A new year, a new start, a new hope. It’s a time to look to what is to come but also, sometimes painfully, to look back on what was. And in this era of plague we of course ask questions that cut to the heart of faith and hope. When, for example, my mum was in the final stages of her dementia I would sit by her bed and silently ask how this could be allowed to happen. This good, kind woman was now a shell of what she was, unable to speak her pain and fear, oblivious to the love and care that was around her. Where was God, why was such horror happening to one so undeserving? Such questions have been asked for all time, and are now being uttered in agonized choruses as the innocent succumb and their families mourn.
In theology this problem of God and the existence of human suffering is known as “theodicy” and there are entire books written about it. But in all honesty it’s just a way to intellectualize what is an entirely justifiable scream of sorrow and anger. And in the case of coronavirus we can’t even blame human failings as we can with murderers and warlords; this is a natural horror.
The letter of James in the Bible tells us to be patient and confident in our suffering, and the great C.S. Lewis wrote of pain being God’s “megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Yet while the current challenge is certainly bringing out the best in us and will, we hope, lead to a better society, it can’t and doesn’t explain the death of a child or the horror of a parent.
As for those ghouls who insist that it’s all a punishment for our sins, that’s twisting God into a personal vigilante and is, ironically, profoundly anti-God and even blasphemous. It’s also directly contrary to what Jesus said about the sick. He spent an extraordinary amount of time with the ill and the disabled, and totally rejected any idea that their plight was a result of their or their family’s actions.
But it still doesn’t answer the question of why all this happens, and it’s in no way inappropriate to wonder at a God who is supposed to be all-powerful, all good, and all knowing. A mature faith allows for questions as well as answers, even encourages them, and if anybody wants a complete and satisfying answer I simply cannot give one. I’d also recommend being extremely dubious about any person of faith who claimed otherwise. This isn’t some philosophical game.
My response, for what it’s worth, is that our world is merely the land of shadows and that real life hasn’t begun yet. As a Christian I’m promised not a good life but a perfect eternity. I have hope because I know that Jesus suffered too, and that the Resurrection was the template for all of humanity. I realize this might be inadequate for the non-Christian, even for some Christians, but let me also emphasize that I’m convinced that the gentle rabbi, the prince of peace, came not only for his followers but for everybody.
There’s more. He was us. Was us, and is us. The Christian belief is that Jesus was fully God but also fully human, and knew our pain and terror not as a divine onlooker but as part of the human community. This was the unique, the unprecedented miracle of divine empathy. The heavenly leap of God into our lives and our deaths. He wept and he loved, for us and with us.
The world in which Jesus lived was soaked in bloody injustice, oppression, and often-gruesome death, and surely it’s no accident that this was the time chosen for God to break into humanity. That gives me enormous solace, even when all around me is brokenness and chaos. I worry about my family and friends, I try to comfort those close to me who have lost loved ones, but sometimes I too feel the clawing darkness.
My mum eventually fell into a coma-like sleep, and the dementia took her while she was alone in a distant hospital ward. I wouldn’t insult you by claiming that it was all somehow tolerable because of my faith. Mum wasn’t a Christian, mum suffered, and I was angry and I was crushed. What I will say is that hope is the great conqueror, and that I know that love wins in the end. Thank God. Literally, thank God. Have a blessed 2021.