Questions in the Face of Suffering
I have learned a lot about God from the Holocaust. This may sound unsettling, but I’ve come to feel that much can be learned in the crucible of that catastrophe of 40 years ago. The Founder of Jews for Jesus, Moishe Rosen, says that the Holocaust is a wound that does not heal, because its memory is forever gouged into the hearts of the Jewish people. Its memory has also bonded the hearts of a new generation of Jews.
Perhaps the leading Jewish figure who has helped to keep the memory of this tragedy alive is American Nobel Award winner Elie Wiesel. In one of Wiesel’s recollections of life in Auschwitz, he tells a story of a man named Pinhas (a famous rabbinical teacher mentioned in “Ambiguity: A Defense Against Truth?“). Wiesel writes with passion about one of the last conversations he had with his friend. Pinhas was reflecting on his fate and said to Wiesel ” …until now, I’ve accepted everything without bitterness, and without reservation. I have told myself: ‘God knows what he is doing.’ I have submitted to his will. Now I have had enough, I have reached my limit. If he knows what he is doing, then it is serious; and it is not any less serious if he does not. Therefore, I have decided to tell him: It is enough.”
One can certainly understand the questions and doubts of those who experienced the Holocaust for themselves, and the same questions and doubts continue to plague those who have experienced it in the corporate sense, though it may have happened before they were born. The problem of evil, and if or how it is a commentary on God’s goodness and omnipotence, is underscored by (but not limited to) the example of the Nazi Holocaust.
Maybe if God would admit that He is not all-powerful, then the pain of life would make sense. Or perhaps if God would concede that He really is not loving, then suffering would be more intellectually reasonable. How can God claim to be both loving and all-powerful when there is so much evil and pain in the world? Perhaps it would be easier to call God an underachiever. Some have suggested that maybe God is trying to be both loving and all-powerful, but He can’t quite make it! Everyday experience seems to back this up, and yet we who follow Jesus insist that God is both all-loving and all-powerful. WHY?
Either we are deluded or something has been revealed to us. I believe that God is interested in revealing things to us. He is not self-absorbed and introverted. But He does not necessarily reveal the specific things we are most anxious to know.
The Scripture does not try to answer all our questions about suffering. To some extent, we know that alienation from God is at the root of suffering, but that does not satisfy the question of how much God allows or why He sometimes intervenes to prevent evil while other times allowing people to commit unimaginably wicked acts. But whereas we may clamor to know where suffering comes from, or why God allows it, the Bible seems more concerned about where suffering takes us.
Suffering can be a harvest of emptiness, but it can also be a source of growth. Consider the book of Job where we see the supreme test of the man Job and the character of God. Will Job love God just for who He is and not for His gifts? Is God really just and caring as well as all-powerful?
Job had a choice. He could blame himself for his suffering as his friends encouraged him to do, or he could blame God as his wife suggested, or he could forego blaming anyone and conclude that even when he had nothing he still had everything. He could claim God as his portion and delight, his chief possession in time of tragedy.
What does Job want in the midst of loss? He wants either a bill of indictment stating his sins and why he is being punished (as his friends suggest) or a verdict of innocence. God does not defend His character in Job. He asserts it. God does give Job an answer in Chapter 31 of Job, but it is an incomplete one. He employs His own questions in order to educate Job. (Interestingly, Jesus used this same device to educate His listeners in Matthew chapter 21. When His authority was questioned, He simply asked a question in response.)
What do we want in the face of pain today? We often feel the need to tell God better ways of running the universe, not realizing that it is that attitude that got the human race in trouble to begin with. Some have decided to punish God by not believing He exists, not realizing that they are only punishing themselves by doing so.
What would happen if we asked to see suffering as God wants us to see it? We might realize that it is not only a consequence of sin,* but it is an opportunity for grace! Suffering can even strengthen God’s servants for the tasks He has set before us.
Remember the Levites? They had no possession in the land because the Lord was to be their portion. God expected the Levites to own nothing. The chief possession and delight of the Levites was the Lord. In time of tragedy, when you have nothing, own nothing, feel nothing, remember that you still own everything. Remember that your chief possession and delight is the Lord! Then you will have everything!
God speaks through Jeremiah and says “I am the clay and you are the potter.” (If you were a piece of clay would you enjoy being spun around while someone was jabbing their thumbs into you?)
In the same way Jesus tells us, “You be the branches and let me be the vine.” This sounds great, but remember, branches have to be pruned and that can be painful. Are we willing for God to prune us so we may bear fruit?
I also find great comfort in knowing that we do not worship a God who is immune to pain. Jesus the Messiah came down from the bliss of heaven into our world of woe. He came as the spiritual solution, the reason to get up in the morning. When suffering comes for us, where will we let it take us? May God give us strength to follow Jesus’ example. May His Spirit give us the grace and strength to endure for a time, trusting Him to keep His promises.
* This does not mean that suffering is directly related to a sin committed by the sufferer, but rather the sin that runs rampant throughout the world.
Andrew Barron is the Director of Jews for Jesus Canada. He and his wife Laura live in Toronto with their children Rafael, Ketzia and Simona. Andrew first heard the Gospel while a science student at Florida Institute of Technology. A friend shared a Gideon’s New Testament with him and challenged him to read it. Andrew used to work as a crew activity planner and orbit designer on the early Space Shuttle Missions.