God, Where are You When We Suffer?
Job 2:1-8 ; John 9:1-7
Once upon a time, there was a council in heaven; all the angels were there, reporting to Great Jehovah. The final speaker was “ha Satan,” God’s special prosecutor, the district attorney charged to observe human behavior. “Ha Satan” noted the sorry state of human morality – greed, injustice, the growing gap between the rich and the poor, infidelity, and all sorts of other infractions. The report ticked off Great Jehovah, who saw it as an implicit critique of his job as Creator and CEO of all things in earth and heaven.
Trying to salvage his pride and worried that the angelic host would see him as an underachiever, Great Jehovah protests, “Have you considered my servant Job? He’s the epitome of ethics and wisdom; he follows all my rules. He’s so good, he even sacrifices on behalf of his children, just in case they step out of line when they’re partying.”
Annoyed at his boss’ condescension, “ha Satan” pushes back, “Job’s only in it for the money. He’s doing good so he can do well.” More defensive, later that day, Great Jehovah tweets back, “Have at it, do what you want with him, just don’t kill him. He’ll be loyal to me, just wait and see.” And, as the story goes, “ha Satan” takes everything away from Job – his children die in a windstorm, he loses his wealth, he loses his reputation, and he’s stricken with a painful illness.
From Job’s perspective, his suffering makes no sense – it’s come out of nowhere, without warning – and is completely undeserved, given his moral and spiritual deportment.
The story of Job is considered one of the greatest theological treatises; a true work of art, most likely fictional, meant to describe the precariousness of our lives and what happens when out of the blue, you lose everything. You’ve worked hard, played by the rules, followed a good diet, exercised, and then the bottom falls out from under you – you lose your job, the company goes bankrupt and you lose your pension, your child is diagnosed with cancer, your spouse is debilitated with dementia, your reputation is destroyed by an enemy. You cry out to God, and there’s no response.
The bible is a multi-faceted book, more like a library than a single text; different views emerge – often one viewpoint challenges another – in the attempt to understand the relationship of God and humankind.
This contrast of theological beliefs is at the heart of Job’s problem – he believes that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished; that was common wisdom, enshrined in the book of Deuteronomy, and central to his religious faith. Before his life collapsed, he might have blamed the poor for their poverty – they’re just lazy after all – and the sick for their sickness – they must have done something wrong to die young. But, now the shoe is on the other foot, and Job can longer maintain his moral superiority – Job is good; indeed, he is blameless, according to God’s ways; he should be blessed, but he has been cursed and his theological, moral, economic, and relational world has fallen apart. He’s a nobody, the object of pity, judgment and ridicule, just like those he’d judged when he was on top of the world.
Job is devastated. He’s lost everything, and worse yet, the God he tried to please, the God he worshipped, is silent. God doesn’t appear to care, and God has changed the rules of the game, the good are suffering, and the evil flourish.
What kind of world is this? God, where are you? Why don’t you answer? The silence is killing me. Where is the justice?
Pain, tragedy, grief, and undeserved misfortune, turn our world upside down, and there are times that all we can do is endure, with no expectation of relief or improvement. There are times when we cry out like the author of Psalm 22 and Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
I want to state in advance that there is no clear theological solution to the problem of evil – why bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. The traditional argument goes this way –
God is all powerful.
God is all good.
If God is all powerful and all good, God would do everything possible to eliminate suffering.
But suffering exists.
Therefore, God is either not all powerful or all good.
The theological problem of evil is important. Theology matters and what we think of God matters. If God is all-powerful, and all-determining, we must conclude that divine sovereignty stands behind the terrorist attack, the cancer that kills a child, the life cut short by a drunk driver, and the Alzheimer’s that robs a family of a father and a husband and a man of his life story. Taken to its logical conclusion, we are powerless in terms of our salvation: God decides, apart from our decisions, whether we are saved or damned.
On the other hand, an all-loving, who is not all-powerful, can’t determine every event, insure that good prevails and evil loses, or that our planet will survive into the next century. God must contend with, and respond to, the free play of the universe, chance occurrences, and our own actions.
Given the choice between all-power and all-love, I choose love. An all-loving God is on our side, seeks our well-being without reservation, and encourages us to use our power to work with God to heal the earth. God doesn’t cause your cancer, but works within the talents of physicians and nurses, prayers, and loving wishes, to bring about the healing we need and, if death is inevitable, faith that in life and death, we are God’s beloved.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is confronted with a theological puzzle. His disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” There must be a reason for his suffering: someone must be at fault. Jesus’ first response is to deny the rewards-punishments calculus. No one’s at fault. Things happen: sometimes the bridge collapses for no apparent reason, and cancer cells proliferate despite our ethical integrity and good health habits.
Jesus’ next response is “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” In other words, he lived with blindness for decades so that God might be glorified. But, this doesn’t work either: it sounds like the man’s pain doesn’t matter, except to glorify God. His pain is just a means to an end, and exists solely to stroke God’s ego.
In contrast to this view, I believe that our pain really matters to God. God is the fellow sufferer who understands; God feels our joy and pain; God’s stands with the oppressed, the hurting, the lost and the lonely. God doesn’t blame the victim, but heals the sick.
Perhaps, the ultimate the solution to the problem of evil is found in compassion, not intellectual argumentation. Jesus proclaims, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” And then, Jesus spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” and the man went and washed and came back able to see.
The works of God are often mysterious, but the Holy Mystery is also the One to Whom All Hearts are Open, the God of the universe numbers the hairs on your head and sent Jesus so that we might have abundant life. Any view that makes God responsible for terrorist attacks, car accidents, cancer and Alzheimer’s is not worthy of the healer of Nazareth.
There is both chance and purpose in the universe, and what God needs from us is to work while it’s still light. We are called by God to be companions and partners, to seek abundant life, and to respond with compassion to the suffering around us.
We will never fully solve the problem of evil, but we can ease the pain of the world, and join God in healing the world, for as we have done unto to the least of these, as we have eased the pain of the world, we have made our lives a gift to God and moved our world one step closer to looking like the heaven God imagines for us and all our companions.