God: heartless or heartbroken?
My Why audio version of this blog available here.
Which side of the fence would you place him on?
This week I’m touching on the small matter of… If there’s a God, how can there be so much suffering in the world?
And as it’s a big question this is a slightly bigger blog.
There’s a reason I’m thinking down those lines today. It’s Good Friday. And for those of us that don’t really wrestle with the question of 'God and suffering' so much, I think a lot of our answers are found in the Easter story. Which is why I believe as a weekend it can offer a lot of comfort and healing for those of us that are grieving or in loss.
So, I wanted to explore this with you, and my take on why I don't struggle with the 'where is God in suffering?' question. Don't get me wrong, I've got my own questions that are similar, but it's not this one specifically that keeps me up at night.
And a lot of it has to do with the Saturday that falls in the Easter sandwich, because that’s the day I believe a lot of us connect with most.
Good Friday starts the Easter weekend off, and for us in the UK we generally get the Friday and Monday off work (bonus), and on the whole Easter is ‘celebrated’ across the UK, When I say ‘celebrated’, I mean taking time off work to eat chocolate and visit a zoo with the kids, very few people engage with the true meaning of the story, or indeed, even know it apparently.
In 2014, according to research by YouGov for the Bible Society, one in three children had no idea why Christians mark Good Friday, one in four did not know why they celebrate Easter Sunday, and a quarter of children thought the Hare and Tortoise were part of the original Easter story.
I know some people will be thinking, why should they know it? And it’s not so much that I’m saying everyone should know ‘Christian stuff’, but more that the Bible and its central story and message contains one of the greatest stories ever told. It’s referred to everywhere, comedy, film, history, geography, quiz shows, it’s built cathedrals, churches, cities, relationships and nations, it doesn’t matter what subject you dig into you’ll often find it somewhere, it’s impacted cultures, shaped policies, politics, laws, and changed nations and hearts. So why on earth wouldn’t you educate a child about that? Especially when we spend so much time teaching them about things like sedimentary rock.
Do you know how many copies of the Bible have been printed and sold?
Take a guess.
I’ll give you some context. Don Quixote is pretty much one of the top selling fiction books of all time, selling 500 million copies. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens written in 1859 has sold 200 million copies. The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkein, 150 million copies. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone has sold 120 million copies. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, 85 million copies.
So what’s your guess for the Bible?
I’ll tell you. It’s 5 billion copies.
Over 100 million Bibles are printed every year, in the world today, and there are more than 80,000 different versions. The Bible has sold ten times more copies than the best selling book of all time (and weirdly it’s almost always omitted from the top best selling books of all time lists).
It’s packed with stories of daring heroes, animals, courage, moral lessons, it’s full of poetry, proverbs, romance, love, songs, redemption. So many books you read, so many films you watch, so many story plots, are based around the story structure of what we celebrate at Easter.
Light verses dark, hero verses enemy, good triumphs bad, sacrifice for love, redemption from wrong doing, unconditional love, unrequited love, underdog saves the day, truth in the face of injustice. It’s all there, and any writer worth their salt knows it well.
The Bible is the model for and subject of more art and thought than those of us who live within its influence, consciously or unconsciously, will ever know… as a literary heritage or memory it has strengthened the deepest impulse of our literature, and our civilization. Marilynne Robinson, The New York Times
Whatever you think regarding the actual truth of the Bible, you can’t deny it’s a pretty good story. It has love, murder, fire, battles, whales; it’s blood-thirstier than Game of Thrones and more romantic than The Notebook. It’s no wonder that these stories have such a hold over us whether or not we were raised with religion; after all, most of us have performed in an embarrassing Nativity play at some point in our school life. So, when it comes to writing a novel, is it any surprise that Bible stories find their way in? Emma Oulton, Bustle
Emma went on to show how books such as Harry Potter, The Stand, The Green Mile, Superman, The Golden Compass, and A Wrinkle in Time, were all heavily copying or influenced by Biblical story lines. Shakespeare, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Paradise Lost, Lord of the Flies, The Handmaid’s Tale, have all been discussed in this context.
So, after all that, now that we know so few people really know the true Easter story, despite its influence on everything we see. What is it?
I’m going to give you my take on God, suffering and Easter with a story. Not the full theological telling of the Bible, you can get that anywhere, and theologians please forgive anything I'm off base with.
I really think this Easter weekend has a lot to teach those of us going through loss and grief, and thrown into exploring that, hopeful comes a bit of a basic explanation around - if there’s a God, why do people suffer?
