There can be few people around the world who have not been deeply touched by the plight of the victims of the earthquake in Haiti. And, as a consequence, the old question has arisen – ‘How could God allow such suffering?’
SUFFERING AND A GOD OF LOVE
The fact of all human suffering when magnified to the scale that we see on our TV screens each night moves us to experience a range of feelings – compassion, revulsion, horror, sympathy and so on. How could a God of love allow such a dreadful thing to happen? And, it seems to me, the answer can only be that God has no option. True, there can be miracles: there are occasions when it seems there has been a miraculous intervention to avert tragedy or to save someone from disaster.
But the problem is, as far as I can tell, that if we accept that freedom lies at the heart of what it means to be human – indeed, what it means to be alive – than any intervention in the consequences of that freedom negates the principle. Therefore it must be true that our freedom comes at a cost. God cannot dictate to us or control us. That is the essence of love. But we affirm that God doesn’t stand aside and simply let things happen. He is also involved.
Of all the monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, our faith alone affirms that God entered into our humanity. That is what we celebrate each Christmas – the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. So God in Christ shares in the lot of humankind and, as we believe, that involved experiencing suffering and death, which is what we meditate on and proclaim each Passiontide. God loved us so much he could do no other. That is the mystery of our faith and anathema to others. In the face of suffering we do not say – ‘it is the will of God’ for God does not ‘will’ that anyone suffers. We can only say that suffering lies in the will of God – it has its place. But God could never will that an individual suffers and whatever stories seem to contradict that statement (e.g. the sufferings of Job) must be viewed as the fact that God, at times allows suffering to happen. But, in terms of suffering within the scriptures, we always need to look at the reason why.
SUFFERING AND CREATION
The fact is we live in a world which constantly suffers. That is part of the human condition. Indeed, it is part of the condition of the whole of creation. Creation, as St. Paul reminded us, is constantly groaning and struggling “as in the pains of childbirth” (Roms. 8: 18ff). Why?
Our world is constantly growing and changing. The very aspects of nature that move us – clouds and tides, mountains and oceans – exist because creation is in movement. Our world is alive! Tectonic plates shift because creation is not static. It is in flux. And the tragedy and glory we experience is a consequence of our world being alive.
Just think for a moment what the world would be like if that were not so. If there were not glory or tragedy. What range of feelings and emotions would we be denied if we did not experience these and how our humanity would be affected if all were static and lifeless. For to be alive does involve change and, as most of us realise, that can be a painful process. I do not know what it is like to be a woman, but I wonder what effect it would have on us if childbirth were painless? How might I experience those profound qualities of compassion and empathy? How would we know true that depth of love which finds its expression when the one we love suffers? To be fully alive means we need, somehow, to integrate pain and sorrow, joy and health. As has been pointed out, healing is not about the elimination of pain but how we live with and through it.
I am deeply moved by the consequences of that earthquake in Haiti. By tsunami’s and floods, droughts and eruptions. I stand in awe of the way nature cannot be overcome but needs to express its life. For every mighty crashing wave means there is the potential for death. I also stand in awe of the way in which we never quite learn. After the Great Earthquake in San Francisco in 1906 the city was rebuilt, and its inhabitants wait. We are tied to the earth as it is at one with us. All of us, human and beast, animate and inanimate objects, are part of this amazing, frightening, marvellous and terrifying world. We are part of creation and within each of us lies those same forces of creation and destruction. I cannot give any answer to why God allows suffering. But, fearfully, I sense it has its part to play.
Christiansneed to reflect upon the way we are called to grow more fully into our humanity. To realise that pain and suffering have their place within the human – and creative – condition. And to realise that our Creator God holds within divinity those forces which can also destroy. And, just as God had to ‘learn’ how to integrate those forces, we also need to learn how to integrate them.