Does God Let Us Suffer?


My friend Susan just described a terrible tragedy and then asked her Facebook friends "How could anyone believe in God after this?"

Our two ways of understanding reality differ so greatly that I have a very difficult time trying to create a bridge between them. In retrospect I would have liked to explain three things about what it feels like to be a Christian.

1. Mystery. I wish that I could have been more articulate about the mysterious nature of the Divine. If God is God, the creator and sustainer of all things, than we could not expect to fully understand God's motivations and actions.

Living with a dog is a constant education in how different the world looks to different kinds of creatures. Sometimes I understand perfectly what our dog wants but mostly I recognize a fundamental strangeness when it comes to how she experiences the world. Nothing frightens her more than the veterinarian's office. The car pulls up in the parking lot and she starts quivering with abject fear. Does she know that we take her there for her own good? I don't know. I certainly do not mean to imply that we are like gods to our dogs.

Susan used words like omnipotent and omniscient, all-powerful and all-knowing. These come from Greek philosophy not the Bible. This vocabulary of abstractions carries with it a whole set of Greek assumptions about reality. Metaphors like God as "the unmoved mover" or as changeless may tell us more about what those ancient Greeks admired than they do about God.

I think that for Susan, God is a kind of super human who pulls the levers that make everything happen for us. For her, God could simply choose to have everything be completely different so that there were no car accidents, or droughts or human cruelty. For her that God who fulfills our every wish and resolves every conflict is simply impossible to believe.

And in a sense this is where the whole dog analogy completely breaks down. Atheists say that God does not exist. Orthodox Christians in some respects agree. For us God does not exist as another form of being, another optional configuration of information and matter. Paul Tillich calls God "the ultimate concern." For him and other people of faith God is the ground or cause of the world and cannot be understood as simply another creature in it.

2. Personality. Despite all that we do not know, Christians experience God not as something less than personal but rather as more than personal. We meet a God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

So much of human life happens below the level of our consciousness. This anthropology, this understanding of human beings as rational but with a whole lot more leads modern Christians to think that God could know us better than we know ourselves. Through regular prayer we become aware of this deeper reality (not only about God but about ourselves).

I do not claim to know what other religions or non-religions look like from the inside. I do recognize that people of other faiths have difficulty with the idea of the incarnation (the idea that God chooses to be part of human life). I believe that sometimes Christians do too. Søren Kierkegaard was not the first to point out for many people the idea that the infinite could become a finite part of creation is patently absurd. This is probably also why the Apostle Paul calls "Christ crucified" "a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles."sa As you can tell I am very sympathetic to the complaints of Jews, Muslims and Western rationalists.

I think that I understand the nature of their criticism. At the same time the practical experience of believing in the incarnation is a profound sense of intimacy with God. At the very heart of Christianity is the conviction that God chooses to really be part of human life, not as a distant spectator and referee, but as a participant.

All this brings me back to my friend Susan's question. For us the meaning of Jesus is that suffering is not an optional part of reality. It is not a persistent illusion. It is not something that we could simply succeed in avoiding on our own. Suffering does not merely arise out of unnecessary attachment to worldly things. It is not something that God could simply abolish.

At the heart of the Christian faith lies the conviction that God is deeply present in all suffering. God feels what we feel. God's presence gives us both a new sensitivity to the suffering of others and also strength in the face of our own pain.

3. Action. The last part of being a Christian that might be hard to express to others concerns the feeling of obligation that comes with the presence of God. There are so many kinds of suffering - acts of God like landslides and viruses. There is suffering caused by social systems like institutionalized racism or vacuums of law and order such as in the Congo or Somalia. There is the simple cruelty that happens between individuals that we see in abusive relationships, at the office or in war.

More subtle than these examples are the stories we tell ourselves that unnecessarily exacerbate our own suffering. We take responsibility for tragedies that are beyond our control. We hold ourselves accountable to standards that we would never insist on for our friends. We persist in self-destructive behavior. Often we experience suffering at several of these levels at once.

Choosing to become part of Christ's story involves helping the world to overcome loneliness, suffering and hatred. Christians can easily seem hypocritical because this is such a lofty aim.

Mystery. Personality. Action. At its very heart Christianity is about a profound mystery, it is about our experience of God becoming intimately part of human life so that we can fully become God's children and do God's work in the world.