Where is your God?


My tears have become my bread,
by night, by day,
as I hear it said all the day long:
'Where is your God?'
Psalm 42

Several years ago six students in the university where I teach were killed in road accidents within two months. In the first accident a drunken driver ploughed his car through a group of 40 students on a remote rural road. Two were killed; several maimed; several knocked unconscious. Help was some time in coming. In the interim fellow students attempted to restore life to the dying by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and to give emergency first aid to the maimed and unconscious. Later that night many arrived in my room stunned and spattered with blood.

In the second accident a drunken driver swerved from his lane into a van carrying seven students. The van, forced off the interstate highway, rolled down a steep embankment. Five students were thrown from the van. Four died within twenty-four hours. Our university community was traumatised; we had not recovered from the first accident. Now this.

How could God do this? The question became even more poignant because each of the students was known as a good person and a good Christian. Our responses seemed to fall into two categories; each presumed that God was the direct cause of our suffering. First and most common: 'Everything happens for a reason. God's plan is perfect; something good will eventually come from this. But we must remember that God's ways are not our ways. While on earth we may not fully understand the mysterious ways of God's Providence; in heaven will we understand.'

The second response, 'What have we done to deserve this? God must be punishing us for our wrongdoing. We must examine our lives to see what we have done, correct these faults and begin to live better Christian lives'. The first response I observed in public attempts to provide consolation; the second was confided to me by individuals who feared that God was punishing them for their sins.

I became increasingly uncomfortable with two fundamental assumptions underlying both these responses. First, all shared an assumption about God's relationship to this world. They assumed that God is the direct cause of all that happens in the world, and, therefore, that God had directly caused the road accidents resulting in the deaths of our students. Were we to conclude that God had used the drivers of the vehicles to execute Providence? I wondered how unfortunate individuals and their families and friends felt about being used by God in this way!

Second, all shared an assumption about the human relationship to God, an assumption equally troubling to me. All assumed that human freedom and responsibility are limited by God's plan. They implied that to some degree we humans are passive instruments in the hands of a God who controls our lives through an intractable Providence. Are we really just puppets in the hands of the Almighty? I knew several of the deceased well; one was a neighbour on my dormitory floor. The weeks after the accidents were marked by students streaming in to see me day and night. I was exhausted from the emotional strain and from the lack of sleep. But I was even more exhausted by my efforts to say something that would help process our grief. I realised at this time that I had not adequately thought through my own beliefs about God's relationship to suffering. Where was our God in all this?

Two approaches

In my observations when religiously oriented people use faith to deal with suffereing we do this in two ways. These two ways relate directly to our assumptions about God's relationship to this world, and therefore, to how we expect God to help us in our suffering. One is an intellectual response to suffering; the other an experiential response. I call these two ways the 'meaning context approach' and the 'support context approach'. In my experience we all use both ways but we tend to focus more energy on one or the other approach.

Using the meaning context approach we believers approach God in suffering with the age-old question, 'Why is this happening, O God?' The question implies two specific assumptions about God's relationship to this world and therefore to our suffering.

1) God is the direct cause of suffering and
2) God causes suffering for specific reasons.

Since the reasons for suffering are known by God, we ask to see our suffering through God's perspective. The meaning context seeks an intellectual solution for reconciling a faith-threatening situation with our belief in an all-loving God. We assume that if we knew God's reasons for sending the suffering, acceptance of it would be easier. Most of us begin our attempts to cope with suffering this way. Our university community did.

How do we expect God to help us in our suffering? Implicit in the meaning context is a belief that God is in direct control of all the external events of creation and history, and therefore God should be able to control the events of our lives. Since God is the direct cause we expect God either to take it away or to mitigate it, then we pray that God will at least reveal the reasons for sending it. If we knew how it fitted into God's Providence, we could better accept it.

But using the support context approach we believers approach God in a different way. Our cry to God is not 'Why, O God?' but 'Help me, O God.' This cry also implies two specific assumptions about God's relationship to this world and therefore to our suffering:

1)God gives strength for life and
2)God gives strength in suffering.

The support context seeks an experiential solution for reconciling a faith-threatening situation with our belief in a loving God. In this approach we see God primarily as the source of strength to deal with suffering rather than as the direct cause of our suffering.

