Suffering and a God of Love

While there may be some folk who go through life relatively unscathed I think it’s a simple fact that most of us experience suffering of varying degrees, and for some this suffering can amount to devastating, debilitating and life-limiting traumas. And yet the Gospel of Jesus proclaims a God who is a tender loving father – both the Lord and Cause of all Creation and also the attentive and intimate abba of our hearts. How then can we reconcile the hard evidence of life with a supposedly almighty and all-loving God who frankly doesn’t seem to care, if He exists at all?

This question has of course dogged all religions who posit an almighty being, and many are the answers supplied by these religions, with some it has to be said downright pessimistic. Christianity has supplied a number of such theories and certainly for the Catholic tradition there is a long held doctrine of God allowing suffering, even sending suffering, to somehow temper and burnish our souls so that we become better and more resolute disciples. As such, God could remove our suffering but He doesn’t want to because He sees a greater purpose. Hmmm. Not that impressed. Are you?

For me, God detests suffering. He hates to see us suffer. He never sends suffering – what loving father ever would? So how can I profess faith in this all-loving and all-powerful God when there is so much pain and evil in our world?

The truth as I see it is simply this: in this life God has effectively tied His hands behind His back, and is therefore practically impotent! God has restricted His power simply because He will not compromise our freedom – our freedom to choose love or to reject love. If I hold a gun to another’s head and am about to pull the trigger, God cannot intervene to stop me. Almighty God is therefore unmighty God as far as this life is concerned. It may seem a paradox but His seeming absence and lack of intervention is the very proof of His love!

Love in absentia? Perhaps this also seems somewhat cold and uncaring? St John in his first letter tells us that God is love, the very perfection of love. When we suffer, God suffers too, and He suffers more keenly than we ever could. He suffers the entire weight of all human suffering. How could it be otherwise for love? Every hair on our head is counted. He misses nothing. He feels everything. Everything matters to Him. Yet He cannot intervene. He cannot ‘pull strings’. The Almighty is impotent in this world. This fundamental truth doesn’t seem to be emphasised by the Churches…

In my poem “Unmighty God”, I present the image of a desperate father at his sick child’s bedside, waiting for someone else to come, someone who can help his child. This father is God – who can only wait, and suffer, hoping that another will come and intervene. This image acknowledges both God’s impotence and the sole occasion when He can – through a human person’s willingness – work in our world. And so, we are His hands, His voice, His heart of love. If we are not there for Him, as in, prepared for love and service, then He is stymied. This is our dignity, but of course it comes at a price: His seeming absence.

God is of course almighty, and a day will come, when our life’s journey is over and at death we will see and know Him as He is, and in that life to come He will not be shackled as now. He will then heal us, He will comfort us, He will redeem us. Until then He has to reluctantly permit evil and suffering to have their day. He can and does use suffering – perhaps better to say that we are seldom as stretched as when we work through our pain. But let no one pretend that He somehow prefers it so.

Love demands freedom. Our freedom demands that God stand back and give us space, in good times and bad. Be in no doubt of His enduring love and His faithful determination to bring us home to His eternal kingdom of bliss.