Where is God in our suffering? Right here with us.
After a long and busy week that allowed me almost no time to write, I finally present to you my concluding reflection on theodicy: the existence of evil as a source of suffering. As I outlined in the previous two posts, I believe that suffering can be caused by a number of sources, both good and evil, and that God can certainly play a role in the former category. But what about the latter? Is the Holocaust all a part of God’s plan for humanity? Do people get murdered, raped, or abused because God willed it? In situations like these, and in others that are much less dramatic, e.g. gaining or losing money on the stock market, I refuse to accept that God has even an ounce of responsibility in the suffering that ensues.
My conclusions are based on what I come to know as the definition of evil and sin: any act, whether fully realized by the actor or not, that breaks from the divine will of God for the sake of one’s own will. The original sin was the choice by the primordial humans to disobey God and eat the fruit of the tree. In doing this, they brought into the world something that God did not create: a “no.” Like a stone thrown into still water, this act of disobedience caused a ripple in human history than could not be contained. Each act of saying “no” to God offered the same possibility to the next person, leading humanity to live in a culture of sin and separation from God. This is the imperfect world in which we live, and this is the world in which suffering is caused by evil.
If we accept this foundational thought, the next logical question is, “Even if God didn’t bring evil into this world, why doesn’t he use his omnipotence to get rid of it?” Those in the midst of suffering often ask this in their despair. “Where was God when X happened?!”
The problem with this demand is that it in order for God to intervene, he would have to remove the very thing that separates us from the rest of creation: our free will. Without it, we become like animals, working within a system of instincts and stimulus/response, unable to truly love God and one another. Of course it feels really bad when a friend or family member hurts your feelings, but would you rather them not have the ability to do such things? In the same way, God respects our autonomy from him and allows us to act against his will, hoping that we will choice to love him as he loves us.
But just like his creation in the last post, this does not mean that God stands idly by, refusing to intervene. On a very basic level, he has intervened in human history by inspiring his priests, prophets, and kings to act out of justice and to reorient the people of God back to their Lord. He continues to do so today as he inspiring each one of us through our consciences, his living word found in the Bible, and the sacraments, each of which are channels of God’s grace in the world.
In a much more climactic way, God intervened in human history by becoming part of it in the person of Jesus. How could he have possibly intervened more than becoming human himself? Through the incarnation, God not only shepherded his lost sheep in a concrete, physical way, he actually took on suffering himself. This is an incredible revelation of which we must remind ourselves every time we ask in disgust, “Where is God when X happened?” The answer is that he suffers allow with us. In situations such as these, we might be better off asking, “Where is humanity when X happened, and why did we let this happen to our brothers and sisters?”
Unlike suffering that comes as a result of God’s will, I do not believe that there is any divine purpose or ultimate plan for suffering caused by evil. It is not true that anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger: evil causes despair, hopelessness, and loss of faith, none of which God ever wants us to experience. I believe that God has, and will continue to intervene on behalf of humanity, but will always respect us as autonomous beings created in his image. This is the only way that we can truly love and be loved by God.