Revisiting a God of love in a painful world
Why do we never get and answer when we are knocking at the door,
With a thousand million questions about hate and death and war,
Because when we stop and look around us,
There’s nothing that we need
In a world of persecution that is whirling in its greed.
Why do we never get an answer when we are knocking on the door.
So sang the Moody Blues. There is no doubt that we live in a painful world
The pain brings an intellectual challenge. As the philosopher David Hume put it:
Were a stranger to drop suddenly into this world, I would show him as a specimen of its ills, a hospital full of diseases, a prison crowed with malefactors and debtors, a field strewn with carcases, a fleet floundering in the ocean, a nation languishing under tyranny, famine or pestilence. Honestly, I don’t see how you can possibly square with an ultimate purpose of love.
Emotionally the pain is very real. The agnostic turned Christian Sheldon Vanauken writes: ‘If only the villains got broken backs or cancers, if only cheaters and cooks got Parkinson’s disease, we should see a sort of celestial justice in the universe… but as it is, a sweet tempered child lies dying of a brain tumour, a happy young wife sees her husband and child killed before her eyes by a drunken driver; and… we soundlessly scream at the stars, ‘why? Why? A mention of God – of God’s will – doesn’t help a bit. How could a good God, a loving God, do that? How could he ever let it happen? And no answer comes from the indifferent stars.’
Suffering raises tough questions - some say life is meaningless.
“In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky and you wont find any rhyme or reason in it nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference … For Nature, heartless, witless Nature will neither know or care. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.” (Richard Dawkins, “River out of Eden”)
For some the presence of horrendous suffering in our world, in our experience, is the reason that God is rejected. God is rejected either as being trustworthy, or as existing at all. As one respondent to an article on God and love wrote:
'is this the god that allows between 7 and 10 children below the age of 12 to be killed every day in south africa alone. Every day, loving, benevolent, caring, all-powerful, all-seeing but doing nothing... Thank god he doesn't exist, because that would be cruel...'
Pain and suffering are a problem for everyone: whether an atheist or not
C.S. Lewis originally rejected the idea of God because of the cruelty of life, but came to realise that evil was an even greater problem for his atheism. Where do the notions of 'just' and 'unjust' come from? As he comments: 'I could have given up my idea of justice by saying it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too.'
Others have commented that if we have a God who is great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he hasn't stopped all the evil and suffering in the world, we also have a God who is great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that we cannot know.
Thus the problem of suffering, injustice, of evil and of pain is a problem for everyone. It is at least as big a problem for non-belief in God, as for belief. As G.K Chesterton put it: ‘When belief in God becomes difficult the tendency is to turn away from him but in heaven’s name to what?’
So where does a hurt, angry and suffering believer go?
The writers of the Bible do not run or hide from suffering. In many places they deal head on with the pain and intellecual challenges to a God of love and a world of suffering. Job, the prophet Habbakuk, and the Psalmist are three examples.
Here's an example from the openning verses of Habbakuk:
2 How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, "Violence!" but you do not save? 3 Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and conflict abounds. 4 Therefore the law is paralysed, and justice never prevails. The wicked hem in the righteous, so that justice is perverted.
The nature of God makes it a cause worth fighting
For the Bible writers engaging with the horrors of evil and suffering, the basis of their horror, the basis of their complaint - and indeed their value judgement, is the very fact they believe in an all powerful and loving God. Without that yardstick there is no case to be had. Without the existence of morality there is no complaint to be made. The moral outrage comes from the premise that this is not good: things should not be this way.
If the writers held that God had lost control - then there is no question to be answered.
If the writers held that God is partially evil - then there is no question to be answered.
It is preceisly that God is both soveriegn and loving that gives cause for their concern and complaint.
There is a cause to be fought with God. Perhaps this is why humanity has always found suffering such a moral, philosophical and existential challenge.
The Beginnings of an answer:
Some surprising responses from God
There are many ways that God responds, here are some:
· God certainly cares, but God is never apologetic, nor does he make excuses. Neither does God say that the only suffering is punishment for specific sins. In answering Job in the depth of his suffering God asserts his otherness. He is still in control. He is sovereign. He asks Job to reflect on the grandness of creation and consider whether he still believes he has the capacity and confidence to question Him.
· Human wickedness. When it comes to the prophet Habbakkuk there is neither an explanation of where evil comes from, nor any sense of God being out of control. The main thrust of the response here is a denunciation of sin. What is brought to the prophets attention is a catalogue of human evils, God's hatred of them, and consequent judgment.
· Certain Judgement. The main thrust of the Lord’s response to Habakkuk is that all evil will be punished. Justice will be done and be seen to be done. Things will not always be this way. The nightmare will end one day.
The Beginnings of an answer:
The most surprising response from God
He becomes one of us
The main response from God is not simply another word from another world - but a visit. Becoming one of us. Living on this pain filled planet - as one of us. When it comes to suffering the Christian response is truly amazing. God, far from being untouchable and inaccessible becomes one of us.
He dies a painful death
What people have seen as the most glorious aspect of God's response to suffering is the suffering and death of Jesus. His pain is at the very heart of the Christian faith. There is something surprising about Jesus suffering. He is not as composed as many heros are at their death. Where many others have gone painful deaths with great composure, Jesus goes to his agony in deep agony. Neither is his death the most physically painful death ever experienced. Where Jesus suffered the excuciating pain of a slow suffocating death, bleeding on a cross - others have gone through much greater physcial agony, and for longer.
A death like no other, for us
To understand the nature of what happened to Jesus we must remember how he enjoyed eternal intimacy with his father. John's gospel introduces us to the tri-personal God, and Jesus has been in this relationship of love from all eternity. There may be no greater agony for a human, than the agony of losing a relationship we desperately want. We know how painful a relationship break up is. We know how damaging it is if your spouse betrays you. Or when one of your parents betrays you when you are still a child. The damage can be horrendous. The closer the relationship and the longer the relationship has lasted - the more painful the break up. As humans our identity is founded in relationships and their demise strikes at our very heart.
What happens at the cross is the explained in these words by Tim Keller: 'Christian theology has always recognised that Jesus bore, as substitue in our place, the endless exclusion from God that the human race has merited.' It is why Jesus cries from the cross, 'My God, My God why have your forsaken me.' The physical pain was nothing compared to the cosmic abandonment. Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ. People who have consequently, often in suffering, turned to God - have found in Jesus Christ one who knows firsthand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement and torture. In his death, God suffers in love, identifying with the abandoned and godforsaken - and he does it with the purpose of restoration.
Death is not the final word
The Good News that then went viral is that death is not the end: Jesus rose from the dead. His mission was successful. His cause vindicated. His life was not in vain - our life need not be in vain. There is a future beyond the grave. A real future. A glorious future. It is what enabled Dostoevsky to write 'I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage.... something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonnement of all crimes of humanity, of all the blood they've shed; that it will make not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened.'
Disclaimer: All articles and letters published on MyNews24 have been independently written by members of News24's community. The views of users published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. News24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.