In February 2015, Gay Byrne, host of the Irish religious television programme The Meaning of Life, asked militant atheist Stephen Fry what he would say to God if he found himself standing before Him at the Pearly Gates.
Fry replied with his characteristic sting: “Bone cancer in children: what’s that about?” He then proceeded with a lengthy diatribe on how evil must be the God who would so cruelly inflict such terrible suffering on little innocent children.
There is a sense in which Fry may be forgiven for working with that particular understanding of divine agency that informed his view of God. There are, after all, Christian writers who have postulated this concept of divine sovereignty and providence, and have – for example – attributed the tragedy of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami to the direct expression of the divine will.
The Orthodox theologian Bentley Hart rightly rejects such views as serious distortions of the biblical portrait of God.
“Such a God,” writes Bentley perceptively in The Doors of the Sea, “at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite brute event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism.” Such an incoherent view of God, Hart points out, only provides ammunition for critics of the Christian faith (like Fry).
The God whose very nature is love cannot be the direct cause of suffering and evil. Their presence point to the fact that we inhabit a world that has come under the divine curse because of human rebellion and sin – a world that is sorely in need of redemption.
Although God cannot be said to be the author of suffering, He can use the trials and difficulties that we experience to fulfil His own purposes for us (and for the world). This is especially true for the Christian who trusts in God in the midst of the tribulations of life.
In the hands of the sovereign God, suffering can be a pruning tool to excise that which is unholy in our lives – the darkness in our souls that stunts our spiritual growth. In the mysterious outworking of divine grace, suffering removes our reticence and causes us to draw closer to God.
As Pope John Paul II put it in his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (Salvific Suffering), for the Christian, “suffering must serve for conversion, that is, for the rebuilding of goodness in the subject, who can recognise the divine mercy in this call to repentance.”
I should clarify at this point that suffering in and by itself is never virtuous. Neither is it a sign of holiness and/or means by which we attain greater intimacy with God. As we have seen, suffering, and the evil that gives rise to it, is an antithesis to the purposes of God.
Lent summons us to grateful contemplation of the suffering and death of the Son of God on the cursed tree, for the salvation of sinful humanity and the restoration of the fallen creation, showing that the evil and suffering that plague this world was never part of God’s original intention.
But the Passion of Christ has not only brought redemption to this fallen world, it has also translated all human suffering into a new situation. “In the Cross of Christ not only is the Redemption accomplished through suffering, but also human suffering itself has been redeemed”, wrote the late pontiff.
This means that for the Christian, the death and resurrection of our Lord throw salvific light on human suffering in the most penetrating way. Although suffering is an evil that must be resisted, the Christian knows that God can use it to accomplish the good (Romans 8:28).
The resurrection of Christ demonstrates that evil and suffering do not have the last word. For a day will come when suffering will be totally eradicated, when “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore” (Revelation 21:4).
Those who live with this hope can declare together with the Apostle Paul that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
Thus, because of Christ’s death and resurrection, the Christian can walk the via dolorosa (the way of sorrow) with faith, courage, and hope.
Dr Roland Chia –
is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the ETHOS Institute™ for Public Christianity (http://ethosinstitute.sg).
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