The theological problem


Sometimes there are days when the Bible seems a million miles away from where we are and the concerns we actually live with – all those verses about not eating prawns or wearing shirts made of mixed fibres, all those dreams and visions of fantastic beasts with horns at the end time, and even some of the lovely bits about shepherds and lilies of the field. There are times when you can be forgiven that the Bible has little connection with the lives we live now, with the world of smart phones, democracy and people called Dorothy and Alan.


But sometimes there are days when you can see clear-eyed as anything that the people who wrote the scriptures are absolutely enduring what we endure, asking the questions we ask and looking for the comfort and wisdom we crave. There are days when you read the Bible and just want to breathe with relief that the very things you have been asking or pondering are right there on the page. It’s like that bit in the The History Boys when the teacher explains that reading a book can be like someone reaching out a hand to yours so that you know that someone in the world understands what it’s like to be you.


In the past days, alongside all the things in our own lives, we’ve seen the terrible events in New Zealand, when worshippers were covered with blood and so many were killed. Somehow it seems more tragic, more poignant, more awful, that people were attacked when they were praying – and there’s a bit of us that can’t help but ask what God is playing at… And then we’ve seen this week the terrible suffering caused by a cyclone in South East Africa – with thousands killed and many, many people displaced and so many communities destroyed. The pictures we see defy belief. Why, we find ourselves asking, do people have to suffer so much – and especially when it’s the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world? Why did God make creation this way? And we find ourselves back where many people have been before – facing what some have called ‘the theological problem’, the problem of suffering… Why, if God is powerful and really lovesus, do so many suffer? And it’s not just the stories on the BBC News that make us ask these questions. There are times in our own lives when we ask ‘What have I done to deserve this?’ or even ‘Why should that happen to him – he’s such a good man..?’ We wrestle with the unfairness of life and wonder where God really is.


There have been many times in history when people have wrestled with this theological problem. You won’t remember it yourselves, but In 1755 (not long before our church here was built) there was a huge earthquake in Lisbon in Portugal – and most of the buildings in that city were destroyed – and many were killed. It happened on All Saints Day and many people were praying in church – and were killed as they sang their hymns or voiced their praise. This event shocked Christian Europe and made many ask what the promises of God could mean if people could be killed at their prayers. And, of course, the events of the second world war, when millions of God’s chosen people were killed and burned in the crematoria of the camps, led many to ask, ‘Where is God?’


And the back in the Gospel reading that we heard a little while ago, people were clearly wrestling with the very same kind of thing. There had been a number of people from Galilee who had gone to the Temple in Jerusalem to make some sacrifices (perhaps like Mary and Joseph – something like a couple of turtle doves) – but for some reason Pilate’s soldiers had killed them (were they seen as rough types from the North – who knows?) and so their own blood had been mixed with the blood of their sacrifices. They were worshippers killed at their prayers. God’s faithful people cut down at worship. And their friends and relatives in Galilee were asking how this could have happened and they were trying to make sense of it. And when people try to make sense of these things they sometimes try to do it by suggesting that perhaps the people who suffer somehow deserved it or caused it. We so want the world to be fair, we sometimes try to make it fair when it isn’t. So the people asked Jesus whether these people were terrible sinners? Was that why they had suffered? But Jesus says ‘No, they weren’t’. And then he reminds them of another kind of event which seems to have happened very recently, when a tower collapsed in Jerusalem, the tower of Siloam, killing eighteen people. Those people weren’t sinners either, he says. Maybe the builders were to blame, or maybe there was an earth quake that was nobody’s fault, but the people who died were not to blame. However much we want it to, life doesn’t deal out suffering in parcels we deserve. There is suffering, there is pain, there is life. But it isn’t fair – and we shouldn’t think it could be. The innocent suffer. The world is sometimes random. Life is hard sometimes. We in our time have seen people killed not at Siloam but at Grenfell Tower. We in our time have known people shot at worship – only last week. In this past week we have heard that thousands have died because of a cyclone. We in our own lives know that suffering comes – and may come to any of us, not as what anyone deserves but just as life…

So, what sense can we make of it then? Is it possible to make sense of it? If we are going to praise and love a merciful God, how can we understand how we experience the world when it seems to come with such heavy doses of pain?

