Pontius Pilate, who would later condemn Jesus, murdered some Jews in Jerusalem as they prayed thus mingling their blood with that of sacrifices. A disgraceful act of violence and an affront to faith. Why had God allowed it? Later a tower fell killing innocent people. Again the Jews asked why had God allowed it?
This question is put to Jesus. An understandable question and the hardest for people of faith to answer. If God is loving why does he allow suffering even if he does not will it or cause it?
Throughout history some people have answered by suggesting that suffering is a form of divine retribution. Thus when the AIDS epidemic first struck many fundamentalist protestants claimed it was God’s punishment on the sexually immoral. Now, of course, sins do have dire consequences- if we choose to sleep around casually then sexual disease becomes not just possible but even likely – but do not think for a moment that God deliberately wreaks havoc on anyone. No; God loves us regardless of our wrongful choices and behaviour. Just as good parents still love their children deeply even when livid with them due to bad behaviour. Indeed it is the love that fuels the anger in most cases!
Besides we know this retributive argument is nonsense because bad things happen to good people too. And also because Jesus told us that to follow him is not to embrace comfort but to ‘take up a cross’ and follow. It requires us to embrace not escape suffering that comes our way in this life. Faith does not remove hardships then, it does not remotely soften them. What it offers is a strength to endure. The power to take up that cross and follow.
So what is the better response to the question of suffering? Interestingly the earliest portion of scripture, the book of Job, centres on this very question. In it we are presented with a morality play, a story in which the devil causes Job to suffer grievously to test his faith. Because Job is faithful God eventually provides the answer to suffering. But, I am sorry to say, it will never convince or satisfy unbelievers. Because Job’s answer is not a neat argument, or a material gain instead it is a life changing experience. Job is granted a theophany, he gets to see the face of God , he receives divine grace, the gift of sanctification and it is enough; it delights his soul. His question is not answered in an earthly but a heavenly sense. He is then shown to be at peace with his suffering. The message in Job then is that if we truly experience and know God the suffering in this life will be as nothing compared to our deep joy in him.
Back to the Gospel and Jesus responds by making clear that suffering is not, as we have shown, linked to punishment. Then he alludes to what the book of Job teaches. He suggests violence and suffering in this fallen world should serve as a reminder of our need for God. It should lift our hopes from finding joy in this life to seeking it in the next. We discover the Lenten significance of the text. Jesus says pain in this broken world should encourage us to repent. Because if we turn to God, like Job, we will have theophany- the grace to overcome the hardships of this transitory life. Hardships that are all too real and could, if we do not repent, become our eternal reward.
Repentance is not what the world often imagines. It is not an apology or whine for forgiveness. The word ‘metanoia’ means to change direction; to turn from the suffering of self-governance to the joy of right relationship with God. The choice to embrace theophany, to live in a state of perpetual grace. The Christian life. Do it well and we you will care little for what the world throws at you because you will view this life only as a stepping stone to a better life. Hence so many Christian martyrs, even as they suffered barbaric torture, died in ecstasy praising God. If we allow God to truly mould us, if our faith is real, we fear nothing for He is with us.
A final point about suffering is found in the parable of the fig tree which the gardener ought to tear down because it produces no fruit but chooses to care for once more just in case it comes to life. The point Jesus is making in it is that God allows this broken world to continue, allows the suffering, because he believes in second, third and fourth chances. God did not immediately return in glory to end wickedness, corruption and suffering for good reason. He wants to give us every chance to turn to him before the end of the ages. His waiting is a sign of patient love, a yearning that humanity will yet come to its senses, repent and believe. So go to confession this Lent. Repent and claim the grace to endure anything that this world can throw at you. Receive the only cure for suffering- which is sanctification.
For those who like arty philosophical films I highly recommend ‘The Tree of Life”; a modern reflection on the book of Job. It explores the theme of grief within a family and the effect it has on them. It explores how grief effects differently the feminine spirit of the mother and the masculine fire of the father. It is a deep and very beautiful film if perhaps confusing on the first viewing- I got much more out of it on a second viewing. Full of insight and mystical pondering about the nature of God and his relationship with the created order. Here is a clip during which the prayer of the grieving mother leads into a stunning sequence about the creation of life itself and God’s place at the very heart of it. This clip is exquisite- turn up the sound, put it on full screen and enjoy a mystical moment….