Scripture’s reckoning with the tragic

Pete Cramblit, 'Cain slaying Abel'

Pete Cramblit, ‘Cain slaying Abel’

The Bible makes no effort at all to shy away from the tragic. From the story of creation’s genesis against the backdrop of primordial chaos to the seemingly-indiscriminate annihilation of life caused by a global flood, from the narratives of the primal couple’s decline into deathliness to the violent end of their son Abel, from the anamnesis of Job to Abraham’s near infanticide of Isaac, from the promise of a nation’s birth out of Sarah’s barren womb to Israel’s brutal creation from the bowels of cruel bondage in Egypt, from the violence that marked the retelling of Israel’s establishment in Canaan and their disestablishment at the time of the Babylonian exile to their life in Roman-occupied Palestine, from the murder of Israel’s prophets to the suicide of guilt-ridden Judas, from the despairing poetry of the psalmists and prophets to Herod’s most unpoetic massacre of the innocents, from the state-sanctioned murder of a blameless Christ to the cries of faithful martyrs hiding under the altar desperate for their blood to be avenged ‘on the inhabitants of the earth’ (Rev 6.10), the Bible’s narratives are inextricably and unavoidably bound up with suffering and faith and evil and death.

And its pages, rich in tragic tropes, offer no univocal attitude to suffering and evil (see, for example, the massive ­– nearly 900 pages! ­– volume edited by Antti Laato and Johannes C. de Moor, Theodicy in the World of the Bible: The Goodness of God and the Problem of Evil (Brill, 2003), nor consensus about their causes and purposes. Indeed, the various authors and redactors of its texts betray a smorgasbord of theologies and interpretations on this subject, as on most others.

While many modern believers seem to conclude that the greatest threat to life lies in sin, the Bible suggests that one of the most enduring threats to life is entirely out of our hands. It is the threat of the sea, the home of the great leviathan, and the perpetual menace of abyss that exists, as it were, on the edges of all that we can know and gain some semblance of control over. The Jews, a land-based people, were terrified by the sea, avoided travelling on it at all costs, especially if it meant sailing out of land’s sight. And they were mesmerised by the thought that anyone – let alone an unregistered rabbi with some shady character references – might be able to calm the chaos with mere speech. The promise in Revelation 21 of a new heaven and new earth bereft of sea is indeed good news for those who see in the sea abysmal and godless chaos threatening all that is good in God’s creation. I must confess, however, that being a fisherman I find the thought of a sea-less new creation to be gravely depressing, and any consideration that such a vision may represent a failure of creation’s God to bring into shalom all that God has made is to me an impasse beyond words. But then I wasn’t living on the coast of Japan on 11 March 2011 when a tsunami claimed the lives of nearly 16,000 people.

Part of the creation once described as ‘very good’ (Gen 1.31) ­– the seas and the ‘swarms of living creatures’ (Gen 1.20) in them – are, plainly, at least according to the account in Genesis, Elohim’s work. And ‘a wind (or breath or spirit) from Elohim’ (Gen 1.2) sweeps over them. Is this to hold back the mysterious threat, and to remind an ancient people that even the source of their greatest fears exists under the sovereign governance of God? Of course, God can also unleash this threat. Noah’s neighbours knew that, as did an Egyptian army in pursuit of slaves. And then there’s that extraordinary vision in Daniel 7, a passage very influential in early Christianity, a vision of ‘the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, and four great beasts [coming] up out of the sea’ to make war upon God’s people. Here, the sea has become again the dark, formidable, and belligerent place from which evil emerges, threatening the destruction of Yahweh’s covenant people as a tidal wave threatens those who live near the coast.

There is indeed mystery here – the ‘earth is the Lord’s’ (Ps 24.1) and ‘the whole world lies in the power of the evil one’ (1 Jn 5.19) – and responsible theology proceeds in awareness of this antithetical texture of the Bible’s witness, finding there both the revelation of good and the enduring mystery of evil, and resisting there the temptation to iron out the rough sections or to reconcile them into an easy whole free of paradox. It is that which corresponds in some way to the three-day journey of Golgotha, Holy Saturday, and Easter.

We live ‘betwixt and between’. Our experience of this world, as Scripture testifies, is one marked by ambiguity, by inconsistency, by lives lived well and lives lived poorly in what the philosopher Gillian Rose famously referred to as ‘the broken middle’. We are ‘lost’, like Dante, ‘in a dark wood’ of sin, and waiting for grace. We live, as George Steiner puts it in his remarkable book Real Presences, in ‘the longest of days’, on Holy Saturday – in the space between the memory, trauma, and despair of Good Friday, and the expectant hope of Easter. So Kevin Taylor and Giles Waller: ‘The experience is neither one of nihilism, nor one of bland optimism. It is one in which we learn the difference between optimism and hope, in which we are only able to hope for the best by confronting the worst. As [Thomas] Hardy enjoined, “Who holds that if way to the Better there be, it exacts a full look at the Worst” (‘In Tenebris II’)’.

[Image: Pete Cramblit, ‘Cain slaying Abel’]

Dorothee Sölle on apathy

Solle - YoungSome more on apathy, this time from Dorothee Sölle:

One wonders what will become of a society in which certain forms of suffering are avoided gratuitously, in keeping with middle-class ideals. I have in mind a society in which: a marriage that is perceived as unbearable quickly and smoothly ends in divorce; after divorce no scars remain; relationships between generations are dissolved as quickly as possible, without a struggle, without a trace; periods of mourning are ‘sensibly’ short; with haste the handicapped and sick are removed from the house and the dead from the mind. If changing marriage partners happens as readily as trading in an old car on a new one, then the experiences that one had in the unsuccessful relationship remain unproductive. From suffering nothing is learned and nothing is to be learned.

Such blindness is possible in a society in which a banal optimism prevails, in which it is self-evident that suffering doesn’t occur. It is part of this self-evident societal apathy that the suffering workers experience is not public, that the problems workers have do not attain the level of public awareness their frequency warrants. Then an inability to perceive suffering develops, not only one’s own, through indifference, but especially the suffering of others. The apathy that exists over against the Third World is to be attributed not only to manipulation by the mass media, which can latch on to the prevailing fear of communism and a latent approval of the exploitation of these ‘lazy’ countries. It is also to be seen as part of middle-class apathy in general, which does not even perceive its own pains.

People stand before suffering like those who are color-blind, incapable of perception and without any sensibility. The consequence of this suffering-free state of well-being is that people’s lives become frozen solid. Nothing threatens any longer, nothing grows any longer, with the characteristic pains that all growth involves, nothing changes. The painless satisfaction of many needs guarantees the attainment of a quiet stagnation. Boredom spreads if the attainment of that for which one hoped no longer drives one on to a newer, greater hope. Swedish socialism, a pragmatic kind of social system without a utopian vision impelling it on, represents a state of built-in freedom from suffering, which nevertheless produces the highest suicide rate in the world.

In the equilibrium of a suffering-free state the life curve flattens out completely so that even joy and happiness can no longer be experienced intensely. But more important than this consequence of apathy is the desensitization that freedom from suffering involves, the inability to perceive reality. Freedom from suffering is nothing other than a blindness that does not perceive suffering. It is the no longer perceived numbness to suffering. Then the person and his circumstances are accepted as natural, which even on the technological level signifies nothing but blind worship of the status-quo: no disruptions, no involvement, no sweat.

Then walls are erected between the experiencing subject I and reality. One learns about the suffering of others only indirectly – one sees starving children on TV – and this kind of relationship to the suffering of others is characteristic of our entire perception. We seldom experience even the suffering and death of friends and relatives physically and directly. We no longer hear the death rattle and the moaning. We no longer touch the warmth and coldness of the sick body. The person who seeks this kind of freedom from suffering quarantines himself in a germ free location where dirt and bacteria cannot touch him, where he is by himself, even if this ‘by himself’ includes a little family. The desire to remain free from suffering, the retreat into apathy, can be a kind of fear of contact. One doesn’t want to be touched, infected, defiled, drawn in. One remains aloof to the greatest possible extent, concerns himself with his own affairs, isolates himself to the point of dull-wittedness.

The unseen and unaccountable old joker

Blake - The examination of Job, Satan pours on the plagues of JobA few weeks ago, I drew attention to Catherine Keller’s very creative and provocative book Face of the Deep – a reflection on Genesis 1.2 (‘… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep …’). Keller’s work is a profound and unsettling reminder that ever since the beginning there have been untamed elements which threaten to pull creation apart. And as much as we try to find in Holy Scripture an explanation for such a situation, there is, at the end of the day, none forthcoming.

The Book of Job, more than any other in holy writ, attends to the problems of suffering in the most prolonged and existential way. (One recalls, with some gratitude, what Jean-Paul Sartre made of the book.) But if one approaches that ancient book seeking answers to such problems, one will invariably be disappointed. Indeed, what one encounters there is a kind of gallows humour, what Germans call Galgenhumor. Chapter after chapter feeds a pregnant sense that at any moment now one will become more acquainted not only with Job and his comforters – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite – but also with Terry (Jones), John (Cleese), and Michael (Palin). Even the structure of book is a kind of mocking of the deep suffering of one described in the prologue as ‘blameless and upright’, although clearly lacking some discernment in the area of supportive spouse selection. Actually, the prologue is quite outrageous. It might even be ‘the most brutal scene’ in literature – God and Satan playing poker with Job’s life and with that of his family. And the book’s epilogue is equally ridiculous: it reads like a Hollywood script, a crude and tacked-on happy ending which ‘simply ignores all the questions that the rest of the book poses’ (Susan Neiman). It all seems dishonest. It all reads like one big comedy, and it offers no consolation at all for those who wish to find meaning in suffering.

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick is, quite simply, the best commentary I know on the Book of Job. Melville has, I think, an astonishing sense of what Job is about, and he refuses the pretty ending as if the end might justify the cost of the game. He writes:

There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own. However, nothing dispirits, and nothing seems worth while disputing. He bolts down all events, all creeds, and beliefs, and persuasions, all hard things visible and invisible, never mind how knobby; as an ostrich of potent digestion gobbles down bullets and gun flints. And as for small difficulties and worryings, prospects of sudden disaster, peril of life and limb; all these, and death itself, seem to him only sly, good-natured hits, and jolly punches in the side bestowed by the unseen and unaccountable old joker. That odd sort of wayward mood I am speaking of, comes over a man only in some time of extreme tribulation; it comes in the very midst of his earnestness, so that what just before might have seemed to him a thing most momentous, now seems but a part of the general joke.

Keiji Kosaka - Reconciliation in the Midst of DiscontinuityOf course, one of the ways that the Book of Job challenges the sense of life’s meaninglessness – even while adding to such – is by lifting our attention to God’s rhetorical questions recorded in the eleventh-hour chapters, an onslaught of questions which themselves seem only to add to the sense of torment that Job experiences. But what this barrage of questions does accomplish, I think, is to remind us of just how ‘inscrutable’ (to borrow St Paul’s words in Romans 11) the ways of the Lord finally are to us, an inscrutability which ought to give us considerable pause when we ponder life’s apparent meaninglessness.

A sculpture by Japanese artist Keiji Kosaka reminds us that nowhere is such inscrutability and sense of meaninglessness more apparent than in God’s work of reconciliation wherein God experiences in God’s own life the very questions of isolation and meaninglessness which threaten us, which threaten the cosmos, and which perhaps are a threat to God’s existence too – a God who seems to be in danger of being either crushed under the weight of chaos or squeezed out of the world entirely. In no way at all does the cross resolve the problem of evil. Rather, it deepens it, makes it even more confounding, more leviathanic.

The deep work of the cross – central to the church’s proclamation – remains ever a mystery to us. We proclaim it in faith, confident only of our inability to understand its totality and of the promise that accompanies its action – that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself’, holding at bay those untamed elements in creation, and holding all things together.

‘Iolaire’, by Donald S. Murray

Iolaire Disaster

Donald Murray, who is originally from Lewis but now lives in Shetland, has shared a very moving (and very Calvinist!) poem about the Iolaire Disaster in 1919 for Remembrance Day 2013:

Sometimes we still sit upon that ledge
and consider the dark fervour of the waves,
wondering why some of us went under
while others clung with every fibre and were saved.
There are no answers to that question. Fortune
(whatever scholars tell us) does not favour the brave
or the virtuous. It rescued some
who could be wicked, hard and wretched ones enslaved
to drink or women, and swept aside
the good, the kind, those who each day forgave
others. We only know a rope was hurled
and we possessed both grip and faith
strong enough to hold it. Nothing else is known to us,
all as dark, intangible as the fervour of these waves.

Ministry and theology for a ‘Post-Fukushima world’

The Rev. Dr. Naoya Kawakami is the Secretary General of Touhoku HELP, a highly commendable ministry birthed in the wake of the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011. Touhoku HELP produced a video for a presentation at the recent WCC General Assembly in Busan. With Korean narration and English subtitles, it illustrates not only the recent (note: some of the footage was filmed last August) situation in Fukushima but also something of the inspiring ministry that is emerging from the rubble.

Naoya and I maintain a steady and prayerful correspondence. In a recent exchange, he wrote of the overwhelming number – over a half of million! – who live with the effects of radiation. He also wrote of his own need, amidst the crushing wave of need around him, to ‘keep time to think and read’, and of the urgency for what he calls a ‘new theology for this “Post-Fukushima” world’.

Naoya KawakamiHe mentioned too about a recent meeting of Japanese and Korean theologians who conversed about the situation birthed by the Fukushima tragedy. Among the topics discussed was the possibility of post-mortem salvation for the many victims of the tsunami and of radiation poisoning. He said,

In the tradition of the major protestant churches, there is no way of salvation for the dead who have not believed in Jesus Christ as Lord during their living time. But many Japanese theologians who have read PT Forsyth have spoken out against this tradition since the triple disaster. Yesterday, we talked about this issue. I shared the logic of Forsyth for this issue from his book This Life and the Next.

Inspired by Forsyth’s lively challenge (via his Protestant reappraisal of the doctrine of purgatory) that God alone – and not death – determines the time when creation reaches its maturity, these theologians found themselves, in faith and together, straining to hear – but hearing indeed – the promise of the Lord of hope in a land crushed under the burden of fear and despair.

Please join me in praying for Naoya (he carries a great burden for the people who live in the Fukushima area, and for the gospel), and please consider supporting the work of Touhoku HELP.

[Naoya’s dissertation was on Japanese receptions of Forsyth’s theology, and the subject of post-mortem conversion receives attention in the final chapter of my own study, Hallowed be Thy Name: The Sanctification of All Things in the Soteriology of P.T. Forsyth. Naoya kindly described my latest offering on Forsyth, Descending on Humanity and Intervening in History, as a ‘big present for Fukushima’.]

