by Russell Pollitt SJ
How can we believe in an all-loving and all-powerful God when there is so much suffering around us?
This is the most difficult religious question of all time. Why does God not just wipe out all suffering? Why does God seem so silent in the midst of so much pain?
There have been many attempts to answer this question, by some of the best theological minds in history. Those who have suffered deeply too, have also tried articulating an answer to this question. It’s impossible to say much about this in 500 words, but here goes…
First, we need to confront the notion that believing in God or having faith makes us immune to tragedy, suffering, illness and pain. We often want an ‘aspirin’ God and believe that somehow our faith should be rewarded with lives that are easy and suffering-free. God never promised us pain-free lives. God deals with suffering differently to our ‘by-pass pain at all cost’ approach.
Jesus reveals a God who is not a rescuer but a redeemer. God does not protect us from pain, but enters into our pain and ultimately redeems it. This sounds pithy but it is not. What is ultimately at stake is human freedom and God’s respect for our freedom. God gives us freedom and, unlike most people, refuses to violate that freedom even when it might seem best to do so. It’s the price of the gift to the giver. This leaves us in a lot of pain sometimes, because of our own poor judgement or that of others. Respect demands that God does not rescue us in these cases but, rather, God redeems.
Fr. Ronald Rolhesier OMI says that a reading of the story of Lazarus offers some insight. Lazarus dies, Jesus is told but he does not rush to the dead man’s family right away. When he arrives at the house, two days later, he is met by the statement from Lazarus’s sister Martha “If you had been here my brother would not have died”. The statement really is the timeless one everyone wrestles with: “Where were you when tragedy struck?” In other words: Where is God when there is suffering? Mary, the other sister, asks the identical question.
Jesus does not answer. He becomes, we are told “distressed” and asks where Lazarus has been put. We are then told Jesus weeps. That’s God’s answer: he enters into suffering, helplessness and pain. He then raises Lazarus from the dead.
The same happens to Jesus. He is not rescued from the cross by the Father. He dies on the cross then the Father raises him to life.
God is not indifferent to suffering. When we are hurt badly, unfairly, painfully, it is difficult to believe in an all-powerful God. Sometimes, however, the only answer to suffering is the one Jesus offers to the Lazarus sisters – shared pain, distress, tears, helplessness. There is no attempt to explain his seeming absence. The challenge is, rather, to be in that very painful space trusting that God is present and, in the end, rest assured that we will be redeemed by God’s embrace.