Summary: A response to suffering is to follow a process found in psalm 22 (among others): Pour the situation before God, come to realization that God is with us, enter again into a relationship of praise.
God and Our Suffering
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Matthew 2.16
The murder of the innocents recorded by Matthew challenges us to reflect upon the relationship between God and the suffering of God’s world, the relationship between God and the suffering of those innocents killed in the search for the Christ Child and the relationship between God and our suffering.
The basic question is often posed like this: If God is all powerful, and all knowing and all loving why does God allow evil and suffering to run rampant in the world. In pastoral terms evil and suffering show themselves most fully in the phone call that brings the priest to the bedside of a mother and still born child or into the home of the young man whose fiancé has been killed in a car accident.
Reading through the passage this morning from Matthew we might too easily come to the conclusion that the killing of innocent children is part of God’s plan for the salvation of humanity. In that plan many more would be brought to salvation so we can blame the massacre on Herod and thank God that the Holy Family made it safely to Egypt. But lets stay with this just a little longer. Because even if some of us may be able to move on easily there are many who cannot. There are many looking for any excuse to turn God into the type of ruler humanity should rather be rid of.
In our Christian tradition there are two primary responses to what is known as the problem of evil. One is attributed to the fourth century bishop Augustine of Hippo and the other to the second century bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus. Augustine left us with the idea that sin, and hence suffering and evil, came into the world through the sin of Adam. Influenced by Satan, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and opened the flood gate on sin, suffering and natural disaster. Cast out from Eden, human life became an existence of "blood, sweat and tears." According to this view then, each of us, before we even lift a finger, participates in this ‘original sin’. According to Augustine there is no innocent suffering because each of us is connected past generations through the ‘sin of Adam’. The only escape is salvation in Christ lived out though baptism and membership of the Church. This thinking had a great hold over Western Christianity with people fearing death ‘outside the comfort of mother church’.
There are other ways of thinking about evil and suffering. Irenaeus of Lyons proposed that one God’s great gifts to creation was freedom. For Irenaeus the brokenness and incompleteness of the world is apparent because creation is on a path of growth from towards maturity. This growth can only emerge from the interaction of good and evil. For human beings life is about a gradual transition towards Godliness.
‘Could not God have displayed humanity perfect from the beginning?’ If anyone asks this he must be told that God is absolute and eternal, and with respect to himself all things are within his power. And so, just as a mother is able to offer food to an infant, but the infant is not able to receive food unsuited to its age; so God himself could have offered perfection to humanity at the beginning, but humanity being yet infantile could not have taken it.’ Against Heresies
These are not the kinds of explanations that are much help as we endure our own encounters with evil, or as we travel with others through their suffering but in one form or another both ways of thinking do emerge regularly. Perhaps you, like me, have heard the words, "What did I do to deserve this?" It is as though some evil or suffering was a punishment for a wrongdoing. There is a strong natural tendency for us to think this way, even in an enlightened scientific world. It is as though the balance of the scales of morality are more important than compassion. Read the account of Job and his so called companions for an example of this way of thinking. If only it were that simple. Certainly it one gets blind drunk and jumps into a car and races down the road there could be a resultant tragedy - yet tragedy strikes even the most careful of people.
Another common response to suffering is to say, "These things are meant to try us." I can hear echoes of Irenaeus in those words. And I’m sure that many people have taken comfort in them as they face their own sufferings and those of friends and family. In the Gospels there are two stories that shed light on Jesus approach to the connection between sin suffering and evil. Once his disciples came across a man born blind (John 9). With all the compassion they could muster they asked Jesus a question. "Who sinned that this man was born blind: Him or his parents?" Perhaps Augustine would have responded that it was the result of Adam’s sin, Irenaeus may have pointed to the yet imperfect state of creation. For Jesus the case was quite clear - "neither, he was blind so that the works of God might be done." In this man’s case healing resulted. This healing provides us with a sign about how to deal with evil and suffering, but not a magical solution. That sign points to the love of God that offers hope healing and resurrection and completeness to all.