In preparing this, I have been very influenced by a paper, “When darkness covers the earth”, given by one of my teachers when I studied at King’s College London, Murray Rae.
Today I’m going to focus on human suffering. And I’m going to assume that for us as Christians, one of the key difficulties of suffering - apart from just the sheer business of getting through it ourselves or with others - is the questions it raises. I’m going to crystallise the problem as follows: if God is good, loving and all powerful, why do so many people suffer so much? What I found helpful in my teacher’s paper was that he pinpointed three beliefs underlying this question and examined ways in which people have tried to explain away the problem by denying one of these beliefs. Those three beliefs are: suffering is bad, God is good and loving and God is all-powerful.
I’ve found it helpful to visualise this as a stool: take away any one of the legs and you no longer have a useable stool. Take away any one of these beliefs and, although you still have to live with suffering, you no longer have the agonising questions about where God is in it all.
So let’s look at these three legs in turn, starting with the belief that God is good and loving. I understand from my Advanced Workshop students (http://workshop.org.uk/advanced) that there are Christians who question this - though I’m afraid that in a very unscholarly way I have forgotten all the details! Of course in the midst of suffering we may wonder just how loving God really is - and perhaps we wonder this also when we read parts of the Old Testament. But I think to remove this leg would be the least satisfying way of destabilising the stool because the faith it would leave us with would be so impoverished. I want to insist that God loves us and is on our side. So I’m not going to explore that “leg” further.
What about the next leg, the belief that suffering is evil?
Although this may not instantly appeal, when we stop to think we can probably come up with a number of ways in which people downplay the evil-ness of suffering.
One way might be a strong belief in providence, where God is in full control, so anything that happens is God’s will and even things that seem awful must have some good about them. For instance, Joni Eareckson came to terms with her paralysis after an accident by seeing it as part of God’s plan for her life and being grateful for the way it forced her to seek God in a way that she would not have done otherwise.
However, I think this view misses the fact that we are in a fallen world. For instance, we see violence all around us but do not as Anabaptists believe that just because it exists it must be God-ordained. So our theology of providence has, I think, to make room for the fact that not everything that happens is proved, just by the fact of happening, to be God’s will. And we need this belief that the world is not as God wants to give us a foothold from which to protest against injustice and the suffering which it causes, a point which has been made effectively by a number of liberation theologians. If things are as they are because God has willed it that way, then the rich can relax and enjoy their wealth and the poor had better learn to rejoice in the circumstances which God has chosen for them.
Another problem with insisting on God’s providential control of everything is that it can force us into all sorts of contortions. The philosopher and Christian Nicholas Wolterstorff lost his son in a climbing accident. Reading a book by someone who’d had a similar experience, he found this other father reflecting on Psalm 18:36 - “You gave me a wide place for my steps under me, and my feet did not slip” - and concluding that his son had indeed not slipped but that God had shaken the mountain because the son’s allotted days were completed. This may have been a comfort to that man but it came at the price of having to believe in a God who is happy to reach down to topple us to our deaths when “the time is right”. This is not the loving God I believe in.
However, I think we can say that whatever happens, God can bring some good out of and into the situation - and will lovingly do so. So while we don’t have to say that suffering is good we can, even in the darkest times, look with hope and trembling trust to the One who will never be at his wits’ end.
Others may see suffering as beneficial when it is punishment calling us to repentance - Calvin views disease and war in this way. Or perhaps suffering and struggle will be character-building. On a global scale, John Hick talks about the “soul-making” possible in our world that would not be possible for human pets living in a risk-free world of pleasure, and I do think there is something in this.
But if suffering is to be welcomed as punishment and correction or as a path to realising our full humanity, let’s think about how suffering is shared out. If we look at countries plagued by war and poverty, at women and children regularly beaten and abused by partners or fathers, or at workers exploited by ruthless factory owners, should we conclude that they are more in need of correction or character-formation than those of us whose lives are going well?
