The most challenging question for any person of faith is “Where is God in the midst of suffering?” It is the question that is on the lips of many today as we look at the devastation being wrought by COVID-19. It is the question that haunted Americans after September 11, 2001. It is the question that was shouted during the Holocaust of World War II. It is the question on the lips of family members facing an agonizing death from cancer or the slow diminishment of Alzheimer’s disease. Where is God when we are hurting, uncertain and in pain?
In my years of pastoral ministry, I have faced the despair of suffering with no answers. I have sat with parents who have just lost a child to a tragic accident, from illness or even before its birth. I have prayed with the spouse of a suicide and those facing imminent death, fearing pain. Now we face the radical uncertainty of an illness that can strike unexpectedly with deadly force, shutting down our workplaces, schools and social gathering places—while moving so swiftly that our responses may not yet be enough.
Where is God? Part of our question arises because we trust God and we expect God to be with us at all times, in all circumstances. We also expect that our relationship is a transactional one. We assume that if God loves us (and God does!) and is with us—and that if we are doing what we thought was faithful— then God owes it to us to protect us. We carry an often-unconscious belief that we deserve and have earned God’s protection—from everything. When that does not happen, we feel abandoned.
This is the question that is woven through the Book of Job in the Hebrew Scriptures. Does God cause suffering? Is suffering punishment for sin? Does God abandon us? Is suffering our own fault? All of these questions are threaded through the story of Job, who longs for understanding of why?. Job’s friends try to help him see the answers they think are sufficient, none of which satisfy Job. At the end we encounter Job needing to recognize God’s power and “otherness” as Creator; Job’s recognition of the limits of humanity and his self-righteousness (that he cannot know everything); and finally Job’s faith that even in final submission to God and the mystery of suffering, he ultimately trusts God.
In John 17 Jesus prayed, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” But this is not a protection from the world. It is focused on the relationship with God, protecting that intimacy Jesus knew with God to be always available. It certainly was not a protection from the effects of sin and pain which led Jesus to death on the cross. It is the power that is stronger than death itself that raised Jesus to life and promises us the same possibility of life that walks in and through death, not around it. It is that reality that St. Paul claims in Romans 8:38-39:
I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor things present nor things to come nor power nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
And knows in his life in 2 Corinthians 4:7-10:
But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
Our world is a paradoxical combination of incredible beauty and devastating suffering, some of which is caused by human activity, and some of which is part of the nature of creation. We have been granted the capacity to learn about and understand much of these interrelationships, but we are not in control, much as we might wish to be. We are affected by the decisions made by others nearby and around the globe politically, economically, climatically and socially. We are affected by the ongoing cycles and systems of our planet that include natural disasters. We face the choices of drunk drivers and the impact of tornadoes and floods. Suffering is part of life. No one can live in this world without being touched by it, and some, inexplicably, suffer far more than others.
Where is God? We have not been abandoned. God is here in the very midst of joys and sorrows of daily life, moment by moment available to any and all who know the world as the place within which God makes known the transformative possibilities of grace, mercy and love. We are not guaranteed protection from the effects of living in this world. We are given the gift of a relationship with God that allows us to experience and share the possibility that loving and forgiving one another, caring for one another in community and facing suffering together in the certainty that nothing can separate us from that love and grace—that these all give us hope and endurance for today and tomorrow. And that is enough to produce communities that can celebrate with joy in the midst of suffering, can care for each other with extraordinary sacrificial love and be salt for the earth and lights on the hill.
Where is God? God is in our midst in each person that reaches out to a neighbour in quarantine to pick up groceries; in the parishes finding new ways to keep feeding the hungry and homeless; in the health-care workers choosing to risk their lives to care for others; in the small kindnesses offered each day, one to another; in the recognition that we will survive this crisis by working together for the good of all people.
Where is God? God is here—in and with you and me. Thanks be to God!