Finding God in the suffering

Repentance is where we can always find God.

By Molly T. Marshall

With relentless coverage, the world is caught up in the riveting images coming out of the Philippines.

Our ever-warming world careens from one disaster to another, each described as of “epic proportion,” ostensibly meaning that they are growing. Relief workers and military respondents and newscasters try to describe what they see on the ground. And they run out of words, as do we.

Those who are pastors and teachers, who are called to try to make sense of such things, must speak with muted faith, yet grounded in hope. Crises of this magnitude in history have caused some to question the notion of trust in a sovereign God.

The 1755 Lisbon earthquake was such an event. Ironically, it transpired on All Saints Day and managed to claim tens of thousands of saints. While not much was known at that time about the continental plates deep under the ocean, this earthquake not only prompted seismology but also major philosophical and theological construction. Indeed, “interrogating God” as a key aspect of theodicy was in vogue in Enlightenment Europe.

A more recent disaster, the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia, evoked the theological equivalent of “stand your ground.” In his engaging work The Doors of the Sea, David Bentley Hart described such a response:

A Calvinist pastor, positively intoxicated by the grandeur of divine sovereignty, proclaimed that the Indian Ocean disaster — like everything else — was a direct expression of the divine will, acting according to hidden and eternal counsels it would be impious to attempt to penetrate, and producing consequences it would be sinful to presume to judge.

Not surprising, those of atheistic bent, such as Christopher Hitchens, author of God is not Great, find a theological explanation like this both tedious and intellectually flawed.

Perhaps his most often quoted aphorism is “that which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.” Following his acerbic counsel, it is better to say less than make overweening claims about God having “a purpose” in such tragic cataclysm.

Sunday after Sunday, congregants seek an interpretive word about a violent world where chaos breaks forth regularly in natural disaster and moral transgression inflicts great suffering. Pastors, wearied by caring for the broken and dying, summon spare words haltingly.

When Jesus was asked about the fall of the Tower of Siloam in South Jerusalem (Luke 13:1-5), which killed 18 people, he deftly refused to say their deaths came as punishment for their rebellious behavior. Death can come upon anyone, and one’s sinfulness is not the determining factor. Yet, Jesus warns that repentance is appropriate for all who witness or experience suffering.

This is not what I want Jesus to say. I would prefer a nuanced discourse about good and evil that speaks of God’s companioning in the grinding and inexorable processes of a creation laboring toward birthing the new. I want a perceptive analysis of free will, divine vulnerability and neat eschatological resolution. What we get is a call to repentance.

Repentance is where we can always find God. When we make the voyage of anguish toward God, acknowledging our anger about our chaotic earthly home, we move closer to the one who bears the longest part of suffering. We find God in the pathos of all creaturely existence, for God experiences with us all that threatens human flourishing.

While much happens in the world for which no one cause or person can be directly blamed, there is shared culpability. We can begin by repenting of our love of big engines that warm this earth. We can repent of our participation in a world economy that creates such disparities in infrastructures. We can repent of callous indifference to yet one more request to open our hearts and our checkbooks.

Actually, Jesus refuses to let anyone off the hook in a groaning world — not humanity, and surely not himself. As Nadia Bolz-Weber wrote in Pastrix: “Nowhere is the presence of God amidst suffering more salient than on the cross. Therefore, what can I do but confess that this is not a God who causes suffering. This is a God who bears suffering.” We should expect to find God there.

Surely God bears suffering most deeply in the cross as God allows even the rending of Trinitarian relations for the sake of god-forsaken humans.

The event of death and resurrection in the Triune God is also for the whole creation. Indeed, in this encompassing event God takes responsibility for creating a world in which things can go terribly wrong.

God’s suffering is therefore creative suffering, which releases power that overcomes death and destruction. Resurrection remains our hope in the face of all that threatens.

Thus, to God we commend all those who have perished in Haiyan.      

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.