On Suffering

Over the past few months we have witnessed on our TV screens human pain and suffering on an unprecedented scale in many places in the world through the Corona Covid-19 virus. Old and young alike have been affected and in conversations I have had with various people I have been asked the toughest of all questions we face when talking about faith – where is God in the midst of all this pain and suffering? Why has God allowed it to happen?

When we talk about God and our relationship with him we refer to God as an all loving and all powerful being who wants to be actively involved in all our lives and wants to share in life’s highs and lows, joys and fears. We talk about wanting God to come and take control of our lives so that he can lead us into a life of hope and joy, which is pain free and where all have value and equal status. Except that this doesn’t appear to be happening and instead of our world becoming a better place, exploitation and injustice, pain and suffering seem to be increasing. How can this be happening and why does God allow it?

Some people would suggest that God is a distant being, sitting up on a cloud somewhere looking down on us and keeping a record of the things that we do and then he acts accordingly whether that’s to bless us or punish us. But this understanding makes God a distant and otherworldly being who doesn’t have any care or compassion for us and just acts in an arbitrary and whimsical way, and it means that in order for us to please God we have to do all we can to appease him. He is an angry God who demands our respect and our worship and then he will bless us. But why would anyone worship a God who causes pain, suffering and destruction?

With the coming of Jesus this entire view is turned on its head because God is no longer a distant being but someone who lives amongst us. Jesus demonstrates that God knows what it means to love and be loved, to feel rejection, to feel pain, and Jesus’ teaching and ministry is all about offering care and compassion to others. Jesus in his ministry shows that God wants to be alongside people in their needs and he wants to share the burdens that people have to deal with. The care and compassion that Jesus offers seeks to overcome the pain and suffering that people experience and he actively encourages his followers to copy him.

Of course this doesn’t answer the question why God doesn’t choose to act when people suffer in the world today and we are all left wondering whether God is as powerful as we believe. We can respond by saying that it’s all down to freewill and that God cannot influence the way we think or act except by example, but that doesn’t answer the question about world pandemic illness.

The only conclusion that I can come up with is that pain and suffering is outside the control of God and that there is nothing that can be done to prevent it occuring. This makes sense in the light of how creation is brought into being according to Genesis. In the Old Testament the people believed that God was in a constant struggle between order and chaos – order being everything that God had created and chaos being those things yet to be controlled. Water and deep were always the metaphor used for chaos and in Genesis God’s spirit moves over the face of the deep water. God brings order out of that chaos and the water is gathered together in one place but chaos still remains, and according to Revelation remains until there is no more sea. So although it is painful for us to comprehend, chaos demonstrated in pain and suffering caused by illness would be understood in biblical terms as chaos fighting against God’s perfect order.

How can we respond to this? It is very hard for us to ever accept that pain and suffering cannot be controlled by God and that if God’s creation is perfect why does it still exist? The hope we can cling on to is that God is not distant from us and knows what we are going through. He has experienced pain and suffering that we encounter, and that he wants nothing more than to take it from us. He is alongside us as we suffer and the pain that we feel wrings in the heart of God. God has set us an example though in Jesus and if we learn from that example and offer care and compassion in the way in which we Jesus did we can at least play our part in taking some of the pain and suffering that we cause out of our world.

Let’s seek to find the hope and the life that Jesus offers, and let’s make the control that we have on life as God-focussed and pain free as possible.

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Thank you is a word so often used lightly but I do use it now as a sincere and heartfelt expression of how so many of us really feel at this time. It goes without saying that we will be eternally grateful to all those who work in health care whether in hospitals, care homes or in people’s homes in the community. But as a member of the communities which the Beaminster Area Team covers I am sure I express on behalf of us all how thankful we are to all the village and town networks that have sprung into action, with almost military style provision, providing care and support to those who are isolated and vulnerable. I would also like to thank all the shops and businesses across the area for the outstanding levels of service they are providing each day ensuring that nobody has gone without essential supplies.

I would also like to thank all of our church members for the support that they are giving to myself, Jo and Fiona not only in keeping an eye on our closed buildings but also for keeping each other in touch and for ensuring that we are updated on any one who is ill or in need of prayer. Please keep checking this website for regular updates, aids to prayer, reflection, and worship. But please do not hesitate to call me if you require immediate pastoral support.

I hope that by the end of May we will be beginning to see a new light at the end of a long winding lane. One of my favourite verses from the Psalmist says just that “Heaviness may endure for a night, but, joy comes in the morning” we do indeed look forward to the joy of that new light of dawn.

– David Baldwin Your Team Rector, Parish priest and friend