Some stuff on the stove


Shouldn’t Baptist churches retrieve the practice of venerating the saints, that is, engaging in corporate worship acts designed not to worship the saints, but to remember, honor, learn from, and celebrate saints from our Baptist family and from other Christian communions? Until we regularly include commemoration of the saints in our worship celebrations, we will continue to neglect the opportunity to give proper value to those from our past who have borne courageous witness to faithful discipleship. Commemorative acts done in our Sunday morning services would provide a suitable accompaniment for the tradition some have already developed as part of their Vacation Bible School program, in which stories are told of great spiritual leaders worthy of emulation … [HT: Steven Harmon]

[Image: from Old Picture of the Day]

In inconsolable times …

mother-weepingJust after beginning to come somewhat to terms (I say ‘somewhat’ for with evil there can be no such arrangement) with the devastating and deadly powers unleashed in Cyclone Evan, we find ourselves again on this day stirred with rage, frustration, despair, lament and grief birthed by news of yet another mass shooting in the USA. It is timely (and sadly so) that I happen to be working on a book of essays on the Hebrew notion of tikkun olam (to mend the world). It is timely too that today my friend Rebecca Floyd drew my attention to two sermons by J. Mary Luti. The first, first preached after the tragic events of the massive Indian Ocean tsunami, and the second, an excerpt from a sermon on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, both speak to this week’s events. Here are a few snippets. From the first:

We Christians sometimes find it hard to refrain from overwhelming great empty spaces and terrifying silences with hope-filled murmuring about God’s love and abiding presence. We are people who count the resurrection as the core of our faith. For us, hope is second nature, nothing is impossible, death is not the end. But there are times when Easter comes too quickly, when we get Jesus off the cross and into glory with unseemly dispatch. Perhaps this haste is a reason why Easter is doubted by so many.

There are times when the God of the lilies of the field and of all our carefully-counted hairs must repulse us. Times when, in the face of the vulgar horrors of our world and the intimate tragedies of our lives, an all-caring God is inadequate. Times when light is premature, when it hurts our eyes and does not heal. Times when we need the cover of night.

Sooner or later, we all wonder with Job why we were ever born. Sooner or later, we all pore over the lexicon for a word with which to fashion inconsolable laments—and we find the cross, Christianity’s most believable symbol. It offers no answers. It offers instead a common lot: sooner or later life deposits us all at the cross. It is the gathering place for the world’s sorrow, its wasted efforts, its tormented children, its unimaginable catastrophes, and its utter silences. When we arrive at its foot, we also discover its hope – not the hope of Easter, but the hope that comes simply from having a place to gather when the pain is unspeakable and the sorrow beyond all bearing.

It is not yet the dawn. Not yet. We need to be healed, and we will be, but not too fast. We have to wait. It takes time. And we have to stay together, with every loss and horror creation has ever borne. We have to stay together so that it is not too frightening to wait, so that our waiting does not become despair. Like that inconsolable man in Indonesia, we may even prefer to wait, just as long as we are not alone. Together we will outwait death and come startled and blinking to Easter.

But no, not now. Not yet.

RachelAnd from the second:

She will not be comforted. There is no way to address a grief like Rachael’s, and she stubbornly refuses everyone who tries. She refuses, in other words, to have the unspeakable reality of innocent suffering  diminished in any way by attempts to assuage or explain it. Rachael is a witness to the things in human life that are so awful that they cannot be addressed, explained or repaired. They can only be wept over, lamented, mourned.

Rachael, in her single keening voice gives voice to all the keening mothers of Bethlehem’s babies, and to the un-voiceable anguish of every parent, family, clan and nation from whom children have ever been torn away and destroyed by a police state, by Jim Crow or apatheid, by political greed and indifference, by the glorification of war, by random violence, or by crushing poverty. Rachael will not be hushed about these things. She will not be pacified.

But we are surrounded by hushing, pacifying voices — knowing voices that explain and justify the unfortunate necessity of innocent suffering, as if it happens all by itself without human complicity: Guns don’t kill people … Cool voices that cover up or prettify what violence actually does. False voices that paint a sanctified picture of the meaning of suffering. Pragmatic voices of tyrants. Pandering voices of politicians. Patriotic voices of presidents and generals. Blaming voices of the self-made. Aloof, pious voices (God help us!) too often of the church.

At the start of a new year, especially one that will almost certainly see at least one new war unleashed on this gasping planet, the stubborn wail of Rachael weeping for her children urges us to resist and to refuse those false voices of explanation, rationalization, justification, and obfuscation of all the things that are just not right and which must not be condoned.

Rachael’s grief, never to be comforted, urges us also to rip apart with our own lamentation (and our own repentance) the curtain behind which hides the greatest lie – that it just can’t be helped, that we have no choice but to stand by and accept the suffering of the innocent, the enslavement and destruction of the future. For the stuff of her life is the stuff of ours: the murder of innocents, whether it be lives destroyed in office buildings in New York, hospitals with inadequate supplies in Iraq, famine in Ethiopia, orphanages in Rwanda, school buses in Tel Aviv, a shot-up elementary school in your small town, or razed homes in the little town of modern Bethlehem.

When Rachael makes her brief appearance on the Christmas stage; when this wailing mother of a dead child shows up beside a sleeping child watched over by a virgin tender and mild, we are also reminded, thankfully, that what human words cannot speak of adequately or truthfully, God’s Word, the word we experience in Jesus, can.

The babe who escaped this time, the child whom one Herod could not find, but who will be found by another Herod in thirty-three years’ time and will not escape him then — this child is God’s final Word to our world. It is a Word of comfort Rachael might finally accept, for it is a Word of justice. A Word from a Voice clear and true, a ‘yes’ profound enough and persevering enough (through trial, cross and grave) to address whatever horrific stuff our living and dying, our ignorance, sin and fear can present.

Now and forever it is spoken powerfully against the powers-that-be, defeating death itself — even ours, if we follow its resonance and welcome its light.

And my friend Bruce Hamill has penned the following prayer for tomorrow’s church service:

Today we pray for a society obsessed with weapons of destruction and sometimes mass destruction, obsessed with self-defence and the perpetuation of violence. We pray for America and we pray for our own country inasmuch as we share the same cultural patterns and values. Lord we lament with your people everywhere, how much we have talked of the gospel but failed to appreciate the gospel of peace, replacing it with a gospel of personal security and individual salvation. We have failed you. Have mercy and bring your judgement first to the household of God. If we do not bear witness to the gospel of peace, who will? Lord have mercy on us.

Keiji Kosaka - Reconciliation in the Midst of DiscontinuityAt times like these, however, I often find myself both reflecting on Keiji Kosaka’s profound sculpture ‘Reconciliation in the Midst of Discontinuity’, and turning to both Donald MacKinnon and to Gillian Rose, and to their efforts, each in their own way, to resist premature closure of what must remain open and patient and in agony. MacKinnon’s reflection on John 1.10–11 (‘He was in the world and the world took its origin through him and the world did not know him. He came to what was his own and his own people did not receive him’) provides one such example of what I mean. Here’s an excerpt::

It is sheer nonsense to speak of the Christian religion as offering a solution of the problem of evil. There is no solution offered in the gospels of the riddle of Iscariot through whose agency the Son of man goes his appointed way. It were good for him that he had not been born. The problem is stated; it is left unresolved, and we are presented with the likeness of the one who bore its ultimate burden, and bore it to the end, refusing the trick of bloodless victory to which the scoffers, who invited him to descend from his cross, were surely inviting him.

What the gospels present to us is the tale of an endurance. “Christ for us became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” The writer of the fourth gospel invites his readers to find in the tale of this endurance the ultimate secret of the universe itself. For the ground of that universe is on his view to be identified with the agent of that endurance. So his teaching cannot easily be qualified as optimistic or pessimistic. He is no pessimist; for he is confident that we can find order and design, the order and design of God himself, in the processes of the universe and in the course of human history. But if men would understand that design, they must not, in random speculative mood, look away from the concrete reality of Jesus of Nazareth, from the bitter history of his coming and rejection. Where the speculative intellect finds answer to its furthest ranging questions is still the same place where the bruised spirit may find consolation from the touch of a man of sorrows.

To suggest that Christianity deals with the problem of evil by encouraging the believer to view it from a cosmic perspective is totally to misunderstand both the difficulty and the consolation of its treatment. Rather Christianity takes the history of Jesus and urges the believer to find, in the endurance of the ultimate contradictions of human existence that belongs to its very substance, the assurance that in the worst that can befall his creatures, the creative Word keeps company with those whom he has called his own. “Is it nothing unto you all ye that pass by? Behold and consider whether there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” It is not as if the passer-by were invited immediately to assent to the proposition that there was indeed no such sorrow; he is asked to “consider”. It is a profound mistake to present the Christian gospel as if it were something that immediately showed itself, that authenticated itself without reflection. It is of the manner of the coming of Jesus that he comes so close to the ordinary ways of men that they hardly notice him, that they treat him as one of themselves. “There stands one among you whom you know not”: so the Baptist in that same first chapter of John to which I have so often referred. But how, except by coming so close to men, could he succour them? A Christ who at the last descended from the cross must leave the penitent robber without the promise of his company in paradise; and such a Christ we may dare say must also deprive himself of the precious comfort in his own extremity that he received from the gangster beside him; for it was that gangster who in Luke’s record continued with him to the very end of his temptation.

I am not here offering an apologetic, only bringing out certain elements in the complex reality of Christianity that seems to me of central importance. I would say that nobody these days, who is concerned at all with issues of faith and unbelief, can afford to treat them as opportunities for being clever. If men still believe – in spite of the strong, even overwhelming, case of the sceptic – it must be because they find malgré tout in Christianity the revelation of the eternal God, a revelation that touches them in the actual circumstances of their lives, whether in the common fear of a week of international crisis, or in the more personal extremities of sin, failure, bereavement, of unresolvable conflict of obligations when they find themselves pulled in two directions by claims of pity and by claims of truth. Is the so-called gospel in any sense good news to one who has bestowed love and care upon another whom he is forced in obedience to the claims of truth to acknowledge as worthless and corrupt? If it has no word of consolation in such extremity, how can we call it good news to the individual? What value is there in a cosmic optimism which leaves unplumbed the depths of human grief?

So I come back to the place where nearly I began, to the figure prostrate on the ground praying that the hour might pass. It is the claim of Christianity that men find God there, that in some sense all who came before that one were thieves and robbers, that he indeed it is in whom all things consist, through whom they take their origin, and by whom they will find their consummation. Men may well find in the end that this claim is beyond their acceptance, that it demands assent to what they cannot, if they are honest, say yes to. But those who believe its truth as long as indeed they do believe it must at least make sure that what is rejected is the substantial reality and not a counterfeit bereft alike of pity and of glory.

It may seem strange that I have gone so far without even mention of the Resurrection; but my reticence in this respect is of design. In one sense belief that Jesus was raised from the dead, that the Father pronounced a final Amen to his work, is a prius of my whole argument. To discuss the issue of the historical evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus and the complex theological problems that it raises would take me beyond the limitations I have deliberately imposed upon myself. Yet it is the prius of my whole argument; for it is in the Resurrection that we find the ultimate source of that peculiar tension between optimism and pessimism which I have judged characteristic of Christianity. One thing, however, in conclusion, I would dare to say, and that is this. It is a commonplace of traditional theology that in speech concerning God and the things of God “the negative way” must precede “the way of eminence”. If men would give sense to what they say, they must be agnostic before they dare invoke the resources of anthropomorphic imagery; they are always properly more confident concerning what they must deny than concerning what they may affirm. So with what men intend when they speak of the Resurrection of Jesus; they know what it is not in a way in which they cannot know what it is, inasmuch as its ultimate secret rests with the Father who raised him.

In knowing what it is not, they know that it is not a descent from the cross postponed for thirty-six hours. It is not the sudden dramatic happy ending which the producer of a Hollywood spectacular might have conceived. In the stories as we have them, it is only to his own that the risen Christ shows himself with the marks of his passion still upon him; his commerce with them is elusive and restricted, as if to guard them against the mistake of supposing that they were witnesses of a reversal, and not of a vindication, of those things which had happened. It is a commonplace of theology to speak of the Resurrection as the Father’s Amen to the work of Christ; yet it is a commonplace to whose inwardness writers on the subject often attend too little. For if it does anything, it drives one back to find the secret of the order of the world in what Christ said and did, and the healing of its continuing bitterness in the place of his endurance.

“Come down from the cross and we will believe.” Many Christians have joined in this cry; many continue indeed to make it their own, even when they pay lip service to the gospel of the Resurrection. But it is only in the light of the Resurrection that those Christians can learn rather to say with understanding the profound words of Pascal, that Christ will indeed be in agony unto the end of the world.

Christchurch: a pastoral reflection

When C.S. Lewis lost his wife he wrote at one point in his anguish:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll gladly listen. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

And yet the gift of consolation has always been a significant part – and that most difficult – of the work of a pastor. It is certainly among the most difficult work in which human beings engage, a work particularly difficult for people of faith. It is difficult because questions of suffering involve us in the very depths of our humanity. And it is difficult because mere human words have no answer to the mystery of suffering and the existential paralysis that it births. So Stanley Hauerwas:

To ask why we suffer makes the questioner appear either terribly foolish or extremely arrogant. It seems foolish to ask, since in fact we do suffer and no sufficient reason can be given to explain that fact. Indeed, if it were explained, suffering would be denied some of its power. The question seems arrogant because it seeks to put us in the position of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Only God knows the answer to such questions.

Or consider the words of Simone Weil:

There is a question which is absolutely meaningless and therefore, of course, unanswerable, and which we normally never ask ourselves, but in affliction the soul is constrained to speak it incessantly like a sustained monotonous groan. The question is: Why? Why are things as they are? The afflicted man naively seeks an answer, from men, from things, from God, even if he disbelieves in him, from anything or everything… If one explained to him the causes which have produced his present situation, and this is in any case seldom possible because of the complex interaction of circumstances, it will not seem to him to be an answer. For his question ‘Why?’ does not mean ‘By what cause?’ but ‘For what purpose?’ … [S]o soon as a man falls into affliction the question takes hold and goes on repeating itself incessantly. Why? Why? Why? Christ himself asked it: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ There can be no answer to the ‘Why?’ of the afflicted, because the world is necessity and not purpose …

Here we could do much worse that simply listen to the experience of Nick Wolterstorff who, in grief after losing his 25-year-old son Eric in a mountain climbing accident, penned the wonderful book Lament for a Son:

What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. Such people need to be corrected-gently, eventually. But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings-never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.

And later, when you ask me how I am doing and I respond with a quick, thoughtless “Fine’’ or “OK,” stop me sometime and ask, “No, I mean really.”

It is imperative to the integrity of its witness that the Christian community takes suffering and grief with the utmost seriousness. And as for death – Death sucks! There is simply nothing positive we can say about it, nor should we seek to live in peace with it. So Wolterstorff, again:

Someone said to Claire, “I hope you’re learning to live at peace with Eric’s death.” Peace, shalom, salaam. Shalom is the fulness of life in all dimensions. Shalom is dwelling in justice and delight with God, with neighbor, with oneself, in nature. Death is shalom’s mortal enemy. Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death.

When the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming of the day of shalom, he did not say that on that day we would live at peace with death. He said that on that day “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench.

In the face of death, suffering and grief, what the Jesus community is given to know and to hope in and to proclaim is the word of the cross and resurrection. We have no other word!

