In the midst of every personal or national tragedy, the cry of the human heart is very much, ‘Where is God?’ We turn to the light of scripture and the wisdom of faith to explore this cry of the heart.
The problem of pain and suffering is ancient yet ever new. In truth, each of us faces our own personal trauma and suffering, and sometimes a generation faces its own national or indeed global crisis – be it a World War, the Spanish Flu of 1918 or the Asian Tsunami in 2004, or today, in our case, the Great Covid Pandemic 2020.
We cry ‘Where is God?’, but from the very beginning God has lovingly asked ‘Where are you?’ (Genesis 3:9). We tend to think that we search for God (and of course we do in many ways) but, more deeply and fundamentally, God is always searching, even thirsting, for us to come into his presence.
We can feel that God is remote and distant, far removed and indifferent to our suffering and pain, but this isn’t what revelation makes known – thinking in this way is human, understandable, yet also fallen and wounded – because revelation shows us that God draws near to the broken-hearted, God is close to those in anguish and God blesses those who weep and mourn. As St Augustine so wonderfully said, ‘God is closer to us than we are to ourselves’.
Resting comfortably in this truth and living it in a way that gives us strength and comfort requires both a grace of revelation and learning to walk with God day by day. The truth is, faith can be deeply shaken, challenged and sometimes even lost by the many challenges and difficulties we face and endure. Conversely, faith is often strengthened, renewed and refined through momentous and deeply challenging moments in our lives. The Great Covid Pandemic 2020 is precisely one of those moments.
The sage said, ‘There is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9), and so the problem of suffering and pain was as real in the ancient world as it is today. St Luke records an accident in which eighteen men lost their lives when a tower in Siloam fell on them (Luke 13:4). Then, as now, tragedy invites us to ask: ‘Why did God let this happen?’, ‘Was God punishing the men who died?’ The book of Job is devoted to the same theme – why do we suffer, where is God in it, is the universe random, is God indifferent to us and our plight? Jesus completely refuted the idea that human tragedy or catastrophe is God’s punishment, but pointed to each of us being responsible for our own relationship with God and being open to ongoing change and conversion – a renewal of the mind and heart, metanoia (repentance) if you will, and a continual, on-going and lifelong endeavour to return to the Father.
The scientist and Nobel Prize winner Marie Curie said, ‘Nothing in life is to be feared – only understood’. The question ‘Where is God?’ is rooted in a misunderstanding about the very nature of God. We could say that this all too human misunderstanding is because our thinking leans towards a certain darkness or cynicism. This darkness and cynicism is because of an original wound which in turn gives rise to one of our greatest enemies, fear: Fear of God, of one another, of life itself.
St John the Evangelist proclaimed that love casts out fear – he actually went further, saying that it is ‘perfect love’ that drives out fear (1 John 4:18). Where can we find a perfect love? This perfect love, this supreme example of a life lived in love was revealed in the fullness of time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, born of a woman; God who became man. This central revelation of faith, that God became man, humbled himself and took upon himself our human nature, is the very essence of Christian revelation – the heart of our faith. Becoming like us meant that Jesus was subject to temptation as we are, but, unlike us, did not succumb but resisted the evil one. Becoming like us meant that Jesus became the Suffering Servant – not remote or removed from human suffering but familiar and deeply immersed in it. Jesus is Ecce Homo – Behold the Man – the Man of Suffering. Through his suffering on the cross Jesus became the One from whom we hide our face; he was despised, rejected and we esteemed him not. We ask: where is God? God’s answer is the cross. The cross of Jesus, then, is the supreme sign of the love that God pours out on the mystery of evil and the problem of pain. The light of God’s revelation is that God is here with us, even until the end of time.
How do we know what love is? Again we turn to St John the Evangelist, the youngest of the Apostles who scholars say lived into his nineties and had a lifetime to reflect on his encounter with Jesus. He wrote of the cross event, ‘This is how we know what love is – Jesus Christ laid down his life for us’ (1 John 3:16). He took up our infirmities, carried our sorrows, was pierced for our transgressions; the punishment that brought us peace was laid upon him and by his wounds we are healed.
When we cry out in desperation or anguish, ‘God, where are you?’, God speaks his answer gently into the depths of our hearts saying, ‘I am right here with you, right beside you, always and forever’. When we despair and lash out in darkness and confusion saying, ‘Why does God allow such suffering and pain?’, God speaks his answer gently saying, ‘I am familiar with suffering and pain – I am with you even until the end of time’.
God does not send us more than we can bear. God is with us, right at the very centre of our suffering. Just as we have been asked to ‘Stay Alert’ with respect to the coronavirus, so too we are called to ‘Stay Alert’ to things of faith. We cleanse our minds with the life-giving promises of faith – we cleanse our hearts with the truth of Scripture which proclaims that wherever sin, darkness, confusion, despair, disunity and suffering increase, God’s grace, mercy, blessing and love increase all the more (Romans 5:20).