A friend of mine wrote me not too long after the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School: “Where was God?!” he cried. I suspect lots of people were asking that hard question during those sad days.
I made a stab at an answer but I don’t think he was satisfied with it. How could he be? I wasn’t satisfied myself.
Another friend and I sat at lunch just after her husband was sent off to jail for 10 years. She asked pretty much the same question. I made a stab once again: “God is with you. God weeps with you. God will never leave you.” It sounds good but it didn’t help much on that afternoon of deep grief and anger. “But why didn’t God DO something!?” she cried.
Ah! There’s the rub!
Anyone who asks that question is in very good company. It’s an age-old struggle, articulated powerfully throughout the Psalms.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
I cry by day, but you do not answer;
I cry by night, but find no rest…
Why do you hold back your hand;
why do you keep your hands in your pockets?!?!
We call this theodicy: the problem of evil, the dilemma we experience when we claim that God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving, but then at the same time we have to acknowledge that evil and suffering are rampant in this world.
How can this be?
What kind of God will not intervene and rescue from suffering?
Is God really powerful?
Is God really loving?
Is there even any such thing as God?
These unanswerable questions have challenged the faith of countless people over the ages and I pray I will never judge their grief and presume to tell them how they should navigate such sorrow and suffering. I pray I will never be guilty of mouthing platitudes and giving easy answers to someone who is in the midst of unspeakable suffering.
Our story of Israel has taken us into Exile, into Babylon. Jerusalem is demolished, the Temple laid waste, the aged and the children slaughtered, the abled bodied men and women marched in chains across the Fertile Crescent.
Where was God? they surely asked.
Yes, maybe we did do this to ourselves on one level. The prophetic words from Isaiah 1 envision the Divine Parent complaining against the rebellious children. Heavenly frustration and anger melds into angst and grief.
Ah, sinful nation, people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the LORD,
who have despised the Holy One of Israel,
who are utterly estranged!
But even so, even though our rebellion is inexcusable – still what about God’s promises?
What about the covenant?
What about God’s faithfulness?
Where is God?
Psalm 137 is gut wrenching:
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion..
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take YOUR little ones
and dash THEM against the rocks!
Might this be a Psalm for the Sandy Hook parents?
For the fathers of the Holocaust?
For the mothers of Syria?
Dare I judge the grief of such trauma? Who am I to tell someone they shouldn’t feel anger or rage or revenge? People feel what they feel. Feelings are neither right nor wrong; they come from our deep places, our honest places and they must be expressed or else they will turn into poison and eat us alive. Or else they will turn into a lasting woundedness that will unwittingly keep on wounding everyone around us.
Asking hard questions of God, arguing with God, even shaking a fist at God is not an act of faith-LESS-ness; rather this kind of honest struggle is faith-FULL-ness. It is an expression of deep living faith.
The faithfulness of the Psalmists.
The faithfulness of Job.
The faithfulness of Jesus.
Where was God when Jesus was nailed to that cross?
There have been numerous attempts to answer this question throughout Christian history. Please know these are attempts, theories, possibilities for understanding, efforts to make sense. There is no one way to think about the meaning of the cross. No one explanation that is the right, only answer. None of us knows; we all do the best we can to answer the unanswerable question.
Where was God? Why didn’t God do something?
Here is part of my feeble effort to make meaning:
Jesus the Christ IS God doing something.
It was in the Christ that God entered into human suffering.
It was in the Christ that God experienced our pain and our confusion and the dilemmas of our faith.
It was in the Christ that the Eternal God tasted forsakenness and death.
Christ is what God has done.
“It was God in Christ – reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19).
I’m thinking the question “where is God” is not the right question anyway. I’m thinking the better question is: “where are we?”
Isaiah calls God’s people to seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow: so – where are we? Are we there?
When God’s children are used and abused: where are we?
When God’s beloved are sick or lonely or afraid: where are we?
When God’s lost ones are angry and hurting and confused: where are we?
When injustice, evil and suffering are rampant in this world: where are we?
As people of the Christ, are we willing to enter into the suffering of others, to hear their cries and kiss their tears?
As the community of Christ, as the hands and feet of Christ, are we willing to touch the untouchables and bless the children and walk right into the messy middle of the pain of the world?
It’s hard. Oh so hard. It will break your heart.
But it will answer the question:
Where is God?
Here we are.
I watched an interview with a woman named Jean Estes. Five years ago her infant grandson, Thomas, died and she has been struggling with the dilemma ever since. Jean is wise, gentle; she wept through much of the conversation but she was determined to share some of the lessons she has learned with the rest of us.
She tells the story of how the two grandmothers were given the job of shopping for funeral clothes for Thomas. As they stood in the children’s shop crying, the shopkeeper realized what was happening. She went to the back, brought out the perfect outfit for little Thomas and said: “May I just give this to you? May I give you a hug? May I say I’m sorry?”
“I saw God in that,” The grieving grandmother said.
“God showed up in lots of ways,” Jean says. “But it was our job – if our suffering was going to be productive – we had to be willing to look for it. God was everywhere.
“Some very good people wanted to reach down and help me out of my hole. But what I wanted – what I needed – was for someone to climb down into my hole with me. And that’s what I found in my faith community…Our community of faith held our hope for us. We weren’t required to be hopeful in the midst of great suffering. Our community said to us: May we hold your hope for you? That’s a huge opportunity for people: for us to hold hope for someone else.
Where is God?
Here we are. Right here – if we are willing.
Willing to hold hope for the hopeless.
Willing to move out of our comfort zones.
Willing to get our hands dirty and our hearts broken.
Willing to touch the untouchables and welcome the despised.
Willing to enter into pain and suffering.
Willing to love.
What do you think?
Where is God?
“Why do you keep your hands in your pockets” is my paraphrase for bosom in Psalm 74.