I get the question a lot this time of year: “If God loved the world so much, why is there suffering?” This is not one of my favorite questions. In fact, I know every time I hear it what the person is asking is often much more complex than the question's apparent simplicity might suggest. Sadly, people far too often jump to John 3:16 and give the promise of the Resurrection, but don’t really deal with the pains and struggles of this world.
The fact of our faith is that while we are looking towards the Resurrection and the life that is to come, we are firmly grounded in a world from which it is impossible to separate ourselves. Unfortunately, this means that suffering is part of life. This makes life hard because the gospels and Paul’s letters teach us that in our suffering we must keep our humility and connection to the hope of our Lord Jesus. For he gave us the charge that “. . . whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”
Often, in the times when we are at our weakest and allow for the spirit to work, we grow in our faith exponentially when we encounter the true difficult times of our lives, not false, manufactured ones. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:
There are so many experiences and disappointments that drive sensitive people toward nihilism and resignation. That is why it is so good to learn early that suffering and God are not contradictions, but rather a necessary unity. For me, the idea that it is really God who suffers has always been one of the most persuasive teachings of Christianity. I believe that God is closer to suffering than to happiness, and finding God in this way brings peace and repose and a strong, courageous heart.1
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran by training and member of the Confessing Church, an anti-Nazi church coalition/denomination, was an early 20th-century theologian and martyr. He wrote this personal note to a family, in a time when his society was at war and the Nazi government's persecutions of the people were intense.
The question asked was probably one that is asked often today, "Where is God in the midst of the world we live in today?" Or, "If God offers peace, where is it?" This is a different perspective from pop theology, which tends to pick out the bits and pieces of faith that make the desired point, but in the midst of many stories, Old Testament and New, is struggle. Whether it is the fathers of the faith, the prophets, the disciples, or even Paul, the struggle and suffering is evident. But the promise and power of Christ is the hope and truth that the life of suffering and struggle of this world is based in this world and we must be of this world in order to move to the next.
Bonhoeffer, whose life mirrored the apostle Paul’s in many ways, was given an opportunity to make a choice. Though he was a strong pacifist, there came an opportunity for Bonhoeffer to participate in a plot to have a German officer get close enough to put a bomb right next to Hitler. This was a struggle for Bonhoeffer, but in the end, he concluded that to withdraw from the political and military resistance would be a flight from responsibility as a citizen of this world in which God had placed him, so he dedicated himself to assignments for the Confessing Church and the Resistance. Bonhoeffer was incarcerated in a Gestapo prison for his work with the Resistance before the assassination attempt took place. Following the botched Operation Valkyrie, he was shuttled from one prison to another. While jailed, Bonhoeffer often wrote, and we understand him and his situation and faith through his letters and papers from prison. In the camps, as we now know, the Jewish people, homosexuals, nonconformists, and political prisoners were not treated as human, but were starved, experimented on, and often killed. Survivors speak of the terror of living day to day in those conditions.
In the midst of this terror, Bonhoeffer reminds us that:
Christian hope in resurrection differs from that of mythology insofar as it directs us to life here on earth in a completely new and, compared to the Old Testament, even more incisive fashion. Unlike believers in the myths of redemption, Christians have no ultimate refuge from earthly tasks and problems in the eternal. Christians must partake of earthly life to the very end, just as did Christ (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?), and only by doing so is the Crucified and Resurrected with them and are they themselves crucified and resurrected with Christ. This life here and now may not be prematurely suspended. This is the link between the Old and New Testaments. Myths of redemption arise from the human experience of limits, whereas Christ addresses us at the very center of our lives.2 It reminds me of the lyrics of a favorite hymn: My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness. In the midst of the struggle that is life and that is the full nature of life, we cannot separate ourselves from the struggles of this world, but we can embrace them and allow Christ to embrace us through the Holy Spirit in the midst of our suffering.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen