Where is God amid the suffering?

Savi Hensman
By Savi Hensman
14 Apr 2011

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
(Psalm 10.1)

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

(Psalm 13.1)

Through the centuries, many have made similar anguished pleas. For those of us who are Christians, belief in a God who is both omnipotent and ever-merciful may be tested by the reality of human suffering, especially when it touches our own lives at the deepest level.

When my life-partner was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer earlier this year, it came as a shock. Treatment was attempted to prolong her life, but it had devastating effects, and it became apparent that the disease had advanced even further than previously thought. Despite the best efforts of doctors, and many people’s heartfelt prayers, two months later she was dead.

She was a Buddhist, with friends of various faiths and none. I know Christians too who have been struck down with terminal cancer or heart disease in the prime of life – it can happen to anyone, whatever their religion. Even for older people who have led fulfilling lives, the gradual loss of physical and sometimes mental abilities in their latter years can be distressing to experience or watch. This is not to say that prayer never changes the course of disease, but it does not guarantee recovery.

Meanwhile, in Japan and elsewhere, tragedy was taking place on a much bigger scale, leaving families and communities devastated.

Some suffering is clearly the result of human folly and greed, such as the high number of infants dying throughout the world through lack of food and clean water, and the horrors of war. However nature too takes its toll, from earthquakes and floods to diseases for which no cure has yet been found. These factors are sometimes combined, for instance when the effects of illnesses and natural disasters are made worse by profiteering and the gross imbalances of wealth and power in this world.

Some harm is indeed self-inflicted (yet even then there may be complex underlying causes). However what people undergo often seems unrelated to anything they have done.

This prompts the question: if there is a loving God, why is our world like this?

Power and goodness

Many have tried to answer this question, some I think more convincingly than others. Certainly, as some writers have pointed out, simplistic notions of a God who instantly rewards the good and punishes the bad are confronted directly in the book of Job in the Hebrew Bible. (A similar worldview can be found in other traditions, such as the teachings of a certain New Age writer that people can rid themselves of all ills through a positive outlook.)

I am also not persuaded by the notion some people hold that all that happens is God’s will and is really for the best, even if people cannot recognise this at the time. When growth takes place there is inevitably a loss of what went before, and death is an unavoidable part of the cycle of life. Accepting this, instead of trying to freeze a particular moment in time and halt all change, can benefit self and others. Yet this does not explain away the depth of suffering that some people undergo. The slow death of just one child through AIDS without treatment or care, or of a political prisoner under torture, calls into question the idea that things are as they should be.

Letting go of such approaches is not a matter of replacing a ‘primitive’ view of God and the cosmos with a more ‘modern’ one. While views of God and the universe varied among biblical authors, their approach was often more complex than that of some later Christians (and indeed of certain opponents of Christianity). Ancient tradition, too, has valuable insights to offer.

It seems to me that many books of the Bible hold in tension the concept of trust in a God who cares for us personally with recognition of how precarious health, happiness and life are. Ultimately, good will triumph over evil, and the universe will be as God wills it – but until then, we frail mortals may encounter chaos, confusion and sorrow as well as experiencing love and joy.

I believe the Gospel version of the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6.9-13) conveys that balance. It is based on the view of God as a loving Father, and one who can answer prayer. Yet God’s realm is yet to be fully achieved, the divine will done, on earth, and people may not even be certain that they can afford to eat (as well as receive the spiritual sustenance they need) tomorrow.

Those who pray are invited to travel into the unknown in company with the Holy One, like the ancient Israelites living off manna in the desert as they journey towards a land of abundance and justice. Echoing the call to release the indebted poor in society, those on this path are invited to offer and receive forgiveness. The prayer ends with a plea to be spared from the time of testing or trial, and delivered from the evil one (or evil).

A similar tension is reflected in this Gospel overall, I think. For instance, in Matthew chapter 6, Christ’s followers are urged not to worry about what they will eat or drink or wear, but rather consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. Instead they should strive for God’s realm and righteousness, and their other needs will be met. In the next chapter, he assures them that “everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?”

But in Matthew 24 he warns the disciples that they will face torture and death, and that “many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another.” In the garden of Gethsemane in chapter 26, he himself pleads with God, “‘My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want”; but he is not spared.

