There are no slick, simple answers to profoundly painful questions about why there is suffering and evil in a world made by a good God of love. I spent decades caring for babies born with terrible congenital malformations and defects, and it often broke my heart to see their suffering and that of their parents. In this second talk at Jesmond Parish Church in Newcastle (you can see the first here), I tried to sketch out a few thoughts on this painful topic and how Christian people can respond to suffering. You can watch it below:
You can read the notes from this talk below:
This morning we looked at the reality of suffering and of the vulnerability and frailty of our human nature – the way that God has made us. This evening we will be looking at how we should respond when we meet personal tragedy and pain.
As a doctor I have seen so much suffering. Stillbirth, lethal congenital abnormalities, dying babies, young people struck down by terminal illness, and elderly people affected by dementia and other cruel degenerative diseases.
Many times I have held in my arms the bodies of dead babies and wept with parents at the tragedy of a life snuffed out within hours or days of birth, and at my own failure as a paediatrician to find a way to prevent the death happening.
As Christian people we have to engage with the painful realities of our world and of our experience, we have to talk about these issues with tears in our eyes.
There are many people here whose lives have been touched by inexplicable suffering and evil. And to the students and young people here, with your life all ahead of you, I am sorry to tell you that every one of you at some stage in your life will be touched by some inexplicable evil – some tragic reverse.
And that’s my story as well. I would like to share a little of my own experience. I don’t do this out of a kind of exhibitionism – so that I can show off and display all my wounds in public. I do this simply because I have found that it may be helpful for other people who may be facing similar or different challenges.
I was reminded later on of the words of St Bernard of Clairvaux, a writer of the medieval period who wrote about spiritual friendship. He said this, “Christ himself kisses us, in the love of our friends.”
So there may be times of extreme loss and darkness when we are not able to access God’s presence and reality in a direct manner. But we are able to experience the presence of his love in a physical form from our closest friends and loved-ones.
That’s why it is so important to us to build and nurture the kind of friendships that will be there of catastrophe strikes. And I say this particularly to you who are students that now is the time to be building and nurturing this kind of deep and lasting friendship.
Of course suffering is not a new problem – when we turn to the Scriptures we find many examples of people facing tragedy, suffering and despair – particularly in the Psalms.
Psalm 42 is a cry of pain and anguish. Verse 9:
‘I say to God my Rock, why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about mourning, oppressed by my enemy? My bones suffer mortal agony’
1.We have to learn to lament in a way which is honest and faithful to God
The theme of faithful godly lament recurs throughout scripture. Godly lament takes pain and suffering seriously.
I have to be honest with myself about the reality of these feelings of hopelessness and despair. But then I have to be honest with my trusted loved-ones and companions as well. Instead of maintaining a façade of confidence and faith, it is better to share those feelings. Of course it may be excruciatingly painful. There may be only one or two special people that we trust enough to say these things to. But as we put these emotions into words, it is often the first step towards recognising and acknowledging them. Faithful lament is always honest – it does not pretend.
Lament is prayer, but a particular kind of prayer. It takes the brokenness of human experience to God and asks, prays, cries out for God to answer. It holds God to account – reminding him of his promises and his character.
Godly lament is a way of reframing suffering in the light of the hope and promises of God.
It provides faithful language with which we can bring our pain to God. Lament is not an activity of faithlessness and despair – it is an activity of faith and resistance to evil. By practising godly lament we become the kind of people who take seriously the pain and sadness of the world but we refuse to be crushed by it.
2. We have to practise the discipline of Christian hope
GK Chesterton once wrote that there were two sins against Christian hope – the sin of presumption and the sin of despair. Presumption is not compatible with Christian hope because it blithely assumes that everything will go well. There will be no problems, no struggle, no testing, no suffering. God will ensure that we pass effortlessly through this life and into his presence – just have faith. I am afraid this may be attractive but it is a fantasy. It is not genuine Christian hope which is above all grounded in truth and reality.
But despair is an equal and opposite sin which is also not compatible with Christian hope. Despair says “Nothing and nobody can help the current situation”. “There is nothing to cling on to”. “There can be no dawning of the light”.
Instead of the sins of presumption and despair, we are called to practise the discipline of Christian hope. These words were found written on the walls of a cellar in Germany at the end of the Second World War:
I believe in the sun even when it is not shining
I believe in love even when I feel it not
I believe in God even when he is silent.
3. We are called to be there with those who are suffering
“Suffering is not a question which demands an answer, it’s not a problem which demands a solution… It’s a mystery which demands a presence”.
John 11:17-44, in particular verse 33:
“When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”
Time and again the Gospel writers show that Jesus was deeply moved and engaged by human suffering. He entered into the experience of others. Luke uses a word splanchnidzomai which means literally that his bowels were moved. He was gutted by the suffering of others. Another word implies that he snorted like a horse in anger. Another word implies that he was troubled like the swirling of deep waters.
The God who is revealed in Jesus is a God who enters into the experience of human suffering. And on the cross he took our pain and guilt and suffering into his own body.
So we are called to be there with those who suffer. Suffering is a mystery that demands a presence.
But we enter into the experience of other people’s suffering not with despair but with the discipline of Christian hope. Because of the life-transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus weeps at the grave of Lazarus, because the suffering, loss and despair is real. But at the same time Jesus knows that Lazarus is going to be raised from the dead. And he challenges Martha “I am the resurrection and the life …… do you believe this”
Because God’s plan for this age is not to abolish suffering – it is to redeem it. To transform pain, and loss and despair into blessing and healing and fruitfulness.
And that’s my experience too. By God’s grace, my own experience of suffering and confusion and psychological pain has slowly been transformed into healing and blessing. Yes it has taken years of slow recovery and healing and growing understanding. And I am left with a vulnerability and fragility – I have a thorn in the flesh. But I have seen how these painful experiences have led to new opportunities to understand God’s love and grace in my life and ways of sharing this with others.
I have come to the conclusion that there is no evil situation, however twisted, however malevolent, however apparently meaningless, which cannot in some sense be transformed by God’s grace and power into blessing and healing. That’s a statement of faith. I can’t prove it –but I believe it.
But the process of healing, redemption and transformation doesn’t happen automatically. It requires our willing acceptance and cooperation with God’s love and power working through the Holy Spirit.
4. Suffering will come to an end.
The night will be replaced by the dawn. In Christian thought suffering is always shot through with hope and longing for the future. For the new heaven and earth. God’s plan for this age is not to abolish suffering, but he has promised that one day he will.
In Revelation 21 we read these words:
‘Behold the dwelling place (tabernacle) of God is with man. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’Revelation 21: 3-5
This is not an image of a terrible and fearful holy God, the one of total power and authority from which even heaven and earth will flee away.
No, God himself will be with his people and he himself will wipe away every tear from their eyes. This is the picture of a mother’s lap and a child whose face is streaked and blotchy from hours of crying, and gentle fingers are stroking away the tears. This is our God, the motherly father, who promises that there will be no more mourning, no more crying, no more pain, because the former things have passed away.