On pain and suffering and no answers

As we’ve walked, and continue to trudge through, our IVF journey, I’ve found myself questioning what I believe.

I’m a Christian, most of the time. But questions about unanswered prayers, and where God is amid suffering and grief and pain have come to the foreground in recent years, both as a result of what we’re going through, and also after events in the lives of friends and family around us have shattered and broken previous concepts and theologies held in simpler times.

The more I live, the less I know.

So, after being asked some particularly challenging questions recently by a friend who is facing an incredibly difficult situation, I put some thoughts down, as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s.

This is not the usual sort of post on this blog, but it’s my blog and I can post what I like here. We’ve had some hefty science of late, thanks to the lovely Nick Mailer, so now I’m going to mix it up with my musings on theology. Which, by the way, exist in a constant state of flux. But for now, the following.

Disclaimer: I can only tell you what *I* believe and *my* thoughts on God, and pain, and suffering, and peace, and hope, and love. I don’t know if they’re “right”. In fact, I’d avoid anyone who thinks they are definitively “Right” on such matters, because that means they have stopped being open to learning new ways of looking at the world and taking on new ideas and theology.

So firstly, I don’t believe that when bad things happen it is God “doing” it to us, or “allowing it” for our own good to teach us some bigger lesson, or punishing us because of our wrongdoings. If God worked that way, then that’s not a God I’d want to know.

So where is God in our pain and suffering?

I think he grieves with us in our pain. I think about how I’d feel if Toby fell down and hurt himself, or was bullied at school. Those things are not my best for him, and it would upset me to see him upset. And what we sometimes go through in this life is not God’s best for us, and I think it upsets him to see us upset.

To make sense of this, I try to start from the position of who God is. It says in the Bible that God is love. Not just that he loves us, but he *is* love. I think of all the things I love, and how strong that emotion can be. I imagine actually *being* that emotion, personified. That’s pretty intense. Parenting is a great metaphor for me to help me understand how God feels about us. So if God *is* love, and loves us with a fierce intensity like that of a parent, then how can he not possibly be absolutely heartbroken when we are heartbroken?

I also draw strength from the idea that God knows suffering. When he came to earth as Jesus, he lived as fully human. He knew pain and grief, close friends died, he was unjustly judged, ridiculed, killed. People didn’t understand him. They spat on him. (And when Jesus died on the cross, God the father experienced the grief of being separated from God the son (Jesus) for the first time ever in all of eternity.) So to me, all of this means that God isn’t some distant guy in the sky who has no idea what it’s like to be human and have human feelings and experience love and pain and grief and upset in the way that we do. This is one of the things about Christianity that no other religion has – God actually came to Earth, became one of us, and lived in the dirt with the prostitutes, the poor, the dying, the sick. And it was *those* people he had the most time for. Not the religious elite. (He actually told them off quite a lot for being hideously hippocritcal). He was the first real Social Justice Warrior.

So for me, God is someone who grieves with us, who meets us in our brokenness and our weaknesses, and says “I love you. Unconditionally. And there is nothing you can ever do to make me love you any more or any less. I see your pain, and I’m here with you. Let me share your sorrow. ”

All this leads to the question: why do bad things happen? Why doesn’t God stop them from happening if he’s all-powerful? This is a very good question, and one that many many people far smarter than me have argued for literally thousands of years. My thoughts on this are in three main camps:

1) We live in a “fallen world”, which basically means that the whole world exists in a less than perfect state where things like illness and pain exist, and God is working on the long game of renewing all things back to how he originally intended them to be. (I could talk for a while about how this could be happening, but I won’t right now. Suffice to say I don’t think it’ll be waving a magic wand, but rather through people living and caring for each other and the planet, and bringing “heaven” (God’s ideal) to Earth, each little act of kindness, love and sacrifice at a time.)

2) ‎Free will. I believe we have free will, and that this is essential for any meaningful relationship. If I were forced into loving John, it wouldn’t be much of a relationship. He could never be sure that I really loved him, or if I was just there because I didn’t have a choice of my own. If God wants us to chose to really love him, in a meaningful relationship, which is what he seems to want all through the Bible, then he needed to give us the free will with which to make that decision for relationship. But the flip side of that is that we have autonomy to make the wrong choices.

3) ‎Something else could be going on in the universe that we just don’t know about or understand, or have the mental faculties to comprehend. This is a bit of a catch-all thought on the problem of pain and suffering. But as we’ll never 100% know the truth in this lifetime, it seems silly to me to rule out alternative explanations.

But anything that tries to answer this question of why bad things happen if God is all-powerful, that goes against the character of God as loving, are explanations that just don’t make sense to me.

So if God is love, and shares in our pain, and wants a relationship with us, and wants to help us in our brokenness and grief, then what does that actually look like?

I think I’ve had different expectations of what this should look like over my time as a Christian so far. I want the pain taken away. I want answers. Sometimes, on rare occasion, the situation is such that this is possible. But more often than not, life just doesn’t make sense. The pain doesn’t go. There are no answers. I run headlong into a world where things don’t make sense, there is no apparent causality or meaning to why bad things are happening. I think I want a nice, logical, rational understanding because that sits better with me. Any answer is often better than no answer at all. And so if I can get that, then I’ll feel more peaceful. So that’s what I have expected from God in the past. A waving of his magic wand to give me answers and take away the pain. And when this hasn’t happened, I’ve been disappointed, and questioned what I believe.

But my expectations are changing. As life experiences shape and break and change me, I’m starting to see God’s “help”, and His presence with us, and His love for us in a new way. Perhaps it’s a less immediately satisfying way, where things are not so black and white, but so many shades of grey. And it’s so much richer and deeper for it. Rather than taking our pain and suffering away, I think God is in the midst of it with us, helping us bear it.

But how?!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot. And today I heard a podcast that just summed it up so succinctly that I am going to simply quote what they said.

So where is God in our suffering? How does he help us?…

” ‘God’ is not understood as an object that you love, but rather that which is found in the act of love itself…God is in the body, where we look out for each other, where we care for each other. Not where we give an explanation for someone’s suffering, but where we put a hand on a person’s shoulder and we cry with them, and we say ‘I am there for you. I don’t know exactly how you’re feeling, or what the answer is, but I care about you, and we’ll get through this together.’ God is in *that*. ” – Pete Rollins on Robcast ep113

In those moments where the suffering is overwhelming, where life is torn apart and there are no answers anyone can give to make it better, God is there, in each of us, as we become the answer to the prayer we haven’t even prayed yet. We become the hand of God on that person’s shoulder, God’s listening ear that brings peace and comfort, if not answers.

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