Where is God when life gets messy?
How are we to think about suffering?
Theological questions are worth struggling with. Sometimes that’s all we can do. In many ways, due to the subject of inquiry, theology itself is more a study of questions than answers. The questions that drive us the most into the into the depths of our traditions are the ones that arise in our daily lives. That said, it is not surprising that some of the most stirring religious questions come from of our experiences of suffering.
Reflecting on our lives or witnessing the suffering of innocents around the world, many of us have wondered, if not cried out, why do bad things happen to good people?! Spoiler alert: this brief post will not provide the answer to that big question. But, it will honor it and explore a few responses.
Whether it is the trafficking of children in Asia, hunger in Sub-Saharan Africa, or violence in our own towns, suffering raises questions about the nature of a God revealed to us as loving and good. This theme of questions that may or may not be able to be answered completely is called theodicy.
Efforts of theodicy attempt to show that the suffering in the world does not conflict with the goodness of God. Responses in Scripture and tradition can be placed in three general categories 1.) It reveals the good. 2.) God’s justice and suffering is a mystery. 3.) God can transform it.
St. Thomas Aquinas concedes evil and its consequences are certainly real, but argues it exists secondarily to being itself which is positive and good. In short, he suggests identifying evil and pain requires the experience of its contrast. According to Aquinas, not only does the experience of suffering posit the existence of its opposite ultimate good, it is a substantive argument for the activity of God in the world. While this is an interesting philosophical response, it might not be pastorally applicable – that is, comforting at the bedside of an ailing loved one.
The classic Scriptural response to this question is the Book of Job. As readers, we can empathize with the upright and blameless Job as we watch him become the victim of forces outside his control. The allegory provides the perfect place for the author, the original audience, and all human beings to wrestle with the mystery of suffering.
Job is innocent and doesn’t deserve what is happening to him. As we might desire when we are suffering unjustly, Job is not quiet. Nor is he patient. Job cries out. His companions admonish him, parroting all the prescribed reasons for human suffering that the author and we may be suspicious of. Based on what they and Job had been taught (which at that time were retribution models of divine justice), Job believes there must have been a mistake. If only he could speak to God, he could to clear it all up. He doesn’t deserve this.
The resolution of this eternally relatable situation is a final encounter with God. Job gets the chance to make his case to God, as we all might want to. In that encounter, God teaches Job that there are many things in the world that he doesn’t understand but can still appreciate. This is one of them. The resolution of Job’s cross examination of God is that the rain falls on the just and the unjust. He and we cannot and will not understand suffering. However, it is more than the courtroom-like drama and catharsis that makes this story significant. Throughout this experience of unexplainable suffering, Job and God remain in conversation. This ongoing conversation, that included moments of silence, could contain the reasonable emotions of a suffering person. That conversation is an important part of the Christian tradition that we draw from our Jewish roots.
Like the Book of Job, the Psalms are powerful examples of not providing answers but a space for our emotional questions and cries. In Psalm 22, we hear the Psalmist’s pain and fear (and later hear the same words used to express a similar experience):
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help,
from my cries of anguish?
My God, I call by day, but you do not answer;
by night, but I have no relief.
Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One;
you are the glory of Israel.
In you our fathers trusted;
they trusted and you rescued them.
To you they cried out and they escaped;
in you they trusted and were not disappointed.
But I am a worm, not a man,
scorned by men, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they curl their lips and jeer;
they shake their heads at me:
"He relied on the LORD—let him deliver him;
if he loves him, let him rescue him."
...Do not stay far from me,
for trouble is near,
and there is no one to help.
The reason God does not intervene to end the suffering remains a mystery to the writer of these emotional words, but he trusts God is listening and that God is good. The Psalms of lamentation powerfully demonstrate this wisdom and space in the Biblical tradition to contain this crying out at unexplainable suffering. Walter Brueggemann describes this conversation as "Israel’s foremost word on pain and Israel's most daring theological act." Moreover, he explains that in the Psalms of lament, "Israel articulates its pain publicly not simply as a cathartic activity, but in order to make the pain into public business of God." The crying out is not a turning away from God. In those moments, the Psalmists and all those who pray with them trust God with all the emotions involved in that painful moment. One can hear in these words the justifiable cry, “God! Why aren’t you being God!?” But, the communication lines remain open. An affirmative hope and faith in God remains.
While this approach is also not an easy answer and may not satisfy completely the pastoral test of easing suffering, it represents a compelling example of theodicial efforts. Rather than an answer being offered in the second person (“You are suffering because ...”), the sufferer him or herself asks the question "Why me?” “Where are you God?” and addresses God directly. This approach honors the experience and divine-human relationship we trust in. This approach continues in the Christian Gospel.
For followers of Jesus, through suffering there can be an experience of the Cross and its Paschal Mystery. Human beings suffer. But a Christian view suggests that when we trust that through Good Friday there is an Easter Sunday coming after, and there is a community to share that grief within dialogue with tradition, it is possible to receive graces that we otherwise would not receive. This is a unique view among the religious traditions. The God of our understanding was an innocent victim. He suffered, died, and was buried.
The scandal of the dying God has created 2,000 years of theological discussion and offered meaning in moments of crisis and pain. But again, even Jesus who suffers with us does not simply make suffering okay. Suffering does not disappear, but it can be transformed. Jesus' glorified body ascended to heaven with His wounds. They were not taken away.
Elie Wiesel’s memoir of surviving a concentration camp is often noted in conversations of God suffering with us and its potentially transformative view. One scene from the book still causes me to tremble and lament each time I read it. This powerful image comes from a text that is not explicitly Christian or religious. Wiesel describes a night where he and the other prisoners watched the brutal hanging of a child. The two men hung alongside the boy died immediately, but the boy kicked and twisted before succumbing because of his lighter weight. As the innocent boy was dying, Wiesel heard a voice in the crowd wondering aloud, “Where is God now?” To which Wiesel writes: “And I heard a voice within me answer him: ‘Where is He? Here He is. He is hanging here on this gallows.’”
In light of the suffering we witness personally and from a far in the human family, the question of suffering will continue to be one of the most challenging theological questions we will each wrestle with. It is worth struggling with it, with others, and with our tradition. We are clearly not alone in this question and experience. None of these answers are universally applicable and completely pacifying. They are uncomfortable because suffering remains a reality for your loved ones, as well as for the young girls in western Kenya that Sister Catherine is trying to rescue from child labor, addiction, violence and abuse – and we do not have answers for them. Rational efforts to find answers to the question do not ultimately provide peace. What seems to promise such a salve is a personal encounter with God. It is this encounter, with a language all its own, that can help us not only care for our own wounds but transform our wounds into a source of healing with which we can help heal others who suffer.
MISSIO offers themed-quizzes in MissioBot to examine your religious knowledge - and this blog by James Nagle, PhD to reflect on questions of faith.