Sunday 7 February 2021 – Second Sunday before Lent
Readings: Colossians 1:15-20, John 1:1-14
I was most affected by a telephone conversation I had on Thursday morning. It was a long call, with someone I hadn’t spoken to before, obviously I won’t go into details but their lives had been turned upside down in the last six months – not by Covid but by other personal tragedies.
The person I spoke to has a Christian faith but they found themselves and their faith shaken to the core and they found themselves asking the question which afflicts many of us at some point:
“How can there be a God if bad things happen to good people?”
I should start by saying that it is absolutely fine to say this out loud – it is even biblical. Read the Psalms – they are a wonderful example of both praising God and questioning him at the same time. About half of the psalms are about how wonderful God is and half of them are asking how he could be so harsh with his chosen people. Seriously, read them.
The philosopher AC Grayling posed the challenge quite neatly – he said that if one believes that God is both all-powerful and all good then it is a logical contradiction for there to be suffering in the world. Either God cannot prevent suffering, in which case he is not all powerful, or he will not prevent suffering, in which case he is not all good.
The problem with this neat argument, and the problem which lies at the root of much of our fist shaking at heaven when tragedy strikes, is that our preconception of God as a deity whose function is to wrap his creation and each of his creatures in so much cotton wool that nothing bad can ever happen is fundamentally mistaken, and is not a view of God that one gets from the bible.
So why does God allow suffering? Let’s think first about the suffering caused by our fellow humans – wars, terrorism, preventable poverty, environmental destruction and so forth. In my view it is clear from the earliest chapters in the bible that God always intended mankind to have the freedom to choose how to act towards him and towards one another and that our freedom to choose is a fundamental part of our humanity.
A quick illustration: A few years ago Vivienne played the good fairy in a pantomime. As the story unfolded two of the characters decided to take a wicked course of action that would bring ruin to their brother but, in the end, the good fairy stepped in and made them change their minds by casting a spell so that they become good, albeit against their will. So, some wickedness was prevented but it was at the expense of their free will or their freedom to make a bad choice.
Now, you may say that it would have been good if God had acted like the good fairy and taken away the free will of, say, the 9/11 plotters and prevented that disaster from happening or if God had prevented the concentration camps by taking away the free will of the Nazis. But it only takes a moment’s thought to realise what a dangerous route that is. If God takes away the free will of other people to prevent suffering then, presumably, God would also take away our free will every time we made a wrong choice – if we drove too fast would God act as a speed limiter and make us slow down to prevent the suffering caused by an accident, if we choose not to donate blood one day and God knew that someone would die for want of that unit we would be marched like a zombie to the clinic to prevent the suffering of another. I think you can see where this is going – when God gave humanity free will he took the biggest risk ever because it meant that humans could always make the wrong choice, but it is the price we pay for not being automatons.
However, surely, a choice made to do good made out of genuine free will is of infinitely greater value than a person whose will is bent to God’s against their will to prevent suffering. So, to answer AC Grayling I would say that God is both all-powerful and all good but, from the moment of creation, God has chosen to limit the exercise of his power in the interests of giving us the room to be and become fully human.
So what about natural disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis and what about diseases like cancer or even Covid – why isn’t God preventing these and allowing the innocent to suffer?
Well, firstly and most importantly we inhabit vulnerable physical bodies in a dynamic physical world. Tectonic plates shift and cells divide and sometimes those things can create the conditions for life to arise and sometimes they shift and divide in the wrong way and create the conditions for death, even premature death. The bible itself actually mentions numerous earthquakes and there is no shortage of premature death there either so we shouldn’t imagine that we are thinking of things that were either unheard of or couldn’t be mentioned in scripture.
So why does God allow this? Well, firstly, shouldn’t we be asking: on what are we basing our expectations of God? If we try to make God into a good fairy who waves a wand and protect everyone from every tragedy then we will always be disappointed in that God. But, actually, shouldn’t we take our image of God from the bible? The bible certainly does not tell us that God wraps his people in cotton wool and never lets anything bad happen to them – on the contrary much of the story of the nation of Israel is about how they learned to recognise and to worship God despite the bad things that happened to them – held in slavery in Egypt, taken into captivity in Babylon, occupied by the Romans. Time and time again, in the psalms, in the book of Job and in the prophets there is recognition that we live in a fallen world, that bad things do happen to good people and that whilst we may shake our fist at God, ultimately the only answer is that he is Sovereign, he is in charge, that his ways are not our ways and his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.
As educated Westerners we find that so frustrating because we want to be in charge and, if necessary, to serve a Freedom of Information request to find out what is going on but, as Christians, we are subject to a higher power, and I don’t mean the Archdeacon.
And as Christians we should also remember the element of faith: that death is not the end. I said a moment ago that we inhabit physical bodies in a physical world but we are also told in the bible that these bodies are like seeds that need to die in order to become transformed and resurrected bodies, in a resurrected and re-created world in which death is no more and where God wipes away every tear.
So, finally, Where is God in all this?
I would say in two places – we worship a God who does not stand far off from our suffering but rather a God who entered into our world and took suffering upon himself in the person of Jesus – the same Jesus who did not live a life of ease and comfort but who went into the wilderness for 40 days and nights and who later took that wilderness experience all the way to the cross. In Jesus God did not avoid suffering and death but rather transformed it into resurrection and victory and the fruits of that transformation are for us to share. So humanity does not suffer apart from God, on the contrary God has been there before us and shared our suffering in the person of Jesus, God the Son.
But God the Holy Spirit is also there, in the midst of the suffering, in the actions of all the thousands of people who seek to help alleviate suffering. God is there in the free will decisions of human beings to care for and help each other. God is Love and when we demonstrate our love for others in need through practical action we are reflecting something of God’s love for us.
God is not to be found in the avoidance of suffering – that god is an idol no more worthy of worship than a good fairy in a panto, much as I love her. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ and, I hope, our God is to be found not in the avoidance of suffering and pain but in the coping with suffering and pain, in choosing to love and to be human and to be humane towards one another despite the suffering and pain and, like Jesus in the wilderness, resisting always the temptation to give up and despair when we are at our weakest.
When life challenges our view of God, as it always will, we need to constantly ask ourselves, in what image of God is my faith based? When that question comes do not think about God an abstract being apart from us who watches our suffering from afar, but think about Jesus, God with us, suffering, dying and rising again for us and think about God the Holy Spirit who motivates us to love others in their suffering and who can enthuse us to lift our eyes beyond our own suffering to the joys of the kingdom of heaven.
Having mentioned the psalms I will end on one that my caller loves and clings onto, Psalm 23: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me.”