The recent earthquake and tsunamis in Japan with a horrific death toll of possibly ten of thousands should break our hearts and move us to act, to give and to help. For Christians who believe in an omnipotent good God, however, it may also shake our faith. The problem of evil and suffering is a centuries-old philosophical conundrum. It is bad enough to contemplate human-made horrors like 9/11, human trafficking, the Holocaust or the atrocities of war but how do we reconcile natural disasters – such as Japan now, New Zealand’s earthquake weeks prior, the 2010 Pakistan floods, the 2010 Haiti and Chile earthquakes, the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Asian tsunamis, the list goes on – with the belief that a good God is in control? I confess I grapple with this problem.
One typical response Christians give to this problem is to play the blame game: “This happened because of somebody’s sin”. I have heard variations of this blame game among Christians, e.g. God is punishing America with 9/11 or God is punishing Indonesian Muslims with the 2004 tsunami! Even with Japan, people are suggesting God must be punishing them, or sending them “a message” (see Glenn Beck), for sins ranging from atheism to Pearl Harbour to whaling! These stupid speculations are useless, cruel, intellectual blame games.
In fact, Jesus taught his disciples NOT to think like this. In John 9:1-5, Jesus’ disciples, in encountering a man blind from birth, asked: “Whose sin is to blame for this tragedy of being born blind? Is it the man’s own sin or his parent’s sin?” They want to know “Why did this happen?” And their typical answer is “this is caused by somebody’s sin” – the blame game. Jesus’ response, however, basically says: “Don’t focus on the sin. Rather, focus on God’s work. Don’t see this tragedy as an occasion to start guessing about why or who. Rather, see this tragedy as a call to do God’s work of healing.
This is an important reminder for Christians today. Our first response to tragedy should not be a theological exercise. A Christ-like first response to evil and suffering is always to act – to heal, to alleviate suffering, to restore, to give, to do what’s in our power to resist evil – not to pontificate in abstractions or to play the blame game. For instance, I am writing this blog only after I have prayed and donated to the relief efforts in Japan.
For a Greater Good?
Another typical Christian response is to claim that God uses tragedy for good. Some Christians are too quick to quote Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (TNIV) In all things, even in disasters, illness, and deaths, God works for the best.
Although I believe this is true in the big picture scheme of things, I do not think we can jump too quickly to such statements. To move too quickly into saying “God works for the best” is hollow. It becomes meaningless. If you do not acknowledge the pain and the grief, it becomes empty. We cannot ignore the pain and suffering that happens.
Christian theology believes that God entered our human world of pain and suffering in the person of Jesus Christ in order to redeem us from it. Instead of using his almighty powers to simply prevent or eliminate suffering and death in the world, God chose instead to become human, experience pain and suffering, even death, and then, resurrect from death, all to create and show a way to live, love, and be truly human in the face of pain and suffering, to create a way beyond death to genuine life, a way offered freely to any who choose to believe.
Yes, I admit that this clearly goes against all human logic as an effective means of alleviating suffering. And to be honest, I wonder why God does not just simply wave his magic wand, so to speak, and create the perfect world now. But the more I think deeply about God’s way the more profound and mysterious it becomes, even as it frustrates my desires for a quick-fix. It also shows that God is very different than our simplistic popular caricatures of what an almighty supreme being might be or do.
Thinking this way makes me ask, “Does God cry?” I believe God cries. In Romans 8:26, it says that when we don’t know what to pray for – especially true in face of such calamities – God the Holy Spirit “intercedes for us through wordless groans” (TNIV). Hence, I believe God groans beyond words can express and God cries beyond tears can show. The Bible shows that Jesus wept over the grave of Lazarus, and he wept over the city of Jerusalem. Jesus felt the dark absence of God when he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) I believe such a God cries over a broken world and cries with all of us.
So, God, through the Holy Spirit, groans along with us and with creation. And God, through Jesus on the cross, suffers our pain and feels injustice and the oppression of evil. We do not have a God who is untouched by human suffering. We do not have a malicious God up in heaven pulling strings and playing dice with human lives. No. We have a God who groans with us and who suffers with us.
Thus, from this perspective, I have to modify the “why” question from “Why did this happen to us?” to “Why did this happen to us and God?” Because God feels our pain and suffering, we are now also asking why did God allow himself to suffer, when God has the power to prevent it?
I know this does not answer any questions but merely adds more questions to the problem! I can just imagine atheists laughing at my foolishness! Well, the Bible says, “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:25 TNIV), and I hope that stands true here. In any case, we might need to rethink our human aversion to pain and suffering as well as our penchant to fight evil with violence and brute force. I admire and respect Christian pacifists who choose non-violent resistance to evil, even though I lean more theologically towards just use of violence where necessary. I admired the early Christian martyrs who faced torture and death. Now, I am not suggesting that we become masochists! I cannot celebrate suffering but, perhaps, I need to be stronger in facing suffering when necessary or inevitable, rather than pathologically avoiding it at all costs.
I admit, however, that this belief in God suffering with us gives me some emotional and psychological comfort but little intellectual satisfaction. Perhaps, as Job found out, God’s ways are too much for my limited mind; they are “things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3 TNIV).
We do have hope, however, even if we do not have answers. In Romans 8:22, the apostle Paul wrote: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (TNIV) The groans we experience are not the groans of death, not pain without hope. Rather, the groans are the groans of a mother in labour, pains giving birth to life. Our sufferings, Paul suggests, are not meaningless. Only mothers really understand this. When you hold your newborn baby in your arms for the first time, you know, in ways beyond logic, in ways that words cannot express, that this life, this joy, this love, is worth all the pain, groaning and suffering that you went through.
I know it is not a perfect picture. Many of us – men, single women, women who couldn’t or haven’t had children, women whose children died at birth – may not be able to relate to this metaphor. But it is the best picture we got. It powerfully reminds Christians that human suffering is not without hope but is full of hope. Hope for the future glory. Hope for a new heaven and earth. And Christ’s resurrection from the dead is the guarantee, as well as the greatest example, of such hope: new life through suffering and death.
It is only at this point that I can affirm God knows best and turns everything for good without sounding hollow or empty. I can affirm God knows best because God knows how bad it really is. Because God himself goes through our pain and suffering, I believe God will act to save, to heal, and to restore, even if I don’t understand why God does not prevent the suffering.