There’s another way of embracing suffering, a tradition which I believe is particularly Catholic and which teaches that our human suffering can be a way of sharing in the cross of Christ. I instinctively recoil from this, because I want to insist that suffering is bad and should be protested against and, where possible, alleviated. But I’ve been struck by a story told by Stanley Hauerwas of a friend from a Catholic background who had grown up with this tradition of redemptive suffering and later rejected it as abusive, only to feel cheated when she had to suffer prolonged sickness without it. At this point she returned to her earlier understanding and chose to see the way she dealt with suffering as her Christian calling, especially when she was unable to do other things which she might formerly have associated with that Christian calling.
So maybe we could choose to accept our own suffering and seek to learn with God how it could be in some way redemptive or life-giving for us. I’d want to insist that people be allowed to make this choice for themselves, without pressure from others, and that it would probably not be appropriate in situations of degrading suffering, such as systematic oppression or abuse. But maybe there could be a place for a community to support someone in that choice if they chose to take that path.
So what about the last leg of our stool? Could we dispense with the belief that God is all-powerful and solve the problem that way?
Process theology particularly challenges the idea of God’s omnipotence - the title of Charles Hartshorne’s book says it all: Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. In process theology, God does not have unlimited power or knowledge. Instead God and the world are in a mutual relationship where God empowers other beings but does not take power over them. This tips over the stool at one easy stroke - God is not omnipotent so God cannot be held responsible for suffering and evil in the world. The simplicity of this may be attractive, but again it’s a high price to pay because it seems that the overall witness of the bible does justify a belief in some degree of power for God.
I found this downplaying of God’s power particularly attractive when, at a time of great loss and distress, I prayed for months for God to change someone else’s mind - and that person’s mind remained firmly unchanged. And I think this “God can’t help it” approach had some truth in that particular situation, because God had chosen to leave that person free to decide what to do. However, the “free will defence” as it’s called, is a much weaker claim than that of process theology - and takes us back to John Hicks’ “soul-making”. If you had to design a world where people can have free relationships with each other and with God and can grow into “children of God”, then probably, after poring over thousands of blueprints, Hicks suggests, you would end up with a world much like this where there is freedom of choice, risk and, as a result, suffering. And if you accept this argument, you can at least explain that part of human suffering which is caused by other human beings.
Some versions of the free will defence are quite close to open theism, put forward by, for instance, Clark Pinnock and others in the book The Openness of God. Unlike the process theologians, they think that God could have been omnipotent but chose to accept some voluntary limitations on power and knowledge. So God has taken a risk, leaving some freedom to us the rest of creation. So there will be suffering which results from the freedom and openness of the universe in general, not from a particular decision on God’s part to permit - or even cause - it for any of the reasons we considered earlier.
Now, there is another way to come at this question of God’s power. It’s an approach that we find in open theism, in feminist theology and in Jürgen Moltmann to name just a few. That is to question what we mean by God’s power and in particular to question whether “omnipotence” is a helpful description. After all, though the bible is happy to talk about God’s power (and to use the title “Almighty”), it doesn’t use the concept of omnipotence as such which many, including the writers of the Openness of God, view as an import into Judaeo-Christian thought from Greek philosophy.
Writing on the Holocaust, Melissa Raphael, a Jewish feminist theologian, concludes that it was not “God-in-God’s-self, that failed Israel during the Holocaust” but rather “a patriarchal model of God”. For her, to think of God as controlling history in the same way as a patriarch might control his domain is misleading. I think there is some truth here. Though I want to hang on to some sense that God’s love will ultimately be strong enough to bring history to a good conclusion, I wonder if we sometimes confuse control and power. God can have power, I think, without having full control of every detail.
Think of the cross which Jürgen Moltmann and Eberhard Jüngel encourage us to see as the paradigm for the exercise of God’s power. When God wants to intervene powerfully in human history what we get is the frailty of a human Jesus who dies on the cross.
I wonder what you make of these attempts to remove the “stool” of our difficult question. Personally I guess I’m drawn to slightly weaken one leg by talking carefully about God’s power in a way that doesn’t make God responsible for every tiny detail of life or for every instance of suffering.
