stories, the gentle smiles, the tears were like prayers; they
were prayers. (Sam Lloyd—the dean of the Cathedral—was there. At the
time I was working with him in Boston, and Sam came to be with us and
Abby that long hospital night.) As we gazed on our still beautiful
daughter, sister, and friend the love that was there in that hospital
room could have broken windows. That kind of love does not die but
always seeks new vessels to fill…
When we are fully present to each other during those Gethsemane
moments, we will come to know—in God’s own time and in God’s own
way—that our love is God’s love, that the same Jesus of Nazareth who
lived among us over 2,000 years ago is now with us, in our time and
place when we need him most.
Nothing can separate us from God’s love. Neither death, nor life, nor
angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come. Nothing in
all of creation will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus
That is the answer to human suffering.
Can we prove it? No. Can we live it? Yes!