Suffering and the Wildness of God
[A version of the following piece was published in The Living Church after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. It's still my best attempt at making some sense of such things.]
The earthquake in Nepal raises with fresh urgency the perennial question of belief in God in the shadow of suffering. The magnitude tragedy and its seeming randomness is awe-inspiring and dumbfounding. What can one say to make sense of such a catastrophes? Where is God in all of this and what kind of God would allow such things?
Christians should be wary of nice and tidy answers to such questions. But, it is also unsatisfactory to allow ourselves to slip into a speechless agnosticism. What, with due caution and humility, can we say?
Among other things, it is good to remember that removing God from the equation does not resolve the mystery of suffering. The flipside of the question, “How can there be a good God when there is so much suffering in the world?” are the questions, “If there is no God and no meaning, why do I care about the suffering in the world?” and “Why should I?” Indeed, if there is no God, reality is indifferent to all suffering. And there is no real reason for us not to be indifferent. Our inclination otherwise is only conditioned sentimentalism. If there is no God, we can only conclude that we have evolved into an existential cul-de-sac in which we have now come to see the emptiness of the belief in meaning and human worth that helped us evolve this far but are still stuck with the deep vestigial instinct for meaning and worth.
But, that is a dry and weary land where no water is. And humans cannot live there. However much the logic of our minds, absent God, might say that there is no meaning, our hearts cry out in contradiction, “No!” Our hearts insist that there is meaning. It’s not a matter of indifference. We do not believe that the offense and sorrow we feel in the wake of the devastation of the earthquake is just an offense against our personal preferences, but an offense against the very fabric of reality.
Still, the questions remain. Where is God in all of this? What kind of God allows such things? These are questions that beg answers. And so, we create answers. Whether to protect God or to bring tragedy under control, we invent ways to explain the suffering that befalls us and others.