But there’s another question about these arguments. Would we be happy to rehearse them, as Irving Greenberg puts it, in “the presence of the burning children” of Auschwitz or within hearing, to draw on Moltmann and Jüngel, of the one crying out as he dies the cross ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Maybe, if we cannot kick away any of the legs of our stool or are too uncomfortable in the presence of real suffering to produce a neat and tidy answer, we will be left to live with the stool. Perhaps we will have to say with Michael Goldberg “there is only one fully truthful answer we can give as to why during the Holocaust such bad things happened to such good, God-revering people: We do not know.”
Wolterstorff, lamenting his dead son, puts it this way:
I cannot fit it all together by saying, ‘[God] did it,’ but neither can I do so by saying, ‘There was nothing [God] could do about it.’ I cannot fit it together at all. … I do not know why God did not prevent Eric's death. To live without the answer is precarious. It's hard to keep one's footing… I can do nothing else than endure in the face of this deepest and most painful of mysteries. I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and resurrecter of Jesus Christ. I also believe that my son's life was cut off in its prime. I cannot fit these pieces together. I am at a loss. I have read the theodicies produced to justify the ways of God to man. I find them unconvincing. … My wound is an unanswered question. The wounds of all humanity are an unanswered question.
If we can’t find a neat explanation of suffering, how can we live with the unanswered question and the stool still so solidly visible among us?
We can lament and protest as Job and many Psalms do and as we are doing today in our service.
We can try to prevent suffering by working for change and to alleviate suffering when it happens. Rowan Williams said after the tsunami “…the reaction of faith is or should be always one of passionate engagement with the lives that are left, a response that asks not for understanding but for ways of changing the situation in whatever – perhaps very small – ways that are open to us.” And perhaps part of our response to the “problem of evil” is to seek to be the kind of community which can campaign against injustice and support and advocate for those who are suffering.
And we can trust to the God who walks alongside us in our pain. Living with our questions is uncomfortable - but it’s what Job chooses despite his friends’ attempts to answer the questions neatly. Writing on Job, liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez says “God is a presence that leads amid darkness and pain, a hand that inspires confidence”. David Adams quotes a similar image: “as the rain hides the stars, as the autumn mists hide the hills, as the clouds veil the blue of the sky, so the dark happenings of my lot hide the shining of Thy face from me. Yet, if I may hold Thy hand in the darkness, it is enough.”
So I think we can find comfort in holding the hand of our loving God as we travel through the darkness of suffering. We may not know where the path is leading or understand why we have to walk this way, but we know that God goes with us and holds our hand.
And I suggest that we can also find comfort in trusting that God suffers along with those who suffer. In the Old Testament God is moved by the plight of individuals or people because he loves them and cares about them. Then in the life and death of Jesus God experiences human suffering close up. Faced with the problems of the world, seeing war and injustice and poverty and pain and illness, in the incarnation God gets stuck in, joins human beings in the mess of the world, lives and dies as a human. Theologian Colin Gunton preached at his little grandson’s funeral. He expressed grief but also certainty that this death was in some way ‘encompassed in, bracketed by the love’ of Jesus in whose death human agonies are ‘taken into the heart of God’.
In Jesus God joined us in the midst of the suffering and shared in it. God has experienced what it is to be human when everything is going wrong. In Wolterstorff’s words, “God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart.” Because of the cross, Moltmann says, ‘[t]here is no suffering which… is not God’s suffering’.
I’ve already said that the way God shows power is in the frailty of Jesus who dies on the cross. And this is also the way God shows his love, and does offer some kind of an answer to human suffering, though not in the sense of a tidy explanation. Not only have our pain and suffering entered God’s heart, but God has also entered our pain and suffering.
This is the reason I remain a Christian despite the big question of suffering. This is why for me the incarnation is so important. God has been powerless, at the mercy of events and of other people, has felt lonely and isolated as his friends were too scared to accompany him, has experienced pain and death. So those who suffer are in the company of God who has suffered too.
We may not be able to say why there is so much suffering in the world. But we can know that God is in it with us, holding our hand and understanding what it is like. In the cross Jesus not only demonstrated this supremely but also in some mysterious way began the process of redeeming our pain, overcoming suffering and preparing the way to a time and place where there will be no more pain and no more tears and where there will be healing for the nations - and for each of us.