One of the hardest questions around suffering is why God often doesn’t rescue us from our troubles when we so desperately want and ask him to. We plead with him and implore him, with tears and sometimes for years on end. Yet for many of us, all too often we just experience the divine silence, the feeling that God’s not even listening; perhaps (we wonder in our heart of hearts) not even there.
The Old Testament is full of both prayers for and promises of divine deliverance, particularly in the Psalms. Are these promises simply not true?
It’s hard to understand. After all, he’s God; he’s meant to be all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving. So if this is true he sees our pain, has the power to end it instantly, but doesn’t. Why? Is it perhaps not true after all, and he’s just not really capable or caring enough? Is he actually weak, or even nasty?
Nasty, non-involved or non-existent?
That God is nasty is certainly the conclusion that many come to after experiencing pain that he doesn’t fix. A while ago I wrote a post on Hating God, and to my surprise it continues to generate responses from angry people who hate God for not saving them or their loved ones from suffering. I understand this viewpoint, though it’s not one I share.
Others have responded by concluding that God never gets involved in the world or in our lives, and so have opted for a form of deism. Again I understand this but don’t find it satisfying, and it doesn’t tally with my own experiences.
And of course others have simply decided that God doesn’t exist and have turned away from belief altogether – again, not an option for me.
So might there be other reasons why God often doesn’t leap in to rescue?
No easy answers
The first thing to say is that we live in a complex world and there are probably no simple, single answers to questions like this. There are likely to be multiple factors, and an element of mystery that we may never be able to penetrate.
I wrote a while back about the well-known Christian ‘Footprints’ poem, which attempts to answer the related problem of why God often seems to desert us in our darkest hours. (‘My precious, precious child, I love you and would never leave you. Where there was only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.’) I’m sure many find this helpful; I don’t. I think it’s a well-meaning but misguided attempt to answer what may be unanswerable.
Nonetheless, as humans we will continue to seek answers, and that’s okay so long as we recognise them to be partial and provisional.
The commonest answer put forward for God’s apparent hesitance to intervene is the same as that for the whole problem of suffering – i.e. human free will. The angle here is that God can’t intervene to rescue without limiting our free choices, which are essential if we are to be responsible, loving people. I do think there’s some mileage in this. But there are times when I feel like crying out ‘Bugger my free will! Intervene anyway!’
The other common answer is the intertwining of good and evil in this current world. The argument here – put forward by Jesus so worth a listen – is that the evil cannot be eradicated without destroying the good, and crucially then without destroying us. Or in other words, we can’t expect more than a partial rescue because the brokenness runs too deep and is within us as well as out there.
Not always right to rescue
Another related answer which I find helpful comes to me from parenting, though it applies to all healthy human relationships. It’s simply that rescuing people from pain is, counter-intuitively, very often not to their long-term benefit.
When we see someone suffering, we emotionally feel that the loving and kind thing to do is to rescue them, immediately and unquestioningly. But in many cases, that’s precisely not the best thing for them.
Similarly, when we’re in pain we often look to someone – ultimately God – to rescue us, to take the pain away and make everything okay again. But again, so often that isn’t the path to maturity and wholeness.
All too often, simply rescuing – or being rescued – can do more harm than good, and can have unintended negative consequences.
Being rescued can turn us into passive, helpless victims who believe we’re incapable of helping ourselves. It therefore often leads to dependence on our rescuer to save us again whenever such situations arise (as they tend to).
Being rescued robs us of some of our responsibility and moral autonomy. Sometimes we do just need to feel the pain of our situation for a time, especially (but not only) when it’s the consequences of our own actions. Sometimes that’s the only path to inner growth, healing and freedom.
A child won’t usually understand why its parents don’t always make things better straight away when they could. Nor will a child understand why parents require him or her to do difficult things which the adults could so much more easily do themselves. But of course it’s done for the sake of the child’s long-term character and emotional health, part of their journey to becoming a mature human being.
Of course, with very young children who can’t yet save themselves, sometimes parents will have to rescue quickly. Perhaps the Old Testament, with its many promises of deliverance, reflects this; it’s God dealing with the Children of Israel like a parent of infants. But even then, his deliverance often came only after long periods of non-intervention, of oppression, defeat and exile.
None of this is to say that we should be callous or uncompassionate in the face of genuine distress. It’s simply that we have to be careful about trying to rescue people, or seeking rescue ourselves. We can offer, and can ourselves look for, support and kindness; we can stand with others in their need. But we often can’t fix the problems in the short term without making things worse. And nor can others – or God – fix ours.
Building the new creation
So I’m no longer sure that God always acts to minimise suffering, at least not in the immediate short term. I don’t believe that God generally wills our suffering, but nor do I think that removing our present pains is necessarily always first on his agenda. Rather I believe that God’s higher priority is to bring long-term good out of suffering.
God’s ultimate purpose for creation is, I believe, a fully redeemed, restored cosmos and humanity, with each of us fully who we’re meant to be, fully integrated with the reality of God, of ourselves and each other. It’s the vibrant, loving community of the Kingdom of Heaven. Suffering will not be part of that order of things, for suffering has to do with brokenness, incompleteness, wrongness. But building that order cannot be painless, and for now suffering is part and parcel of the current state of things.
Redemption through suffering?
Furthermore, it’s just possible that suffering turns out to be one of the primary means by which God brings redemption to a broken world. It’s the pattern of Christ, redeeming the world by suffering and dying for it. It’s Martin Luther King and Gandhi assassinated but bequeathing the world their great dreams, their way of non-violent resistance; Nelson Mandela in prison for years before South Africa could be freed from Apartheid…
It’s an odd paradox that sometimes only suffering can bring healing. Our sufferings can become the source of other people’s healing, and theirs the source of ours.
‘Compassion’ literally means ‘feeling with’ someone else; suffering with (and for) another, sharing their pain, and out of that shared suffering bringing healing into being. It’s how Jesus works; how love works. Jesus takes no pleasure in our suffering; what he does is call us, with him, to suffer with and on behalf of others who are suffering, for their healing and ours. In so doing, our sufferings and theirs are given meaning and hope.
Finally, we often ask to be rescued in the sense of being liberated from our present difficulties, our current painful circumstances. But often I think God prefers to liberate us within our circumstances. Rather than changing our problematic situation – financial, relational, whatever – he works through it instead to change us. Because so often it’s not the rest of the world that needs changing; it’s us.