The cross of Christ is God’s final word to the problem of suffering, because the problem of suffering is the cross itself. So Jürgen Moltmann:

The death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology … The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about God is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event. And conversely, the God event takes place on the cross of the risen Christ. Here God has not just acted externally, in his unattainable glory and eternity. Here he has acted in himself and has gone on to suffer in himself. Here he himself is love with all his being.

Most of those who have suffered devastating grief or dehumanising pain have, at some point, been confronted by near relatives of Job’s miserable comforters, who come with their clichés and tired, pious mouthings. These relatives engender guilt where they should be administering balm, and utter solemn truths where their lips ought to be conduits of compassion. They talk about being strong and courageous when they should just shut up and weep … and pray to the God ‘who comforts the downcast’ (2 Cor 7.6), who is the ‘God of all comfort’ (2 Cor 1.3), who intercedes for us both when we can articulate what we want to say and when all we have are groans, and to whom not even death represents the end.

Much of this groaning, of course, is articulated and graciously given to us in the Psalter, and particularly in the psalms of lament and of disorientation, a recovery of which in both corporate and ‘private’ worship would go a long way to re-marry and re-form faith’s truth claims with the ambiguities of human existence. Walter Brueggemann is characteristically helpful here:

It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented … It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to me, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing ‘happy songs’ in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does. I think that serious religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgment of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s ‘loss of control.’ The point to be urged here is this: The use of these ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.

Finally, for now, there is a further posture that we are invited, by God, to maintain. And that is the posture of protest prayer. I am reminded here of Karl Barth’s statement, that ‘to clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’. A Christian response to suffering is not theodicy, but struggle – the struggle of taking God’s side against the world’s disorder, and of refusing to treat suffering and paralysing fear as an acceptable part of a larger harmonious vision that God intends for human flourishing.

God’s Goodness & Trustworthiness

I was glad to be up on Aotea (Great Barrier Island) this week to speak to a group of mostly teenagers and twenty-somethings at an event called Going Further. My brief: talk about (i) God’s goodness and trustworthiness, and (ii) God’s holiness. A number of people have asked me for a copy of the talks. They were not recorded (except by the seraphim), and, as per my usual practice, I departed often and widely from my notes. But for those who may be interested in the thrust of what I said, I thought it worth posting my notes here. I will post those on God’s holiness later.

God’s Goodness & Trustworthiness

There’s a classic passage in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in which Mr. & Mrs. Beaver are telling the Pevensie children about Aslan, whom they are about to meet. They become quite nervous when they learn that Aslan is a lion:

‘Is – is he a man?’ asked Lucy. ‘Aslan a man!’ said Mr. Beaver sternly. ‘Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion’. ‘Ooh’, said Susan, ‘I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion’. ‘That you will, dearie, and make no mistake’, said Mrs. Beaver; ‘if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly’. ‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you’.[1]

I plan to return to this passage when we consider God’s holiness, but tonight is about an invitation to think together about Mr Beaver’s words – ‘But he’s good’.

Life is like an omelette, and jazz

A mature life – which is the life that the Spirit calls us into and gathers us up into in Jesus Christ – is a life that requires a lot of broken eggs. As you already know, life is messy.

I’m suspicious of people who have life sorted out all too neatly. And I’m suspicious of theology that’s too tidy. Theology that speaks to the deep realities of life is more like an omelette than it is like a neat hard-boiled egg. Theology that speaks to the deepest realities of life will have a certain messiness and unpredictability about it – because life is more like a Jackson Pollock painting than it is like a Rubik’s cube. And even the life of faith is more like jazz than it is like techno.

I’m reminded of the book All Creatures Great and Small, where James Herriot tells of how he stripped to the waist one night in a cold barn in the middle of a North Yorkshire winter and laid on his back in cow dung and mud, straining to pull a new calf from its mother. And the whole time he was struggling in the muck and the mud he was cursing under his breath the lovely picture of birth he had been shown in textbooks back at the veterinary college in Glasgow. The photos in the textbooks were of vets dressed in white lab coats, standing in a clean concrete holding stall, delivering a calf without a drop of blood or muck around.

That’s not a picture of reality. Most questions that we wrestle with in life arise when we’re waist deep in muck and mud, when we’re drowning in more questions than we have answers and when we’ve got cold and sharp wind, mud and muck to contend with. And so if we spend our life trying to avoid the muck then we are in danger of living an unexamined life, a life in which there are no longer any satisfying answers at all because we are just too afraid to ask any decent questions. And the mature life is more about questions than it is about answers. And it’s about learning to really define and give voice to the right kinds of questions. And that takes time … and patience … and community … and humility … and a certain resolve.

And it’s the same with our life with God. We don’t start out by thinking about God in sterile settings. We start out by living. And living as we do, we have a bundle of beliefs, mostly passed on to us by others.

And so when it comes to the question of God’s goodness, or of God’s love, or of God’s steadfastness, or of God’s whatever, where do we start? And upon what basis or for what reason do we believe that God is like this and not like something else? And in regards to tonight’s topic, upon what basis might we believe that God is good and trustworthy?

And it gets even more interesting because if we believe that truth is not a set of propositions but that truth is a person (as in John 14.6: ‘I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life), then what we are trying to understand isn’t a something but a someone, and that gets messier and a lot more interesting and a lot more open-ended because to engage with a someone – as opposed to a something – is to engage with a living dynamic who is on the move and who refuses to be contained by us and by our categories of thought.

So what is it about the story that the community of Jesus lives by which makes it believe that God is altogether good, merciful, just and unconditionally loving, rather than unreliable or wicked?

Defining God’s goodness & trustworthiness

For the sake of time, I simply want to say that Christian theology has a very specific logic at work, and that that logic determines what we can and what we cannot say about God. And that logic has a name. His name is Jesus of Nazareth, and Christian theology, at its best, is wrapped up in him and in his own witness to God. Christian theology, at its best, never seeks to say anything new or novel, but only to point, and to keep pointing, like John the Baptist, to the revelation of God in Jesus.

That said, we also need to say that any knowledge that we now have of God is as St Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 13.12: ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’. In other words, our knowledge of God is knowledge that reaches across what theologians call an eschatological boundary. In other words, it’s a knowledge that reaches across the discontinuity created by our own death. And what this means is that for now we know God as and only as we are carried into the death of another, and there we share the knowledge that is part of the life of the Kingdom. This is the Church’s story. And in order to breathe in the air of this story and to know the Author of this story we need to be a part of a community where the story is constantly being lived and recited and lived and recited. And the way that the community of Jesus tells this story is through bread and wine and water and words.

Let’s move on.

So why should we think or assume that God is good? More specifically, why should we assume that God is all-good, or even that God is what medieval philosophers called ‘the highest good’? And why should we assume that God’s intentions for us are good?

Let me take a stab at it. I want to suggest that we know that God is good and God is trustworthy because God takes responsibility for all that God makes.

I want to say that ‘goodness’ and ‘trustworthiness’ are not things that can be described in the abstract, i.e., as some sort of independent and pure idea which is then transported onto God. Rather, I want to say that goodness and trustworthiness is defined and made evident in what God does. It’s not that God’s actions make God good so much as it is that God’s actions are the expression or overflow of who God is as the fountainhead of all goodness. If we could somehow get inside of God we would discover a community of persons who know one another fully, who love one another completely, and whose enjoyment for one other another is contagious. And in the Incarnation – i.e., in the act of God, as it were, becoming one of us and sharing our broken humanity – God opens himself up to us so that we can see and so that we can participate in the knowledge and the love and the enjoyment that the Father and the Son and the Spirit have with one another.

So in Christ, and by the sheer gift of the Spirit, we get to listen into and to participate in (which is what prayer is) the eternal conversation that is going on 24/7 between the Spirit and the Son and the Father. And the more we listen, the more we get to see that their conversation does not consist of random updates (like with Twitter or Facebook) but that it’s purposeful. In fact, the reason that we get to listen in is purposeful too. It’s because God doesn’t want to be God without us, and so God lives with us and brings us into his own communion so that we may have no other God before him, so that we may learn that the only way to be fully alive is to be fully alive in community, and so that we may learn to serve life rather than death.

And for those three things – (i) that we may have no other God before him, (ii) that we may learn that the only way to be fully alive is to be fully alive in community, and (iii) that we may learn to serve life rather than death – God speaks torah to us. He gives us his law, his teaching, his instruction. In fact, one of the great blessings that God gives us is his gift of the commandments.

So we have Moses’ great speech in Deuteronomy 4:

So now, Israel, give heed to the statutes and ordinances that I am teaching you to observe, so that you may live … You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him? And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today? (vv. 1–8)

Israel knew that God was good and trustworthy not because they sat around and philosophised about God’s goodness and trustworthiness, nor because they went away to some beautiful island and heard a talk about it. Israel knew that God was good and trustworthy because they had experienced in their own story the saving action of One who had heard their cry and liberated them from Egypt. And Israel knew that God was good and trustworthy because the God who had heard their cry and gave himself to journey with them gave them torah, words by which they might live and order their life, words that would bring life and not death.

You see, the Lord’s commands are not arbitrary. Rather, they are, as the book of Deuteronomy puts it, for our ‘well-being’ (4.40), ‘for our lasting good … to keep us alive’ (6.24); indeed they are our ‘very life’ (32.47). This is because they are that which enables human life in the first place: ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord’ (8.3).[2]

In fact, the Bible also tells us that it’s not just the law that reveals that God is good but also that God ‘has not left himself without a witness in doing good – giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy’ (Acts 14.17). Here is God blessing creation so that creation can be the theatre of his glory and the stage upon which his covenant promises might be acted out. This is echoed again in James 1.17: ‘Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’.[3]

Here James tells us is that God does not change, that God is faithful, that God is trustworthy, that the God who confronts us when we are 10 and chucking a wobbly is the same God who confronts us when we are 38 and chucking a wobbly. And you see, if you’re like me and you’ve committed the same sin for the 700th time, and then you ask God for forgiveness, you begin to have a fear in your mind that this time God might say, ‘No! I’ve had enough! That’s it! You’ve blown it!’ We begin to fear that we might wear out God’s patience, God’s will to forgive, God’s friendly welcome of us, God’s joy in our repentance, God’s joy in our presence. But James says, ‘No. God does not change’. God is not erratic or unreliable. God is not soft one day and hard the next. God isn’t like your father or your mother or your boss or anyone else. God is consistent. The God we pray to on Monday is the same God we pray to on Thursday. God is constant in his compassion. He is constant in his love. He is constant in his patience. He is constant in his perseverance. He is constant in his forgiveness. He is constant in his goodness. And he is constant in his determination to know you and for you to know him. Here is a God who is trustworthy.[4]

Certainly the Bible is univocal in the claim that God is good and trustworthy:

  • ‘Good and upright is the LORD’. (Ps 25.8)
  • ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him’. (Ps 34.8)
  • ‘For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations’. (Ps 100.5)
  • ‘Praise the Lord, for the Lord is good’. (Ps 135.3)
  • ‘The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made’. (Ps 145.9)
  • ‘Give thanks to the Lord of hosts, for the Lord is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’ (Jer 33.11)
  • ‘The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy’. (Ps 111.7)

And then, of course, there are Jesus’ own words as recorded in Mark 10 and Luke 18: ‘No one is good but God alone’.[5]

So what’s at stake in even thinking about God’s goodness and trustworthiness?

And what is the greatest challenge to God’s goodness and trustworthiness?[6]

For everything that I spoken of so far is way too easy, and way too unsatisfactory, to leave the question of God’s goodness and trustworthiness here.

Suffering – the challenge to God’s goodness & trustworthiness

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.[7]

So penned Elie Wiesel in his moving record of his childhood in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. For Wiesel, as for countless others – both inside and outside of the camps – the systematic extermination of millions of human beings – whether Jews, political activists, or homosexuals – meant the death of faith and of God.

As Wiesel wrote in another place:

In truth, Auschwitz signifies not only the failure of two thousand years of Christian civilization, but also the defeat of the intellect that wants to find Meaning – with a capital M – in history. What Auschwitz embodied has none. The executioner killed for nothing, the victim died for nothing. No God ordered the one to prepare the stake, nor the other to mount it. During the Middle Ages, the Jews, when they chose death, were convinced that by their sacrifice they were glorifying and sanctifying God’s name. At Auschwitz the sacrifices were without point, without faith, without divine inspiration. If the suffering of one human being has any meaning, that of six million has none. Numbers have their importance; they prove, according to Piotr Rawicz, that God has gone mad.[8]

The fact is that ‘suffering is especially a problem for the person who believes, or who wants to believe in God’,[9] and especially for the person or community who want to claim that God is good. For, you see, suffering, the kind of suffering that ‘plucks the tongue from the head and the voice from the heart’,[10] demonstrates the logical incoherence of Christianity. So does the fact that among the six million who died in Auschwitz there were some who sang and shared their soup and sacrificed themselves for others. [Thanks for this point Kim]

But ‘it is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises … [Suffering] is the open wound of life in this world’.[11]

The problem was famously articulated some 300 years before Christ by Epicures (341–270 BCE) who argued that once we recognise the reality and evil of suffering we are forced to choose one of four options if we believe in a good God:

1. God wills to remove evil but can’t.
2. God can and won’t.
3. God can’t and won’t.
4. God wants to remove evil and can.

Indeed, C.S. Lewis once rejected the existence of God on the basis of the existence of evil: ‘My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust’.[12] He reasoned that

(a) there is evil in the world + (b) evil is incompatible with God = (c) therefore God does not exist.

Or as the great Jewish theologian, Martin Buber, put it:

How is life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz? … Can one still hear His word [i.e., his Torah]? Can one still, as an individual and as a people, enter at all into a dialogical relationship with Him? Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever”?[13]

To be sure, it seems that people of faith, and people of no faith, have always sought to articulate answers to these most challenging of questions.

Here are some inadequate (though not necessarily entirely wrong) responses to the problem of suffering:

1.       Suffering is an illusion.

2.       Suffering is a product of dualism. Suffering is the inescapable reality of things in a universe where the forces of Sauron and the forces of the Ilúvatar (the All-Father of Middle-Earth and of all other earths) battle it out.

3.       Suffering represents the unalterable will of God.

4.       Suffering is a punishment for sin.

5.       Suffering happens because God is finite or limited.

6.       Suffering serves some greater good.

7.       Suffering is inevitable.

8.       Most suffering – not all – happens because love requires the free to do good or evil.

9.       Pain is ‘good’ when it alerts us to problems that require attention. But pain is ‘evil’ when it makes no sense, when it seems to produce harm not good.

