God and Suffering: A Reflection after Reading Any Ordinary Day

Leigh Sales, Australian Journalist and author, has written an important book about suffering and death Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, Resilience, and What Happens After the Worst Day of Your Life. While is it ok to talk about sex in our culture, for many, suffering and death talk are the new taboo. Sales choice to raise the profile of this out of bounds topic, with honesty and sensitivity, is a welcome gift.

However, as I read, I was struck by the assumptions made about what Christians must believe in relation to God and suffering. We live in a strange cultural context at present. Most people in the West have very little access to the complexity of the biblical text or Christian theology. The only brushes with Christian theology that most people have come in the form of folk Christianity promulgated by politicians for their own agendas, or in cringe worthy stereotypes found in story and film.

I don’t believe that God causes suffering.

I recognise that in the midst of suffering many people – within and beyond the church – seek an explanation. This leads some people to believe that God has orchestrated their suffering because: “God knows best” or “God only chooses the best to go to heaven” or “I deserved this”. For some people this kind of thinking can provide a framework for making ‘logical’ sense of the absurdity of life and pain. Sales explores this common tendency in her book.

While such understandings may give comfort to some people, a great deal of emotional damage is inflicted through the dispensing of such views, and Sales is rightly skeptical. For me, as a Christian, the view that God causes suffering is utterly removed from my understanding, and from my experience, of life, tragedy and of the nature of the Divine.

While the belief that God causes suffering can be fueled by the desire to impose order and meaning on the absurdity of life, latent assumptions about power also undergird this perspective. The construction of God as the controller of fate – the ultimate puppet master – does not emerge randomly. Humans have a tendency to make God in their own image. As a result, when humans imagine God as ‘all powerful’ they easily fall into the trap of assuming that God is ‘all powerful’ according to human constructions of power.

Humans very often understand power in terms of force, control, influence and domination and so the powerful are those with power over.  As a consequence, images of God are hammered into shapes that reflect these understandings. Despite versions of folk Christianity that are frequently pedaled in wider society, the one at the heart of Christian faith, Jesus, disrupts these assumptions about power.

For Christians, Jesus is the God One. Yet, according to gospel accounts, this God One does not lord it over anyone. This God One is born in poverty and out of wedlock. This One stubbornly spends inordinate amounts of time with people who are outcast and poor. This One gives of self, day in and day out, bringing healing and friendship, feasting and forgiveness.

This One refuses to retaliate to brute force. When enduring a trumped up court trial, betrayal by beloved friends and physical and emotional violence, not once does Jesus resort to violence or power over strategies according to gospel narratives. Instead, this One endures the ugly manifestation of human power, dying in a state sanctioned murder and embodying peace all the way down.

For Christians these realities about Jesus are not curiosities. From earliest times Christians have claimed that this Jesus is the ‘image of God’ (Col 1.15; 2 Cor 4.4), God uttered in person (John 1.1-5) and God with us (Matthew 1.23). According to such claims, for Christians, all images of God must then conform to the shape of Jesus. Christians are no longer afforded the luxury of a God who is an all powerful puppet master.

In contrast, in Jesus we are confronted with the God who rejects our constructions of power and who embodies a radically destabilizing alternative. Here is the God who gives self away. Here is the God who does not control or punish. Here is the God who enters the absurdity of our pain, suffering and violence and who births something completely unexpected from within that space.

This is the God I know and trust: the God who does not send me pain or suffering but who does hold me as I weep and who weeps with me. This is the God who continues to give self away in gentleness and who weaves together strange and beautiful forms of unexpected healing – from within the torn shreds of suffering – if we choose to let her close. But healing does not mean that the scars are gone. Nor does healing bring safety. Life continues to be full of unexpected pain and random suffering, as Sales details in Any Ordinary Day.

Our need for control is understandable but it doesn’t help us to live honestly or openly. While controlling Gods are attractive they are deities made in our own image who often reinforce our worst tendencies.  The Divine who confronts us in Jesus offers no such illusions or comforts. For this I am glad.

Sally

Rev Dr  Sally Douglas