How do we expect God to help us in our suffering? Implicit in the support context approach is that the primary arena for God's help in suffering is not the external events of creation and history but the internal movements of the human heart. We believe that God will not let us face our suffering alone and that God will be with us giving us sufficient internal strength to handle anything that happens to us. We have experienced God's love in the past; God will not abandon us now.

In over 20 years at my university I have never observed God's presence so palbably among us as during the accidents - drawing us to God, supporting us individually, drawing us into community, giving us strength to support one another, expecially the families of the deceased. Many students commented to me that without this strength they did not know how they could handle their suffering. Yet we continued to ask where God was! It became clear to me that the conscious assumptions we held about God's relationship to suffering flowed primarily from the meaning context approach. As I continued to reflect on these assumptions I began to see that these assumptions were at odds with the dominant approach to suffering found in the New Testament. Further I saw that our approach was more consistent with the approach to suffering found in the Old Testament.

I must quickly clarify that in both Old and New Testaments God is revealed as the God of creation and history and therefore as the ultimate meaning context of all reality - as the familiar spiritual puts it, 'He's got the whole world in his hands.' Further, in both Old and New Testaments, God is revealed as dwelling within and relating personally to the human community and therefore as the ultimate support context for believers - God is shepherd, redeemer, father, mother, friend. Yet in dealing explicitly with God's relationship to suffering , the Old Testament prefers the meaning context approach and the New Testament the support context approach.

The intellectual response

The question haunting our university community after the tragic road accidents was the same one that haunts believers everywhere during suffering: 'What have we done to deserve this? Is God punishing us for some reason?' Indeed, this is the same question asked by sufferers throughout the Old Testament. And the dominant Old Testament tradition responds to this question affirmatively: God does send suffering as a punishment for sin. How does the Old Testament reach this conclusion? On Mount Sinai after their deliverance from Egypt and wandering through the desert, God gives Moses the stone tablets upon which are written the commandments. The Hebrews then establish a formal convenant with God, agreeing to keep the commandments. God in turn is committed to both bless and punish the people in accordance with their fidelity to this covenant. The first of the ten commandments given to Moses is unequivocal.

I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me... For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their fathers' wickedness on the chilldren of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation; but bestowing mercy down to the thousandth generation, on the children of those who love me and keep my commandments (Exod 20:2-3, 5-6).

Sinai establishes the meaning context for interpreting God's activity towards Israel. This context for interpreting events of Jewish history - blessings as well as punishments - will dominate Hebrew scripture, occasionally challenged - as in Job and Ecclesiastes - but never replaced. It is presented in the opening books of the Bible - in what the New testament refers to as 'the Law'.

And the historical books of the Hebrew Bible, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, also reflect this covenant tradition. The so-called 'deuteronomic historian', the editor-compiler of these books, was guided by this interpretation in his presentation of Hebrew history. The Book of Deuteronomy gives its classical expression:

Thus, then, shall it be: if you continue to heed the voice of the Lord, your God, and are careful to observe all his commandments which I enjoin on you today, the Lord, your God, will raise you high above all the nations of the earth. When you hearken to the voice of the Lord, your God, all these blessings will come upon you and overwhelm you. (Deut 28:1-2)

The author then concretises the way the Israelites can expect to be blessed if they are faithful to the covenant: you will be blessed in the city and in the country; you will be blessed in the fruit of your womb, the produce of your soil and in your livestock; and the Lord will beat down your enemies before you. But then the message abruptly changes and the author presents the consequences of infidelity to the covenant.

But if you do not hearken to the voice of the Lord, your God, and are not careful to observe all his commandments which I enjoin on you today, all these curses shall come upon you and overwhelm you. (Deut 28:15)

And the entire list of blessings is systematically converted to curses: you will be cursed in the city and in the country, and so on.

The Holocaust question

This pattern of interpreting historical events is so central to Jewish tradition that it remains the focus even today for Jewish discussion of the existence of God. Secular Jews frequently ascribe their agnosticism to an inability to reconcile the events of Jewish history such as the Holocaust with the existence of a caring God. Religious Jews are likewise forced to grapple with this tradition. Rabbi Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good people (New York: Avon, 1981) is the best- known contemporary wrestling with the problem of suffering. Rabbi Kushner admits that he himself never seriously questioned this perspective until forced to by his son's premature death from progeria at twelve.

