Vicar's Letter May 2017
God gets the blame for an awful lot of stuff. And since earliest times people have asked how a loving God can possibly allow the suffering we see in the world.
Some stuff which causes suffering can clearly be put down to human behaviour. The current famines in Africa are mainly caused by the conflicts going on in those countries. God created all of us with a choice as to how we live our lives, and honours that choice when people choose to use it for ill. There would be no real choice unless that was the approach God takes. Without the ability to choose there would be no freedom.
But there is much suffering that isn’t directly caused by other people. Why does God allow that? The question won’t go away.
The honest response is that we just don’t know. It’s a question we cannot satisfactorily answer. One theologian Jürgen Moltmann comments that to offer an explanation is an insult to those who suffer and blasphemous to God.
People are amazingly resilient when faced with suffering. Dave Tomlinson in his provocative book: How to be a Bad Christian . . . and a Better Human Being points out that on the whole the people who ask the “Why?” questions are not those who are suffering but the onlookers. The sufferers, he argues, are more likely to be concerned with how they can find help or how they can manage.
What we really need when we suffer is people willing to walk with us through whatever we experience. I know from my darkest days of depression, the people who helped most were not those who tried to jolly me along, but those who willing to sit with me through the pain.
And I believe that God walks with us too. Not long ago we were remembering the suffering of Jesus during Holy Week, and how God turned that into something amazingly different in the resurrection. Jesus didn’t avoid the suffering – he went right through it – but as a result something so much better came to be.
Many people who have suffered turn their experiences into something really positive. Think how many charities and support groups have been set up by those who have direct experience of the conditions and situations they help others through, either in person with practical help or by providing money to help others give support.
We may not be able to answer the question why satisfactorily, but all of us have the opportunity to choose how we face our suffering. Many of us struggle to be positive in the face of suffering but there are those who do manage, even in extreme circumstances. I find their example so humbling.
I’m going to end with the inspiring words of Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, who wrote this: “We who lived in the concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer a sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstances.”
With best wishes, Sarah