Sit comfortably as I take you back to before the existence of the Earth. I want you to forget everything you think you know about religion, science, myth, God and human life. Let’s just pretend it’s me and you looking out into nothing, just observing the beginning of time. Nothing we know exists yet. Just me and you in the dark. But we’re very aware of an eternal presence, someone else nearby, and then God enters the scene. Picture Him however you want to, I think He’ll get a kick out of whatever you decide to imagine, but it might help to make Him friendly looking for the purpose of this story.
And we watch as God comes into His workroom and today He’s decided He wants some company so He starts to make the universe. And we feel utterly privileged to witness this moment. Here's how the Bible describes it:
...everything He makes is sound inside and out. He loves it when everything fits, when His world is in plumb-line true. Earth is drenched in God’s affectionate satisfaction. The skies were made by God’s command; He breathed the word and the stars popped out. He scooped Sea into his jug, put Ocean in his keg. Psalm 33.
When God makes a world it is ‘sound inside and out’, it’s basically perfection. A perfect Earth, no pollution, no plastic, no climate issues, no death, no disease (I want to say no giant spiders, but I’m learning to love all creatures, so I won’t say that).
Me and you are watching this with fascination, then He goes a step further and He creates these little people, they look tiny from where we’re sat, in comparison to God. A male and a female and He gives them the Earth as their home. And God is super happy to have these little guys around, you can see His pleasure and He can’t wait to have a relationship with them, as a friend, a father and a creator. He showers them with really cool stuff to enjoy, animals, fish, sunsets, sun rises, the moon, all the things we love and gravitate to in the natural world when everything else is driving us crazy, and of course, although they don’t know it yet, they also have the almond, which eventually leads to the amazing ability to make marzipan.
Humans have arrived and God is pleased with His creation. He intends for them to have a pure relationship with each other, and with Him. But because He wants them to love through choice, He also gives them free will, He doesn’t want to force them or control them, He wants a real relationship, and it’s perfect, it’s the relationship everyone dreams of, like having someone that’s a perfect parent, spouse, lover, friend and sibling all at the same time, you’re known and loved and appreciated completely for exactly who you are, nothing more, nothing less.
Now I don’t know about you, but if I was watching this, I’d be like ‘Er, God, I’m not sure that’s the best idea, cos we humans, well, we’re not great at the whole love thing, and you give us free will and we’re for sure gonna wreck this.’
Think Bruce Almighty in the film when he has God's powers, and he's trying to make Grace, his wife, love him. And Morgan Freeman, who plays God is like, 'No, you can't do that. That's not what being God is about.'
Anyway, that's the relationship and the existence we were created for, by a God who is completely holy, and what that means is a whole other thing completely, but basically don’t boil Him down to anything you can come up with, He is outside of your mind and thought in every possible way, He created your tiny little brain, but it was never designed to comprehend everything God.
So, we’re watching God interact with these little people and we can see He knows and loves them completely, every thought and desire and action, nothing is a surprise to Him, and He delights to be with them. Unconditional love. Just like the children we create now, they come with their own freewill, you can't really do anything about that and you hope they love you out of choice.
God is happy. Humans are happy.
They live a life of total innocence, just how God intended, and they will live eternally in the garden with God, creating more people to enjoy the perfect environment they’ve been gifted.
Although, like any good parent, or relationship, there are rules or boundaries (don't tell me that any child raised with no boundaries is better than a child that's raised with boundaries. We all know those kids, and it stands out a mile and I hate to break it to you parents, but they are not fun to be around). So, God gives the humans just one rule, one tiny way for them to show Him some gratitude and obedience for all they have. Basically - 'don't touch that tree!' There are loads of beautiful trees all full of amazing food, but there’s one tree in particular that God tells them not to eat from. If they eat from that tree, they die. Seems like a fair deal to me.
But then as we’re watching them enjoy life and explore, I imagine the music changing and suddenly we get that feeling, like in films - there’s a bad guy around. Yup, there’s always a bad guy, and in this story it’s a cunning little snake. And he says to the humans, ‘Were you told not to eat from that tree? You know why, right? If you do, you won’t die, you’ll be like God, and know everything.’
So at this point, I know, the goody two-shoes that I am, I’d be like, ‘God? Quick, something’s happening, stuff’s going down!’
And at this very moment, I feel like the question ‘where’s God when things go wrong?’ comes in for the first time. God is all-knowing, He knew this was happening, but He doesn’t step in. Why?
