By Sarah Sumner
Sarah is the former dean of A.W. Tozer Theological Seminary and author of Leadership Above the Line.
Where Is God in Tragedy?
EDITOR'S NOTE: In light of today's horrific elementary school shooting in Newtown, Conn., we're reposting this article on finding God in the midst of tragedy. We hope it can offer some encouragement and solace to those of us reeling from the news, and we're praying for all those who have been impacted by the shooting.
I will never forget the day when, as a teenager at summer camp, I saw nestled in a big cardboard box the quivering remains of a black-haired baby goat—a cuddly little kid—that had been bloodied almost to death by a raccoon. It was a goat, not even a person, yet my eyes involuntarily began to shed unstoppable tears as soon as I heard its bleating and saw its face so marred.
Why would God allow a precious little kid, entirely innocent, to be violently attacked and disfigured?
Far worse was the day my cousin Tracey, beautiful and envied, was brutally murdered three decades ago, stabbed 23 times on her 21st birthday. Her medical student husband, at the top of his class, had come home one afternoon to find his wife lacerated and limp, lying on their blood-soaked bed. Her mother was so bereaved that for the next 10 years she couldn’t generate a laugh despite her honest faith in God. The murderer has not been found to this day.
How could God have let this happen?
And then there’s public evil, such as the events of Sept. 11 in which people burned alive or jumped desperately to their deaths from a New York high-rise or were pulverized by the weight of the tumbling building that indiscriminately smashed their bodies down to nothing.
Does God even exist?
That’s the question many ask when they encounter hideous evil. Though some Christians have such faith they hardly even have questions, I am not of that ilk. I’m the type of person who earlier in my journey had to ask and wrestle and ponder and writhe and read and doubt. After struggling head-on with my existential clamoring, I finally emerged as a post-atheistic Christian who no longer ever wondered if I was praying to the ceiling at night. Indeed, I emerged still as a sinner but a sinner who was a theist through and through. God helped me so much to come to working terms with my visceral complaints and hard questions that I almost couldn’t help but believe in God. Everywhere I turned theologically, there God was again.
I mention my past “Christian atheism,” if I may call it that, because I believe atheism—denying God’s existence—is what causes us to wonder whether God is to be trusted in spite of all the suffering in the world. How can there be a God when there are millions of people starving around the globe? How can we believe there is truly a real God when evil things happen to unsuspecting children every day? Because of all this ugliness, it is very easy to fall into the trap of silently wondering if God is a mere concept or a mechanistic force at best.
Encountering God, however, did not exempt me from experiencing deep pain. When I was 22 years old, my parents were divorced. Even to this day, their divorce is the hardest thing I’ve ever been called to cope with because of all the ramifications of their split. David Gushee’s book Making Marriage Right says it’s normal, according to hard research, even for adult children to rank their parents’ divorce as the number-one pain-point in their lives.
Pain is the soil where the deepest kind of faith in God grows.
While in the throes of grieving the death of my parents’ marriage, I didn’t ask the normal question, “God, why did You allow this thing to happen?” Thanks to my prior wrestling, it didn’t even occur to me to indict the living God. On what basis could I have blamed Him? God was not divorcing anybody; my parents were the ones doing that. I definitely had a problem when my parents were divorced. But the problem was not God; it was my pain. I was terribly ill-equipped to deal with my own suffering.
If you think about it, the question, Why does God allow people to suffer? is really not a question at all. It’s a protest. It’s an angry declaration that says, “People shouldn’t have to hurt like this!” or, many times, “I shouldn’t have to hurt like this!”
Pain is what people protest. It is pain that people find so problematic. Though we might think we’re blaming God because God has power to stop things, the thing we want Him to stop is the insult of our pain.
My protest was quite basic. I didn’t want to be from a family of divorce. I wanted a different identity, a different persona for myself. I wanted a whole different reality.
Making sense of the suffering of others
Often, our question of suffering is self-focused, not theological: Why did God let this happen to me? But it’s also often true that people are thinking about the plight and pain of others. Sometimes we are asking on behalf of other people why God doesn’t stop the madness arbitrarily causing them such pain and turmoil.
Why does God put up with serial murderers? Why does He let women be raped? Why does He allow earthquakes to kill hundreds of thousands? Who is this God, if He exists, to permit such wrenching pain?
“Abhor what is evil,” the Bible says (Romans 12:9, ESV). But even doing that, even abhorring evil, is painful. That is the catch-22. It hurts to be sinned against, and it hurts to care about others who are sinned against. Likewise, it hurts to be the recipient of evil, and it hurts to care about others who have been the recipients of evil. Why does God command us to enter into the pain of abhorring what is evil? Why doesn’t God just stop it?
I believe one answer is because God insists we become like Him. God abhors evil, and God cares about others. The Bible says God is “grieved” by sin and evil. Thus, I believe the marvel of the mystery of the problem of evil is that it tacitly and subtly points us to God’s plan to conform us into the likeness of His Son.
