Where Is God in a World of Suffering?

As some of you may know, in addition to teaching Bible, I also provide spiritual care as a spiritual director. One of the handouts I wrote addresses the struggle many of us have wondering where God is amid suffering. With all the turmoil these days, I hope this post will provide some helpful reflection.

If God loves us and has a purpose for our lives, why is there so much suffering? What does it mean that God doesn’t stop tragedy from happening? Is God truly good?

Trying to make sense of suffering is as old as Job. One common tendency is to suggest a person did something wrong to incur God’s disfavor or “discipline.” However, the author of Job rejects claims that bad things only happen because God is angry. Innocent people do, in fact, suffer. When asked why a man was born blind, Jesus denied the cause was sin (John 9:1-3). Instead he says God is actively working to bring good into painful situations. Similarly, the author of Acts describes God directly opposing the forces that cause suffering (10:38).

Anglican pastor and theologian, Rowan Williams, says when it comes to trusting God sometimes the first baby step is to look to people who “take responsibility for God”:

Faith has a lot to do with the simple fact that there are trustworthy lives to be seen, that we can see in some believing people a world we’d like to live in . . . This turn of phrase, about taking responsibility for God, I owe to one of the most striking believers of the twentieth century, one of the many who made God believable by their resistance to the nightmares of modern totalitarianism and violence. Etty Hillesum was a young Jewish woman in her twenties when the Germans occupied Holland . . . Imprisoned in the transit camp at Westerbork . . . she wrote, ‘there must be someone to live through it all and bear witness to the fact that God lived, even in these times. And why should I not be that witness?’[1]

As you continue to process your image of God, be patient with yourself. Talk with a spiritual director, mentor, or friend who can walk alongside you. Trusting God takes time. Wrestling with pain takes time. The question “Why?” may never be answered, but it is possible to arrive at the same understanding as witnesses before us: God is light and in God there is no darkness at all (1 John 1:15).

During this time, the following suggestions may be helpful:

1. Ponder the stories of other people of faith who have suffered such as Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Lament for Son or Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life and Letters from Westerbork.

2. Engage in practices of lament. This could be as diverse as praying the Psalms, writing your own lament, or symbolic acts (e.g. tying a burden to a helium balloon and sending it into the sky etc).

3. Daydream about previous experiences of God in your life. When Mother Teresa went through long periods without sensing God’s presence, her distinct and memorable call to ministry as a young woman kept her going.

4. Meditate on Scriptures that remind you of God’s love, even if part of you still struggles to believe them. For example, consider contemplating stories of Jesus’s caring ministry to those around him.

5. Practice self-care, including recreation/exercise, talking with trusted friends and family, eating healthy, journaling, listen to comforting music, etc.

________________________

[1] Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust: An Introduction to Christian Belief (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 21-22.

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4 thoughts on “Where Is God in a World of Suffering?

  1. Thanks for your posting. One of my favorite authors in the Bible on suffering is Peter. In 1 Peter 4:1 he begins with the most comforting statement about our suffering, “Therefore, since Christ suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same mind, for he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin.” Wow, what a promise, it makes all suffering in His mind and spirit worthwhile!

  2. Thanks for this Karen.

    Something that has caught my interest of late is in the realm of modern neuroscience. Among suggestions in dealing with despair and depression from suffering, are a couple of responses that relate to your essay. The first is simply naming the thing that is causing you pain (which fits very well with laments). Of course, Walter Brueggeman has contributed some excellent material to this. I think lament is underestimated as a means of bringing one to joy (I have often found myself reading lament psalms in the middle of the night and find they bring a great deal of peace). It’s unfortunate there aren’t many lament hymns going around today.

    The second area neuroscience suggests is thanksgiving (which fits in well with suggestions 3 & 4 above). In fact, even the effort to try to think about things for which one might be thankful, impacts the brain in a positive way. Some suggestions are very specific: try to think of three things for which you are thankful each day; journal about one of those; think of people for whom you are thankful and write them a note of praise.

    This all reminds me of Paul’s encouragement in Phil. 4 – “in nothing be anxious, but in everything through prayer and supplication (lament?), with thanksgiving(!), let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God which surpasses comprehension shall guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” What I also find interesting there is that in some instances God will simply give us peace without removing the suffering. But we can still find peace.

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