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Sunday
Sep162001

How Can God Permit Suffering?

[Beliefnet, September 16, 2001]

When it hits home, we reel back. Thoughts explode in confusion: I trusted God, where is he? If he’s all-powerful, why didn’t he stop it? Maybe he doesn’t love us. Maybe he is punishing us. Maybe he is weak. Are we really so alone and endangered? Can we not trust him? Are we so terrifyingly alone?

Suffering on this scale is new to us. But it is not new to the weary human race, and countless men and women before us have tried to understand God’s presence in times of horror. Awhile back my son Stephen was assigned to read Psalm 38 in church. For some reason I really heard the words that morning, instead of just watching them go by in churchy routine. I heard the fresh teenaged voice of my dear son reciting words of abject pain: "My wounds stink and are corrupt…There is no soundness in my flesh. I am feeble and sore broken…My heart panteth, my strength faileth me."

Oh, not my son, Lord, please, let it never be my son, I prayed. But it was somebody’s child who wrote this. It has to be somebody it happens to.

"As for the light of mine eyes, it is also gone from me. My lovers and friends stand aloof from my sore…I am ready to halt, and my sorrow is continually before me." Oh Lord, not my son, please. This is the pain of loving someone, knowing that your child, parent, or mate could be hurt someday, crying out words like these, and you would not be able to fix it.

It’s the big stupid, stupid prize question of all spiritual life, how can bad things happen to good people, and no matter how many words are poured over it the problem remains, mocking us: good people still get clobbered by bad things. This, finally, is the problem. We don’t want so much to know *why* it happens as to know how to stop it from happening, as if understanding what triggers such catastrophe might help us avoid it. Our quest is for prevention, yet the cruel centuries keep rolling and no one’s yet found a way to prevent it.

The term for this, the "problem of evil," is "theodicy" and the alternatives have been cleverly summarized: "Either God is God and he is not good, or God is good and he is not God." That is, either God is not all-loving in the way we think, and tolerates our pain because his goals don’t require our happiness—or God suffers with us helplessly but is unable to stop our suffering, is not all-powerful. Neither alternative works. A God who is not good would violate the definition, and violate what we know of his overwhelming goodness running through most of our lives. A God who is not all-powerful would likewise void the meaning of the word. The retired Episcopal bishop of South Carolina, Fitzsimmons Allison, explained that accepting this confounding mystery is the only way to resolve it: "I’ve got the ‚AoI don’t know’ theodicy. God is God, and God is good, and I don’t know."

Many attempts have been made through the ages to hammer out the dilemma. Maybe it is the devil wreaking his anger on the faithful. Maybe it is random effects from the initial fall of Adam and Eve, which sent a wave of disorder rolling obliviously forward through time. Maybe God won’t stop bad people from hurting others, because then he’d have to stop everyone from doing even small bad things, and human history would become mere puppetry.

A world of free creatures requires the possibility that they will freely choose evil. Since the flood of Noah, God has declined to fix things by wiping out all the troublemakers. The only solution that remains is for each of us to realize that we are ourselves junior troublemakers to one extent or another, and do our part to clean up our own corners.

This is why Jesus was always telling people to repent. He gave no other explanation of suffering. When an atrocity was reported to him‚Aiworshippers murdered in the Temple itself—he rejected the idea that they suffered this because they were worse sinners than anyone else. Yet he concluded, "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." This is a hard word, one that doesn’t get preached on very often, nor written up in curly script on Bible refrigerator magnets.

We keep asking why, but we don’t need to know why something happened; we can’t use that knowledge to go back in time and stop it. And the terrifying truth is that we can’t gather enough clues to know how to prevent it happening next time. That’s our real reason for so desperately asking why; we hope to gather enough clues to be able to protect ourselves from suffering again. But God does not give us such power. He reserves it to himself and challenges us to trust in him. At times like this, that trust is very hard.

Theodicy nettles us, but the bottom line is that it’s irrelevant. The only useful question in such a time is not, "Why?" but "What next?" What should I do next? What should be my response to this ugly event? How can I bring the best out of it? How can God bring Resurrection out of it?

That is, of course, what he did when his own Son was bleeding and crying out to him.in agony. He did not prevent the suffering and did not cut it short, but he completed it with Resurrection.

If this is true, it changes everything; if it is not true, Christians are pathetic fools, because it is on this that we have staked all our hopes. "If Christ is not raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins… If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (I Corinthians 15:17, 19).

So, there you are. All we can do is persevere and trust, that if Jesus was raised we too will be raised, and all our suffering will be made right. All we can do is cast ourselves more completely into the arms of God. Stephen concludes the psalm, repeating three times a cry of trust that I hope he would make at such an awful time: "Forsake me not, O Lord: O my God, be not far from me. Make haste to help me, O Lord of my salvation."

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