Do you not care that we are perishing? or Why is there so much suffering in the world if there is a God?

A common question asked of people of religious faith is ‘how can there be a God if there is so much suffering and evil in the world?’ Bob Carr raised this objection in the Good Weekend recently (23/06/2018).

Sometimes this question is a genuine one, asked as people wrestle with the stark realities of pain and tragedy and consider the possibility of a Divine Other. Sometimes this question is raised seeking no answer. Instead the question is simply stated as though the very words indicate that the notion of a Divine Other is foolishness. I think this is a good question that deserves space to explore potential responses, with those who do want to have a conversation.

Religious traditions seek to respond to this question in a variety of ways. For some religious traditions, karma is seen as an answer to the problem of suffering within a divine framework. For other religious traditions, suffering indicates the (unpredictable) displeasure of God or the gods.  In Jewish tradition, prayers of lament and suffering are preserved in the Psalms and provide insight into various ways in which people of faith thought about suffering and God’s presence, or the absence of God’s presence, within this reality.

In order to attend to the question ‘why is there suffering if there is a God?’ in our own contexts, we need to recognise what is operating underneath this question. This is because underneath this question multiple assumptions about power are at play: If God exists, then God must be powerful; powerful equates with ‘all controlling’, thus, if the world appears to be out of control as evil remains unchecked, there must be no God. This logic makes sense to us, as this construal of power reflects common constructions of power in empire shaped societies.

However, one of the multiple shocks of Christianity is its understanding of power. At the heart of Christian faith is the conviction that in Jesus we glimpse God, with skin on. To take this mystery seriously demands a radical recalibration of our understanding of what power, and in particular, what Divine power looks like. To put it starkly, in the light of Jesus, the image of God as Zeus on high is no longer an option.

To take seriously the notion that somehow the Divine is made present, in a unique way in Jesus, challenges notions of the ‘all powerful’ Zeus God. In Jesus, we are disallowed the superstar hero who smashes enemies and makes a clean sweep of suffering. In contrast, in Jesus we see power lavishly poured out, in humble, non-retaliatory compassion, even towards those who kill this God one.

The God of Christian faith, who is beheld in Jesus, does not alleviate suffering but enters into the heart of suffering, enduring it, and strangely birthing new life from there, in the midst of the stench of deathliness, violence and betrayal.

What does this mean for how Christians understand suffering? Thankfully, Christians are not given the luxury of greeting card responses ‘God knows best’, or ‘God is in control’ despite the fact that some churches, and some Christians, peddle such platitudes.

Instead Christians are invited to inhabit space with the vulnerable Divine, who meet us in the midst of suffering, not like a magic fairy god mother, or Zeus God, but, who in contrast, meets us in un-power and labours with us for new life in the midst of the pain.

There is a story I cherish in Mark’s Gospel, about a boat and a wild storm. The disciples are terrified because they think they are going to die. As the storm howls on, paradoxically, Jesus sleeps in the boat with his head on a cushion. The disciples wake Jesus up and ask bluntly ‘do you not care that we are perishing?’ (Mark 4.35-41).

The author of Mark knows that this question is not simply some historical remnant. This question ‘do you not care that we are perishing?’ is a question for each and every generation and it is an important question to ask. From the perspective of Christian faith the answer is resoundingly ‘yes’. However, in learning to hear this yes, the challenge for those first disciples, and for us, is to be prepared to have our understandings of power, and of Divine power, dismantled and remade.

Rev Dr Sally Douglas