I wanted to write about a difficult topic. I am not a theologian, not particularly academic, just me – mum of three and wife of one. So please excuse my clumsiness in writing this! However, this subject is important for all of us, whoever we are. Where is God in our suffering? And there is suffering and pain in all of our lives. Whether you live in a deprived urban area or a leafy village, you will find that the lives of the people around you are affected by suffering in some way or other. We all have a story we could share.
Recently in our village communities, there seems to have been some incredibly hard and painful situations unfolding in our friends lives, in our churches, school and wider community. I have overheard and been involved in conversations where people have stood shaking their heads in disbelief at the news and asking: ‘Why? Why would this happen?’
It interests me that in times of extreme suffering people who would say that they were not Christians or regular churchgoers ask: ‘Why would God do this?’ Some start to pray, or go to church. People get in touch with the Vicar. When big disasters happen it is not unusual for a Vicar to be interviewed on T.V or coverage of church services to be shown live.
On the other hand, it puzzles me that someone who would say they were an Atheist believing that there is no God or divine creation, might be surprised in the face of suffering…why would they stop to wonder why life is so unfair? Surely if they believe that life is a series of chance happenings, there is little point in feeling ‘put out’ or asking the question ‘why?’
I think it must be to do with hope. When all is lost, when everything that once held meaning feels empty, what do we do? We try to survive, we look for hope, for love and support. As a Christian I have often thought, asked and studied this question of ‘Why suffering?’ and ‘Where is God in suffering?’ and I have found it a great help to read these two books by Philip Yancy. The first is called ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ and the second ‘The Question That Never Goes Away’. He explains some of his own experience of suffering and the things he learnt in trying to help others affected by the Sandy Hook School shootings and the Boston Marathon bomb. Yancy looks to the Bible for both explanation and guidance. The books are easy to read and totally relevant.
In ‘The Question…’ Yancy’s view is that the Bible frustratingly does not answer the Why question even though the question is asked throughout the Bible by Job, Gideon, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, many authors of the Psalms and by Jesus himself. Instead God seems to direct us towards helping the person in need. i.e.:
“Could there be a hidden advantage to the Bible’s evading the Why question? Knowing the answer shifts attention from the one suffering to the circumstances that caused it and the process does little to help the person in need.”
“Virtually every passage on suffering in the New Testament deflects the emphasis from cause to response.”
I don’t believe that suffering is punishment or God’s wrath, if I did then I would have trouble being a Christian, as at the core of our faith we believe that Jesus died on the cross to take the penalty! But, I do wonder why God does not intervene or prevent things happening. As Christians we believe that God has given us freewill, the right to choose for ourselves. That means everyone choosing for themselves, all of the time, all over the world. Every choice has consequences, some are good and some are bad. We live in a messy world, we don’t look after it in the way we should and as a result our world is not healthy and neither are we. This is pictured in Genesis where we see Adam and Eve making the original bad choice. Freewill comes at a price, sometimes I don’t like freewill.
So where does that leave us? My only option is going back to the Bible where God demonstrates not an endless search for the answer to why, but instead reminds us of the one who did suffer, and is suffering in caring for us and repeatedly promises us that we are not alone. In the Bible we are assured that God is with us, that if we are in pain God feels it too, that he stands with us. It is not much help to say to someone in pain ‘Why has this happened?’ It does not make them feel any better. Although it may be useful to prevent another situation, it does not relieve their present suffering. Instead I wonder if we should ask the question ‘Where am I in that persons suffering?’ To consider how we can respond to a friend’s suffering. Can we stand shoulder to shoulder with them, walk with them through the tough stuff. I don’t think you need to fix a person’s situation to be a good friend, just make your priority being there, with them. The Bible asks us to carry out God’s work on earth, to be a physical demonstration of how God loves every person and his creation.
We as Christians can direct people to a God who will walk with them through the darkness, holding their hand, until there is light… to bring hope.