10.  The religion of the Bible puts human suffering into a cosmic context: the battle of good and evil, God and Satan.

11.  God both allows and sends suffering.

12.  It’s not our suffering that matters most but our response to it.

13.  Suffering can deepen our relationship with God and with one another.

14.  Suffering forms us for service.

In his book, The Good and Beautiful God, James Smith writes:

Terrible things happen to wonderful people. Wonderful things happen to awful people. We cannot look around the world we live in and build a case that sinners are punished and righteous people are blessed. Reality simply does not bear this out.[14]

And then Smith goes on to quote from the theological giant of the fourth century, St Augustine:

We do not know why God’s judgment makes a good [person] poor, and a wicked [person] rich … Nor why the wicked [person] enjoys the best of health, whilst the [person] of religion wastes away in illness … Even then it is not consistent … Good [people] also have good fortune and evil [people] find evil fortunes.[15]

Smith and Augustine are both right. But I would want to go even further and say:

We can’t know that God is good by looking at history. John Howard Yoder is right here: ‘we can no longer so simply identify the course of history with Providence. We have learned that history reveals as much of Antichrist as of Christ’.[16]

And we can’t know that God is good by looking at creation. [e.g., The same beautiful bird that God used to speak to Howard was then attacked by his cute friends. And the same beautiful and calm water across which you might come to a peaceful and beautiful island, is the same water that would swallow you up were you to fall in and loose the strength to swim]. So we can’t know that God is good by looking at creation – whether we are talking about a sunset, or about our relationships, or about the fact that something that we have been praying about for 15 years has finally been answered as we had hoped.]

So where can we look?

Jesus – the revelation of God’s goodness & trustworthiness

Consider this poem by Vinicio Aguilar which arises out of the struggle for human dignity in Central America:

Where was god, daddy; where, where, where,
when the commissioners
broke the fence,
burnt the farm,
destroyed the harvest,
killed the pigs,
raped Imelda,
drank our rum?


Where was god, daddy; where, where, where,
when because we complained
the state judge came and fined us
the bailiff came to arrest us
and even the priest came to insult us?


Well then daddy; we must now tell him plainly
that he must come down sometimes
to be with us.
You can see how we are, daddy,
with no fields sown, no farm, no pigs, nothing, and he
as if nothing had happened. It isn’t right, you know, daddy.
If he’s really up there
let him come down.
Let him come down to taste this cruel hunger with us
let him come down and sweat
in the maize-fields, come down to be imprisoned,
let him come down and spew on the rich man
who throws the stone and hides his hand,
on the venal judge,
on the unworthy priest,
and on the bailiffs and commissioners
who rob and kill
the peasants;
because I certainly don’t want to tell my son when he asks
me one day:

HE WAS UP THERE, boy.[17]

The good news is gathered up in the words of one who said about himself, ‘Whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn 14.9).[18]

Friends, there is no God behind Jesus Christ. But in Jesus we are given to see God in his fullness. As the Fourth Gospel puts it, ‘And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth … No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known’ (John 1.14, 18).

Reflect with me for a moment on this ‘Sketch of the Trinity’ by William Blake. And ask yourself, Where am I in this picture? Whether you know it or not, whether this is already or not yet your story, you are in Christ. And where is Christ? Christ is in the bosom of the Father. How? By the gift of the Spirit. Here in the Father’s embrace of the Son by the Spirit is the revelation of God’s goodness and trustworthiness. Here alone, in Christ, can we know that God is good, that God is faithful, that God is trustworthy.

And it is specifically in the wounded Christ that we really see the goodness and trustworthiness of God. In fact, we do more than see God’s goodness and trustworthiness in the wounded Christ – we participate in it. His life becomes ours. His wounds become ours and our wounds are healed in his.

And in that participation – which is the life that the Bible calls faith – we come to see that in the face of unspeakable suffering and tragedy the questions of God’s goodness and of God’s trustworthiness are not ‘problems’ to be ‘worked out’ but realities in which to live, and that that life is opened up to us in the wounded heart of God.[19] There is no ‘answer’ to the problem of suffering!

There’s a very well-known Christian philosopher named Nick Wolterstorff who, some years ago, ‘lost’ his 25-year-old son Eric in a mountain-climbing accident. And I can tell you that there are few things more painful than to bury your own child. Nick decided to pen a memoir of his journey of grief in what was later published as Lament for a Son. And as we draw to a close, I would like to read you some sections of that book:

The world looks different now. The pinks have become purple, the yellows brown. Mountains now wear crosses on their slopes. Hymns and psalms have reordered themselves so that lines I scarcely noticed now leap out: “He will not suffer thy foot to stumble.” Photographs that once evoked the laughter of delighted reminiscence now cause only pain. Why are the photographs of him as a little boy so incredibly hard for me to look at? This one here, holding a fish longer than he is tall, six years old? Why is it easier to look at him as a grownup? The pleasure of seeing former students is colored by the realization that they were his friends and that while they thrive he rots.

Something is over. In the deepest levels of my existence something is finished, done. My life is divided into before and after. A friend of ours whose husband died young said it meant for her that her youth was over. My youth was already over. But I know what she meant. Something is over.

Especially in places where he and I were together this sense of something being over washes over me. It happens not so much at home, but other places. A moment in our lives together of special warmth and intimacy and vividness, a moment when I specially prized him, a moment of hope and expectancy and openness to the future: I remember the moment. But instead of lines of memory leading up to his life in the present, they all enter a place of cold inky blackness and never come out. The book slams shut. The story stops, it doesn’t finish. The future closes, the hopes get crushed. And now instead of those shiny moments being things we can share together in delighted memory, I, the survivor, have to bear them alone.

So it is with all memories of him. They all lead into that blackness. It’s all over, over, over. All I can do is remember him. I can’t experience him. The person to whom these memories are attached is no longer here with me, standing up. He’s only in my memory now, not in my life. Nothing new can happen between us. Everything is sealed tight, shut in the past. I’m still here. I have to go on. I have to start over. But this new start is so different from the first. Then I wasn’t carrying this load, this thing that’s over.

Sometimes I think that happiness is over for me. I look at photos of the past and immediately comes the thought: that’s when we were still happy. But I can still laugh, so I guess that isn’t quite it. Perhaps what’s over is happiness as the fundamental tone of my existence. Now sorrow is that.

Sorrow is no longer the islands but the sea …

I remember delighting in them – trees, art, house, music, pink morning sky, work well done, flowers, books. I still delight in them. I’m still grateful. But the zest is gone. The passion is cooled, the striving quieted, the longing stilled. My attachment is loosened. No longer do I set my heart on them. I can do without them. They don’t matter. Instead of rowing, I float. The joy that comes my way I savor. But the seeking, the clutching, the aiming, is gone. I don’t suppose anyone on the outside notices. I go through my paces. What the world gives, I still accept. But what it promises, I no longer reach for.

I’ve become an alien in the world, shyly touching it as if it’s not mine. I don’t belong any more. When someone loved leaves home, home becomes mere house.[20]

Here Nick describes the suffering which is the valley of the shadow of death. And we must not make light of that shadow for the valley is, in every sense, dark. Death is never OK, and the valley of its shadow is never a location to which we ought to be resolved. But – and it’s a huge BUT – this is precisely the valley in which God too hangs out. As Nick puts it:

For a long time I knew that God is not the impassive, unresponsive, unchanging being portrayed by the classical theologians. I knew of the pathos of God. I knew of God’s response of delight and of his response of displeasure. But strangely, his suffering I never saw before.

God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers. The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart. Through the prism of my tears I have seen a suffering God.

It is said of God that no one can behold his face and live. I always thought this meant that no one could see his splendor and live. A friend said perhaps it meant that no one could see his sorrow and live. Or perhaps his sorrow is splendor.

And great mystery: to redeem our brokenness and lovelessness the God who suffers with us did not strike some mighty blow of power but sent his beloved son to suffer like us, through his suffering to redeem us from suffering and evil.

Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it.

But I never saw it. Though I confessed that the man of sorrows was God himself, I never saw the God of sorrows. Though I confessed that the man bleeding on the cross was the redeeming God, I never saw God himself on the cross, blood from sword and thorn and nail dripping healing into the world’s wounds.

What does this mean for life, that God suffers? I’m only beginning to learn. When we think of God the Creator, then we naturally see the rich and powerful of the earth as his closest image. But when we hold steady before us the sight of God the Redeemer redeeming from sin and suffering by suffering, then perhaps we must look elsewhere for earth’s closest icon. Where? Perhaps to the face of that woman with soup tin in hand and bloated child at side. Perhaps that is why Jesus said that inasmuch as we show love to such a one, we show love to him.[21]

Friends, we know that God is good, and that God is trustworthy, because – and only because – Jesus, who is God’s Word made flesh, has revealed God’s goodness and God’s trustworthiness to us, and that supremely in his own experience of god-abandonment. And the cross is the word of God’s promise, it is the action of the promise-keeping God. And, of course, there is a sense in which his promises are all we have. God is only as good as his word. So, for example, how do you know that God loves you? Forgives you? Journeys with you? You don’t always feel loved. You don’t always feel forgiven. You don’t always feel accompanied. At the end of the day we only know that we are loved and forgiven and accompanied because of the promises of the promise-keeping God. We literally live by the promises of God. And the promises of God are literally the word of the cross. So think for a moment: when has God ever failed to be for you all that he promised to be in his cross? God is trustworthy! God is good! And we know this only because Jesus, who is God’s promise to us, has proclaimed to us in his own broken body what God’s goodness and God’s trustworthiness look like.

A final thought:

Thinking and talking about God’s goodness and trustworthiness demands an eschatology

That is, it demands a sense of time which has already begun to open up in the resurrection of Jesus but which is yet to reach its fulness. It demands a future, or what theologians call ‘eschatology’. And it is eschatology which makes life so unlike a soap opera, and reminds us that no matter how many glimpses of God’s goodness and trustworthiness we experience now, and no matter how much richer these experiences make life for us, their full satisfaction awaits us, and God.

And so we live now in faith, love and hope. And hope sees in the resurrection of Jesus not the eternity of heaven but the future of the very earth on which his cross stands and which his cross secures.

And so we live now in this tension, in this time between the times, in this linear space between what has passed and all that is coming. This is called living in hope. And hope means that we are unable to reconcile ourselves with the laws and constraints of this earth, neither with the inevitability of death nor with the evil that constantly threatens the end that God is moving all of creation towards.

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (London: Fontana Lions, 1980), 75.

[2] It’s interesting that the first thing that is named as being ‘good’ in the Bible is not God but ‘light’ (Gen 1.4) – light, to be sure, which appears at God’s bidding; light which is literally spoken into being. In fact, the word ‘good’ appears 12 times in Genesis 1–2 alone, suggesting that if creation is good, it must say something about the Creator and about the way that the Creator who alone is good in himself does not keep that goodness to himself, but longs to share it, longs that creation may mirror it and participate in it. So there is a sense in which creaturely goodness is always borrowed goodness. But what we are given to see in Jesus Christ is that God is in himself perfectly good and that God delights to share that goodness: He is the God who gives of himself so unbegrudgingly and without keeping any records.

[3] And if we read Psalms like Psalm 89, we see that God’s faithfulness to creation is undergirded by his covenant with creation. And we are reminded that creation is good because it is the theatre, the stage, the location upon which and in which the story of God’s covenant can be played out. So what creation is good for is being a object of God’s blessing. What creation is good for is creatures. What creation is good for is the resurrection of Jesus. God’s goodness has to do with God’s ‘beauty’ and God’s ‘excellence’. The Hebrew word for ‘good’ is tob and means ‘pleasant’ or ‘joyful’ or ‘agreeable’. And we see this sense in the Genesis account of creation itself, that when God creates, what God creates is good, even very good, i.e. ‘wholly functional and proper’. It’s not a statement about the moral worth or otherwise of creation. It’s a confession that creation is working, is fruitful and is beautiful. It’s a confession that creation reflects God’s creative goodness, reflects the fact that God is for creation, that God has planned nothing evil, reflects the fact that the pain and brokenness which set the scene from Genesis 3 onwards are at odds with God’s good intention for creation. Thinking more theologically, creation is good because it sets the stage upon which God’s action of creating sons and daughters in Christ might be carried out.

[4] As an aside, it might be worth noting that the Bible rarely describes God as ‘trustworthy’. The word ‘trustworthy’ is used to describe the posture of the person of faith, i.e., those who trust in God and in the promises of God, those who look to God and to God’s righteousness. What the Bible does bear witness to, however, is One who is in every sense worthy of our trust, and it points out why we have every reason to trust in God, and why only the fool would not trust in God, even when the circumstances call God and God’s trustworthiness into question.

[5] One way that the Bible bears witness to this is in recalling the way that God goes into battle against his enemies: ‘The LORD is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him, even in a rushing flood. He will make a full end of his adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness’ (Nahum 1.7–8). Also noteworthy is that sometimes our experience of God’s goodness appears to be qualified. E.g., Lam 3.25; Ps 73.1. Of course, this begs the question of how Israel and then the Church came to believe that God is good. For it is not self-evident that this is indeed the case. So we read in Psalm 4.6, ‘There are many who say, “O that we might see some good!”’. To see God as good, therefore, seems to be something that does not come ‘naturally’ to us but requires the eyes of faith.

[6] Few have put the problem more succinctly than the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (perhaps the most famous atheist of the 20th century) who argued that if God does not exist, it is meaningless to speak of ‘good’. He wrote: ‘The existentialist … finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that ‘the good’ exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only [people]. Dostoievsky once wrote, ‘If God did not exist, everything would be permitted’, and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist …’. Stephen Priest, ed., Jean-Paul Sartre: Basic Writings (London/New York: Routledge, 2001), 32.

[7] Elie Wiesel, Night (trans. Stella Rodway; London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1960), 45.

[8] Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time (New York: Schocken Books, 1982), 183.

[9] John W. de Gruchy, Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective (London: Collins, 1987), 102.

[10] Daniel Berrigan in Hans-Ruedi Weber, On a Friday Noon: Meditations Under the Cross (Grand Rapids/Geneva: Wm. B. Eerdmans/World Council of Churches, 1979), 28.

[11] Jürgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (trans. Margaret Kohl; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993), 47, 49.

[12] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: HarperCollins, 1995), 41. The famous Scottish philosopher David Hume put it thus: ‘Is he [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?’ David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (Stilwell: Publishing, 2006), 63.

[13] Martin Buber, On Judaism (New York: Shocken Books, 1967), 224.

[14] James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 45.

[15] Cited in Ibid. 45–6.

[16] John Howard Yoder, A Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), 55.

[17] Cited in Julia Esquivel Velasquez, ‘A Letter from Central America’, International Review of Missions 66 (1977), 249–50. Also in Thorwald Lorenzen, Resurrection and Discipleship: Interpretive Models, Biblical Reflections, Theological Consequences (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1995), 261–2.

[18] This means that in order to come to a place where we know that God is trustworthy and that God is good takes a miracle. It is not self-evident. It takes revelation. And it takes faith. And both revelation and faith are gifts. More specifically, it takes being taken down into death – being put to death in the death of Christ, being taken into his personhood, and into his sufferings.

[19] So Donald M. MacKinnon, ‘Atonement and Tragedy’ in Borderlands of Theology and Other Essays (ed. George W. Roberts and Donovan E. Smucker; Philadelphia/New York: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1968), 104: ‘It is a lesson to be learnt from tragedy that there is no solution of the problem of evil; it is a lesson which Christian faith abundantly confirms, even while it transforms the teaching by the indication of its central mystery. In the Cross the conflicting claims of truth and mercy are reconciled by deed and not by word. The manner of their reconciliation is something which lies beyond the frontier of our comprehension; we can only describe and re-describe’.

[20] Nicholas P. Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1987), 46–7, 51.