Sometimes we know that people cause suffering to others and that they, and not God or creation or anything else, are to blame. But then we might ask who it was who made the people who cause such pain, who fashioned them in the womb and created them capable of such cruelty? Is not God still to be held somehow responsible? Why could God not have made the world differently from this one – a world filled with angels perhaps, a world of good people? And sometimes people say that pain is good for us, character building, saving us from danger and sometimes even helping us to be better people. It makes and shapes our souls and helps us be mature and better people. And that’s sometimes true of course. But not always. Sometimes pain makes us bitter, twisted, unable to rejoice. And sometimes suffering just ends or destroys a valuable life, for no reason we can fathom.. No, suffering cannot always be turned into something that’s really good, by saying it’s good for us.

When I was teaching in Cambridge, I ran a whole course on this one theological problem. We looked at the work of theologians and philosophers, we read novels and watched films, we pored over paintings, we heard testimony from Holocaust survivors and those living with illness and pain. We even shared our own experiences of suffering; illness, bereavement, many things.. It was a popular course because it touched a real and deep question for many people. In all our searching and reading and thinking, we never found the kind of answer that people often want – the kind of answer the people who questioned Jesus seemed to want. We couldn’t find the kind of answer that ever stopped us asking the question, not the kind of answer that could ever have stopped the philosophers in their tracks or made complete sense of a world of pain. We looked at all the answers people have tried to give and found that every one of them seemed inadequate in some way or other, and didn’t take away the pain or make complete sense of it. But we did find another kind of answer.

We came to see that there are many people in the world who do not see suffering as a theological problem, but as something that is part of life and that faith can help you live through. I am often struck, when I meet people who come from much poorer parts of the world than this, that they see life not as a right but as a privilege – and that they do not expect life to be easy or pain free. They do not rail at God or bemoan the unfairness of life, but they thank God for the blessings they do have. I was struck, watching a news clip of people walking in a great crowd away from the recent devastation in Africa, that people were carrying children and a few possessions as they walked, but somehow still laughing and smiling. There is grief, yes, and sorrow and pain, but somehow not that sense of unfairness and outrage that we often feel.. I remember too the story of the Jews in one of the camps who debated the existence of God, given the horrors they were enduring. They came to the conclusion that God as they imagined God could not exist after all. But then someone said, ‘Now it is time for evening prayer.’ Even if a kind of logic tells us one thing, our experience and our hearts tells us something else…

Another kind of response came from my friend who is a professor of philosophy in Oxford. He took us through all the arguments that might justify God in the face of evil. And he knocked them all down, one by one. But then he said that the one possible faithful response to evil and suffering that Christians can make is to resist them and to overcome them. And so, alongside being a star in his profession, he is the Christian Aid rep at his church. He cannot overcome evil with argument to make it somehow make sense (how could evil and suffering ever ‘make sense’) but he can overcome them by working and praying to change them. His answer to the theological problem is to leave his books behind and to give his strength to mending pain.

Another kind of response comes from those who see that in Jesus Christ we have a God who does not ignore our suffering but who steps in to share it with us. It is Jesus who reveals the ‘creative suffering of God’. The God we see revealed in Jesus is not the impassive, above-it-all kind of God, the God who sits on a mountain or on the clouds, but the God who suffers with us. We live in a world where there is suffering, but we can have faith in the God who leaves none of us abandoned and no evil unredeemed. To say that God is almighty is not to say that there could be no pain, but it is to say that there is no evil from which good cannot be brought. God comes, as we see God come in Jesus, to enter our suffering and to redeem it.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred by the Nazis, said while he was in prison, that ‘only the suffering God can help.’ And Oscar Romero, another great saint of the church, testified that he found God as he met those who suffered most. ‘In the crucified people of history, the crucified God became present to him.’

People came to Jesus, as people do, wanting an explanation of suffering. But he did not give them an explanation. He did not say, ‘Those people suffered because they were wicked.’. He simply said something like, ‘Leave your wickedness behind, not to avoid punishment or pain, but because it is always worth seeking goodness.’ But if Jesus couldn’t give an explanation of that kind he gave instead his own life, as an example of God’s willingness to suffer with us, to suffer alongside the innocent and the guilty, the good and the bad. He could not explain suffering, but he could redeem it.

None of us would think, I hope, that we could look at those who suffer today, or look at our own suffering and say that they or we deserve it. No one does. But we can say that God comes to us in and through it and shares our pain, and even redeems it and brings from it something good. This is something worth celebrating, worth pursuing, worth giving our lives to bring alive for others. Disciples of the suffering Christ are called to bear pain for others, to redeem it and ease it and bear witness to the possibility of its transformation. And to celebrate the privilege of life and the promise of joy. There is no answer to the problem of suffering, but to live in defiance and in protest against it and to welcome the God who suffers with us and who longs to make life better…