Yesterday’s catastrophic earthquake in Haiti has me thinking once again about the reality of human suffering.
Throughout my ministry, I have often heard people give expression to a profound and ultimately unanswerable question in the midst of their experiences of suffering:
“My child has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer. Why would a loving God permit such a cruel reality?”
“People in the village that I visited in Africa are so poor that, every morning, parents there have to choose which of their children will get food that day. I don’t understand why God would tolerate that kind of hunger for so long.”
“I trusted my husband completely, but he shattered my life by telling me that he doesn’t love me anymore and running off with someone else. Why would God permit me to fall in love with a person who would cause me such pain in the long run?”
I am sure that all of you could add your own personal conversations to this list.
Today, while standing in line at Starbucks, I overheard a new expression of the “why” question. It went like this: “These people who talk about God and praying…I just don’t get it. If there is a God worth praying to, then he wouldn’t permit thousands of Haitians to die in a 48-second earthquake. Why would a good deity allow that kind of widespread tragedy?”
In my own arrogance, I long to be able to answer the “why” question in a way that is succinct, poignant, and reassuring, thereby impressing people with my theological acumen while at the same time putting people back on the right theological track. I long to be able to fit human suffering into a concise theological equation that validates the comforting axiom that everything happens for a reason. The fact of the matter, however, is that this humble preacher is as ill-equipped to answer the “why” question as anybody else in the world.
The narrative that I preach, after all—the Scripture of the Old and New Testaments—never provides its readers with a detailed theodicean apologetic. In the Old Testament, for example, the man named Job never receives an answer to his impassioned “why” in the midst of his hardship. The man named Abraham is never pacified with an explanation of the divine mandate to sacrifice his son (a mandate that is eventually rescinded, but not forgotten). In the New Testament, Jesus offers to us no elaborate explanation of why poverty exists, why leprosy seems to have the upper hand, or why the journey to salvation must include a sickening cross.
All that Scripture offers to us concerning our “why” questions is a cryptic affirmation that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and that God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), which can hardly be described as a satisfactory explanation for a cancer diagnosis or a Haitian earthquake.
And yet, while Scripture stubbornly refuses to answer the “why” questions related to human suffering, Scripture does place before us the strangely unsettling image of a weeping and suffering Christ. We find him weeping over the sin and brokenness of Jerusalem. We find him weeping over the death of his dear friend Lazarus. We find him breaking and bleeding on that Roman instrument of death called the cross.
Such images are significantly more than theological masochism designed to titillate the sensibilities of future generations. Rather, if we believe that Jesus represents the fullness of God’s self-disclosure (and I do), then the image of a weeping and suffering Christ is nothing less than a stark and worldview-altering revelation of the very character of God. To put it in the simplest of terms, if Jesus represents the fullness of God’s self-disclosure, then a weeping and suffering Christ means a weeping and suffering God.
Not a God who remains at a safe observational distance, orchestrating and micromanaging human suffering for the purpose of testing our mettle. Not a stoic God who refuses to be moved by the tragic segments of the human pilgrimage. Not a coldhearted and emotionally hardened deity who capriciously dispenses rewards and punishments—“Here, let’s see how those Haitian people deal with this!”
Not that kind of God.
Instead, the blood and tears of Christ bear witness to a God who is so thoroughly invested in humankind’s journey that the divine heart actually has the capacity to break to the point of weeping; a God who has poured himself so thoroughly into the human condition that he cannot prevent himself from breaking where we break, bleeding where we bleed, weeping where we weep; a God who loves us with such a wild and profligate love that he takes every portion of human suffering personally, receiving it into himself in such a way that human and divine teardrops commingle in a mind-boggling relational intimacy.
And, according to Scripture, that’s not even the best part.
The best part is that God refuses to allow death and suffering to have the final word to speak. When the weeping is finished, when God and the people of God have wept for long enough, God goes to work in transformationally redemptive fashion, thereby ensuring that the weeping gives way to resurrection.
I probably don’t have to tell you that Scripture is replete with resurrectional experiences: the people of Israel finding new hope and new life in their Egyptian captivity; Lazarus coming forth; the church in Acts moving from Stephen’s martyrdom to newfound evangelical fervor; Jesus of Nazareth walking out of a tomb that could not contain him. When we dare to move beneath the surface level of these resurrectional experiences, we find the beating heart of a God who seems to specialize in bringing new life out of certain death—a God who loves to grab hold of despair for the purpose of transforming it into hope; who loves to grab hold of tragedy for the purpose of transforming it into an opportunity for sacrificial ministry; who loves to grab hold of brokenness for the purpose of initiating a powerful movement toward wholeness.
None of this, of course, implies a twisted system of cause and effect. That is to say, we need not believe that God’s way is to CAUSE an earthquake as a means to some redemptive end. Such a methodology would make no theological sense to the heart of a God who weeps so easily and deeply.
But, in the mysterious and often inexplicable progression of the human journey, when a tragedy does occur, our comfort and hope are to be found, not in the answering of the “why” question, but in the revealed nature of our weeping and resurrecting God, whose intimacy and vulnerability enable him to weep and whose creative grace enables him to redeem and resurrect.
Please do not interpret this post as a theological sidestep. Believe me, I would still like to have an answer to the “why” question in the aftermath of Tuesday’s earthquake in Haiti. But, in light of the fact that the “why” of such an earthquake is nothing short of inscrutable, I am compelled to consider the possibility that the more significant and urgent question to ponder is “where?” More specifically, where is God when a catastrophic earthquake occurs and when hundreds of thousands of lives are suddenly lost? That is a question that we CAN answer, and the answer is this:
God is right there, in the heart of Port-au-Prince and the surrounding towns. God is right there, in the thick of it all, feeling the pain of every death, sharing the pain of every tear. Because that is who God is. Intimate. Personal. Vulnerable. Emotional. Incarnational. Wounded. Crucified.
And, when the weeping stops for a while, God will still be right there, gradually but steadily leading a devastated people into a new season of hope and redemption—leading people out of death into new life.
That, too, is who God is.