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Faith >

God problems: Innocent suffering

How can God allow it? Jane Williams continues her reflections for Lent

WHEN JESUS goes into the wilderness to face God’s calling, he sets out on a road that will lead to suffering and death. All the Gospels are clear that he knew this, and that he knew it more and more surely as his mission led him towards Jerusalem.

All the Gospels demonstrate that no one else understood why this should be, and that the people closest to him frequently tried to dissuade him from this path. Matthew, Mark and Luke have the powerful description of Jesus praying in Gethsemane for his Father to find some other way — as though, even now, Jesus is walking this path in simple obedience, and not in full comprehension of why it is necessary.

Finally, Matthew and Mark have the cry of terrible despair from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In his suffering and death, Jesus has no added knowledge that is withheld from the rest of us. He faces it, as we do, as a challenge to his understanding of God.

Many of us believe, in our heart of hearts, that God’s main job is to keep us safe. God is our security blanket; and we are most tempted to anger and disbelief when he fails to comfort or protect. Why should we choose to trust in a God who treats us like this?

This is the classic question: how can a good God allow innocent suffering? It can be asked with noble, disinterested intensity, as when Dostoevsky berates God in The Brothers Karamazov, saying that if his creation of the world involved the suffering of even one innocent child, he should have chosen not to create.

Or it can be asked in the middle of personal anguish: “How can God bear that this should happen to my child/husband/sister?” If we, who are so much less ethically perfect than God is supposed to be, cannot bear it, how can the perfect God?

Instead of a theoretical “answer”, which could never actually be an answer, so long as suffering continues to exist, the Christian gospel offers us Jesus.

The first thing Jesus says to us is that God does not duck our questions. We claim that Jesus is the Son of God, the “image of the invisible God”, God incarnate. Yet, when he comes to share our life, he comes in vulnerability and failure, to suffer a horrible death.

God made the world with this terrible possibility, and, in the incarnation, he accepts in his own body the reality of the suffering he has permitted. He does not wipe it out, but lives it exactly as we do, and so brings his own creativity into it, and makes it a path to new creation.

Second, Jesus offers us, not an answer, but a way of living in the face of the question. Throughout his costly mission, Jesus says: “God is worth it.” Whether you believe in God or not, innocent people suffer. You can decide that, in that case, there is no meaning to life or death, or you can treat each person as a child of God, whose life and death are infinitely valuable.

What Jesus does, knowing that his death is approaching, is to go on talking about God, and demonstrating the love and power of God, although, paradoxically, that love and power will not save him from the cross. He refuses to give up on God, whatever God asks of him.

The end of that ferocious commitment to God is not the cross, but the resurrection. The resurrection does not undo the cross, but it does say, loud and clear, that if we follow Jesus, even if we feel like fools to do it, then our suffering will redeem not just us, but many others, too.

Jesus’s acceptance, in blind trust, of the will of the Father gives us the gift of the Spirit, the gift of the creative life of God, which we can share, as we walk Jesus’s path in the world.

Is that enough? It isn’t an answer, but it is a way of discipleship. It is a way of living that accepts fear, vulnerability, humiliation and suffering — not as signs of the absence of God, but as a time to demand that God be God.

Jesus comes in honesty to the Father and asks that the cup may be taken away from him; and we, too, must be honest with God, and pray for the safety we so long for. But we must learn to add “if it be your will”, too. Where that honesty is offered to God in trust, our loving Creator can bring resurrection life.

Lent task
READ Mark 15.25-39. Jesus has to endure not only pain, but also mockery and taunting. But, in the midst of it, he is still calling on God, putting God at the centre, even if it is in anguished questioning. Can you be honest enough to bring to God your painful questions, the ones to which you think there are no answers, and so are tempted not to face at all?

Take home with you from church a list of those who have asked for prayer in the face of illness or suffering, and pray for them every day this week.
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