Bad things happen. Really bad things.
We human beings do wretched things to one another. Nature hands out human suffering indiscriminately. Misery follows in the wake of droughts, famines, earthquakes, and tidal waves for the young and for the old, for the kind and for the vicious.
Tragedy, loss, and senseless suffering can grind faith to dust. For instance, a friend I’ll call Jill was a bright, accomplished academic who attended a mainline Protestant congregation.
Her only son lived on the West Coast and had enjoyed a meteoric rise in his career. Jill received the call one night that her son was dead. After work he took a dive into his back yard pool, struck the bottom, broke his neck and drowned.
Jill went on working, filling her life with more projects, more committees, and more community boards.
It would be wrong to say that Jill was joyless or cold. Quite to the contrary, she was caring and enjoyed a good laugh. But to those who knew her, she always seemed to be pushing a rock up a hill.
Several years after her son’s death, Jill told me that she respected my faith. Even so, she just couldn’t bring herself to believe in a God that would allow so much suffering. She didn’t say it, but I sense that she felt only an emptiness where she thought God should be.
Those of us who persevere in faith come to grips with suffering and sorrow in various ways.
Some point to God’s sovereignty and insist that God is the author of all things. I will never forget serving as a hospital chaplain when a young couple lost their first baby just hours after his birth.
The bereaved mother’s preacher appeared and led the gathered family in prayers of praise and thanksgiving to God, acknowledging God’s will in the baby’s death. In his view, God took the child’s life for some greater good or so that the young couple could learn an important lesson.
While I do not like to criticize my Christian brothers and sisters, I have to admit that I squirmed at what I took to be misguided theology. And yet, even great preachers that I admire like John Piper have offered sermon series on God’s sovereignty, asserting that God does indeed bring calamity.
Other Christians reconcile the loving God with tragedy and suffering by denying the theology outlined by the preacher I just described and Pastor Piper.
In their view, God does not cause bad things to happen. Ever. In order to give humans the free will to love him and each other, God runs the risk that humans will do neither.
And as for the tragic effects of nature on human life, these same theologians argue that free will requires a predictable natural order so that we can have a sense of the consequences of our actions. If God miraculously intervened too frequently, he would rob of us the free will to love him and our neighbor.
There seems to be some truth in both of these views. The Scriptures teach us that God is both sovereign and loving. Getting those two things together in our heads is no small thing.
As for me, I look at the Cross and the Empty Tomb. On the Cross, Jesus took all the horror and suffering, all the violence and viciousness of our lives onto himself. God himself is with us, even unto death.
Jesus has no tomb of his own, so he is laid in our tomb. But no tomb can hold him. And so long as we are his, that means our tomb cannot hold us, either.
Jesus does not give us a life on this planet that will be devoid of sorrow or suffering. But he does not hold that sorrow and suffering at arm’s length. He endures it with us, brings us through it to the other side, and one day gives us a new life beyond all tears and pain.