The letter arrived in his mailbox completely unannounced. Novelist Reynolds Price had written a moving spiritual memoir about his struggle with excruciating cancer of the spinal cord, which had led to the loss of the use of his legs. Several years later a young medical student named Jim Fox, himself diagnosed with a vicious cancer, had picked it up and decided that Price was the one to ask the most urgent question of all: “Does God exist and does God care?” Price wrote a response in a little book called Letter to a Young Man in the Fire, and he included part of Fox’s letter in it:
I want to believe in a God who cares because I may meet him sooner than I expected. I think I am at the point where I can accept the existence of a God (otherwise I can’t explain the origin of the universe), but I can’t yet believe he cares about us.
Does God exist and does God care? Novelist Muriel Spark once called that “the only question.” Is there a God we can depend on in a world where things go terribly wrong? It’s a question that everyone ends up asking at some point, and some people wrestle with it all their lives. Every priest or minister has had to stand in front of a church and gaze into the numb, uncomprehending faces of parents who have lost their infant child, or of friends and family of a young man dead in a car accident, or of the children and husband of a remarkable mother in her fifties who has finally lost a long fight with breast cancer.
My guess is that just about every one of us who has known what it means to sit on the mourner’s bench and try to make sense of some terrible loss. Where is God in this terrible tragedy? How could God let this happen? When terrible things happen, we want to understand.
But the questions get harder. What can people of faith make of the terrible events where people perish by the thousands and even millions? Sometimes it’s a natural disaster. The tsunami that swept through the Indian Ocean in December of 2004 killed 300,000 people. When we think of the grief we Americans experienced over the death of 3,000 on 9/11, this scale of loss is unimaginable. I read an account of a man standing in a coastal village in Indonesia who was completely devastated, having watched thousands of men and women washed away before his eyes. He just stood there crying, “There is nothing! There is nothing! Where is God? What is God?”
But human disasters can be even worse. What do we make of the ten million lives that perished under Stalin, the 6 million Jews murdered by Hitler’s Germany, and the tens and even hundreds of thousands who are being killed in Darfur? In Elie Wiesel’s book Night, which is an autobiographical account of his experience as a boy in the Auschwitz concentration camp, we see a group of prisoners gathered around to watch two men and a boy be hanged at once. For half an hour they watch the three struggle between life and death, and as they struggle Wiesel hears a man ask, “Where is God? Where is He?”
How do we reconcile all this with belief in a loving God? Evil isn’t a problem for an atheist’s worldview. If you believe in an absurd, uncaring universe you have no conflict. But for Christians the challenge is real. Archibald MacLeish in his famous play called J.B. about suffering and faith in God puts the issue this way: “If God is God, [that is, if God is all-powerful], he is not good. And if God is good, he is not God [because he must be powerless to stop the suffering.]
There have always been simplistic answers to why suffering happens. Sometimes you hear spoken with confidence that this tragedy must be God’s will, as if God chooses to torment his children. Sometimes you hear that God causes suffering to teach a lesson, or to punish evil. One of the comments I have heard many times is that suffering is somehow part of God’s “plan” for this person; that suffering and loss are secretly part of some good God has in mind. Some say bitterly that God is indifferent to human tragedy, or there’s no God at all. But none of these responses is adequate.
The scriptures themselves don’t offer clear explanations. In the Old Testament, suffering is often seen as a penalty for wrongdoing. God tells Israel, “I will punish you for all your iniquities.” God calls Israel in the Book of Deuteronomy to choose life or death, blessing or curse. Turn away from God and you will suffer, the texts say repeatedly.
And there is at least some truth to that. Societies that become absorbed with greed and injustice do eventually decline and perish. Nations that insist on polluting the air and water will one day pay a terrible price. Societies that encourage the use of guns as ways to solve problems will become more dangerous and violent themselves. Those who eat too much, or smoke, or gamble excessively, or engage in promiscuous sex are in one way or another putting themselves, their bodies and spirits, and risk. There are consequences to destructive behavior.
You also hear perplexity in the Old Testament. Psalm 10 cries out, “Why, O Lord, do you stand off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” And in Psalm 22 we have words that Jesus himself cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Where is God’s justice and fairness?
The Book of Job in the Old Testament is the unrelenting rejection of the notion that bad things happen to bad people and good things to good. Job is a virtuous man in every way, and every possible thing that can go wrong with him does—the loss of his family, his property, his health. His friends come to console him and to try to figure out what he must have done wrong to bring all this on him, but he insists that he is a good man. So he demands that God explain. By the book’s end he never gets his explanation, but instead catches a glimpse of an immense, mysterious living God who will never to abandon him.
Nicholas Wolterstorff is a philosopher at Yale whose son died at age 25 while climbing in the Alps alone. In his book Lament for a Son he traces his wrestling with his loss, and he refuses all the clear answers.
I cannot fit it all together saying, “[God] did it, ‘but neither can I do so by saying, ‘There was nothing he could do about it…I do not know why God did not prevent Eric’s death…I do not know why God would let him fall…I cannot even guess. I can only, with Job, endure.’
Jesus’ friends in our gospel lesson don’t understand either. Some Galileans had been protesting, and the government officials had tracked them down and murdered them in the Temple. And soon after that a tower under construction at Siloam collapsed killing eighteen workers. The workers were killed by a natural disaster, like the victims of earthquakes and tsunamis. Were the victims evil? No, Jesus says, there is no correlation. As he says on another occasion, “God makes the sun to shine on the good and the bad; his rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” Bad things happen to good and bad people.
So Jesus turns the question on its head. It’s not a question about who deserves or doesn’t deserve what. It’s a question about your relationship with God. Turn to God, Jesus says to his listeners, repent, learn to trust God through good times and bad. That’s the only thing that really matters.
I don’t believe there is any way of holding together faith in a loving God and the suffering we see in this world without Christ’s cross. We are taught to think of God as all-powerful, all-knowing, as the supreme ruler of the universe, in charge of everything.
But Christians believe that the one full revelation of God we have ever had was in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But there we didn’t see an omnipotent ruler making things happen, we saw someone who was pure, unbounded love, who didn’t command and impose his will, but who called and invited, forgave and healed, confronted and encouraged.
God is Christ-like. God is love. And love means not controlling, not micro-managing the world. Rather, God holds it, embraces it, and works within it, sometimes in surprising ways we call “miracles,” to seek to lead human beings into the communities of justice for which they were made.
God chose not to create a world of puppets under divine control, but free creatures in a world that operates on its own terms. That freedom means that earthquakes happen, and so do beautiful sunsets. It produces brilliant athletes and physically challenged children. It’s a world of remarkable brain cells, and also cancer cells. It makes possible a Mahatma Gandhi and an Osama bin Laden.
In fact, maybe the best analogy for God’s way in the world is that of a parent. Parents cannot control what their children do or become. They love them, teach them, support them when they fail, confront them when they need it, but then they have to give them their freedom. It is a risk to let them walk to school or ride a bike or go off to college. They can’t prevent car accidents, or calamities in college, or bad choices as adults. To love is to risk, to let go, and to be vulnerable to pain when one we love suffers. And God is like that.
Christians became convinced that when Jesus hung on that cross on that hill outside Jerusalem, it was God hanging there. It was God’s declaration that when we suffer, God goes through the anguish with us, that when evil comes, God will bring healing and new life out of the worst that can happen. “I know what you are going through,” God says. “I know what it is costing. I know I’ve called you to life in a dangerous world. But I am going through it all with you, and I promise you that there is life and more life for you.
“Where is God?” the angry prisoner cried again at Auschwitz as the crowd continued to watch their friends hanging on the gallows. And this time Wiesel says, “I heard a voice with me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows…” On the cross God is united with us in our worst agony and loss.
“We’re in it together, God and me,” Wolsterstorff writes near the end of his book as he makes his way back from bottomless grief. “Every act of evil extracts a tear from God, every plunge into anguish extracts a sob from God.”
Jesus meant what he said. The question isn’t why suffering? The question is whether we will trust this God who hung on a cross, and whether we can see that this God cares endlessly?
William Sloane Coffin, who was chaplain at Yale and minister at Riverside Church in New York for many years, had to endure the death of his own college-age son. Young Alex had been drinking and on the way home ran through a barrier and plunged into the waters of a river outside Manhattan. After the funeral service a woman said something to Coffin about Alex’s death being the will of God. Later Coffin wrote this:
I wanted to grab her and say—‘Lady, that’s wrong. God didn’t cause this. It wasn’t God’s will that my son die. None of us knows enough to say that. God doesn’t go around the world hurting and killing people. When the waters closed in over the car, the heart of God was the first of all our hearts to break.
Today we are not given any explanation of human suffering. Instead we are given Christ’s Body broken for us, his Blood shed for us. Repent, Jesus says. Turn to the God who can make all your suffering and confusion bearable. Respond in love to the victims of the world’s calamities. Hold fast to the God who is holding fast to you.
That is God’s answer to the worst we face—no formulas, no theories. Just Jesus giving us his life, giving us God’s life, and promising that nothing can ever separate us from that love.