Like most people, my wife and I had grown up with an image of God as an all-wise, all-powerful parent figure who would treat us as our earthly parents did, or even better. If we were obedient and deserving, He would reward us. If we got out of line, He would discipline us, reluctantly but firmly. He would protect us from being hurt or from hurting ourselves, and would see to it that we got what we deserved in life. (p.3)

Where is God in suffering in the meaning context response?

Working through creation and history God becomes the cause of suffering. Suffering is sent by God as a punishment for violating the covenant and as a warning intended to call the Israelites back to covenant fidelity. This dynamic of threat and punishment found in the Pentateuch and the Historical Books is echoed also in the twelve prophetic books of the Bible: each prophet is raised up by God to warn the people of impending disasters unless they repent and return to convenant fidelity. The matter is all the more poignant for the Israelites because their monotheism assumed that all reality - prosperity as well as adversity - flowed from a single Source. Further the Israelites believed that God's justice and mercy would be worked out fully here on earth since there is no belief in an afterlife in the Law or the Prophets.

The experiential response

While ever affirming the Old Testament revelation of God as present in the universe as creator and sustainer, the New Testament has a different focus. It focuses on the presence of God first in Jesus and after Jesus' death in his disciples. This presence - identified with the Holy Spirit - is indeed manifested in all of life. It is, however, manifested most dramatically in suffering: God gives Jesus and his disciples strength to bear their cross of suffering. The New Testament response to suffering is experiential.

During the aftermath of the accidents, while we were asking where God was, we were experiencing a presence of God among us unlike any I had ever observed at our university. We were approaching our suffering, as Jesus approached his, by relying on God's help to make it through. And God was indeed responding to our cries for help and giving us strength. Though we were experiencing the power of God, yet we continued to wonder where God was. Clearly we sought to reconcile our belief in a loving God with the tragic accidents by looking for an intellectual solution. no satisfactory intellectual response was given - is it ever?

Unlike the Old Testament - with its intellectual explanation of suffering flowing from covenant theology - the New Testament gives no systematic treatment for why suffering occurs. Intellectual explanations so characteristic of the Old Testament are conspicuously absent. Further, the reward-punishment dynamic is on occasion explicitly denied. The story of the man born blind in John 9 is the most dramatic denial of the Old Testament's intellectual solution, 'Who sinned, this man or his parents?' 'Neither,' Jesus asserts. Paul's exclamation in Romans acknowledges the impossiblity of a satisfactory intellectual solution, 'How unscrutable are his judgements and how unsearchable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counsellor?' (Rom 11:33-34). In short, the entire context for dealing with suffering has changed. We arrive at the New Testament approach inductively by observing how suffering is handled by Jesus and by his followers. I believe that Paul's life and writings give the best witness to a new approach for reconciling suffering with a belief in an all-loving God. I am dubbing this new approach the 'support context approach': God gives strength for life; God gives strength especially in suffering. The approach is experiential.

Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians is an eloquent witness to the experiential response to suffering. Paul's right to minister has come under attack. He hits upon an ingenious method of defending himself. He claims that his accusers 'write their own references'; but Paul insists that his references for ministry are not from humans but from God. He then boasts how abundant are his own references from God, using several different approaches. Paul boasts that he has been given the authority to preach directly from Christ himself ; he boasts that he has been steadfastly faithful to this commission from Christ and has been so without imposing the burden of supporting him on others; he boasts that God has in addition benefited him with extraordinary visions and revelations.

Finally Paul decides to defend his ministry by naming the sufferings he's endured for it, boasting he has suffered more than his accusers.

And how does Paul handle all these sufferings? At the conclusion of the defence of his ministry Paul gives us a key insight. I believe the passage in 12:7-10 is the closest we get in all Paul's letters to his wn method of handling suffering. He makes direct reference to a particularly bothersome ongoing suffering, the famous 'thorn in the flesh' (whose meanign remains a mystery). The conclusion of the passage, however, implies that his other sufferings are handled in a similar way - all his weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and agonies.

Finding God

Where is God in all this? The typical Jew even of Paul's day might fall back upon the intellectual solution and presume that God is causing these sufferings as a punishment for infidelity to the covenant. Yet nowhere does Paul suggest that his sufferings are sent by God as a punishment for his sins. Indeed it would not even strike us as surprising should Paul be at least a little disturbed by the extent of the difficulties he encountered in preaching the Good News. But Paul's approach is different. Paul bypasses the intellectual solution and embraces the experiential solution. And the reason for this is abundantly clear: Paul has found God in his sufferings. They have become blessings not curses! He has nothing to fear from personal weakness or external persecution; far from alienating him from God, these trials have become privileged occasions for experiencing God's presence. And so he can even boast in them.

