Blog

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.

Martin

Some Thoughts on Science and Religion

It’s sad to say that science and religion haven’t been on the best of terms, and many in both camps would perhaps suggest that they cannot ever be reconciled. It’s probably true as well that it’s so often religion which has been the worst offender of the two in terms of communicating and being open to the other? Many religious people, especially of a more conservative and reactionary inclination, have decried and even rejected scientific theories such as evolution and the origins of mankind – citing a literal reading of Holy Scripture as their justification. In doing so they totally misunderstand the Bible which God never intended as a history or science text book – the Bible is His love letter to all mankind.

This enduring conflict is regrettable because both science and religion have their place and, in theory, should compliment and inform each other. While science is fundamentally rational, religion is supra-rational – not irrational. Science and its methods, like authentic religion, have a high value on truth, and all who are on the side of truth should respect and affirm that. Science inherently looks for proof whereas religion posits faith, which can be defined as being beyond human proof. Authentic faith, unlike the so-called ‘blind faith’ that so many believers have been misfed by their spiritual teachers, while being beyond proof is nonetheless corroborated by understanding the inner mysteries of the human soul and psyche.

Religion for its part has brought us good news and bad news: e.g. hope of everlasting life contrasted with moral scruples, guilt and despair. Science has also brought us many things, much good and some not so good: e.g. wonderful medicines contrasted with atomic bombs. Science and religion can and should inform each other and act as a regulating influence on the other.

I want to stress, from a religious perspective, that science has offered a great deal to religion and – if we accept it – has hugely influenced the more positive developments in theology, doctrine and religious practice in recent years.

The rise of the so-called human sciences have greatly helped all of us to better appreciate the complexities and constraints of our human nature. This knowledge has affected religious practice in many ways, from softening the harsh ‘black and white’ moralities that many of us grew up with, to improving the formation of ministers of religion, which in turn should help to reduce the lamentable sins of denominations who allowed unsuitable people to gain access to people’s intimate souls and indeed children’s hearts and minds.

Sciences such as astronomy and archaeology have also hugely contributed to a more balanced understanding of our human development and place in God’s wonderful creation. Astronomy in particular has forced many religious folk to realise that humanity is not actually the centre of the universe, but we are perched as it were on a small and relatively insignificant planet in just one small area of one of myriad galaxies in a vast and rapidly expanding universe. Our God has therefore to be at least as big as science is telling us that the cosmos is!

I always think of the wonderful words of astronomer Carl Sagan (an atheist by the way) who was instrumental in releasing the famous photo of our planet Earth – a photo known as the ‘Pale Blue Dot’. His words are moving and humbling – please google “Carl Sagan Pale Blue Dot” for his inspiring words. They should be mandatory reading for all religious folk and leaders of all kinds.

True religion has nothing whatsoever to fear and much to learn from good science, and vice versa. If I may adapt Psalm 90 verse 12: “Make us know our place in Your Creation that we may gain wisdom of heart!”

Martin

Justice and Mercy

One of Jesus’ most astonishing and unsettling parables is that of the ‘workers in the vineyard’: (Matthew 20: 1 – 16). This parable seems to be dreadfully unjust. The landowner is of course God, and He pays everyone the same wage in spite of the fact that some workers toiled all day in the heat of the sun, while others just started at the final hour. And if that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus also states that the ‘lucky’ guys who came to the vineyard late in the day also got paid first! No wonder that the early starters grumbled against their employer (God). What on earth is Jesus telling us in this parable?

We can make a couple of points:

~ the landowner (God) goes out to recruit workers (us) to work in his vineyard (to live a life of love and service) – as with all Jesus’ parables, it is about us;

~ the single ‘wage’ for all is eternal life in His kingdom of love – as such there is no greater wage imaginable, beyond all price.

So the wage for our loving service in this life is eternal bliss in the next life. Wage is perhaps a misleading term here because we can never earn eternal life, so it doesn’t matter when we start to live a life of love as long as we do start! But why does God make such a point of paying those first who came late (to love)?

We can point to Luke 15: 7 where Jesus declares that the late-repenting sinner is the cause of God’s greatest rejoicing because they were ‘lost’ and now are ‘found’. This echoes the great parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11 – 32). In this story Jesus makes it very clear that the older son, who never ‘sinned’, was blazing angry with his father (God) for being so merciful to his wastrel brother. It was manifestly unjust.

I think the key point in all these Gospel texts is that God is not interested in justice – He is only interested in mercy. We need to appreciate that there is a huge difference between these two qualities:

~ when one is shown justice, one gets what one deserves;

~ when one is shown mercy, one is let off ‘scot-free’.

Mercy is therefore all about a relationship where one party acts freely and is entirely gracious to the other party. The party shown mercy can never demand or merit the gift of the other’s mercy – it is the giver’s free choice. In the saving death and resurrection of Jesus, God’s abundant mercy has literally been poured on all humanity. One image of our salvation is that Jesus himself carries us ‘piggyback’ through the mercy-gate into Heaven. There is therefore no place for human pride – the workers in the vineyard who worked all day and received a very fair wage were still angry, precisely because their pride had been injured by having to wait in line while the late starters got paid the same, and got paid first.

