In the past twenty years wildfires, famines, hurricanes, tsunamis and floods have killed hundreds of thousands of people and left many more without homes and means of livelihood. Given all this, how can anyone say God is a God of love?
Whenever we are overwhelmed by the evil and suffering in the world, we should always remember that evil is only a corruption of something that was originally intended to be good. For example, illness is a corruption of original health. War is a corruption of original peace.
So goodness is original and foundational, evil is only secondary. According to the Jewish scriptures, God made life and everything “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
God provides for us most of the time. The oceans God made are good to human beings 99% of the time: the source not of tsunamis and hurricanes, but of fish and of rain that makes the plants thrive that animals and humans eat. God constantly provides air, food, water, and shelter for us, but this is so commonplace we normally don’t think about it.
God does not want or cause suffering. The laws of nature, and misuse of human freedom, are the twin sources directly responsible for suffering.
Normally, natural laws serve us well, create order in the world, and allow us to predict what will happen. However, nature just obeys its own laws. It doesn’t matter to nature if people are in the way of an avalanche – it is going to obey the law of gravity anyway.
If God kept interfering with natural laws to prevent our suffering, life would be totally chaotic and unpredictable.
God allows suffering for higher purposes. Through suffering, we learn compassion for the suffering of others, and wisdom: how we and others can avoid even worse suffering. Also, service to others, self-sacrifice, courage, and heroism emerge. If God eliminated all suffering, life would lose its’ profundity.
Suffering, to some degree at least, is an inescapable part of life because suffering is a continuum, all the way from stubbing your toe to the massive tragedies of famines and war.
We have to ask: should God eliminate all suffering from life? And if not, what degree of suffering should God allow?
As Helen Keller once noted, “Life is full of suffering, and it is also full of the overcoming of suffering.”
God allows suffering, but God also motivates us to overcome suffering. Thus, all the helping professions and agencies arise: medicine, psychology, social work, churches, mosques, synagogues, the United Nations, Red Cross, etc.
God always brings greater good out of any tragedy or evil. Through God working in them, people all over the world respond generously to disaster relief.
The pandemic has caused people all over the world to examine their own lives and priorities: are material things that important? Any of us could be gone in the blink of an eye, so maybe God, taking care of each other, and what happens to us in the afterlife are the important things.
Perhaps the biggest answer to suffering is this: if God had not created human freedom (and therefore the capacity to do harm), and natural laws, there would be no suffering. Therefore, while God is not directly responsible for suffering, God is indirectly responsible for it. Given that God indirectly causes suffering, one could say it is necessary that God suffer with us, that God not be in heavenly bliss while people on earth suffer.
If God is ultimately responsible for suffering, the cross is a necessity, if we are going to maintain any idea of a compassionate God. The cross is the great symbol that God suffers with us, that God is, indeed, a compassionate God.
Where is God in the face of natural catastrophes? God is right there suffering with the people who are suffering. God is always right in the center of human pain, trying to alleviate it. God is a God who cares and is close to the brokenhearted. The Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures say this over and over.
The cross in turn demands resurrection and heaven. It wouldn’t make any sense that an all-powerful God could be ultimately defeated. It is another necessity of faith that God ultimately must triumph over all suffering and death, and there is a place where all suffering is wiped away forever. Resurrection and heaven are necessities.
Suffering is ultimately a mystery beyond explanation. We could talk to the victims about all the points above, but it would still not take away the pain of those who have lost loved ones, homes, and livelihoods.
Sometimes all you can do is hold, cry, support, and try to be present (either physically or in your prayers) with those who are suffering.
Besides giving whatever aid you can, sometimes all you can do is feel people’s pain with them. This is what a loving God does.
Bruce Tallman is a spiritual director and author. firstname.lastname@example.org