Last Friday on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme I caught a snippet of news that upset and angered me. It was about the fear of fresh floods in Pakistan where the monsoon season has just started, after last year’s floods which covered about a fifth of the country, affecting 18 million people. What upset me of course was the personal angle: an interview with Zarseda Bibi, a mother whose two teenage daughters had been swept away and killed by the floods, and whose own life had been utterly devastated as a result. (You can read the whole story on the BBC here).
Hearing Zarseda’s genuine anguish, I felt as furiously angry as I do after reports of human cruelty and abuse – but this time the anger was towards God. I wanted to shout at him, to hit him, to call him a b*stard: “How can you do this – how can you let this happen?!”
Of course I know that not everything that happens in this world is God’s will; that sh*t happens which grieves God far more than it does us. But, I want to yell, for ***’s sake, you’re God! You don’t need to let this happen! What kind of heartless monster are you to stand by and let tragedy, suffering and devastation happen on this scale and not lift a finger to prevent it? For crying out loud, these are people’s lives, people’s livelihoods, people’s children and families! You can’t just sacrifice them to some cosmic principle of free will or whatever it is that stays your hand! For the sake of all that’s good and right – all that you represent – you can’t just let evil reign and rampage unchecked and unchallenged like this!
Of course I know some of the standard answers to all this – I’ve written about them before in posts like Earthquakes and God and Suffering and sovereignty. It’s just that when faced with the full, personal reality of human suffering all the answers feel hollow and inadequate.
As so often, an episode from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories comes to mind. In The Magician’s Nephew, Digory is desperate for Aslan to give him something that will heal his dying mother, but is sure that by bringing the witch-queen Jadis into Narnia he has forfeited any chance of Aslan’s help:
Up till then he had been looking at the Lion’s great feet… now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tears compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself.
I know this is the crux of it (appropriately enough, as the word crux comes from the Latin for ‘cross’). God cares infinitely more for people than I do; in love deeper and costlier than I can begin to fathom or express, Christ has entered fully into our hurts and sufferings; he has taken them on himself to redeem them. The suffering of the world become his suffering, and one day his joy will become our joy.
I believe that with all my heart – but still sometimes when I say it, it all sounds dreadfully contrived and clichéd. Perhaps that’s just because I can’t grasp or express it adequately. But perhaps it’s also because at this point, it sometimes just doesn’t feel relevant or true; just doesn’t seem to be enough right here and now. With U2 I want to say, ‘I believe in the kingdom come… but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’. However much I know that Christ shares it and will redeem it, the present pain and brokenness of the world is still very real and genuinely terrible.
But then it occurs to me that feeling the pain of the world – and doing something about it – may be part of sharing in Christ’s redemptive suffering. I don’t know; it’s just a thought.
And as my rage subsides and my rant fades away, though I don’t exactly hear a still small voice, I do feel a quiet inner conviction. God is real and good, despite the present appearances and circumstances; I’ve experienced enough of his goodness myself to be certain of this. He is love. Death and devastation will not get the final words. His kingdom will come and is coming, when every tear will be wiped away, all injustices be righted and all harms healed. There are reasons why things things have to be as they are for now; I can vaguely glimpse some of them through a glass darkly, even if I don’t yet fully understand by a long chalk.
Meanwhile it’s okay to get angry about the brokenness of the world, and if that anger leads to compassionate action, so much the better. As someone wiser than me has said, at the moment we’re God’s hands and feet on the earth; I can’t really rail at God if I’m not prepared to do whatever I can to alleviate suffering.
And here’s a link to the Disasters Emergency Committee in case you want to do something yourself…