God and Suffering
God and Suffering.
It dawned on me on New Year’s Eve that not everyone was celebrating. I think it happened sometime between the New Year’s fireworks displays in Sydney, Australia and Hong Kong and the ball drop in Times Square. Underneath the veneer of the night’s merriment lay a morass of human pain and agony. All sorts of people faced the eternal conundrum of God and suffering. Some people could raise above it momentarily and join the party. Others could only gaze upon the gala affairs from a far.
I must confess that I wasn’t think about the 795 million people in the world who are starving, nor the people in war torn parts of the world. The survivors of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and wildfires didn’t cross my mind either. My friends and members of my congregation were the ones on my mind. 2016 hadn’t been a good year for them and it looked like their suffering was going to spill over into 2017.
I couldn’t count the number of times when I assured my friends and congregation that I would pray for them. There were also the multitude of times when I prayed with them—seeking an answer to our prayers and an end to their torment. As the weeks and months rolled on, however, prayer started to feel so inadequate. I wanted to say something more than, “I’ll pray for you,” and do something more than pray with them. For all intents and purposes, I was ill equipped to deal with the real life issue of God and suffering.
God and Suffering and Promises
Entering into 2017, I know one thing I won’t do. I’m not going to quote Biblical promises and cling to them like they’re our last hope. You know the ones:
- “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7).
- “If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:14).
- “Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:19), and others like them.
All too often, people cling to these words like they are unconditional, binding contracts. If they don’t get an answer to their prayers, they wave it before God’s face and almost threaten to charge God with breach of contract. To me, these verses and others are encouragements to pray and assurances that God hears our prayers. I like how St. Paul phrases it, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). The “do not worry” part may be a little difficult at times, but the invitation to make our needs known to God is always there.
God and Suffering and Presence
In addition to prayer, a conversation on God’s presence might be helpful. Quite often in the middle of feeling miserable and facing what appears to be hopeless situations, the idea of God’s presences seems ludicrous. We become so fixated on our problem that we cannot see anything else. Several times in the Scripture, though, God assures us of God’s steadfast love and presence in our lives:
- “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
- “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20), and my favorite,
- “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
From the context of these verses, we can’t claim that God is on our side and we’re going to win. The Matthew and Romans passages were address to early Christians who did not necessarily escape persecution. The Exiles, who were the audience for Isaiah’s words, still went through the torturous times of their captivity in Babylon. God’s presence is a comforting presence, from which no power in the universe can separate us. God’s presence gives us an inner strength, the light of hope and a peace that passes understanding (Philippians 4:7).
We are not capable of comprehending the relationship between God and suffering. A satisfactory answer to why a loving God allows suffering has not been found. In the middle of our uncertainty, though, we can proclaim the truth and cling to the truth that God is present.
God and Suffering and Me
Many remain unconvinced of God’s presence, when they are overwhelmed with pain that’s off the charts or fear that they may lose everything, will . Like the disciple Thomas, they won’t believe until they see and touch God’s presence. That’s where we come in.
We can do more than assure our prayers for those who struggle. There is more to be done than simply praying with them. We can assert God’s presence and we can be God’s presence. This is where the community of believers comes in—that’s you and me.
- We can spend time with those who suffer—not a distant presence, but actually share their suffering with them.
- Shedding tears with them can become an unexpected privilege. While the tears run down our cheeks, we can anticipate a time when we will be able to laugh with them.
- The marvels of modern communication, enable us to minister to those who are suffering even though we may be geographically distant. We can still be with those to whom we are called to minister through phone calls, Skyping and texting.
- We can offer gifts of love that range from flowers and chocolate to video games and DVD’s.
Confronting God and suffering does not leave us hopeless or powerless. We are able to proclaim the good news and be the good news. We can bear each other’s burdens and together celebrate the gift of life.