Well, if you’ve taught your kids not to steal, and you happened to be privy to a conversation where a friend is trying to convince them to do it, does a good parent march in and tell them not to be so silly and drag them home screaming? Or do they wait, and see if what they’ve taught the child has sunk in, see if the child is capable of making good decisions yet? Which way does the relationship and the person grow more? Learn more? I think God’s heart is in His mouth as He waits to see what the humans will do. After all he’s done for them and given them, will they choose to disobey Him, and not trust Him, or will they be faithful?
Sadly, we all know what happens next. They cock it up, and they eat the damn fruit and break the universe. And from that moment their innocence is gone, and our lives and relationship with God changed forever.
As their innocence is shattered, sin enters the garden, disobedience arrives and shame quickly follows, exactly what God was trying to protect them from.
Remember the time your mum told you not to climb on that wall, and you did, and you fell and broke your leg. We've all heard those words - 'I asked you to not do ONE thing!'
I imagine this moment a bit like all the naked kids that run up and down the beach, no shame, not conscious of anything that could be or go wrong, complete innocence and trust. If you could click your fingers and impart all you know about nudity, beaches, identity, self confidence, body confidence, predators etc onto them, opening their eyes to everything you knew knew, that innocence would be shattered and they’d run to hide, filled with shame. This is like what happened in the garden.
So here we are, we're in a broken world as a consequence. They got kicked out of the garden, now they will die one day, they will have to work for their food, having children will be painful, love will be painful, life will involve tears and hard work and shame, anger, disappointment and all the horrible emotions we feel. We still get to enjoy the earth, and everything God created for us, but it needs looking after, weeds appear, disease spreads through plants, animals and humans, we get to experience it all, the full range of existence, not just the good. The weight of looking after it all, and keeping it good is now our responsibility too. This is not what he intended for us.
But as God is love, not that He loves, He IS love, he can't not love us, and so He's still there, waiting, wanting a relationship with anyone that chooses it. And for those that do this, and it’s open to anyone, He offers the gift of eternal life with Him. And for those who don’t want to, for those that want to be separate from Him or choose to believe He doesn’t exist, He gives them free will to believe that, and grants their wish of eternal separation from Him, and it breaks His heart.
And so man continues to do his thing and it gets worse and worse, humans are killing each other, living in a way that’s unhealthy for them, lying, making idols, stealing, all the bad stuff. And there’s this sad verse in the Bible:
God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart. God said, “I’ll get rid of my ruined creation, make a clean sweep: people, animals, snakes and bugs, birds—the works. I’m sorry I made them." Genesis 6
God decides to start all over again, but then it says:
But Noah was different. God liked what he saw in Noah.
So instead of wiping everyone, God decides to save Noah and his family and tells Noah years ahead of time what He’s going to do, and that he’s to make a big boat and everyone and animal that gets on the boat will be saved. And if you’ve seen Evan Almighty you’ll know what that’s like trying to explain to people this is what God wants you to do. I’m guessing the mocking and trolling was harsh! So God starts again with a few faithful people and all the animals, and after the flood he puts a rainbow in the sky as a promise to man that He will never do that again. Hence, the reason and meaning of rainbows being so significant to Christians, which was especially special when they were adopted everywhere as a sign of hope during the pandemic.
And over the years God tries to help humans by giving them ways to make things right with him, sacrifices for their sins, ways to get back into relationship with Him and say sorry for bad choices they make and the way they hurt him. But every time - man cocks it up again. And it all reaches a head where man is so separated from God, that even when they cry out to Him, as individuals and as nations, there’s no easy way to make everything right.
God can’t be around sin, that’s part of His holy nature, and so every time He made a way for us to come back into relationship with Him and atone for our sins with sacrifices, we failed. God knows that when we do bad stuff it hurts us, there’s a negative effect to our actions. Whether we know it or not. And He wants to protect us from that.
So, at this point, back on the edge of the universe, me and you are watching this play out and we’re thinking this is broken, how on earth can this go on?
And then God comes up with a new plan. A plan of salvation, to offer the humans a way out of the cycle of sin. The only way for this to be achieved is for there to be one ultimate sacrifice to end all sacrifices (and a lot of this is cultural, so I know some of this sacrifice stuff might not make a lot of sense but you can Google it).
Now you have to remember that God is three-in-one, so there is God the Father, the creator, but also God the Son, who is Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. This is where our small brains start to go ‘whaaaat?’