Jesus was a Man of sorrows. Like Job and Jeremiah, He experienced unspeakable pain. But Jesus’ pain was worse. Job and Jeremiah, heroic as they were, both caved to the temptation to cry out against God, scolding God for allowing them to be born. Job cried, “Let the day perish on which I was to be born. … Why did I not die at birth?” (Job 3:3, 11, NASB). Similarly, Jeremiah yelped, “Cursed be the day when I was born; Let the day not be blessed when my mother bore me!” (Jeremiah 20:14)
In extreme stark contrast, when Jesus cried out,“Why?” He said nothing about cursing the day Gabriel told Mary she would bear the Christ child. Jesus cried out in faith instead of protest.
Hanging on a cross, absorbing the sin of the world, suffering unimaginably, Jesus prayed Psalm 22. Though He uttered the first line when on the cross, just saying that first line is the Hebrew way of referring to the Psalm. Jesus was thus thinking:
My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but Thou dost not answer; and by night, but I have no rest. Yet Thou art holy, O Thou Who art enthroned upon the praises of Israel. In Thee our fathers trusted; they trusted, and Thou didst deliver them. To Thee they cried out, and were delivered. In Thee they trusted, and were not disappointed.
Jesus trusted God, even in His most galling, grueling, groaning, gagging pain.
Pain is the soil where the deepest kind of faith in God grows. Pain is the context for maturing our love for God, so we can love God foremost. As offensive as that seems from the vantage point of fear, it squares with the logic of faith.
The Problem of Sin
But still, our complaints spew up. Still, we feel so angry about the people who are suffering unjustly. Why doesn’t God just make things better?
Strikingly, no one seems to complain that God has set before us many opportunities to idolize ourselves. I have never heard anyone saying how irksome it is to be given the freedom to indulge the self in pleasure and self-exaltation—to overeat, to boast, to gossip, to get drunk. Nobody shouts at God for allowing them to sin in their favorite ways.
Hypocritically, however, we do complain sorely at the top of our lungs about the sins and evil of others who are hurting us. Thus, we question God’s character right when we are thinking of ourselves.
I hope I don’t sound impertinent. I’m as guilty as everyone else when it comes to being demanding and self-serving. But I know something true about God. God has masterminded a way to deliver us from sin and evil. Here’s how the apostle Paul puts it:
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6-8).
Sin is such a widespread, stubborn problem, the only way to solve it is for God miraculously to have taken on human flesh and transformed Himself doubly miraculously into sin. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul explains, “He Who knew no sin became sin.” God defeated sin by allowing sin to happen in the first place. Likewise, God defeated evil by letting evil have its heyday and then swallowing evil up.
It is humbling to be truthful about the mystery of evil since nobody understands it, except God. I believe evil is ultimately unintelligible because evil is anti-reason and anti-truth. According to the Scriptures, it isn’t ours to penetrate into the darkness of the shadows of the mystery of evil or anything else God on high has chosen not to reveal to us.
Deuteronomy 29:29 says it plainly: The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us …
The Gifts of God Through Suffering
Though for now there are earthquakes and ravages and crimes and disease and premature deaths and mental illness, God can still be trusted. God is. And God is faithful. He has given us many gifts as we entrust ourselves to Him in our pain and in our empathy for others. Perhaps the three most visible gifts are the gift of people, the gift of joy and the gift of God Himself.
By the gift of people, I mean those who work for social justice or extend a helping hand or bring physical relief or offer a ministry of presence as Mother Teresa did for the dying. It’s probably true for all of us that in our darkest times, we feel more bonded with those with whom we share God’s love. Perhaps by God’s design, a suffering heart, if soft, can more easily be enlarged and filled with love.
By the gift of joy, I am referring to the great surprise of levity that comes on the other side of pain. I have repeatedly experienced this surprise. It’s a big part of why I’m not an atheist. Every single time I have waited on God in prayer, pouring out my heart to Him, He comforts me and lifts me in my spirit. I believe God is eager to share the strangeness of His joy with everyone. But we have to enter the pain. There is no other route to true joy.
By “God’s gift of Himself,” I mean the comfort of the Holy Spirit and the peace of God that surpasses understanding, and the promise and assurance of seeing Christ face to face when He comes back. By far the hardest gift to accept, at least in my view, is that of taking solidarity with Jesus Christ Himself in His sufferings. Bearing up under sorrows is the only way to receive the special wisdom and power that comes to those who suffer unjustly. Few are those who dare to commune with God that way. I have found I’m not good at it myself. But God is patient and forbearing; every time someone sins against us, we are blessed with another chance to surrender our way forward into becoming the recipients of a grace that does not come unless we yield to God when we’ve been wronged.
After nine long years of consciously agonizing and wrestling with whether God even is, I found out He is. I found out firsthand that God Who speaks and hears exists. I found again and again that God is personal. I discovered the living God because He revealed Himself to me by seeping through the walls of my atheistic prayers and answering my prayers with His Presence. God came near. He comforted me, not with cut-and-dried pat answers, but with satisfying insights that fulfilled me.
God’s kindness trumps His willingness to allow anyone to suffer; for as John MacDuff put it in 1859, “It is only for a little while, that you will have to traverse this howling desert.”