As a spiritual man of faith, I am asked many times in many different types of situations; usually unfortunate ones, “ How could God let this happen? “ A devastating car accident, an unexpected death, a diagnosed terminal illness or recurring debilitating one, an unforeseen financial hardship and even personal crisis of faith. “ God is to be merciful, how could God permit this? “ The questions continue to echo. Some people might not have thought about God for months, maybe even years~ but now faced or crushed with suffering they cannot comprehend, they lash out at God in anger and disbelief. Still others attempt to barter with God; “Get me through this and I will do such and such.”
First and foremost, God in His mercy freely accepts our anger and frustration. God understands in our inability to deal with or control overwhelming suffering and hardships, God is there to embrace us. God is the silent companion who sits with us in sorrow, shoulders us in our pain and uplifts us to carry on. But we find ourselves being angry with God anyway. In our faith somehow, the question can remain unanswered.
It is important to understand that God does not cause pain and suffering to happen. Human beings are susceptible to illness, disease and death. Are glorious gift of free will unfortunately makes some people drive drunk, commit crimes and victimize others. In our inability to live in brotherhood, we cause war and injuries to others. When we grieve over these tragedies, it is God who grieves with us. Perhaps, more so.
God does use these events, to have us be more Christ-like. To embolden us to display our compassion and charity. In Chapter 9 of the Gospel of John, Jesus is asked why was a man born blind? What sin did he or his family commit that would warrant such a punishment. Jesus answers that no sin was committed, but “that the work of God might be displayed.” In other words, acts of human directed toward they who are less fortunate. Likewise Jesus relates the story of the collapse of the Tower of Siloam ( Luke 13 ) where many innocent Galileans were killed. “ Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this way? […] Do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no.” Jesus then commands us to not only repent; but to be good, compassionate and merciful. Because, you never know when the end is coming.
There are those so narrowly focused as to interpret unfortunate events, both in personal lives and globally, as somehow being an act of God as punishment. While this may have been the case in some Old Testament stories, these must be seen in context- God’s displeasure expressed to the Hebrew nation in matters of rebellion and discord. In his book, Theories of Illness, Dr. George Murdock; a medical anthropologist, surveyed more than 100 tribal cultures throughout the world. All but four; perceived illness, death and tragic events as a sign of God’s disapproval. We would look foolish if we held to those standards today. Sadly, there are evangelists and religions that do. In his book, Where is God when it Hurts, renowned Christian author Philip Yancey submits this interesting perspective: “There are to great errors. The first error when we attribute all suffering to God, as punishment for human mistakes and the second error assumes that life with God will never include suffering.”
God became human, not only to demonstrate to us His Word through the teachings and acts of Jesus; but also that God might experience His creation. So that God might understand what it is to be human. We find this rooted in the actual word of Sympathy- a combination of two Greek words Sym and Pathos, which means suffer with. In such, Christ teaches us God’s most important lesson- to trust in God. For as faithful as Jesus was, even Christ asked that his impending fate be removed from him and Jesus felt forsaken by God when held upon the Cross. Christ had these personal feelings and knows in time of adversity we would have them too.
This again is the ultimate gift of free will. If the world operated on fair fixed rules and there were no true freedoms, this would be of detriment to both God and we His children. God would not know if we loved God for being God. We would expect every sin earn a punishment and every good deed, a reward. Our lives and souls would not be challenged, would not grow. There would be no fruits of a growing soul; no courage, kindness, generosity or love. Whatever rewards we did obtain would be worthless, because they were anticipated and not achieved.
Earlier I mentioned those who sought to negotiate with God for a solution to their suffering. Can any relationship that is built on love, endure an atmosphere of negotiation rather than trust? Even in scripture very few had personal encounters with God, like Moses or Job. Most people of faith then and even now, approach a “hidden” God in prayer. We seek to understand God and that is a gift which gives God pleasure. True, God could step in at any moment but more often choses to remain a parent- arms outstretched beckoning us to walk forward and picking us up and dusting us off when we fall. God of course; does intercede through his mercy of friends, doctors, clergy and the charitable. We must make of ourselves to be those.
I entitled this article Life in the Fish Bowl, so I could relate a most appropriate story that sums up how we must look at God in our suffering while at the same time peak your curiosity. The Jesus I Never Knew, again another book by Philip Yancey tells of his personal observation from owning a tropical salt water fish tank. Mr. Yancey had to maintain the tank; keep the chemical in the water balanced, change the filter, the appropriate levels of ultraviolet light the tropical fish needed as well as vitamins and such. Twice daily her would approach the fish tank to feed the fish. Did they circle in delight knowing it was feeding time? No, they swam hurriedly to the bottom to hide beneath rocks and plants. The fish never expressed gratitude for all that he supplied, only fear at his presence. To the fish, Philip relates, he was a deity.
So it would be with us. Can any of us imagine God miraculously appearing to right all the wrongs and end all the suffering? Would we believe God? Those of us who did not run away in fear of this even happening would probably remain behind and question God. Like the old movie with George Burns and John Denver, Oh God. God appears and is placed on trial. Even after he satisfies the questions they had for him, there is still doubt in many that he was even God. It comes down to faith. Have faith that God will overcome. God does not bring sadness and misfortune into our lives, but God is there for us.
“ I am the one who sits in sorrow. I am the one who feels your pain. I am the hope of your tomorrow. When all is lost, I still remain. I am the silence and the sound. The gentle rain the breaks the stone. I am the dream of love unbound, I am the one who calls you home. “ [ I Am the One by Miriam Winter and Janis Ian. ]
“ Come to me all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. For I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. “ Matthew 11:28-30
Father Wolf is a retired police officer in New Jersey, the pastor of St. Aelred’s Parish, and an Assisting Priest at Saint Miriam Parish and Friary in the Old Catholic Churches International.