Where is God now when we suffer? I have been reading some Bible commentary to see what are the Biblical views of suffering and the answers were surprising. There is a lot of talk of “we suffer because we are sinful.” We have done something wrong to deserve to be punished. The God of the Old Testament sure thought so. He compared his people to a whore and wiped out whole families and cities because his children were disobedient. In the book of Job, God inflicts pain and suffering but won’t say why. I find it hard to identify with a God who would beat, wound, torture and kill people and then refuse to explain himself just because he could. Some people say that God is a mystery and we can’t or don’t need to understand. He abuses us and we are supposed to love and obey him unconditionally. If that were a child in my school, we’d have called child protection services.
Quite frankly, I always found the God of the Old Testament to be a bit of a dick .I have been told before many times by well meaning Christians that my husband got cancer 15 years ago because he must have done something to deserve it. A lack of faith or some other transgression. I can’t believe in a God who randomly picks people off for his pleasure. But then I think about all the suffering people in places where there are crippling droughts or floods or famines . What did they do to deserve it? I once had someone tell me it is because they don’t know Jesus as their saviour and God is punishing them for their lack of faith. That’s bollocks. I’m sorry--for a talk about God there seems to be lots of swearing going on. But I feel that strongly.
I do sometimes think that perhaps God is punishing the wrong people. It is the western world’s decadence and waste that is causing the ozone layer to disappear and furthering Global Warming which in turn affects the poorest populations with drought, disease and famine. They are punished vicariously by our wastefulness. Is it God who is punishing them for our foibles or is it Nature? And why do THEY suffer when WE are at fault?
Some people believe that suffering is because “we have free will.” God does not always protect us from our own or other’s mistakes. (see above: Global warming causing drought and famine) God gives people the freedom to smoke cigarettes, eat fatty foods, and overindulge in sweet treats. Then people are angry when they get lung cancer or diabetes or heart disease and blame God. But a lifestyle freely chosen that increases your chance of getting one of these illnesses is not God’s fault. You are suffering because you chose to have that third Big Mac. But what about people like my Mother-In-Law who died of lung cancer and never smoked a day in her life? How do we reconcile that with the idea of “they were sinners and got what they deserved?” God gives people the freedom to drink and drive. If that drunk driver kills my loved one are they being punished for the sin of choosing something harmful? Why then am I punished? And what am I going to do about it?
Some people think that suffering is blessing to draw us closer to God. Or those who are chosen to suffer something really horrific it is because God is testing them. If that is the test, I am not sure I want to take part. I do think suffering can draw us closer to God. Sometimes all we have is him. When Spiderman had cancer we had been married for 4 years and I was seriously looking at the possibility of widowhood at age 27. I was absolutely paralysed with grief and fear and sometimes God was the only thing holding me up. But I recall not being able to say the Lord’s Prayer. The words “Thy will be done” stuck in my throat like a fishbone. If I said them it was like giving God permission to let him die. To paraphrase The Muppet’s Christmas Carol: And Spiderman? Who did NOT die! Gee, that’s swell! He survived and the disease really changed our relationship. Our marriage grew stronger and suddenly it was abundantly clear to not sweat the small stuff. Little things were not worth stressing about. To spend every day deeply in love as if it was our last. And then a few years later when my beloved father got brain cancer, the experience with Spiderman gave me strength to help my father die with dignity. Without the suffering I would never have been able to cope with the death of my father and I would not have had the strength to support my mother. And since that time I have been able to be compassionate and help others who have suffered with cancer and give them hope. I was very lucky to befriend a young girl who spent 2 years fighting bone cancer and finally died at the age of 15. She was able to talk honestly about her illness and her fears--not of dying but of the profound grief of her mother and the pressure she felt to hold on for her sake. She enriched my life deeply as I hope I enriched hers.
I genuinely still don’t know why there is so much suffering in the world. Some things I think we cause like famine and drought and tsunamis and floods due to our output of greenhouse gasses. Some things I think we could prevent like that clearly mentally ill man who needed help and instead was sold a gun and shot that congresswoman and several bystanders. Sometimes we turn a blind eye because it is easier. Some things just seem so random. But does God turn a blind eye? If he does not CAUSE these things to happen or PREVENT them from happening---then what is his role in all this?
Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life. Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we learn. Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgment. Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened. God does not depend on human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved. Suffering can either destroy us, or it can add meaning to our life. Seeing Gray in a World of Black & White by Rev. Adam Hamilton
Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Rabbi Harold Kushner says:
We too need to get over the questions that focus on the past and on the pain--"why did this happen to me?"--and ask instead the question which opens doors to the future: "Now that this has happened, what shall I do about it?"
Will I use my suffering experience to empathise with people? Will I help relieve the suffering of others as much as I can? Will I work hard to reduce my carbon footprint and educate others on doing the same so that we may halt Global Warming and save the planet from destruction?
What else can I do? What will you do?