Where is God when suffering strikes?

Personal suffering—whether illness, accident, assault, robbery, poverty or natural disaster—usually raises spiritual questions.  A major catastrophe is for many people a spiritual catastrophe. A complex humanitarian emergency is a complex spiritual crisis.  The questions that are raised by either personal suffering or complex humanitarian emergencies are the same: Where are you God?  Why did you allow this to happen? Why us? Why are some spared while others aren’t?

Anywhere, anytime catastrophic suffering is outrageous.  But the current tragedy in Haiti is indescribable in a country that has endured wave upon wave of seemingly endless suffering. Words are insufficient, yet nonetheless our hearts cry for answers.  People want answers to these questions, and to fail to offer them is to fail to respond to people’s deep needs. And so, a range of responses are commonly proposed:

  1. 1. This is God’s will to which we must submit.
  2. 2. This is not only God’s will, but God’s judgment.
  3. 3. This proves that there is no good God in whom we can trust.
  4. 4. Even if there is a good God, Evil seems to be more sovereign.
  5. 5. Survivors thank and praise God for answering their prayers (which raises the painful question of why God didn’t answer the prayers of others.)
  6. 6. Thus some conclude that silence is the only answer to these questions.

I am not satisfied with any of the six options we commonly hear. None of them do justice to the God whom we encounter in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  There’s no time when people are immersed in the darkness of pain, loss and grief for lengthy, complex answers to the age-old, universal human questions provoked by suffering. Usually the best responses are tangible expressions of love and compassion. But people also cry out for words of explanation. Why God? If we can’t say something helpful in three minutes, we will never be heard.  Therefore, daring to be over simplistic in the face of the profound mystery of human pain, I offer a three minute response.

First, the Gospel loudly proclaims that God’s will for people is life, not death and suffering. God grieves over human sin and suffering. Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19: 41).  We respond to suffering with lament and tears. If we have lost our capacity to cry, we have lost our right to respond to others’ pain. Suffering is contrary to the good will of the God of all goodness. Ezekiel proclaimed that God “takes no pleasure in the death of anyone” (Ezekiel 18: 32).  Therefore, in Jesus Christ, God does more than grieve. “I have come that you might have life in all its fullness,” he says (John 10: 10). In the Messiah, Jesus, God entered into our broken lives and carried our pains, judged our sin and destroyed the power of the Devil (Isaiah 53: 4). He not only carried our pain, God triumphed over all that keeps us from experiencing fullness of life (Philippians 2: 5-11).

Second, though this triumph over suffering has been secured in Christ’s life, death and resurrection, it won’t be completely realised until the New Creation. We live in the meantime—stretched between the pains of the present and the promises of the future. We live between God’s good original creation, its fallen brokenness, its redemption in Christ—and its fulfilment in the coming Kingdom.  In this very mean time, no one, Christian or not, is exempt from experiencing the brokenness of creation, the ravages of sin and the assaults of the demonic:  disease, disasters and death.  God usually doesn’t overturn natural law, or the consequences of creation’s fall. “All of creation is groaning in labour,” awaiting the fulfilment of our corporate redemption—then creation too will be set free (Romans 8: 18-25).

Third, we confidently proclaim that suffering doesn’t have the last word! One day, God “will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…See, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21: 3-5). When Israel was captive in Babylon, God gave them profound words of guidance: “I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29: 11).  Hope in the Hebrew language is a wonderful picture word, describing the tension placed on a spider’s web. When disconnected from one end or the other, it can bear no weight. When firmly anchored between two points and stretched tight, the web can bear great weight. Hope is to be stretched between two places—firmly anchored in both the present and the future. The strands in a web become the pathway for hope. As followers of Christ, we choose to be firmly anchored in the pains of the present while holding on tightly to the promises of the future. As Hebrews 6: 18-20 says, “The hope that we have in Jesus Christ is an utterly reliable anchor for our souls, fixed in the innermost shrine of heaven, where Jesus has already entered on our behalf”.

Fourth, because of this hope we don’t merely give in to suffering, resigning ourselves to it as our lot in life. Nor do we seek to escape the woes of the world. Israel was called to seek the welfare of Babylon and plant gardens in the city of its captivity.  Hope frees us to live in joyous rebellion against all that keeps life from becoming what God intends it to be. “The Father of mercies and the God of all comfort comforts us in our affliction that we might be able to bring comfort to those who suffer with the comfort we have received” (2 Corinthians 1: 3-4). We have the privilege of allowing the Spirit of God to pour out the love of Christ through our hearts and hands. As God’s people, we are an army of caregivers, bringing tangible hope to people weighed down in suffering next door, and around the world.  In addition to bringing comfort to the pains of suffering, we seek to remove its causes. In both kinds of intervention, we manifest in the brokenness of the present signs of the splendour of God’s coming future.

World Vision was borne in pain and exists because of hope.  We don’t know why some are spared and richly blessed, while others experience unimaginable sorrow and suffering.  All we know is that no pain is unimaginable to God, for God has borne it all in Jesus Christ. Our calling is to steward the life and resources with which we’ve been entrusted so as to enter into the depth of human suffering and allow the Spirit of God to pour out through us tangible expressions of God’s trustworthy love—in food, shelter, health care, advocacy, economic development and structural changes that address many of the causes of suffering.  In our tears of empathy and lament, our actions of service and justice, and our prayers of intercession and testimony, we point people to the Father of mercy and the God of all comfort found in Jesus Christ. We encourage people—give people courage in the midst of pain—to hope in the God through whom one day, all sorrow will cease and all suffering will end. Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, grant us your peace.

(Tim Dearborn, Christian Commitments – Partnership Leader, World Vision International)

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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