God, the creative energy, shares our suffering and the suffering of all creation
It is rather easy to deal with the intellectual problem of evil. We can show that evil is relative in an evolving world. What is good for one creature, is bad for another. We can argue that it is rather silly to blame God for natural evil, or for the evil which we perpetrate as free human agents. We have to accept reality the way it is, and exercise our human responsibility in minimising suffering as much as we can.
But such thoughts are cold comfort to anyone who is actually affected by some acute suffering. A young husband and wife cycled home from a party. He got knocked from his bicycle by a drunken driver. He died in hospital with a fractured skull. They had been an ideal couple. Understandably she was deeply upset by his pain, by her loss, by the sudden bolt from heaven that shattered their togetherness and her hopes for happiness. `Why did God do this to Jim?’, she asked me. `Why did he do it to me? What have we done to deserve this?’
Since God is personal, and since she felt she had a personal relationship to God, the question was not a theoretical one. It rightly challenged God directly. `What does this mean between you and me?’ The real problem underlying a person’s wrestling with suffering is: how can I trust God in a distressing world like this?
I have already mentioned more than once that the outdated image of the `God up there’ who rules our world as a benevolent despot, lies at the root of many of our problems about God. God is the Ultimate Reality who supports everything we are from within. In this chapter I want to push this thought a little further. We can trust God because he/she is on our side. God is not the hidden oppressor. God suffers with us.
The idea of God’s emotional involvement with creation is very biblical. “I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord”, we read in Isaiah. “In all his people’s afflictions, he himself is afflicted”.
(Isaiah 63,7-9; see also Isaiah 49,15;46,3-4; Jeremiah 31,20; Hosea 11,3.4.9).
In the past, Christian theologians shaped their concept of God by Greek ideas of complete perfection. Since God was totally complete in his/her own being, God was absolutely immutable. Whatever happened to creation did not cause the least change in God. God’s `being afflicted’ was written off as an anthropomorphism, a human way of speaking about God.
God feels pain
In our century a whole new way of thinking about God is being rediscovered. It takes its starting point from the facts we experience, rather than from abstract philosophy. The physicist Alfred North Whitehead formulated a revolutionary new approach based on God’s presence in evolution as the persuasive power that makes new developments possible. Though God is complete in one way, the events in creation enrich God in the sense that God experiences them as actual happenings. God is directly involved in every moment of creation.
“God experiences every actuality for what it can be – its sufferings, its sorrows, its failures, its triumphs, its immediacies of joy – woven by rightness of feeling into the harmony of the universal feeling dismissed into their triviality of merely individual facts; and yet the good they did achieve in individual joy, in individual sorrow, in the introduction of needed contrast, is yet saved by its relation to the completed whole.”
Read about this: A.NORTH WHITEHEAD, Process and Reality, New York 1929, p.525. This approach is known as process theology. See also S.OGDEN, The Reality of God, New York 1966; J.COBB, A Christian Natural Theology, Philadelphia 1965; E.H.COUSINS (ed.), Process Theology: Basic Writings, New York 1971.).
The intense suffering of millions of people during the Second World War also focussed attention on God’s involvement in the plight of the victims. The Japanese theologian Kazoh Kitamori came to the conclusion that, like any sensitive and loving person, God too feels pain. To express this, Kitamori uses the Japanese word tsurasa, the pain of a parent who loses a son. Tsurasa is the pain of having a deep relationship, which can lead to the sorrow of loss and sorrow of suffering with the other (see: K.KITAMORI, The Theology of the Pain of God, Richmond 1965).
Other theologians too returned to the original biblical way of recognising God’s compassion, God’s suffering with us. In particular, they grasped again with new clarity that Jesus’ own passion and death illustrates how much God was on the side of the underdogs, of all who are rejected and all who suffer pain.
“God showed himself in the man whose last words were: `My God, why have you forsaken me?’
God emptied himself in the pain of love and died voluntarily a death of desperation.
What did God do in that despised human being?
God took upon himself all contempt we carry, including the chill in my heart.
What did God do in that misery of the world, also my incurable sorrow.
In the suffering and dying of Jesus, God bridged the distance between us, so that no one can any longer say: `See – God doesn’t care!’
J.MOLTMANN, De Taal der Bevrijding, Baarn 1972, p.32; see also The Crucified God, New York 1974.).
Whatever we think about God, we think in images. People have often experienced God as far removed from their trials because they imagined him/she as the heavenly ruler who from his infinite splendour above looked down on us, poor mortals below. They felt God was like a wealthy pit-owner in London who never even bothered visiting his mines in Wales, let alone go down into the pit to see, first hand, what the miners had to endure 2000 feet below ground.
We can now revise that image and replace it with another. God is much more like Alexander the Great, who was not only a good general, but who always personally led his troops into battle. When a fortress needed to be stormed, Alexander pressed forward among the front line, scaling the walls with them. His soldiers adored him for that reason. `He really knows our life’, they would say. `He shares our hardships.’ It was in assaulting the city of Multan in 326 BC that Alexander was pierced in the side by a javelin. The wound never properly healed. He died two years later.
God is a God with us. God is the Reality within us that gives us all we are, that allows us to be free and autonomous persons and that enables us at all stages to grow and to flourish. God is also there to share with us our disappointments and failures, our searching and our sadness, our sins and our loneliness.
God maintains an eloquent silence
Using human images, we can think of this as God choosing to incur a risk by creating us. Since God is personal and enables us to become persons, God takes on board all the fluctuations which such a relationship entails. God allows himself/herself to be affected by the evil and suffering which we, human beings, have to undergo (see: P.BERTOCCI, The Goodness of God, Washington 1981, p.267).
In us, God makes himself/herself vulnerable. God makes space in his/her life for us. God allows our experiences to enrich his/her own experiences. God accepts and undergoes our free response, our initiatives and even our resistance. It is as if God allows his/her omnipotence to step back, in order to respect the space he/she has created in us.
We can become aware of God’s suffering with us and in us, if we listen to God in silence.
Simone Weil who went through immense personal turmoil, tells us of her own experience. Though qualified as a lecturer of philosophy, she spent many years working in the Renault car factory near Paris to share the struggle of the working class. When the Nazis invaded France, she fled the country because of her Jewish ancestry and joined the French provisional Government in England. She refused to eat anything more than the rations given to her compatriots in occupied France, which may have contributed to her death of consumption in 1943 when she was only 34 years old.
When we are struck by some misfortune, Simone says, we ask the question: Why? Why are things as they are? People may point out the immediate causes to us, but these do not really interest us. They do not answer our real question. For our question `Why?’ does not mean `By what cause?’, but `For what purpose?’ Here only God can answer.
God replies, not by indicating a precise purpose but by revealing his/her presence – in silence.
“The person who is capable not only of crying out but also of listening will hear the answer.
Silence is the answer.
This is the eternal silence for which atheists bitterly reproach God; but atheists are not able to say how good people should reply to the silence . . . . The just person loves. He who is capable of both listening and loving hears this silence as God speaking to him. Created beings speak with sounds. God speaks through silence.
God’s secret word of love can be nothing else but silence. Christ is the silence of God . . . . When the silence of God enters our deepest self and penetrates it and joins the silence which is secretly present in us, from then on we have our treasure and our heart in God “.
S.WEIL, Gateway to God, London 1974, p.101.).
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of God as Love