Further Paul's experience of God's power in suffering has the advantage of conforming him more closely to Jesus who also suffered.

But we hold this treasure in earth vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our body. For we are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifest in our mortal flesh. (2 Cor 4:7-11)

And this love from Jesus would always be with him. Paul's most poignant expression of the presence of Christ's love even in suffering is found in his letter to the church in Rome, a church that was undergoing martyrdom for faith, a martyrdom he would soon share.

And what reasons for his suffering does Paul give? Reasons are not asked by Paul nor given by God. Perhaps Paul's exclamation in Romans is the best expression of his mind. 'Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgements and how unsearchable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been his counsellor?' (Rom 11:33-34).

Where is God in suffering?

The deaths of our six students through careless driving of others raised this question on our campus and heightened my own search. We Christians usually attempt to respond to this age-old question within the meaning context approach, seeing God as the direct cause of everything and then looking for God's reasons - assuming God's plan is perfect and everything happens for a reason or that we have sinned and deserve the punishment. The vast amount of suffering in our world makes if difficult to maintain God's goodness - floods and earthquakes, birth defects and disease, wars and rapes, human accidents and betrayals, the suffering of children, suffering arising from race, class, gender.

Fortunately the New Testament does not demand this approach. Its silence warrants our admission that we simply don't know God's role in causing suffering. This answer is not satisfying intellectually but it does have the virtue of being in harmony with the New Testament. For me the only satisfying response to our question is the support context approach.

But please note that throughout our discussion I have been referring to the dominant Old Testament approach to suffering. This approach is also challenged in the Old Testament, challenged most radically and most poignantly by the Book of Job. Rabbi Kushner, influenced by Job and trying to reconcile the premature death of his son with his belief in a caring God, boldly puts forth an approach entirely different from the traditional Jewish approach.

All the responses to tragedy which we have considered have at least one thing in common. They all assume that God is the cause of suffering, and they try to understand why God would want us to suffer. Is it for our own good, or is it a punishment we deserve, or could it be that God does not care what happens to us? There may be another approach. Maybe God does not cause our suffering. Maybe it happens for some reason other than the will of God. The psalmist writes, 'I lift mine eyes to the hills; from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, maker of Heaven and earth.' (Psalm 121:1-2) He does not say, 'My pain comes from the Lord,' or 'my tragedy comes from the Lord.' He says 'my help comes from the Lord.' Could it be that God does not cause the bad things that happen to us?...could it be that 'How could God do this to me?' is really the wrong question to ask? (pp.29-30)

In this Kushner moves towards the support context approach.

But the experiential approach to suffering has an assumption. It assumes we have faith certitude that God loves us, is with us and will not leave us to bear our sufferings alone. The certitude is of such depth that there is no reason to doubt God's love when suffering occurs. From this bedrock conviction we are able not only to sustain faith in suffering but perhaps even to grow through it. And further we may find ourselves experiencing with Paul an intensity of God's presence and love precisely through our suffering.

Where is our God in suffering? Our God, Emmanuel, is with us. The good news of the gospel is that God cares for us at every instant of our life. Yes, God continues to care for us even in times of suffering. This care is manifested, one hesitates to say, even more dramatically in suffering. I believe that opening ourselves to experiencing this care during suffering as did Paul - and Jesus at Gethsemane and Calvary! - is at the heart of a mature Christian faith and at the heart of our sharing in Jesus' paschal mystery. Nothing in our life has greater potential for uniting us with Jesus than suffering. Isn't this truth at the heart of Paul's notion of the wisdom of God - the wisdom of the cross, 'The message of the cross is absurdity to those who are headed for ruin but to us who are experiencing salvation it is the power of God.' (1 Cor 1:18)

It is difficult for us practical people used to rational approaches to life's problems to rest content with a 'mere experience' of God's presence while leaving unanswered our intellectual questions. But in receiving strength to cope with sufferings haven't we received the greatest gift of all - greater than an intellecutal understanding of its sources? Had our university community appreciated this, we would have suffered less.

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