|Is Extreme Suffering Just "God's Will"?
May 14, 1996
After losing a daughter to AIDS, as well as suffering a number of other travails, a friend of mine angrily says she doesn't believe in God anymore. This leads me to think about other people I have seen around the city (I live in New York) whose suffering seems so great that it can't be explained away with bromides about "everything is God's will" or "everything's for the best," or, "everything has a purpose, it's part of God's inscrutable plan," etc. How can we address the suffering of someone homeless, with AIDS, sitting on a street corner bleeding, out of their mind, without a soul in the world to care for them, etc. Is it just part of God's inscrutable plan? Being homeless and on a street corner is a dirty job but someone's got to do it? On a bigger scale, many Jews abandoned belief in God after the Holocaust, in which they witnessed cruelty beyond anything they could have imagined. What does one say to them? That they should believe anyway, because...? How do we comfort those who have been so utterly kicked by life?
Response from Rev. Pieters
Why is there suffering? Why does tragedy happen to good people? Why would a loving, just God create a world where horrible events like the Holocaust and AIDS happen? I don't know if I've ever really been satisfied with anyone's answer to these questions, let alone my own, but that doesn't mean I don't try to talk about it. There is great value in discussing the issue. In the life, suffering, and death of Jesus, God became human and experienced the worst of human agony. This means that God understands profound suffering, and is in solidarity with all those who suffer. So if God understands, why doesn't the Almighty do something to change the conditions that cause suffering? Why doesn't God rescue all those who are homeless, hungry, sick, poor, or abandoned? People asked this of Jesus. Even on the cross, Jesus was challenged to rescue himself: "If you are the Son of God, why don't you save yourself?" (Matthew 27:40, ff.) God just doesn't seem to want to act like that. Instead, perhaps we are being called to respond to suffering with love and compassion -- to be vehicles of God's loving presence. "Immanuel" means "God with us," not "God rescuing us." This can be a model for a ministry of presence, which is a concrete way of responding to suffering. At the AIDS hospice, I'm very aware that I cannot rescue a person living with HIV from the ravages of AIDS, but I can be with them, offering comfort, understanding, and love in the face of their suffering. I can do whatever I can to see that their needs are fulfilled. I can witness their suffering. But I cannot take away their suffering. This doesn't mean that I caused it. Similarly, I believe that God's loving presence is with us in our suffering, even though God doesn't always take it away. This does not mean that God causes suffering. I do not believe that God gave me or anyone else AIDS; a virus did. God does not cause a person to become homeless and hungry; the economic conditions of our country and our world may have something to do with that. Perhaps we need to reframe the question. There may be no explanation for the unreasonable suffering in this world. The fact is, life isn't fair. Suffering exists. It always has, and it probably always will. Can we forgive the world for being less than perfect? Can we forgive God for creating a world where things are less than perfect? The anger that your friend is experiencing after the death of her daughter from AIDS is perfectly understandable and justified. Directing her anger at God is an expression of her disillusionment, her disappointment in life. Can you help her find healthy ways to express her anger, push through it, and reach a point of forgiveness? Can you help her channel that anger into a loving, compassionate response to the suffering you see all around you in the city? There is probably no good answer to why extreme suffering happens to good people. I'm not sure that God causes suffering. We are still called to respond as vehicles of God's loving concern and compassion wherever we see suffering. In a sense, we're all God has!
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