God & Calamities (3)
Does suffering always mean that the sufferer is being punished for some sin? Absolutely not! God doesn’t punish the innocent (click here for more on that). Infants haven’t sinned and yet God (so claims the Bible) puts them to grief in calamities and wars. Jesus never sinned and yet God put him to grief for the world’s redemption. Job didn’t suffer because he was bad; he suffered because he was good! He didn’t suffer so that God could see if he was good; he suffered because God knew he was good and wanted to demonstrate it. And contrast John 9:2-3 with Luke 13:1-5.
Does suffering never mean that the sufferer is being punished for his or her sins? Absolutely not! The Bible gives (literally) hundreds of illustrations where God punished the guilty for their treachery and oppression. Okay, okay, don’t like it but at least know that it is what the Bible says over and over again.
Yes, but what about the innocent? What about them? God shouldn’t punish them. He doesn’t punish the innocent. Well, he might as well be punishing them if he puts them to grief. That’s not true! That simply isn’t true. When a judge punishes criminal parents and the children suffer as a result it’s nonsense to say the judge is punishing the children. When God sent famine on wicked Israel that went after other gods, innocent babies suffered, but it’s manifestly untrue to say he punished the babies or the righteous. "Punishment" belongs only to the guilty! Suffering is shared by all.
And when God brought curse on the human family that curse fell on us all precisely because we are a single human family, interdependent and affecting one another. Innocent children are born into and righteous people live in a world that is under God’s redeeming curse. God cut Adam and Eve (and all their descendants) off from the Tree of Life and death became the experience of us all. The newly born Cain and Abel were destined to age and die not because they had sinned but because their parents introduced into the human family a "virus" and God responded redemptively and continues to work out that redemption. His judgement that embraced and embraces the whole human family means the innocent and righteous suffer along with the guilty.
In The Plague, Albert Camus, a sensitive agnostic, protests the teaching of the Jesuit priest and insists that people should attempt to heal the sick before they proclaim the therapeutic benefits of suffering. There’s a lot of sense in this and there’s a lot of humanity too. It’s right and proper that we should speak of the meaning and benefits of awful suffering but it shouldn’t keep us from getting involved. Matthew 25 makes that very clear! Apathy toward the troubles of the poor and voiceless and suffering is inexcusable and we’ll answer for it.
But—and this is an important but—it’s important that we offer meaning to suffering. While we bandage wounds, rebuild houses and roads and economies, create jobs, dispense food and medicine and sympathy we need to bring God into it. I don’t mean we’re to offer wisdom about what we can learn from it and what it can do for us. Yes, I’m overstating my case and some of that is fine and good but so much of it is an insult to sufferers. Bland psychobabble and sickeningly sugary remarks in the face of staggering loss is obscene! If we’re going to talk about massive and awful suffering we need a massive and awful handling of it or we should just shut our oily mouths and pass the bedpans. The Bible never ceases to connect great natural disasters (and wars) with God and his redeeming of the world. Read the prophets for yourself! Maybe you won’t like it but at least you’ll have heard their message.
Can you imagine going to the Jewish nation, still stunned by the extermination camps, and speaking this sugary claptrap that we often dish out? "God must have wanted another little angel to join his heavenly choir and that’s why the Nazi guard kicked your little girl’s ribs out through her flesh." A pox on all that talk!
We rob people blind when we reduce the meaning of humanity’s suffering to some inane verbal bungling, we take away the dignity of the sufferers. The scriptures give these awful events a cosmic significance. They give them God’s view of humanity’s sinful rebellion. They show us God’s earnest purpose to redeem humanity. They declare that God thinks more highly of humanity than it thinks about itself. The vast human story is made up of millions of individual and personal stories but they all go together to make the drama of a single human family that God works to bring to life with him. Eternal life! Righteous and holy life! Joy-filled and endless life!
His judgement isn’t vindictiveness and the various faces of that over-arching judgement aren’t vindictiveness. God’s judgement is his grace! If we knew what he knew and felt what he felt and purposed what he purposed we’d look at all these calamities—even as we weep and sob—and join with the prophet Habakkuk who knew what calamity was and in the face of it said:
"Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
It isn’t only what the prophet said here that is profoundly assuring (and inspiring), it is the context in which he says it. Read the three chapters for yourself. His vision is not only personal; it is national and international. It isn’t only his personal life that is shaken; his whole world is shaken. We think we’re being kind and compassionate when we leave God out of these things; but that’s wrongheaded. If there’s any place in the universe where humans need God to be it’s in calamities.
©2004 Jim McGuiggan. All materials are free to be copied and used as long as money is not being made.