A God who ‘allows’ suffering

Fr. Noel Connolly
April 1, 2011

Last year I was watching Q&A when Christopher Hitchens challenged, “How can you believe in a God who allows earthquakes?” It was not long after the earthquake in Haiti and at the risk of seeming insensitive to the suffering of the Haitians, my reaction was, “How can you believe in a God that does not allow earthquakes?” I don’t know what function earthquakes play in the life of the universe but I am confident that in our interdependent and evolving world they play a role. They possibly prevent even greater tragedies or enable some important natural things to happen. I don’t know, but I do know that the question reveals an immature understanding of God.

E-Journey through Lent

On Laetare, Rejoice Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, we rejoice, for the Lord forgives. Rose colored vestments may be worn instead of purple. The Lenten Rose, hellebores orientalis, a member of the buttercup family, is among the first flowers of the year, a time to rejoice in nature’s blessings.

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Too often when tragedies strike we ask why did God “allow” that young mother to die, that innocent child to suffer so much. But our God doesn’t rule from His heavenly home allowing some things to happen and bypassing the laws of nature for friends. God doesn’t work in such a magical way. It would be comforting to believe that “God” is in charge and therefore can be blamed or thanked for everything that happens. Instead our God is working in and through the processes of nature. Our God enables but respects and waits upon the laws of nature and of life.

This is the central theme of Denis Edwards’ latest book, How God Acts: Creation, Redemption and Special Divine Action. Edwards’ God is a God who constantly loves us but respects the integrity of creation and does not intervene. God’s love is vulnerable, contrary to all human ideas of power. This is most powerfully illustrated in Jesus. Jesus was not freed from His Cross. God enters into, has compassion for and embraces the suffering of the world. The Cross is not the abandonment of divinity but the revelation of true divinity.

Our God is vulnerable and caring. There is no pain-free, failure-free life. God acknowledges hunger, cruelty, violence and suffering and promises to be with us as the Father was with Jesus. God is always present to us, deeply and lovingly concerned about us, supporting us, and enabling us to learn and grow through everything we experience no matter how tragic or overwhelming it may be. But this does not make God the direct and immediate cause of each event that happens in the universe. Nor does it mean that He will help us to avoid the realities of life.

E-Journey through Lent

On Laetare, Rejoice Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, we rejoice, for the Lord forgives. Rose colored vestments may be worn instead of purple. The Lenten Rose, hellebores orientalis, a member of the buttercup family, is among the first flowers of the year, a time to rejoice in nature’s blessings.

Read the prayer | More Prayers | More Reflections

In the Gospels, life overcame death not because it was dramatically avoided but by the way Jesus suffered with faith, love and hope. We are also called on to respond courageously and creatively with all the natural and moral evil that comes our way. We are called to trust and to love even when life is tragic and does not make sense.

If we are to mature spiritually we have to abandon the idea that there is a God who “allows” or miraculously intervenes in our suffering. Our God does not control some massive world organizing computer in the sky. God is much more ‘worldly’ and involved than that. God is constantly consoling us in our suffering, sharing in our joys and calling us to be responsible and live courageously. Such a theology of God is much more adult and worthy of us. It is thought provoking to realize that if we ever achieved our childish wish for a world free of suffering and evil then there could also be no love, no compassion, no hope, no courage, no heroism and no real beauty.