February 19, 2016

Where is God in suffering?

Sometimes religious people have given answers to the ‘Why?’ (God is testing you, you’ve done something bad in a previous life, or you’ve done something bad in this life & this is Karma.) At best, these answers are unsatisfying and at worst, dangerous and highly offensive.

My brother’s twin daughters died recently. One twin, Juliette, died just after their premature birth. Her sister, Isabella, was alive for just over two weeks. They were born very prematurely after twenty six weeks in the womb. As you can imagine, their deaths have been horrendous for the whole family, especially for their mother and father.

Twenty six weeks is very premature, but actually survivable in many cases. Isabella was kept alive in an incubator. She was doing well, drinking a good amount of milk, and at times putting on weight. Her mum and dad even got to hold her a few times. However, one night, my brother and sister-in-law got a call from the hospital. Something was wrong but they didn’t need to come in—the doctors were doing everything they could. But they couldn’t sleep, so they went in anyway, to what was to become the worst night of their lives. At about six o’clock in the morning their daughter was officially pronounced dead. They called me at seven. I can still remember so clearly my brother’s hopeless voice as he told me the news and hung up. To be honest, the whole thing feels like a bad dream that I want to wake up from.

Naturally, this experience has been so hard for the parents and my wider family. A few weeks later, just when you feel like you are overcoming the shock, waves of grief continue to hit you. We feel grief to lose our nieces, granddaughters or daughters, and the grief for my brother and sister-in-law—to see them suffering and experiencing the pain of the loss of the daughters they were expecting.

When we experience horrific suffering like this, it is common to express anger with God. There can be outrage or a sense of injustice, even from those who wouldn’t describe themselves as ‘believers’. You can imagine the inevitable questions that arise, like ‘Where was God when my babies died?’ or ‘Why didn’t he help us?’.

I am the only Christian in my family, so I suspect at some point I will be asked: ‘How can you believe in a loving, personal God when this has happened to us?’

What will I say?

I don’t know.

On some level, whether we believe or not, we are all searching for an answer of why these things happen. We want to understand why in an attempt to medicate and salve our pain.

Sometimes religious people have given answers to the ‘Why?’ (God is testing you, you’ve done something bad in a previous life, or you’ve done something bad in this life and this is Karma.) At best, these answers are unsatisfying and at worst, they are dangerous and highly offensive. (What could be worse than telling the mother of deceased daughters that she is to blame?)

So, the first thing I will say in answer to the question ‘Why?’ is ‘I don’t know’. I can’t possibly seek to explain this horrendous experience. I can’t begin to understand or explain a purpose or meaning to the suffering that my family is experiencing. But how does this fit with faith in God?

I would suggest that the experience of suffering fits very well with a Christian belief of who God is. Surely implicit within belief in an all-powerful God is the conviction that I don’t need to have all the answers to the difficult things that life throws at us. The whole point of believing and following God is that I am not in charge of my life. I don’t need to know everything. Instead, I accept my limits as a human being. Essentially, I recognise that I am not God. So I don’t need to have all the answers. In a world where there is a pressure to understand and explain everything, this feels liberating.

Oddly, perhaps, I don’t really find myself angry with God. I was shocked and deeply pained when I heard the terrible news. It still hurts to think about it. But even in the pain and my inability to answer why, I feel that I can trust God. Despite all that has happened, I still see God as my good, caring, loving heavenly father.

My trust and perception of God is rooted in the ‘long view’ of what God has done throughout history. I particularly focus on the crucifixion. God’s willingness to send his son, Jesus, to experience deep pain, suffering and eventual death, on our behalf, speaks powerfully to me of God’s love and care for us.

In his dying for us, Christians believe Jesus paid the penalty for our wrongdoing. In doing so, he made it possible for us to experience God’s forgiveness and relationship with him, despite everything we’ve done to separate ourselves from him and ignore him. This is good news.

But, not only did God demonstrate his love for us, but he did it so that he could be united in relationship with us for all eternity. For this reason, I believe I can trust this good Father. Even if I don’t understand much of what happens on earth, I can do so trusting one who does, that he has our best interests at heart and is willing to go to great lengths to show us.

Jeremy Moses

Jeremy Moses
Jeremy is an Italian, Swiss, Indian, Iraqi, Jewish Londoner who has worked for multi-nationals and startups, and now helps lead a church.

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