I heard it described once as like water - which can also be a liquid, a solid (ice) and a gas. If that helps at all.
They work together as one team, perfectly united but yet distinct from one another. And the plan God comes up with is this - out of love for the people He created, He will offer a sacrifice that will atone for all sins, whether committed already or in the future, and this will offer anyone that wants it, a way to be redeemed and brought back into a perfect relationship with God. All they have to do is repent in their heart for their sins, believe in God and ask for his forgiveness, but the only sacrifice that could pay such a price is God himself, so He chooses to sacrifice His only son, Jesus, for the cause.
Now if me and you had been watching this situation from our prime seats in the universe, I know I’d be like ‘Err, you can’t do that, God, that’s too big, I’m not sure they deserve that level of sacrifice, and they definitely won’t appreciate it. Do you really want to do that for them? You could just start again maybe?!’
But for whatever reason, God didn’t listen to people like me. And because we need to be shown the way out of our sin, God sends Jesus to earth, to be born as a human, to experience the full human life, born in a stable, through a socially questionable birth, born to a town no one liked, a welcome party of criminals and foreigners, a refugee, rejected by his own people, lied about, spat on, no marriage, no children, arrested, beaten, let down by friends, despised and ultimately put to death by those He came to save, at the age of 33.
I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to help an animal that was in danger, but it was too wary of you to realise what you were trying to do and so it wouldn’t follow you? The only way to help it would be to become the same species and show it the way out. In a nutshell that’s what Jesus did for us, He became like us, to show us the way out of the danger.
But, and I can’t leave this bit out, in the three years before He died he went around telling as many people as possible about the love of God their creator, and how they can live their life to the full, as we were intended to live in the first place. And that’s where He made it into countless historic accounts, not just the Bible (and if you want to see more of that I thoroughly recommend The Chosen, which has just streamed some episodes on YouTube too).
People in Israel find it fascinating that some of the Western cultures over here think Jesus was a myth of some kind, they have the historic proof He was here, what’s open to debate is whether you think He was the son of God or not.
CS Lewis, in his great no nonsense way with words put it this way in Mere Christianity:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
And that brings us to today, Good Friday. Where God offered up Jesus as a way to redeem the sin of the whole world. On that day, all the sin ever committed was put onto Jesus and He paid the price for us. Jesus paid for your sins, waved His contactless card at the cross and those familiar beeps told you everything you’ve ever done wrong, and will ever do wrong, was paid for by Him. And that offer is open to any and every human being, no matter how much your outstanding invoice was. And because God can’t look on sin, in that moment Jesus, for the first time, was separated from His Father.
So that’s where God is when people are suffering, He’s right there with them. As the saying goes, God doesn’t pull us out of our suffering, He parachutes in to be next to us.
I hear a lot of people saying in grief they just want someone to sit with them in it. Yet when it comes to a God they expect Him to sort it all out and fix it for them, to take away their free will to choose and orchestrate things so they don’t have to suffer. But is that really what they want? If God stopped you marrying the man of your dreams because He knew he would later die of cancer and cause you immeasurable pain, would you go along with that plan? If God prevented you having children because the child would die, would you be ok with that? You probably say, well, only if I had all the information, but how can that be possible? That would make you God. And that’s ultimately what I hear people say when they question where God is, they want to do His job for Him, because maybe they think for some reason it looks easy. Again, I refer you to the film, Bruce Almighty.
So much, but not all of course, of suffering is man-made, like war, murder, heartbreak, climate breakdown, the extinction crisis. Even four out of ten cancers are apparently preventable. You can’t tell me that if the richest countries and people all pulled together, we couldn’t solve a lot of human suffering, hunger, drought, persecution, corruption across the world. But then I guess it’s easier to complain about God not fixing it, than for us to try ourselves?
If God fixed all the suffering instantly for everybody, whether they deserved it or not, where do you draw a line? I mean, that for me, it's just a crazy argument. Why is there suffering? Because there are humans. Why is there a war in Ukraine? Because of man, because of one man possibly, and the nasty precedents set by other men before him.
Of course there are situations where immense suffering occurs and it’s no one’s fault, it’s just part of living in a broken world, but rather than assume this breaks God’s heart, people seem to assume He is heartless. Which I have to admit, breaks my heart.
The one person saying to everybody, ‘Come to me, I want to help you. I want to give you comfort, I want to be there next to you while you go through it all’, is the one person people choose to blame instead.
