Where is God Now?
#WhoHearsPrayersforOklahoma? This was the title for an article posted on CNN on 05/21/2013, in reference to the F5 tornado that ravaged the town, leaving 24 dead, and many more wounded. Our heart always breaks at a tragedy of such magnitude, and we would be lying to ourselves if we said that we did not ask this question in our hearts at times: Where is God in the midst of such tragedy? How can we even believe in his existence in the face of such a loss of innocent life? I remember having a conversation with a friend of mine a year or so ago concerning this very issue. He had grown up with me in the church, but somewhere along the road had lost his faith in the existence of God. During a long pause in the conversation, he turned and said to me: “I left because I couldn’t swallow a God who would allow me to suffer, and condone such suffering the world around me.” This is indeed a tough question to face; after all, we have all entertained the thought, if we are honest with ourselves. Most atheists will stake their claim of proof in the idea that suffering and pain implies the non-existence of God, or at least the non-existence of a good God, and that therefore invalidates the Christian message. For instance, in response to the hashtag at the beginning of this paragraph, Ricky Gervais responded: “Oh, I’m sorry….I just sent money.” He then tweeted the hashtag #ActuallyDoSomethingForOklahoma. Peter Tongue, a random Facebook commenter on the story, stated: “If prayer works, there wouldn’t be a disaster like this in the first place…please keep your religion to yourself.”
However, I do believe, in reading through the anger of atheists and agnostics (and even many Christians) that the above “proof-claim” is nothing more than a red-herring, leading away from the underlying issue, the real question being asked: How can we reconcile God’s goodness and the validity of the Christian message with the reality of pain and suffering in the world around us? After all, no one has a problem hurling accusations at God, even those who claim they don’t believe in Him. They are angry with what they call a figment of our imaginations; we weak minded ones who simply follow the scare tactics laid out for us by men in times past to keep civil authority. They are, in their rage against this false creator, actually crying out in their own hearts and minds for some sort of answer to the questions of pain and suffering. Therefore, the question itself doesn’t seem to revolve around whether or not God exists while pain and suffering seem to reign supreme, but why, if he is truly good, loving, and all powerful, does he not do something about it? Why doesn’t he come down and eradicate pain, suffering and the loss of innocent life, and restore peace and tranquility to mankind? Can we trust this God who claims to be loving and sovereign as we watch on the evening news the faces of parents, twisted in horror at the realization that their children are dead under a pile of rubble?
Our Goodness and God’s Glory
Matthew 13 serves as an interesting passage of Scripture in this situation. Here, Jesus begins with the parable of the wheat and the weeds. He tells two more parables afterwards, and then as a bookend to this section, the disciples ask Him in private about the parable of the wheat and the weeds (interestingly enough, not about the second or third parable). It begins in v. 24:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”
A couple of things should be noted here:
First, the workers had a natural response to the weeds in the field: “Hey, didn’t you plant good wheat? Because this wheat is all tarnished by the existence of weeds!” It doesn’t seem fair to us for evil and suffering to exist in a world which God claims to love and care for. And so, our replies to that creator are these outbursts of questions. Master, why? Why is this so? Are you doing this? Our natural response to our realization of the weeds is the same as the workers as well: “Cut it out! Master, could you remove it? Could you allow us to remove it?” But we, as the workers, do not know what we are asking. Were God to come down as we would wish and rend the heavens to conquer evil and suffering, with power as we define power, with the character which we reason should belong to God, then everything would be eradicated. We define evil as something that is separate from us, as something which we are not. And yet every aspect of our lives is tainted by evil; our relationships are impure, filled with selfishness. Our wants and desires cross the line of lusting and greed on a constant basis. We see ourselves as superior to others. We hate others, cause strife, envy others, steal, kill (in our hearts), despise responsibility… and all the while we shake our fists at our creator and say “WHY DONT YOU RID THE WORLD OF EVIL AND SUFFERING??” Everything tainted by sin at the fall of man would be eradicated. There would be nothing left.
Second, the Master does not ignore the weeds. Nor does he shy away from their existence, act surprised that they are there, wave his hand and destroy the weeds, or throw his hands in the air, powerless against them. Instead he explains their existence (an enemy has done this) and acknowledges the fact that the wheat is indeed tainted. He then tells the servants that the weeds will be dealt with at harvest time. The weeds were not removed because the harvest had not yet come. And yet, the Master assures the servants of the fate of the weeds; a time was drawing near in which the weeds would be burned and the wheat saved.
Our Response to the Cry of Humanity
If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all. This is an old adage that would serve us well in times like these. We are always striving to have the answers for others, to have some sort of comfort to squelch the pain we see on their faces, and yet, many times, there is nothing that we can say, no matter how true it may be, that can ease the pain of loss in the midst of suffering and tragedy; most of the time, our “comforting jargon” is nothing more than a pathetic attempt to explain that which is inexplicable, and we sound like fools. This (sometimes) much needed silence is an important rule for us to learn. There are times when all we can do is weep with those who are weeping, and just stand face to face with the reality that pain and suffering do exist. Tragedies do happen. People, both extremely young and incredibly old, die. The shortest passage in Scripture shows our Lord, standing face to face with this reality, at the loss of his friend to death… and he simply wept. The gift of time allows pain to subside, though the scars left behind may be deep. We must understand that the cry of mankind for God to rend the heavens and come down and eradicate evil, and fix the suffering we experience is not a bad thing. It is not something to be condemned or ignored, but it is actually a form of prayer (see Psalms 10). Our God is big enough to handle our anger, fear, doubt, and frustration. We must allow others to ask these questions of a God who is loving and sovereign, and who does himself weep at the tragedy of evil. We serve a God who has come as a warrior to do battle with evil, pain, and suffering; most assuredly in the form of Jesus Christ. Christ came to wage war against suffering and evil, by taking on suffering himself. His power was displayed for all to see, but it was not power in the sense of a human definition. His was a power that took the form of a servant, of kindness, patience, love, and gentleness. His was a power that freely gave his life into the hands of wicked men. His was a power that forgave sin, and changed the hearts of those who heard his message and followed him. His was a power that shook the earth and ripped the veil separating God and man. His was a power that loved a fallen creation who hated him, who came to do what man could not do for himself. No, it is not that God has ignored the evil in the world, or is hiding from it, or is powerless to stop it. As author and pastor Thomas Long rightly states, “…God cannot come down and eradicate evil and suffering in the world, not because he lacks the power; but because it is outside of his character to do so.” He has done battle with evil and suffering in the most effective, loving, and powerful way possible; a power that transcends our own understanding of it.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2: SUFFERING AND THE CHRISTIAN
Soli Deo Gloria,