[21] Ibid. 81–2.

Powerpoint slides here.


Sarah Coakley on science and belief in God

Sarah Coakley shares two related articles on the relationship between science and belief in God. In the first, God and Evolution: A New Proposal, she argues that:

[I]t is vital to avoid, in the case of pre-cultural evolution, the presumption that “God” competes with the evolutionary process as a (very big) player in the temporal unfolding of “natural selection.”

Once we are released from that false presumption, “God” is no longer – and idolatrously – construed as problematically interventionist (or feebly failing in such) along the same temporal plane as the evolutionary process itself.

Rather, God is that-without-which-there-would-be-no-evolution-at-all. God is the atemporal undergirder and sustainer of the whole process of apparent contingency or “randomness,” yet – we can say in the spirit of Augustine – simultaneously closer to its inner workings than it is to itself.

As such, God is both “within” the process and “without” it. To put this in richly trinitarian terms: God, the Holy Spirit, is the perpetual invitation and lure of the creation to return to its source in the Father, yet never without the full – and suffering – implications of incarnate Sonship.

Once we see the possibility of understanding the contingency of pre-cultural evolution in this way, we need not – as so much science and religion “dialogue” has done in recent years – declare the evolutionary process as necessarily “deistically” distanced in some sense from God.

Rather, I propose in contrast that God is “kenotically” or self-sacrificially infused (not by divine loss or withdrawal, but by an over-generous pouring out) into every causal joint of the creative process, yet precisely without overt disruption of apparent “randomness.”

In response to the objection that evolutionary contingency – and genuine human freedom – appear to be logically compatible with secret divine guidance, Coakley suggests that ‘God is like a chess master playing an 8-year-old chess novice’.

Coakley then turns to the problem of suffering and sin, noting again that here ‘there is an equally seductive modern misapprehension to avert: the presumption that dying, or indeed evolutionary “extinction,” is the worst thing that can happen to anyone or thing’. Distancing herself from the heresy of Meliorism (of which PT Forsyth was also keen to combat), here Coakley avers that avoidable suffering, victimisation, and abuse are not to justified but are ‘to be heard christologically as an insistence that the deepest agony, loss, and apparent wastefulness in God’s creation may, from the perspective of atemporal divinity (and yet also in the Son’s agony and “wasted” death), be spanned by the Spirit’s announcement of resurrection hope’:

Thus, it is not that God has not intervened in the history of the evolutionary process to put right the ills of randomness and freedom.

For in one sense God is “intervening” constantly – if by that we mean that God is perpetually sustaining us, loving us into existence, pouring God’s self into every secret crack and joint of the created process, and inviting the human will, in the lure of the Spirit, into an ever-deepening engagement with the implications of the Incarnation, its “groanings” (as St Paul puts it in Romans 8), for the sake of redemption.

God, in short, is always intervening; but only rarely do we see this when the veil becomes “thin,” and the alignment between divine, providential will and evolutionary or human “cooperation” momentarily becomes complete.

Such, we might hypothesise, was Christ’s resurrection, which we call a miracle because it seems, from a “natural” and scientific perspective, both unaccountable and random.

Yet, from a robustly theological perspective, it might be entirely natural, the summation indeed of the entire trinitarian evolutionary process and thus its secret key.

In the second article, Bridging the Divide Between Theology and Science, Coakley builds on the aforementioned article and builds a case for ‘a model of science and theology as disciplines that mutually inspire, but chasten, each other’. Again, well worth reading.


On the cost and grace of parish ministry – Part XIV

‘Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never’. (Elie Wiesel. Night, 45).

So penned Elie Wiesel in the moving record of his childhood in the death camps of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. For Wiesel, as for countless others – both inside and outside the camps – the systematic extermination of millions of human beings – whether Jews, political activists, homosexuals, or others – meant the death of faith and of God. In fact, as John de Gruchy perceptively notes in his Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis: A South African Perspective, ‘suffering is especially a problem for the person who believes, or who wants to believe in God. Yet, paradoxically, the problem can only be handled from the perspective of faith’ (p. 102).

There can be no real argument that ‘suffering is built into the fabric of human existence’ (Ibid., p. 97), and that questions of suffering pose the most real and existentially-alive challenge to belief in God. Suffering, the kind of suffering that ‘plucks the tongue from the head and the voice from the heart’ (Daniel Berrigan in Hans-Ruedi Weber, On a Friday Noon: Meditations Under the Cross, p. 28), is both a challenge and opportunity for Christian belief as well as for pastoral ministry because it is held to demonstrate the logical incoherence of Christianity.

One of the most influential novels of last century was The Plague (1947) by the French-Algerian author, philosopher, and journalist Albert Camus (1913–1960). The Plague recalls a plague (oddly enough) which is causing untold suffering and death, underscoring the universal condition of humankind. Dr Reuss, the main character, a compassionate physician, says at one point, ‘Since … the world is shaped by death mightn’t it be better for God if we refuse to believe in Him and struggle with all our might against death, without raising our eyes toward the heaven where He sits in silence?’ (p. 128.). Elsewhere there is a scene where a priest, an unbeliever and the doctor surround the bed of a little boy who is dying. He suffers in pain. The priest asks God for help: ‘My God, spare this child’ (p. 217). The boy dies. Later the priest declares, ‘That sort of thing is revolting because it passes our human understanding. But perhaps we should love what we cannot understand’. The doctor responds: ‘“No, Father. I’ve a very different idea of love. And until my dying day I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture”’ (p. 218).

At another time, Camus was returning home from church when a six year old girl asked him why little girls starve in Africa while she has plenty to eat: ‘Doesn’t God love them as much as he does me?’ His inability to provide an answer birthed the conclusion that there was no God. To this, C.S. Lewis may have replied (as he did in The Problem of Pain) that

‘The problem of reconciling human suffering with the existence of a God who loves, is only insoluble so long as we attach a trivial meaning to the word “love”, and look on things as if man were the centre of them. Man is not the centre. God does not exist for the sake of man. Man does not exist for his own sake. “Thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they are and were created.” We were made not primarily that we may love God (though we were made for that too) but that God may love us, that we may become objects in which the Divine love may rest “well pleased”. To ask that God’s love should be content with us as we are is to ask that God should cease to be God: because He is what He is, His love must, in the nature of things, be impeded and repelled, by certain stains in our present character, and because He already loves us He must labour to make us lovable’. (p. 36)

On 4 June 1886, T.H. Huxley penned a letter to a Sir John Skelton. The letter concluded with these words: ‘… there is amazingly little evidence of “reverential care for unoffending creation” in the arrangements of nature, that I can discover. If our ears were sharp enough to hear all the cries of pain that are uttered by men and beasts, we should be deafened by one continuous scream! And yet the wealth of superfluous loveliness in the world condemns pessimism. It is a hopeless riddle’ (Leonard Huxley, Life and Letters of Thomas Henry Huxley, in Three Volumes, 2:353). Again, the question of suffering is unquestionably among the most difficult for faith, and so for pastoral ministry. So Jürgen Moltmann in The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God: ‘It is in suffering that the whole human question about God arises … [Suffering] is the open wound of life in this world’ (pp. 47, 49). So too Lance Morrow, in a Time Magazine article entitled ‘Evil’:

‘The historian Jeffrey Burton Russell asks, ‘What kind of God is this? Any decent religion must face the question squarely, and no answer is credible that cannot be given in the presence of dying children’. Can one propose a God who is partly evil? Elie Wiesel, who was in Auschwitz as a child, suggests that perhaps God has ‘retracted himself’ in the matter of evil. Wiesel has written, ‘God is in exile, but every individual, if he strives hard enough, can redeem mankind, and even God himself’’.

This situation is, in Moltmann’s words, ‘the open wound of life’ in which honest pastoral ministry happens. In the post-Auschwitz world, questions of suffering and theodicy have determined, dominated and challenged theology. As Rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein put it in After Auschwitz: History, Theology, and Contemporary Judaism:

‘I believe the greatest single challenge to modern Judaism arises out of the question of God and the death camps. I am amazed at the silence of contemporary Jewish theologians on this most crucial and agonizing of all Jewish issues. How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz? Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in the historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God’s punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God’s will. The agony of European Jewry cannot be likened to the testing of Job. To see any purpose in the death camps, the traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, anti-human explosion of all history as a meaningful expression of God’s purposes. The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept’. (p. 171)

And others too have asked:

‘You will sooner or later be confronted by the enigma of God’s action in history’. (Elie Wiesel, in One Generation After, as Cited in Richard L. Rubenstein and John K. Roth, Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy, p. 327)

‘Given the classical theological positions of both Judaism and Christianity, the fundamental question posed by the Holocaust is not whether the existence of a just, omnipotent God can be reconciled with radical evil. That is a philosophical question. The religious question is the following: Did God use Adolf Hitler and the Nazis as his agents to inflict terrible sufferings and death upon six million Jews, including more than one million children?’ (Ibid., p. 327)

‘The God of Holy Nothingness is ‘omnipresent’, although not in the usual sense meant by theologians. This God resides within destruction. The Holy Nothingness generates this-world and its vicissitudes from out of its own fecund plenitude. Yet, a God so involved in the world and its attendant suffering becomes deeply complicit and can only invite the wrath and enmity of her aggrieved children’. (Zachary Braiterman, (God) after Auschwitz: Tradition and Change in Post-Holocaust Jewish Thought, pp. 99–100)

And Martin Buber, in On Judaism, asks, ‘How is life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz?’ He acknowledges that one might still ‘believe in’ a God who permitted the Shoah to happen, but he questions the possibility of hearing God’s word, let alone entering into an I-Thou relationship with God: ‘Can one still hear His word? Can one still, as an individual and as a people, enter at all into a dialogical relationship with Him? Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever”?’ (p. 224).

And we could go on, citing proposed responses from Epicures, from David Hume, from Gottfried Leibniz, from John Stuart Mill, from Richard Dawkins, from C.S. Lewis, from Thomas Aquinas, from David Bentley Hart, and from others. But the intro to this post has been long enough to introduce the point that one of the surprising features of life for many when they enter the ministry is confrontation with grief and suffering of immense depth. The pastor dare not trot out glib answers which only increase the suffering and betray her or his lack of understanding. But does this mean that pastors can only, and/or must, remain silent? Yes and No.

Enter one qualified to help pastors out at this point – the Lutheran pastor/theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945). And I want to draw here upon John S. Conway’s fine essay, ‘A Meditation upon Bonhoeffer’s Last Writings from Prison’ in Glaube – Freiheit – Diktatur in Europa und den USA: Festschrift für Gerhard Besier zum 60. Geburtstag (ed. Katarzyna Stokłosa and Andrea Strübind; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), 235–44.

One of the most radical challenges to the traditional views of God’s omnipotence and of divine impassibility has come from Bonhoeffer’s pen. On 19 December 1944, from his bleak underground prison in the cellars of the Gestapo headquarters in central Berlin, Bonhoeffer sat down to write a Christmas letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer (For more on their correspondence, see Love Letters from Cell 92). In what was to be his final greeting, Bonhoeffer included in that letter a poem to be shared with his parents. The poem, which has been made into a wonderful hymn known as ‘By Gracious Powers’, reads like this:

With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
And pass, with you, into the coming year.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening:
the long days of sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
and all our life be dedicate to thine.

To-day, let candles shed their radiant greeting:
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light
leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting? –
Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.

When now the silence deepens for our hearkening
grant we may hear thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal pæan [song of triumph], in thy praise.

While all the powers of Good aid and attend us
boldly we’ll face the future, be it what may.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each new year’s day! (in Letters and Papers from Prison)

These seven short verses bespeak of Bonhoeffer’s trust in God’s enduring and comforting presence during what was the sixth Christmas season of the war and a time of impending and overwhelming disaster. By this time, Bonhoeffer had already been in Tegel prison for nineteen months, mainly in Cell 92. He had been arrested in April 1943 on suspicion of being involved in smuggling Jewish refugees into Switzerland. The investigations had dragged on without resolution for a year and a half. But then in October 1944 he had been transferred to the far more ominous Interrogation Centre of the Gestapo’s main headquarters in downtown Berlin. He now faced the even more severe charges of abetting the conspiracy which had unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate Adolf Hitler a few months earlier. He would likely be arraigned before the Chief Justice of the People’s Court, Roland Freisler, whose vindictiveness had already sentenced thousands to death for treason against the Reich, and was to do the same to Dietrich’s brother, Klaus. In the meantime the Gestapo was relentlessly trying to entrap him into incriminating confessions about his friends and relatives. What kind of a faith could withstand such ruthless pressures and still witness to God’s powers of goodness?

In this context, Bonhoeffer’s thoughts revolve around the cumulative and appalling suffering of so many people at this crucial stage of the war. From his contacts with the anti-Nazi resistance, he had learnt of the dreadful crimes committed by his countrymen against millions of Jews, Poles, Russians, gypsies and the mentally handicapped. He was equally aware that millions of his own countrymen, including members of his family, had been misled into losing their lives in the service of the Reich’s machinery of violence. How could this suffering be reconciled with a loving Christ? Where is God in all this? Why doesn’t God intervene to put a stop to it? It was just at this critical juncture that Bonhoeffer heard the news that the planned assassination of Hitler had failed. The likely consequences were all too clear, and the tone of his thinking and writing was from then on increasingly filled with foreboding. His preoccupation with suffering and death becomes even more forceful. The imagery and significance of Christ’s crucifixion became ever more real. Out of this came his shortest, but perhaps most memorable, poem, written in the same month, ‘Christians and Others’:

Men go to God when they are sore bestead [placed],
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead;
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead;
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving. (in Letters and Papers from Prison)

This poem arose out of Bonhoeffer’s bible readings and meditations on the subject of suffering. He was certainly not just preoccupied with his own fate, but rather overwhelmed by the lethal prospects which all his friends in the resistance movement now faced. He knew enough about personal anguish to give authenticity to his statements on suffering. His purpose was to clarify his understanding of a theologia crucis, a theology of the cross.

The poem opens with the universal human desire for relief, for removal of pain, for cessation of suffering, for an end to hunger, for the cleansing of a guilty conscience, for deliverance from death. This makes their religion a form of spiritual pharmacy. But all too often these prayers are not answered. By 1944 the mass murders seemed unstoppable. And Bonhoeffer interpreted the events as Christ being tortured and crucified anew but this time on Nazi Golgothas. Why did God not respond to such heartfelt petitions? Why does it seem that heaven is silent?

Bonhoeffer proposed something of a response to these kinds of questions in his letter dated 16 July 1944:

‘The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world and on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and this is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8.17 [‘This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases”‘] makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering’. (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 134)

Bonhoeffer argues that to be a Christian is to stand by Christ in his hour of grieving, on the cross, in jail, in the bombed-out streets and concentration camps. This is a reversal of what ‘religious’ people typically expect.