The following chapter describes how, on the cross, he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a quote from Psalm 22, which touches the depths of anguish and defeat, even death, yet paradoxically ends in victory.

Perhaps, at times, the church has found such an approach too disconcerting. Often during worship, an ending along the following lines is added to the Lord’s Prayer:

For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and for ever.
Amen.

This is an ancient addition. For early Christians facing persecution, it might have been comforting to be reminded that their oppressors were not as powerful as they thought, and that ultimately there was a greater authority who would ensure that good triumphed. But when mainstream churches allied themselves with worldly rulers, it had a different significance. In some contexts it might even have had the effect of watering down the potentially subversive and disturbing aspects of the prayer, and giving the impression that God was a more powerful version of an earthly king.

Some denominations do not use these extra words, while in others they are routinely uttered and seldom thought about in depth. But if God really does hold all the power, the extent of human (and even animal) suffering becomes all the more problematic.

The absence and presence of God

Yet the predominant biblical testimony surely makes it clear that the world, and universe, are not yet as they should be, and not simply because not everyone is submissive enough to an almighty being who micro-manages the cosmos. And worship often involves the cross, symbol of God’s entry into our world and willingness to be vulnerable, even to the point of extreme suffering, weakness and mortality.

In Holy Communion, Christians are invited to accompany Jesus as he holds fast to the way of love amidst betrayal, apparent failure and death: not even a peaceful death but rather a brutal public execution. Yet ultimately compassion and justice prevail, and the tomb lies empty.

This does not answer the question of how God can be both almighty and entirely good. It would appear that God’s power is not fully exercised in the current age, perhaps by the wish not to become a cosmic puppet-master overriding choice and freedom for humans and other living beings. In addition, while ancient concepts of a world locked in a struggle between good and evil can play into a superstitious outlook, modern theologians such as Walter Wink have made interesting use of the concept of ‘principalities and powers’ (see e.g. Ephesians 6.12). Perhaps we do live in a universe where conflict occurs at an invisible as well as visible level.

I do not have all the answers. Yet I am convinced that only a God who meets us in our vulnerability, not gazing loftily down on humankind and indifferent to suffering, is worthy of allegiance. Where the church appears to promise believers a smooth journey guaranteed by a powerful protector, its message may appear superficially attractive. But sooner or later reality may break through, leaving people feeling abandoned and let down, in contrast to entering into fellowship with Christ crucified.

During the last few weeks, as cancer destroyed the body of the woman with whom I had shared the past twenty-four years, it sometimes felt to me as if God were absent. At other times, however, God seemed vividly present, most of all in people. Love transfigured the friends and relatives who spent hours by her bedside despite their own distress and fatigue – Buddhists, Christians, pagans, atheists. Love also illuminated my dying partner, so deeply concerned for those she was leaving behind, and wisdom guided her as she came to terms with what was happening and embarked on her final journey.

Others in turn made this possible – my workmates, who took on extra tasks to free me to spend time with her, and the many people who sent cards or messages of goodwill or in other ways showed their support for her, and those closest to her.

God was also at work I believe in the nurses and doctors who, though overworked and under-resourced, strove to care for her while she was in the hospital, the hospice staff whose skill and kindness made her generally pain-free and comfortable in the final days, and the researchers, administrators and others who have achieved remarkable results in the field of palliative care.

And somehow I was sustained far beyond my usual limits, able to keep going day and night when ordinarily I would have been too drained to continue. I was I think kept afloat in part by a sea of prayer.

The First Letter of John in the Bible suggests that “love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” and “if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us”. And according to a hymn often used on Maundy Thursday, when Jesus’ last supper is remembered, “Where charity and love are, God is there.”

This is not to say that God only operates at a private level: in recent months too, a tide of freedom has been sweeping through the Middle East and North Africa, bringing about changes for which I and many others had not even dared to hope. There is a tendency perhaps to underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit.

However starting from an emphasis on God’s might, rather than goodness, may ultimately fail to do justice to the divine power to transform even the most apparently hopeless situations, bringing peace and healing where there is suffering and death.

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© Savitri Hensman works in community care and equalities. She is a long-standing and respected writer and commentator on Christian social action and theology, as well as an Ekklesia associate.

All at Ekklesia wish to send our condolences, love and prayers to Savi on her personal loss – as well as our thanks for this moving reflection.

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