Question 3: Why does God allow suffering?
I’m always very aware when asked to comment on this, that I do so very much from the privileged position of not having had to face any great suffering. So it may be you consider my writing from ignorance to be of little or no value, and that’s fine, I can respect that.
A friend of mine, The Rev A.J. Ferneley, has written a short book on this subject that is rooted in personal experience, and so very much has an integrity and an honesty to it. If you’re interested in that, you can find it here.
I'm happy to offer my thoughts for what they are worth (and it may not be a lot!). I also recognise that this is a question that is very different to deal with in the abstract to it is in the personal. If you are facing a particular place of suffering right now, you very much have my sympathy and my prayers – but you more than most are very welcome to reject my thoughts if they are unhelpful.
For me, ultimately this question boils down to two things - decision, and perspective. As I understand it, our world, at its most fundamental level is based on decisions - some rational, some irrational. From the collapsing of a probability waveform of a quantum particle, through to a human being deciding where to live, everything around us hinges on an array of things either going one way or another, this or that. It's a system dripping with chaos and entropy - and yet, somehow, it produces consistent results (e.g. gravity tends to mean stuff falls downwards), and what appears to be progress (e.g. amoeba evolve into human beings, who invent spaceships). In fact, I believe, it's because of the underlying multiplicity of possible outcomes that our universe is so full of marvels, wonders, and creativity. God didn't just create something static, he created something overbrimming with possibility, and potential that is ceaselessly doing the next new thing. I think God creates the world in that way precisely so it can be creative (in His own image), and grants it the freedom required to exercise that creativity - but the freedom to choose (not the right word, I know, for inanimate matter) brings the potential for harm.
When a village is wiped out by a Tsunami, there is outcry against God for letting it happen - but do we neglect to think the village was there because people had built it there rather than here?
When someone is taken by cancer, we question the goodness of God - but do we neglect to reflect that it is precisely because cells mutate that evolution, therefore the entirety of our species, is possible?
If those branches of possibility that led to painful outcomes were cut short by God every time, would that undermine the creativity of the universe, would it perhaps even undermine the predictability that is somehow present in it all that lets us understand the world around us, and grants the foundation for human understanding and innovation?
I'll leave 'decision' there for now, and think for a moment about perspective. I will say again, I know this is a difficult conversation as soon as it touches on particulars - writing about suffering in the abstract is a very different thing to experiencing it in reality. That's one of the reasons I think Alastair's book is particularly good, as he's writing out of the experience of losing a child, which brings an incredible integrity to his thinking. But it does seem to me that it is how we experience what happens to us that defines it as 'good' or 'bad', rather than it being so in the absolute sense.
There is a Chinese (I think) story about an old man, who one night has his horse run away from his field. 'Bad luck' says his neighbours. 'Bad luck, good luck, who knows?' replies the old man. A few weeks later the horse returns to his field, bringing with it a number of wild horses from the hills. 'Good luck!' says his neighbours. 'Bad luck, good luck, who knows?' replies the old man. A few days later, the man's son is thrown from the back of one of the wild horses whilst taming it, and breaks his leg. 'Bad luck' says his neighbours. 'Bad luck, good luck, who knows?' replies the old man. Shortly afterwards the army come through the village and conscript every able-bodied man to go fight in a war, the old man's son is left behind because of his broken leg. 'Good luck' says his neighbours. 'Bad luck, good luck, who knows?' replies the old man...
Now personally, I'm averse to the idea of it all making sense one day, and our suffering being part of a master plan of God's designed to bring about some good at some point in the future. I think that describes a callous, and unloving God which I can't bring myself to believe in. (I had a friend at school who renounced his faith when some nuns told him God was 'testing' him, as he lay in a hospital bed with a broken back after being hit by a car. I don't blame him. I won't believe in that God either. Instead I choose to believe in the God who heard the prayers of many, and saw him recover faster, and more fully than any of the doctors expected at the time.) So I don't buy into the theory of 'it's all part of a plan'. But I do believe that our perception of whether things were good or bad can change, and how we receive them has a lot to do with that. Things perhaps can be both. In his book, Alastair makes the point that if he and his wife had not lost their child, they wouldn't have had their third. Does that make the loss good? No, of course not, but it can mean good came from it.
An example that sticks in my mind from school was a story about Cardinal Basil Hume, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1999. The story, as I remember it, recalls him phoning a friend to tell them the news, and their reply was, 'That's wonderful - you're going home early!'. And apparently Hume's response was, 'Thank you - I've been waiting for someone to celebrate with me.' Recently I was visiting a lady who was similarly diagnosed late with a terminal cancer, and accepted it with a grace and stoicism that others in my experience have perhaps come close to but never quite reached, and she shared with me that in some ways the diagnosis was a relief to her because the thing she feared above all else was growing old alone, and this meant she wouldn't have to. Both extraordinary people.
Is it better (purely hypothetical) that a man dies in a car crash, leaving a widow and young children to weep, but to treasure memories of someone they loved deeply and respected; or for him to live another ten years and then tear that family apart by having an affair? I don't know. I think what I'm trying to say is that if we hold too tight to ideas of events being 'good' or 'bad' we may rob ourselves of an appreciation of the subtleties of the bigger picture - which is perhaps painted from consequences more than intentions. That God, from the standpoint of eternity, already sees that picture fully painted doesn't, I don't think, necessarily mean he plans it or intends it the way it is. Though he does create, uphold, sustain, and honour it.
That's not an advocation of complete moral relativism - I think there's still space there for actions to be 'right/wrong', 'good/bad' - but even then, the consequences can be reframed by how we receive them.
To go for a big example - to put someone on trial for false charges because of fear and jealousy is wrong. To use an illegal court to find them guilty and sentence them to death is wrong. To beat someone within an inch of their life is wrong. To hang someone in such a way they slowly suffocate to death is wrong. Totally, utterly wrong. And yet, from the cross Christ cried out 'Father forgive them, they know not what they do!'. And yet, through the cross Christ reconciled us to God. That which was totally, and utterly wrong was taken by God and used in a way that brought greater good than anything else in human history.
Is there a summary in here somewhere... if there is, I think it's this: the way I see it is that God created the world with a freedom to be creative. A consequence of that is for things to happen that are painful to us in their moment of happening. Some of those things are 'natural' and some are the work of humans. But they only become 'suffering' when they are received as such. Could it have been arranged differently? Maybe - but at that point I think we have to put our trust in God being good, and if it is this way it is because it is the right way for it to be. (Even if that does sound like a cop out!) And if all suffering was borne with grace and love, and seeking the good that might be found from it (not necessarily in it), then does it need to be different? (Maybe that's what Heaven is?)
The current situation we find ourselves in is terrifying, and for many it will be heartbreaking. It will have far reaching economic and social consequences that we can’t even begin to imagine at this point. For many it’s going to be an immense struggle just to make ends meet, and keep providing for their family.
But I’ve also been amazed how many people have commented on the gift of extra time; how much extra appreciation and joy has been being taken from the simple fact of the sun finally being out; how many people have started rallying to care for their communities, and those less able...
I don’t think any situation is entirely good, or entirely bad – I think it has a lot to do with how we accept what comes our way, and how we manage to fit it into the overall narratives we tell to make sense of our lives, and our world.
That sense of overall narrative is what we’ll be looking at in our next Big Question: how does this fit with scripture and prophecy?