So Bonhoeffer:

‘Here is the decisive difference between Christianity and all religions. Man’s religiosity makes him look in his distress to the power of God in the world: God the deus ex machina. The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help. To that extent we may say that the development towards the world’s coming of age … opens up a way of seeing the God of the Bible, who wins power and space in the world by his weakness’. (ibid)

Abraham Heschel, in his brilliant work The Prophets, helpfully reminds us that for the Hebrew prophets, ‘divine ethos does not operate without pathos … [God’s] ethos and pathos are one. The preoccupation with justice, the passion with which the prophets condemn injustice, is rooted in their sympathy with divine pathos’ (1:218). So we read in Isaiah 63.9–10,

In all their affliction he was afflicted,
and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.
But they rebelled and grieved his holy Spirit;
therefore he turned to be their enemy,
and himself fought against them.

God suffers because God is holy love. If God were incapable of wrath, of being moved to grief by injustice and oppression, God would not be holy; if God were incapable of suffering, of being moved to grief by the pain and agony of the victims of society, God would not be omnipotent love. In his The Crucified God, Moltmann draws out the connection between the wrath and the love of God as grounded in the life of covenant:

‘[If] one starts from the pathos of God, one does not think of God in his absoluteness and freedom, but understands his passion and his interest in terms of the history of the covenant. The more the covenant is taken seriously as the revelation of God, the more profoundly one can understand the historicity of God and history in God. If God has opened his heart in the covenant with his people, he is injured by disobedience and suffers in the people. What the Old Testament terms the wrath of God does not belong in the category of the anthropomorphic transference of lower human emotions to God, but in the category of the divine pathos. His wrath is injured love and therefore a mode of his reaction to men. Love is the source and the basis of the possibility of the wrath of God. The opposite of love is not wrath, but indifference. Indifference towards justice and injustice would be a retreat on the part of God from the covenant. But his wrath is an expression of his abiding interest in man. Anger and love do not therefore keep a balance. ‘His wrath lasts for the twinkling of an eye,’ and, as the Jonah story shows, God takes back his anger for the sake of his love in reaction to human repentance. As injured love, the wrath of God is not something that is inflicted, but a divine suffering of evil. It is a sorrow which goes through his opened heart. He suffers in his passion for his people’. (pp. 171–2)


God grieves, then, because of the rebellion of his people; God grieves because of the broken relationship between himself and his creation; God grieves because of the inevitable consequences of human sin and rebellion; God grieves because he remembers what might have been; God grieves because love always hopes! Moltmann talks about the way that God is ‘injured by disobedience and suffers in the people’ who deserve their suffering, but what of the victims of their injustice? What of those who because of the faithlessness of the people of God find it difficult to believe in God?

de Gruchy is helpful here. Again from Theology and Ministry in Context and Crisis:

‘… it is not so much God who is beyond belief, but the church which has lost its credibility. Indeed, if God has become a problem it is precisely because those who claim to believe in God have too often denied him in practice. The credibility of the church’s testimony today is bound up not so much with its intellectual ability to defend the faith, to solve the theodicy problem as traditionally stated, … but far more with the willingness of the church to participate in the suffering of Christ for the sake of the world. And this means to share in the struggle for justice. To be sure, the justification of God can only be resolved eschatologically, but that takes place penultimately in history through authentic witness to the kingdom of God. The God in whom we believe, the God revealed in the crucified Messiah, the God who is present even when he is experienced as absent, and absent when we think he is present, this God has opted to be on the side of those who suffer because of the oppression of others’. (p. 123)

And de Gruchy helpfully reminds us that the suffering of God described so poignantly and powerfully in the Old Testament is not just grief caused by a sinful and disobedient people; it is also suffering with and on behalf of those who suffer as a result of Israel’s sin – the poor, the oppressed, the hungry, the lowly and innocent ones (see p. 113). And he cites from Terence Fretheim’s The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective, p. 108: ‘The human cry becomes God’s cry, God takes up the human cry and makes it God’s own’. This is precisely what Bonhoeffer, in Discipleship, called God’s ‘hour of grieving’, an hour in which and a grieving of such that God invites his people to participate. The church is not simply the community of Christ which suffers vicariously for others. It is also itself the suffering church and itself the victim of oppression.

Certainly Bonhoeffer knew well that the sufferings and deaths he was daily made aware of could not be ascribed to the moral failings of the individuals concerned. Rather these tribulations had, and have, to be understood as the result of collective human willful sinfulness. But God has not withdrawn into a remote impassivity. Rather, God suffers alongside his creation. To repeat:

Men go to God when he sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread …


The depths of divine suffering are reached in the cross where God finds himself ‘whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead’.


So what should the responses of Christians, and of pastors, be? Not like others, who merely pass by, to whom the sight of a dead Jew on a cross is nothing. But Christians in this situation of crisis have a particular and significant calling. As Bonhoeffer notes in the last line of verse 2: ‘Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving’. In a letter written to his friend Eberhard Bethge shortly after the poem was completed, Bonhoeffer expanded on this line:

‘This is what distinguishes Christians from pagans. Jesus asked in Gethsemane, ‘Could you not watch with me one hour?’. That is a reversal of what the religious man expects from God. Man is summoned to share in God’s sufferings at the hands of a godless world.

He must therefore really live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a ‘worldly’ life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man – not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ, into the messianic event, thus fulfilling Isa. 53 now …

This being caught up into the messianic sufferings of God in Jesus Christ takes a variety of forms in the New Testament. It appears in the call to discipleship, in Jesus’ table-fellowship with sinners, in ‘conversions’ in the narrower sense of the word (e.g. Zacchaeus), in the act of the woman who was a sinner (Luke 7) – an act that she performed without any confession of sin – in the healing of the sick (Matt. 8.17; see above), in Jesus’ acceptance of children. The shepherds, like the wise men from the East, stand at the crib, not as ‘converted sinners’, but simply because they are drawn to the crib by the star just as they are. The centurion of Capernaum (who makes no confession of sin) is held up as a model of faith (cf. Jairus). Jesus ‘loved’ the rich young man. The eunuch (Acts 8) and Cornelius (Acts 10) are not standing at the edge of an abyss. Nathaniel is ‘an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile’ (John 1:47). Finally, Joseph of Arimathea and the women at the tomb. The only thing that is common to all these is their sharing in the suffering of God in Christ. That is their ‘faith’. There is nothing of religious method here. The ‘religious act’ is always something partial; ‘faith’ is something whole, involving the whole of one’s life. Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life’. (Letters and Papers from Prison), pp. 135–6)

But where shall we find the strength and the grace to become such disciples? Verse 3 of the poem boldly asserts that, despite the sins we have all committed, despite the barriers we have all erected, despite all our efforts to behave like others, religiously, nevertheless God visits all people in their distress:

God goes to every man when sore bestead,
Feeds body and spirit with his bread;
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead,
And both alike forgiving.

The second line here draws our attention to the eucharist where by sharing with us his body and his blood, Christ draws us into his pain and suffering. To repeat from the poem which we began our discussion on Bonhoeffer with:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

Here we are reminded of what Bonhoeffer explores more fully in Discipleship, namely that in his total identification with humanity in incarnation, and then by calling us into fellowship and discipleship with himself, Christ bids us to ‘come and die’.

‘The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest. Only a man thus totally committed in discipleship can experience the meaning of the cross. The cross is there, right from the beginning, he has only got to pick it up: there is no need for him to go out and look for a cross for himself, no need for him to deliberately run after suffering. Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God. Each must endure his allotted share of suffering and rejection. But each has a different share: some God deems worthy of the highest form of suffering, and gives them the grace of martyrdom, while others he does not allow to be tempted above that they are able to bear. But it is the one and the same cross in every case.

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death – we give over our lives to death. Thus it begins; the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise godfearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ. When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him, or it may be a death like Luther’s, who had to leave the monastery and go out into the world. But is the same death every time – death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call. Jesus’ summons to the rich young man was calling him to die, because only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts. But we do not want to die, and therefore Jesus Christ and his call are necessarily our death as well as our life. The call to discipleship, the baptism in the name of Jesus Christ means both death and life. The call of Christ, his baptism, sets the Christian in the middle of the daily arena against sin and the devil. Every day he encounters new temptations, and every day he must suffer anew for Jesus Christ’s sake. The wounds and scars he receives in the fray are living tokens of this participation in the cross of his Lord. But there is another kind of suffering and shame which the Christian is not spared. While it is true that only the sufferings of Christ are a means of atonement, yet since he has suffered for and borne the sins of the whole world and shares with his disciples the fruits of his passion, the Christian also has to undergo temptation, he too has to bear the sins of others; he too must bear their shame and be driven like a scapegoat from the gate of the city. But he would certainly break down under this burden, but for the support of him who bore the sins of all. The passion of Christ strengthens him to overcome the sins of others by forgiving them. He becomes the bearer of other men’s burdens – ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ’ (Gal. 6.2). As Christ bears our burdens, so we ought to bear the burdens of our fellow-men. The law of Christ, which it is our duty to fulfil, is the bearing of the cross. My brother’s burden which I must bear is not only his outward lot, his natural characteristics and gifts, but quite literally his sin. And the only way to bear that sin is by forgiving it in the power of the cross of Christ in which I now share. Thus the call to follow Christ always means a call to share the work of forgiving men their sins. Forgiveness is the Chrislike suffering which it is the Christian’s duty to bear.

But how is the disciple to know what kind of cross is meant for him? He will soon find out as he begins to follow his Lord and to share his life.

Suffering, then, is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Following Christ means passio passive, suffering because we have to suffer. That is why Luther reckoned suffering among the marks of the true Church, and one of the memoranda drawn up in preparation for the Augsburg Confession similarly defines the Church as the community of those ‘who are persecuted and martyred for the gospel’s sake’. If we refuse to take up our cross and submit to suffering and rejection at the hands of men, we forfeit our fellowship with Christ and have ceased to follow Him. But if we lose our lives in his service and carry our cross, we shall find our lives again in the fellowship of the cross with Christ. The opposite of discipleship is to be ashamed of Christ and his cross and all the offense which the cross brings in its train.

Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is therefore not at all surprising that Christians should be called upon to suffer. It is a joy and token of his grace. The acts of the early Christian martyrs are full of evidence which shows how Christ transfigures for his own the hour of their mortal agony by granting them the unspeakable assurance of his presence. In the hour of the cruelest torture they bear for his sake, they are made partakers in the perfect joy and bliss of fellowship with him. To bear the cross proves to be the only way of triumphing over suffering. This is true for all who follow Christ, because it was true for him’. (pp. 43–6)

In October, Bonhoeffer was transferred to the far more ominous and menacing Gestapo prison in central Berlin. But the evidence that we have is that his own faith and trust in his crucified Lord led him to identify more and more with the future hope of resurrection beyond death. So he could therefore face the inevitable testing through suffering by affirming his belief in God’s guiding hand, and the assuredness of God’s nearness. In his final poem ‘By the powers of Good’, the central verse takes up this issue:

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

When C.S. Lewis lost his wife he wrote at one point in his anguish: ‘Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll gladly listen. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand’ (A Grief Observed, 23). And yet the task of providing consolation has always been a significant part of the work of a pastor. It is, in many ways, a task among the most difficult for the pastor. It is difficult because questions of suffering involve us in the depths of our humanity. And it is difficult because mere human words have no answer to the mystery of suffering.

Here we could do much worse that simply listen to the experience of Nick Wolterstorff who, in grief after losing his 25-year-old son Eric in a mountain climbing accident, penned the wonderfully-moving Lament for a Son:

‘What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with wNicords of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. Such people need to be corrected-gently, eventually. But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings-never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.

And later, when you ask me how I am doing and I respond with a quick, thoughtless “Fine’’ or “OK,” stop me sometime and ask, “No, I mean really.” (pp. 34–5)

It is imperative to the integrity of its witness that the Church takes suffering and grief with the utmost seriousness. And as for death – Death sucks! There is simply nothing positive we can say about it, nor should we seek to live in peace with it. So Wolterstorff again:

‘Someone said to Claire, “I hope you’re learning to live at peace with Eric’s death.” Peace, shalom, salaam. Shalom is the fulness of life in all dimensions. Shalom is dwelling in justice and delight with God, with neighbor, with oneself, in nature. Death is shalom’s mortal enemy. Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death.

When the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming of the day of shalom, he did not say that on that day we would live at peace with death. He said that on that day “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench’. (p. 63)

In the face of death, suffering and grief, what the Church is given to know and to hope in and to proclaim is the word of the cross and resurrection. We have no other word! Moltmann’s The Crucified God is characteristically helpful here:

‘The cross of Christ is not and cannot be loved. Yet only the crucified Christ can bring the freedom which changes the world because it is no longer afraid of death. In his time the crucified Christ was regarded as a scandal and foolishness. Today, too, it is considered old-fashioned to put him in the centre of Christian faith and of theology. Yet only when [human beings] are reminded of him, however untimely this may be, can they be set free from the power of the facts of the present time, and from the laws and compulsions of history, and be offered a future which will never grow dark again. Today the church and theology must turn to the crucified Christ in order to show the world the freedom he offers. This is essential if they wish to become what they assert they are: the church of Christ, and Christian theology … Whether or not Christianity, in an alienated, divided and oppressive society, itself becomes alienated, divided and an accomplice of oppression, is ultimately decided only by whether the crucified Christ is a stranger to it or the Lord who determines the form of its existence … In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian’. (pp. 1, 3, 7)

‘We must not only ask whether it is possible and conceivable that one man has been raised from the dead before all others, and not only seek analogies in the historical structure of reality and in the anticipatory structure of reason, but also ask who this man was. If we do, we shall find that he was condemned according to his people’s understanding of the law as a ‘blasphemer ‘ and was crucified by the Romans, according to the divine ordinance of the Pax Romana, as a ‘rebel.’ He met a hellish death with every sign of being abandoned by his God and Father. The new and scandalous element in the Christian message of Easter was not that some man or other was raised before anyone else, but that the one who was raised was this condemned, executed and forsaken man. This was the unexpected element in the kerygma of the resurrection which created the new righteousness of faith’. (p. 175)

‘This deep community of will between Jesus and his God and Father is now expressed precisely at the point of their deepest separation, in the godforsaken and accursed death of Jesus on the cross’. (pp. 243–44)

‘The death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology … The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about God is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event. And conversely, the God event takes place on the cross of the risen Christ. Here God has not just acted externally, in his unattainable glory and eternity. Here he has acted in himself and has gone on to suffer in himself. Here he himself is love with all his being’. (pp. 204, 205)

So in the face of death, suffering and grief, the Church is called to:

  1. point to Jesus, the Crucified God, who reveals God’s endangering goodness and suffering love;
  2. participate in God’s cruciform life by suffering with those who suffer and working to relieve and eliminate suffering. Such cruciformity constitutes the ethical dimension of the theology of the cross found throughout the NT and the Christian tradition. Paradoxically, because the living Christ remains the crucified one, cruciformity is Spirit-enabled conformity to the indwelling crucified and resurrected Christ. It is the ministry of the living Christ, who re-shapes all relationships and responsibilities to express the self-giving, life-giving love of God that was displayed on the cross. Although cruciformity often includes suffering, at its heart cruciformity – like the cross – is about faithfulness and love.