Yes, at times He does step in, He moves, He heals, He speaks, He comforts and there are millions of testimonies from people that will say it was only through the war, through the pain, through the death, through the illness, that they knew God, experienced Him, found Him. The Church is thriving in countries where people are being killed just for being a Christian, because they’ve experienced Him through that pain.
Did you know, according to the charity Open Doors, that in 2021 across the world, 16 Christians were killed every day just for choosing to follow Jesus? I don’t see many people campaigning for their rights, or that injustice over here.
Fascinatingly, the element of suffering in life has drawn just as many people towards believing in God, as it has pushed them away from Him.
So, when Easter comes around, Good Friday is about the pain, the sacrifice, the tears. But Good Friday is only seen as ‘good’ when you put it in the light of the whole story and what Jesus did for us, and the next bit, because Good Friday precedes Easter Sunday - the celebration, the resurrection of Jesus. Because God couldn’t let death and sin win the battle, there’s a bad guy in this story, don’t forget, and Satan (the fallen angel - a whole other story) is keen for people to ignore everything Jesus did, he wants people on his side too, he wants people separated from God, he wants war, division, hate and disease, he thrives off it, and when Jesus died there was a moment of it looking like he’d won. But the grave doesn’t get to hold Jesus for long, because three days later Jesus rises again, He leaves the tomb, and around 500 people saw Him before He ascended back into Heaven, to show us again, that we celebrate a God that is alive, not a dead saint, a living God that wants a living relationship with us.
The resurrection of Jesus is the most amazing miracle of all time. It is well documented that not only one person saw Him but hundreds. Catherine Pulsifer
And side note, when He went back to Heaven, the Holy Spirit came to earth, and He can actually live through us, to help us experience all Jesus spoke about, and work through us to help others and pray for them etc.
Anyway, I’m getting off track, but it’s just an area that seems so misunderstood at times, I can’t help but try to share as much as I can. But the main reason I’m doing all this, and you can come back from your position of being sat in the sky with me, and put yourself back in your human shoes now, is because of Saturday.
If Good Friday represents the pain of your loss, the grief, the gut wrenchingly difficult moments, and Easter Sunday represents the joy we can find through loss and the hope and appreciation of the life lived and all the good things. What about the Saturday in-between?
Well, I think this is the day we identify most with. In the story, it was the day where all the disciples, Jesus’ mother, and the people were left alone. Jesus their Messiah (that they’d waited 400 years for by the way) had died, gone, they’re mourning, sorrowful, full of questions and ‘I don’t knows’, traumatised, something they’d devoted their life to had been brutally taken away. They would have been confused, frustrated, lost, not able yet to see the resurrection, the good that will come through the bad. And they don’t fully understand why. I love this day, because it's so human. It wasn't just like Jesus died, then 20 minutes later, He's like ‘Ta-daa, I’m back!’. There’s that time of questioning, space for the stages of grief to move. And we all know this feeling and this time. For some losses, we’re in this Saturday for years, decades, for some it’s minutes. Sometimes we rush through it and find a way to celebrate life on the other side, sometimes we begrudgingly drag our feet through it, kicking and screaming. Sometimes we sit in it and process before we move on, sometimes we hate every second of it. Sometimes we use it for good, other times we resent it forever. Some people never make it out, some people don’t want to.
But what I really hope The Silent Why podcast shows is that there’s an option of another day beyond the Saturday. There is a way to find hope, to find life again, to find joy. And by talking to people who have reached their Easter Sunday we are able to help others by guiding them towards it, when they’re ready.
I’m not going to tell you it’s all hedgehogs and marzipan on the other side, I’m not sure with childlessness I’ll ever make it fully to Easter Sunday because every time I think I’m there something else seems to take me back into Saturday to process something different, but I’m always aiming for it, and I know it’s there and I’ll return to it again, because it’s wonderful, and that’s a comfort to me.
Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime. Martin Luther
God proved His love on the Cross. When Christ hung, and bled, and died, it was God saying to the world, ‘I love you.’ Billy Graham
Easter says you can put truth in a grave, but it won’t stay there. Clarence W. Hall
Two thousand years ago, in the Middle East, an event occurred that permanently changed the world. Because of that event, history was split. Every time you write a date, you’re using the Resurrection of Jesus Christ as the focal point. Rick Warren
And that’s why Easter holds special meaning, not just to Christians who are celebrating the true story, but also to those who mourn, because it maps out grief through one of the greatest love stories ever written. And where there is love - there is always loss.