So we sinners do not earn God’s mercy – not only it is God’s free gift to us, it is a done-deal, given already. But while it is God’s free gift already given, there is an important corollary to our receiving mercy: having been shown mercy by God, we in our turn must show mercy to our sisters and brothers. Jesus makes this very clear in his parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18: 21 – 35). Moreover, because God’s mercy is so immense and so vital for our eternity, there is no human situation where we can righteously withhold mercy to our brethren. No matter how we feel we have been hurt, we must always be merciful – because God has been so radically merciful to us. So often it is our sense of hurt pride that stops us doing what we should. Many spiritual teachers hold pride to be the ‘root’ sin.

My short poem ‘Justice and Mercy’ tries to express these deep realities:

Justice and Mercy – Poems for Pilgrims

Martin

Is there anyone in Hell?

Hell, we are told, is a place of eternal damnation, where everything that fulfils a person is absent, and most terrible of all, when we should be enjoying the glorious sight of God forever, He is absent, forever.  All in all, to end up in Hell is simply the most awful fate that anyone can ever suffer.

We don’t need to envisage Hell as a place of fire and demons and awful screaming, no more than we need to envisage God as a white-bearded old man.  These were old and simplistic ways of emphasising aspects of the spiritual mysteries.  Perhaps better to think of Hell as just an awful boring, cold, grey, desolate wilderness where the occupants wander aimlessly about, never finding any solace or meaning to their lives.  And never means never – eternity, without end.

The problem for God is that although He has made us for Himself, to live in His love forever, He cannot force Himself on us.  He has already given us eternal life and there is a place for each one of us in His kingdom of love.  But we are radically free to accept this gift or to reject it, and He has to respect our life choices.  This is why Hell must exist – it is the very condition of our freedom.

We can be sure of this: God doesn’t want anyone to end up in Hell.  If we look at it from our perspective, imagine if someone you love was to end up in Hell – how would you be able to spend eternity in Heaven knowing that your loved one wasn’t there?  How much more terrible for God who is the greatest Lover?  For someone to be in Hell would be an eternal wound in the heart of God.

Traditional theology and practice have tended to suggest that one single act, one serious sin, could effectively send us to Hell.  In that case, Hell would be very crowded indeed.  I think we can now reject such an unrealistic and negative doctrine.  What then is the entry qualification for Hell?  I think it would have to be a deliberate and sustained life stance of hating and wounding other people, and that such a person never repented before their death.  This would be the conscious and total rejection of love in favour of hate.  I think we can all think of historical people who might fit this bill: infamous and powerful individuals who caused widespread suffering and death.  This suggests to me that the population of Hell is in fact quite small.  Might it actually be zero?  In other words, Hell exists but the entry qualification is way too high…

I think two things are clear from Jesus’ own teaching:

~ if anyone truly repents at the very last moment of their life then God forgives them;

~ we cannot ever say that any one person is damned to Hell.

The Church of course canonises individuals who lived a saintly life – effectively saying that these folk are in Heaven.  The Church never says that a specific person is in Hell.

I’m suggesting therefore that few if any people are in Hell.  Yet let’s be honest, some of Jesus’ statements would tend to suggest that it’s the other way round: “Small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7: 14)  Does this statement not contradict what I’ve been saying?  I don’t think so.  I think Jesus is talking here not so much about eternal life but life here and now.  In other words, he’s acknowledging that few people seem to radically respond to God’s Spirit and live a life of holiness – before they die.

Ultimately the only entry qualification for Heaven is… God’s mercy,

in His love,

Martin

We are Immortal!

You, and I, are immortal. We will never cease to exist.

This present moment, in which you’re reading this, is but one of an endless succession of moments. And yes, a moment is coming for all of us – our death – but death is itself a moment in that succession, to be followed by an unending stream of other moments. Death is not the end for us, but rather a transition from one state into another.

This is the message of the Gospel of Jesus, that we are created by God, and maintained by God, and will be forever. And the dynamic of this permanent relationship with God is quite simply His unconditional love. Such a love we can barely comprehend, but one way of understanding it is that there is nothing you or I can do to stop God loving us. Nothing. He will never go back on His decision to give us life. You and I are immortal and there is nothing we can do, even if we wanted to, to terminate that immortality.

The key question is actually: what will be the nature of this unending existence? Eternal life with God, or… eternal desolation and meaninglessness without Him? And that’s our choice here and now, for He will never force Himself on us. So it’s not whether we will cease to exist but rather the quality of that limitless span. I repeat, you and I are immortal.

I cannot prove this. It requires to be accepted on faith. But there are strong pointers as to why this should be our destiny. If we stop to ponder and discern what is at the core of our being we should discover that there are two fundamental needs – and these two needs are common to all humanity, because what is most core to our being is also most universal. These two needs are:

~ to be as happy / fulfilled as it’s possible to be;

~ to be that happy for as long as possible.

Who among us would settle for only partial happiness? And who would settle for a limited period of happiness? Would you?

That profound inner truth, common to all people, that our sole fulfilment is unending joy, can only ever be fully met by a loving God. No human agency can ever do this for us. OK, you may say, faith is then the pathetic projection of our deepest wishes, never to be fulfilled – a nostrum for the weak-willed. The ultimate ‘pie in the sky’. I cannot prove otherwise, but neither can anyone discount the possibility that we might actually be created for the fulfilment of those needs placed there by a loving Creator. Faith in God is then not irrational but rather supra-rational.

The Gospel of Jesus is truly good news, the best news, ever. Understood properly, Jesus’ message of radical love resonates with our deepest nature. And moreover, it means that eternity is now: this present moment is itself part of that endless stream of moments.

God is with you today, singing His love song in your inner core,

Martin