Many of those who have suffered devastating grief or dehumanising pain have, at some point, been confronted by near relatives of Job’s miserable comforters, who come with their clichés and tired, pious mouthings. These relatives engender guilt where they should be administering balm, and utter solemn truths where their lips ought to be conduits of compassion. They talk about being strong and courageous when they should just shut and weep … and pray to the God ‘who comforts the downcast’ (2 Cor 7.6), who is the ‘God of all comfort’ (2 Cor 1.3), who intercedes for us both when we can articulate what we want to say and when all we have are groans, and to whom not even death represents the end.

But there is a further posture that we are invited, by God, to maintain. And that is the posture of protest prayer. I am reminded here of Karl Barth’s statement, that ‘to clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’ (cited in John W. de Gruchy, Cry Justice: Prayers, Meditations, & Readings from South Africa, 23). A Christian response to evil is not theodicy, but struggle – the struggle of taking God’s side against the world’s disorder, and of refusing to treat evil as an acceptable part of a larger harmonious vision. Only to the extent that we can confess that nothingness has been vanquished in the self-nihilation of Christ, and met with, struggled with, and overcome may we say that we ‘know’ something of sin and evil’s reality, and be able to speak hopefully of its end.

Finally, for now, the continuity/discontinuity of Jesus’ resurrection provides the ontological basis for Christian hope, promising that of whatever post-resurrection life consists, it is hope in something other than endless continuity. And as meaningful as life’s plots and subplots might be, it is the end (and the more improbable the better) that confers meaning on the whole. It is to bear witness to this end that pastors labour.


Other posts in this series:

Stanley Hauerwas on the suffering of children

‘I think childhood suffering bothers us so deeply because we assume that children lack a life story which potentially gives their illness some meaning. In that respect I suspect we often fail to appreciate the richness of their young world as well as their toughness and resilience. But I suspect that what bothers us even more about childhood suffering is that it makes us face our deepest suspicions that all of us lack a life story which would make us capable of responding to illness in a manner that would enable us to go on as individuals, as friends, as parents, and as a community. I suspect that if Christian convictions have any guidance to give us about how we are to understand as well as respond to suffering, it is by helping us discover that our lives are located in God’s narrative – the God who has not abandoned us even when we or someone we care deeply about is ill’. – Stanley Hauerwas, Naming the Silences: God, Medicine, and the Problem of Suffering (London/New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 67.

Theodicy, Suffering and Faith: A Bibliography

Thanks so very much to all readers of Per Crucem ad Lucem who took the time to contribute a richly-helpful smorgasboard of readings and films in response to my previous post. This has been enormously helpful (and encouraging) and I’ve spent much of today checking out some of these suggestions (including some really obvious ommissions to my original list) and building a fuller list which I hope to keep adding to in the coming months. Again, additional suggestions are most welcome.



[Updated: 26 April 2010]

Theodicy and Suffering

‘Many times we have to suffer very acutely until we finally quit being like a crustacean that sits in its hard shell and is always alone with its own self, caring for nothing going on around it. Isn’t there a special kind of religious hardshell?  Some have never observed that God is always God for all others and that he is not nearly so interested in the life of our individual souls, as in the birth of a community in which individuals think about others and practice this concern continually in intercession and thanksgiving. God is incomparably interested in that’. So wrote Eduard Schweizer in a sermon on suffering, published in God’s Inescapable Nearness, a wee collection of sermons that I’ve been reading during a brief interlude between preparing lectures on different topics.

I’m about to start preparing some lectures on what is most certainly among the most difficult of theological subjects; namely, theodicy and suffering. So far, I’m considering pulling together some selected readings from a number of places, including the following:

So at this point I’m requesting some help: Where else might I be looking? What other resources (film, poetry, opera, etc) might be useful here to help pastors think faithfully about these difficult questions and to encourage some fruitful conversation?

Scott Cairns: ‘The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain’

End of SufferingScott Cairns’ most recent publication – The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain (Brewster: Paraclete Press, 2009) – invites a play on the word end. Cairns recalls that while we can believe that a day will come when suffering will be no more, we live now in ‘our puzzling meantime’, aware both that suffering is no end in itself but also that we sense something of ‘suffering’s purpose’, that ‘our own descents into suffering may turn out to be the occasions in which we – imitating [Christ’s] unique and appalling descent – come to know Him all the more intimately’ (p. 99). Here’s a further snippert:

Saint Isaac counsels, “Blessed is the person who knows his own weakness, because awareness of this becomes for him the foundation and the beginning of all that is good and beautiful.” Affliction appears to be our only reliable access to this kind of knowledge, this necessary confrontation with our own weaknesses, and this advantageous mitigation of our pride. And it seems to be the only way we come against self-esteem to glimpse and thereafter to know our condition, to appreciate our vulnerability, and to live according to this new and chastening light. (pp. 18–19)

Throughout this book, Cairns draws not only upon Saint Isaac, but also upon work by George Steiner, W.H. Auden, G.K. Chesterton, Dostoevsky (mainly his The Brothers Karamazov), Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Archimandrite Sophrony, Saint Theophan the Recluse, Kallistos Ware, Alexander Schmemann, Simone Weil, and others. This essay serves as not only an accessible reflection on suffering (it would be a good book to work through in small groups), but also as a nuanced entrée into the Christian tradition (particularly into its Orthodox branch), and into a way of doing theology that invites us to embrace – or, rather, to be embraced by – a new vision of life via the ‘puzzlement’ of our afflictions. Those already familiar with Cairns’ poetry (and if you’re not, shame on you!) will want to go back and re-read it. Those unfamiliar with Cairns the poet, will (hopefully) get enough of a taste of it in this essay that they will want to ‘take up and read’ [it].

The book concludes – appropriately – by recalling Alexander Schmemann’s reflection on Lent:

For many, if not for the majority of Orthodox Christians, Lent consists of a limited number of formal, predominantly negative, rules and prescriptions: abstention from certain food, dancing, perhaps movies. Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that it is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else” in Lent – something without which all these prescriptions lose much of their meaning. This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,” a “climate” into which one enters, as first of all a state of mind, soul, and spirit, which for seven weeks permeates our entire life. Let us stress once more that the what is lacking purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “thirst and hunger” for communion with God.

Cairns recalls how that for Schmemann, ‘a “quiet sadness” permeates the Lenten services themselves; “vestments are dark, the services are longer than usual and more monotonous, there is almost no movement.” He observes that despite the alternating readings and chants, “nothing seems to happen.” And so, he acknowledges, we stand for a very long time in this quiet, this sadness, this monotony. “But then we begin to realize that this very length and monotony are needed if we are to experience the secret and at first unnoticeable ‘action’ of the service in us. Little by little, we begin to understand, or rather to feel, that this sadness is indeed ‘bright,’ that a mysterious transformation is about to take place in us.” Moving through the sadness’, Cairns writes, ‘we glimpse the joy. We feel its effects on us and feel how it changes us. We are thereby led to a place where noises, distractions, and false importance of the street – of our dissipated lives – finally “have no access – a place where they have no power.” Similarly, then, in those seasons of our afflictions – those trials in our lives that we do not choose but press through – a stillness, a calm, and a hope become available to us; they are a stillness, a calm, and a hope that must be acquired slowly, because – as Father Schmemann says of our joy in Lent – “our fallen nature has lost the ability to accede there naturally.”’ We are obliged, Cairns insists, to ‘recover this wisdom slowly, bit by bit’. (pp. 112–14)

Theodicy: The Justification Of God – 7


Study 7

A guest post by Trevor Faggotter


Jesus said: Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware; keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. (Mark 13:31-32).

The poet Lord Alfred Tennyson, concluded his poem, In Memoriam with these words:

That God, which ever lives and loves,

One God, one law, one element,

And one far-off divine event,

To which the whole creation moves.

Just as there was a day when the Messiah, and Saviour of the world, Jesus, was born into this world in a town called Bethlehem, so too there will be a day when Christ’s coming-appearing will be an actual event in our very real, daily human history. Tennyson described that occasion as “one far-off divine event, to which the whole creation moves”. The seeming delay in Jesus Christ’s coming-appearing – coupled with this expectation but non-arrival in every age since that of the early Christians – has driven some people to mistrust all such prophecy, and to doubt or deny the Christian story, and gospel.

This coming anew of the ascended, reigning Christ into human history, to put things right, and close off this age with finality, is an essential part of a biblical theodicy. It is one component, which is always lacking in a philosophical theodicy, where an understanding of the world is sought apart from the action of God in Christ. The difficult, or seemingly unanswerable questions of theodicy have often produced great doubt, and a kind of faithlessness in many people.

Only this week I noticed that a well-known University Professor in New Testament studies, by the name of Bart Ehrman has concluded that the questions of theodicy, and the unsatisfactory answers he has found, have forced him to take up the stance of an agnostic, rather than hold to his former Christian faith. He has now authored a book telling why.[1] One of the reasons given is his unbelief in much of the Christian creed – such as the resurrected, ascended, currently reigning Christ, and his coming appearing.

We should note that P.T. Forsyth draws our attention to the importance of faith, which looks forward to a teleology – God’s planned goal – arriving in history.

The faith of a teleology in history protects us from the vagrancy of soul, which dogs the notion that things are but staggering on, or flitting upon chance winds over a trackless waste. It saves us from the timidity, which so easily besets us before the incalculable.[2]

Praying and not losing heart are important qualities for a human being to have, and to wrestle to maintain, and sustain. Jesus asked a good question about this persistent, enduring approach, especially when living amidst human injustice and suffering: ‘When the Son of Man comes will he find faith on earth?’ (Luke 18:8).


Jesus said… ‘To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables’. (Mark 4:11).

He went on to say: ‘Then pay attention to how you listen; for to those who have, more will be given; and from those who do not have, even what they seem to have will be taken away (Luke 8:18).

Geoffrey Bingham has helped us to see that a mystery is not a problem to be solved, but a revealed reality in which one lives:

The Scriptures do not seem to us to be mysterious, since we can read and noetically understand every idea put forward, but in what we think we understand, there is, nevertheless, mystery. Christ said that in certain cases it has to be given to understand certain mysteries. That is, such mysteries cannot be understood by intellectual endeavour. Somewhere-and somehow-the heart and the will are involved in true comprehension. This is a baffling thought; namely, that such mysteries are not puzzles to be solved. God is Himself the great mystery, and He retains the right to open up Himself and all concomitant mysteries, or to close them off. This is a fearful thought-that mysteries may be shut off from us, and we from them![3]

Humility is especially necessary in the matter of theodicy, and in understanding the nature and origins and activity of evil. In our previous study we commenced by including these two passages from Scripture, concerning the matter of evil:

For the mystery of lawlessness (or mystery of iniquity) is already at work (2 Thessalonians 2:7).

And he (Jesus) said, ‘It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly (Mark 7:22).

Paul’s phrase in 2 Thessalonians 2:7 teaches and cautions us that sin, lawlessness or iniquity is a mystery. Aware of this one can consider carefully such questions as:

  1. The origin, cause or reason for evil, as well as, perhaps, a prior question about its essence or nature. What is evil? St. Augustine (354-430) denounced as absurd all efforts to reflect upon the origin of evil as long as one does not know what it is.
  1. How long O Lord, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you ‘Violence!’ but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? (Habakkuk 1:2)
  1. What is Victory? And, when does it arrive, this Victory over evil? For a humanity that is overwhelmed by suffering (evil endured) and guilt (evil committed), that is the question that matters.[4]

Whilst we are reading and listening to Forsyth seeking understanding – especially of his exposition of the significance of the cross of Christ – we need to bear in mind that we are not merely searching for intellectual insights, but rather, gospel insight – which comes by hearing with faith as Christ speaks!


Forsyth recognizes that there is a greater problem than merely staggering on to nowhere:

But our worst trouble is not due to a mere tracklessness in the course of history. That is too negative to try us keenly. We are exposed to positive assault. The iron enters our soul. The worst question rises, and the chief protest, when the disorder in the world touches our nerve in the shape of positive pain, evil, or guilt; when our personal life is deranged by that alien invasion, or is crushed, instead of stayed, by our connection with the course of things; when conscience rises in protest at the fate of the good, or the falsity of ourselves. Questions then come home about the connection of evil and suffering, sin and sorrow, grief and goodness. Then it is that the desire for a teleology deepens into a passion for a theodicy. Has the teleology a moral end?[5]

Other writers reflecting upon the more horrendous crimes of World War 2, seem to keep looking at the issue of guilt, and the need for it to be attributed, acknowledged and dealt with. But how is guilt to be dealt with, if you have done such things? Is there any hope for a person who has committed gross evil? What about our own less than righteous lives? It is valuable, even if very painful to recount what has happened and keeps happening in human history. In searching for a theology for Auschwitz, Simon writes:

We are dealing with the deaths of millions, mostly non-combatant Jews, who had been rounded up and sent to various concentration-camps designed entirely for their extermination. Auschwitz was the largest but by no means the only place of infamy. At Treblinka, Maideneck, Ravensbruck, Dachau, Buchenwald, Belsen, Chelmo, Sohibor, Mauthausen and many lesser known places the same dimensions of sin and suffering prevailed. Auschwitz stands here for the whole guilt which has stained the earth, not only in Europe but also in Asia.

This guilt must in the first place be ascribed to Hitler, the German Chancellor from 1933 until his death by suicide, probably on April 30th, 1945, in Berlin. He appointed the men who carried out the task of extermination with ruthless efficiency.[6]

Our problem is evil as it affects our own lives, so terribly. Over Nyholm produced a film documentary entitled ‘The Anatomy of Evil’, in which he interviewed mostly the perpetrators of mass murder in World War 2 and the Balkans War. In setting out on his task, he said, “I have decided to confront heartlessness, heartlessness itself, face to face.”[7] The interviewer’s final conclusion is honest, as he asks about what he might have done in the same circumstances: “I cannot answer if I would do it; if I say I know myself it is not correct; I can’t predict if I can handle it; I no longer have certainty … from certainty to maybe – that is a profound loss. That is my condition!”


When a film documentary maker, cautiously, fearfully, and sadly concludes that virtually all human beings are capable of terrible evil, and many have exercised it in such an atrocious manner, then it seems clear enough that we have been given such freedom as to include even a terrifying capacity for genocide. What then are we to say of our Creator?

