Why?

I thought, for a moment, of entitling this post ‘Shit Happens’, but thought better of it. It’s inspired by it having been ‘Mothers’ Day’ here in the UK recently. It isn’t always an easy day for either of us, for a number of reasons.

I have spent many, many, years wrestling with the concept of what are known in theological circles as ‘theodicies’ - i.e. theories as to why a supposedly loving God allows suffering. The short answer is that I don’t know and neither, really, does anybody else. The long answer says essentially the same thing, but in a lot more words.

When our first child was stillborn, the loudest question, which at times even drowned out our grief-stricken wailing, was 

‘Why?’

That question propelled me into questioning my faith in God. And, in that questioning, I found no easy answers. But I did find companions.

It has to be said that there were people who had simple, black-and-white, answers. 

For some ‘it was God’s will’ or ‘it was God’s plan.’ Well, if that’s what God is like, He can think again if He imagines I’m going to worship Him - I want nothing to do with a god who has plans like that. 

There were others for whom the tragedy was ‘sent to teach us a lesson.’ Well, thanks God, what a great way of teaching… Again, that god can forget having me as a worshipper, if He hasn’t got more creative, less cruel, ways of teaching us lessons. 

For others, it was a judgement - the result of sin. Hmm. Not buying that. God doesn’t do punishment for sin - not since Jesus died on the cross. If God has to kill my child to punish my sin, then Jesus’ death on the cross was not sufficient

And for odd ones it was all about ‘predestination’  - my child was simply one of those whom God had predestined to be part of some awful ‘massa damnata’ - those predestined for an eternity of hell from before the world began. Again, if that’s what that god’s character is really like he can get stuffed… A god like that is a monster - worse than the worst human - worse than Herod, Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Pol Pot - take your pick of evil men and multiply by a thousand to get how bad that God is.

But then there were the folk who didn’t try to come up with answers, didn’t try to explain, but who just knew it hurt and wanted to be there to provide what comfort they could. Those folk were with us. Simply that. They turned up. However awkward it felt; however inadequate they felt in the face of what had happened - they were determined to be there, whenever they could, and provide whatever comfort they could, even if it felt utterly insufficient. And that, actually, leads to the only, even vaguely satisfactory, answer to all the questions about theodicies. 

God is the God who is with us.

Immanuel - which means God with us.

God with us however deep the hellish pit we’re living in.

One of my favourite prayers (or sayings?) comes from a renaissance Spanish saint - Teresa of Ávila. These words are attributed to her (though apparently not to be found amongst her surviving writings), and they come back to me, time and time again.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which He looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are His body.

Christ has no body now but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

compassion on this world.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Sometimes, particularly in those times when life is really tough and we can’t manage the whole praying thing, God turns up in the form of people - people who are being God’s feet, hands, eyes, body.

God with us. 

Immanuel.

Actually, in my experience, the answers (if answers there be - I’ve certainly never found any satisfactory ones) to those anguished ‘why?’ questions are unimportant. What matters is that God ‘turns up’. 

What matters is that, somehow or other, during those times of suffering, God is there. God is right there with us; suffering alongside us.

What mattered, actually, wasn’t some esoteric answer as to why God didn’t prevent suffering. What mattered was that He turned up. He was there, up to his neck in the shit with us.

And that God is indiscriminate in whom he chooses to use. Some of those folk who ‘turned up’ were ‘card-carrying’, born-again, Christians. But by no means all. Some of those whom God used, often quite profoundly, wouldn’t want to be considered ‘Christian’ at all, nor would they be seen dead crossing the threshold of a church.

Some people’s idea of God’s ‘omnipresence’ (His being everywhere at once) has, in effect, little ‘voids’ in it - to them, God doesn’t dwell in those who aren’t Christians, nor does he dwell in mosques, gurdwaras, etc. 

But my experience would suggest otherwise - God can, and frequently does, use those whom some Christians see as ‘not belonging’. Presumably, God dwells in them, and can inspire them, without them even knowing it!

Copyright © Phil Hendry, 2022