There was never such a fatal experiment as when God trusted man with freedom. But our Christian faith is that He knew well what He was about. He did not do that as a mere adventure, not without knowing that he had the power to remedy any abuse of it that might occur, and to do this by a new creation more mighty, marvellous, and mysterious than the first. He had means to emancipate even freedom, to convert moral freedom, even in its ruin, into spiritual. If the first creation drew on His might, the second taxed His all-might. It revealed His power as moral majesty, as holy omnipotence, most chiefly shown in the mercy that redeems and reconciles.[8]

In the light of the Cross’s power, Forsyth goes on the revel in God’s grand plan:

To redeem creation is a more creative act than it was to create it … The supreme power in the world is not simply the power of God but of a holy God, upon whose rule all things wait, and may wait long. It is no slack knot that the Saviour has to undo. All the energy of a perverse world in its created freedom pulled on the tangle to tighten it. And its undoing has given the supreme form to all God’s dealing with the world. But at the same time the snarl is not beyond being untied. Man is born to be redeemed. The final key to the first creation is the second; and the first was done with the second in view … The first creation was the prophecy of the second; the second was the first tragically ‘arrived’. There was moral resource in the Creator equal to anything that might happen to the creature or by him.[9]

The Cross is at once creation’s fatal jar and final recovery. And there is no theodicy for the world except for a theology of the Cross … No reason of man can justify God in a world like this. He must justify Himself, and He did so in the Cross of His Son.[10]

As Forsyth reflects upon the 1914-1917 war to end all wars, he urges us to see the greatness of the gospel of redemption, and the role the church has to know her Lord, and proclaim his Act of Redemption, accomplished, (and recounted), in the power of the weakness of the cross:

We are now in a crisis that no individual can measure, nor his piety deal with and it is beyond any philosophy or idealism of a time. In needs that faith of an agelong holy Church to grasp it. Would that the Church’s faith could always handle it in the true power of that crisis greater still which made the Church – in the power of the Church’s Cross and Gospel. An awful crisis of wickedness like war can only be met on the Church’s height and range of faith; and it forces us up to levels and aspects of our belief which our common hours or moral slackness too easily feel extreme. Nothing but the great theologies of redemption are adequate to the great tragedies of the world … Christ finished the world-work given Him to do. He brought the world home.[11]

Isaiah once said of the suffering servant to come – Jesus – that ‘He shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied’. (Isaiah 53:11 RSV). Forsyth takes up the same words and applies them to the whole creation, and its travail:

In Him the whole creation sees the travail of its soul and is satisfied. He who can take away the sin of the world has in His reversion the reason, completion, peace, joy, and glory of all things. The Destroyer of guilt pacifies all grief, the Reconciler of our enmity ends all question. To see the devastator a truly penitent thief would compensate any Christian victim. The Justifier of men is the one and only theodicy of God.[12]

Further reflection upon the sadness and horror of the war, brings Forsyth to describe the situation as elements of hell breaking through into the daily life of humanity, as judgment on the world, but also upon the Church’s failure to serve the world well:

After all, the present cataclysm is an acute condensation of what has been going on in nature, human and other, for millenniums. If faith could survive that, need it succumb to this? If the existence of hell is compatible with faith in God, and is even of His ordinance, must we lose faith when it comes through the earth’s crust in a volcano? … The dirty chimney needed to be fired … The present situation is a monument to the failure of the Church![13]

We are driven to a very personal involvement in the cross, where we can not consider it from afar, nor just talk about it – rather, by the Spirit, we are taken into its action, in the embrace of our Saviour, as he bears our sin, we say – I have been crucified with Christ:

The Cross is not a theological theme, not a forensic device, but the crisis of the moral universe on a scale far greater than earthly war. It is the theodicy of the whole God dealing with the whole soul of the whole world in holy love, righteous judgment, and redeeming grace.[14]


Concerning the coming glory, Alister McGrath chimes in with a helpful word:

Some say that nothing could ever be adequate recompense for suffering in this world. But how do they know? Have they spoken to anyone who has suffered and subsequently been raised to glory? Have they been through this experience themselves? One of the greatest tragedies of much writing about human suffering this century has been its crude use of rhetoric. ‘Nothing can ever compensate for suffering!’ rolls off the tongue with the greatest of ease. It has a certain oratorical force. It discourages argument. It suggests that what has been said represents the distillation of human wisdom in the subject, and is so evidently correct that it does not require justification. It implies that anyone who disagrees is a fool. But how do they know nothing can compensate for suffering? Paul believed passionately that the sufferings of the present life would be outweighed by the glory that is to come (Romans 8:18). How do they know that he is wrong, and that they are right? Have they tasted the glory of the life to come, so that they can make the comparison? Have they talked to others who have been through the bitter experience of suffering and death, and have been caught up in the risen and glorious life of Christ, and asked them how they now feel about their past suffering? No. Of course they haven’t. The simple truth is that this confident assertion of the critics of Christianity is just so much whistling in the wind. Their comments are made from our side of the veil which separates history from eternity.’[15]

[1] Bart D. Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question – ‘Why we Suffer’, HarperOne, 2008.

[2] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 120.

[3] Geoffrey C. Bingham, The Glory of the Mystery and the Mystery of the Glory, NCPI, Blackwood, 1998, p. xii.

[4] Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross, Apollos, IVP, England, 1994, p. 12-13.

[5] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 120.

[6] Ulrich Simon, A Theology of Auschwitz, SPCK, London, 1967, p. 11.

[7] The following are comments made by men who once killed their civilian victims, so mercilessly:

Ø Many people will ask, is there no light in this murderous dark? The light in the darkness is the shame.

Ø Generally speaking I am not a good man at all. I am not a good Christian. I succumbed to instincts to do evil to others.

Ø I envy people who have normal lives BBQ and go to the beach. I envy tramps. I am no longer like them. Now I don’t belong anywhere, any particular place. I belong here (prison). I’ve lost what is most important – morality.

[8] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, pp. 123-124.

[9] Forsyth, pp. 123-124.

[10] Forsyth, p. 122.

[11] Forsyth p. 126.

[12] Forsyth p. 127.

[13] Forsyth p. 129.

[14] Forsyth p. 133.

[15] Alister McGrath, Suffering, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1992, pp. 96-7.

Theodicy: The Justification Of God – 5


Study 5

A guest post by Trevor Faggotter

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. (Jesus in Matt. 7:24-25)

‘…when historic progress seems to end around us in a social collapse and a moral anarchy … if the moral soul is anchored on the Gospel of the Cross and Kingdom of God in a historic crisis really greater than any war, it cannot be swept away by any currents or storms in history.’[1] (P. T. Forsyth)


As we pursue our studies in The Justification of God, by P.T. Forsyth, it may be valuable to recall again what is at the core of our studies, namely theodicy. Theodicy has been called ‘Thee-ODD-I-see’. We do see much that seems ODD, particularly in terms of suffering and catastrophe. In many of the occurrences in our daily lives, things occur which can, and often do cause us to question, or at the very least, re-evaluate what we understand by the mercies and goodness of God.

Job had to work things right through, from his worship life as a praying, righteous man, to the onslaught of inexplicable evil, permitted by God to take place, through to the week long silence of his friends as they sat with him, while he suffered greatly; on to the inadequate words of his comfortless theological counsellors; and his own genuine protest; and his trust still – though he slay me, yet will I trust in him; yet finally God, the wonderful counsellor revealed himself as creator, and then acted as redeemer, blessing once again the suffering Job. Job repented. He changed his mind and his disposition.[2]

It was Epicurus (341-270 BC) who formulated the classic theodicy dilemma, which David Hume (1711-76) has subsequently expressed in the following way:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?[3]

It is the incarnation of God in Christ, however, in the very midst of human history, which ultimately shatters this philosophical formulation, rendering it untenable. For God, the Father, and Jesus the Son of God, reveal themselves, together with the Spirit, to be the God who suffers to the full – to the uttermost in abandonment and forsakenness.

About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”-which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)

At the same time, this is the God who is the only righteous enemy of all evil – human, demonic and satanic. This God comes in human flesh, to conquer evil, by holy love.

The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8b).

We may give assent to such a biblical statement, and be glad of it, yet still find ourselves at a loss to respond to suffering and evil, when it arises in new, surprising and terrifying forms. Human suffering is so very unpleasant – in particular our own, or that of those near to us. Global suffering is so often tragic beyond comprehension (if we are not sedated and numbed by the sheer frequency of news updates, and the crass lack of reverence for life, often evident in TV programming). Global tragedy can confront us to Be Still and Know That I am God, and re-evaluate our own lives – when, in particular, faith is present.


In the film Shadowlands – the famous C.S. Lewis is giving a university lecture in which he addresses the great issues of life. In the movie (from my memory), he asks his students this question: ‘…and why does God allow us to suffer?’ There is a thoughtful pause, as the camera pans the lecture hall of students who are eagerly looking on. They brace themselves for the wisdom they have been seeking of late. Lewis proceeds confidently – providing the small beginnings of a profound answer to this age-old question. He has a note of certainty in his voice: ‘God lets us suffer because he wants us to grow up!’

Lewis is also well known for his comments regarding pain:

God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.[4]

Pain is the flag of truth, planted in a rebel fortress.

Fast forward to a later segment in C.S. Lewis’s life. His young wife Joy has died, and Lewis is writing his thoughts, and expressing his emotions. He is engulfed in grief, deep grief. He acknowledges the hope of the gospel. But he is negating one significant aspect. To paraphrase (again from memory), he says something like: Speak to me of the sovereign God, and I will listen. But speak to me of the God of comfort, and I cannot agree. I feel no comfort. No consolation. Only numbness. But no comfort![5]

Many will identify with Lewis at this point. It is not so easy just to grow up when it is our turn to suffer, intensely. Lewis reveals his emotions and thoughts. He illustrates the daily human struggle of coming to terms with life as it really is. On occasions, the pain – Christian or not – is very acute. We can ponder the reasons for suffering. We can even set them forth in a lecture, given from a biblical perspective. We can talk about them. It is another thing however, to be on the receiving end of incidents, for which, discussion seems entirely inappropriate.[6] Words fail us. Doctrines fail us. We need the breast of the Living Jesus on which to lay our head (John 13:23).

Suffering and sadness at the death of a loved one under not uncommon circumstances, like cancer, can be very tiring, tearing and most difficult. However, when blatant human evil is in our face as the immediate cause of our pain, and when sinister powers seem to dominate and destroy human life, in murder, massacre and mayhem, then we are likely to ask, or to be faced with the most difficult and most probing of human questions.


The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky in his famous book The Brothers Karamazov[7] has a fictional character named Ivan Karamazov, who says of God and creation:

‘I accept God plainly and simply … I accept his divine wisdom and his purpose …  I believe in the underlying order and meaning of life. I believe in the eternal harmony into which we are all supposed to merge one day’. However, almost immediately he tells his brother Alyosha: ‘I refuse to accept this world of God’s … Please understand, it is not God that I do not accept, but the world he has created. I do not accept God’s world and I refuse to accept it’.

Ivan then proceeds to explain why he cannot bring himself to accept this world of God’s. He mentions a number of cases of extreme and gratuitous cruelty, in particular the report of an army general who fed an eight year-old boy to his hounds because the child had slightly injured his favourite dog with a stone. Ivan says:

‘Listen: if all have to suffer so as to buy eternal harmony by their suffering, what have children to do with it – tell me please?  It is entirely incomprehensible why they should have to buy harmony by their sufferings. Why should they, too, be used as dung for someone else’s future harmony?

Ivan then concludes:

I don’t want harmony … too high a price has been placed on harmony. We cannot afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket of admission … It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha. I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.

Ivan is not an atheist, but he finds it morally repugnant that God should (seem to) expect such a terrible price to be paid for the final bliss and harmony that he will bestow on humankind at the end of time. [8] Some suggest that too much freedom was given to Adam.

How are we to respond to this type of reasoning? Perhaps, with silence, prayer and trust in God? Is it true love to speak of Christ, in the face of tragic and terrible deeds? Is it usually best left for another day? What then do we say or do on another day? Have we merely theories of the cross to share, and mere words to offer, for the loss of a loved one? Or is there a time and a season for speaking even into the most difficult of objections, of God’s goodness? Is this all profoundly a matter of ‘soul making’, fitting us for glory? Do we not have a Person, to offer, a Redeemer, Jesus, the friend, glorified flesh and blood, who has been there in the deepest of suffering, made to be sin, in order to redeem?

What indeed has God given us in Jesus Christ?

What He has not given us is a scheme of rational optimism, or a visible process of good, dawning and spreading to its perfect day. He has given us no programme of happy things.[9]

What then?  It is said that we have nothing but the promises of God. But these are all:

For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God (1 Corinthians 3:21b-23).

Forsyth always draws us back to God’s one moral Act of holiness, destroying sin’s guilt:

No reason of man can justify God for His treatment of His Son; but whatever does justify it justifies God’s whole providence with the universe, and solves its problem. He so spared not His Son as with Him to give us all things. The true theology of the Cross and its atonement is the solution of the world. There is no other. It is that or none.[10]

Our faith rose from ‘the sharpest crisis, the greatest war, the deadliest death, and the deepest grave the world ever knew – in Christ’s Cross’[11].

“The chief cause of our being unhinged by catastrophe is twofold”.

First, that we have drawn our faith from the order of the world instead of its crisis, from the integrity of the moral order rather than from the tragedy of its recovery in the Cross.

And, even if we start there, the second error is that we have been more engrossed with the ill we are saved from than with Him who saves us, and the Kingdom for which we are saved.  We are more taken up with the wrongs so many men have to bear than with the wrong God has to bear from us all – God who yet atones and redeems in giving us a Kingdom which is always His in reality and ours in reversion.

It is not as if God first redeemed, and, having thus prepared the ground, brought in the Kingdom; but He redeemed us by bringing in the Kingdom, and setting it up in eternal righteousness and Eternal Life. The Cross of Christ is not the preliminary of the Kingdom; it is the Kingdom breaking in. It is not the clearing site for the heavenly city; it is the city itself descending out of heaven from God.[12]

[1] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, NCPI, 1988, p. 85.

[2] Job 42:1-6.

[3] Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, Basil Blackwell, 1986, Oxford, p. 2.

[4] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Fontana, 1957, p. 81.

[5] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, Seabury Press, 1961.

[6] Job 2:13 ‘They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great’.

[7] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, (1880) 2003, Penguin Books.

[8] Quoted by Kenneth Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil, Basil Blackwell, 1986, Oxford, p. 96-97.

[9] Forsyth, p. 79.

[10] Forsyth, p. 122.

[11] Forsyth, p. 57.

[12] P. T. Forsyth, The Justification of God, p. 76-77.

Criminal trial tomorrow for Baptist leader

Tomorrow, the government of Uzbekistan is holding a criminal trial for Baptist leader Nikolai Zulfikarov. Here’s the brief:

‘A Baptist who hosts worship in his home will be tried on criminal charges tomorrow (13 November), Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Nikolai Zulfikarov is being prosecuted under the Criminal Code for “teaching religious doctrines without special religious education and without permission from a central organ of administration of a religious organisation, as well as teaching religion privately”. Punishments range from fines of fifty times the minimum monthly wage to three years’ imprisonment. Local Baptists, who preferred not to be identified, have complained about continuing harassment. “The authorities have repeatedly visited worship services, drawn up official records [of alleged offences] and confiscated Bibles, concordances, hymnbooks and other Christian brochures and leaflets.” They called for the case against Zulfikarov to be closed, for confiscated literature to be returned and for the congregation’s worship not to be impeded. Repression of religious communities of all faiths is taking place in Uzbekistan’.

Please remember to pray for Nikolai Zulfikarov, for his brethren in Christ, and for their enemies.

More information here, here and here.

Rescue me from my enemies, O my God, protect me from those who assail me. Deliver me from those who do evil, and save me from the bloodthirsty. All day long they twist my words; they are always plotting to harm me. They conspire, they lurk, they watch my steps, eager to take my life. Hear my prayer, O God; listen to the words of my mouth. Strangers are attacking me; ruthless men seek my life – men without regard for God. Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me. (A selection from the psalms)