• Fr. Peter Kavanaugh

Why does God allow us to suffer?

Why does God allow us to suffer?

Most of us have asked this question before or wrestle with it at seasons in our lives.

Men and women have always tried to answer it, and whenever someone seems to put their finger on it their answer comes out shallow or inadequate. The Holy Scriptures are the most inspired words ever written, and yet even they don’t seem to explain suffering fully – rather than giving us an answer, they more often tell us to have faith. In the Book of Job, we’re brought to an actual dialogue between a man and God on the very subject. Job stands face to face with the Lord and asks Him directly, “Why,” and God replies with a slue of more questions. Instead of giving him a well-laid out argument, God puts Job in His place and keeps a shroud of mystery around suffering. The Holy Scriptures don’t give us a quick answer to the problem of pain, and so it’s important that we don’t trivialize it. But our Gospel does put everything into the bigger picture, of God’s grace and compassion.

Our gospel reading today brings us to the same problem, but this time in a new light. In the person of Jesus Christ, we’re brought even closer to God, and can even feel what He feels when confronted with suffering, and see how He responds.

“As He approached Jerusalem and saw the city, [Jesus] wept over it, and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

Immediately, there’s something ironic in this passage.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is gazing at Jerusalem and foretelling its destruction. The prophets in the Old Testament said similar things about God’s people, but that was always different. They were mere observers, messengers at best, proclaiming the will of God. But Jesus Christ is God. There’s nothing passive about His role in the destruction of these people. He is the omnipotent God that causes the sun to rise in the morning and to set in the evening, and allows civilizations to thrive and to fall. He’s the same God that was present in the midst of Job’s suffering and at the death of Bathsheba, and is present today at each and every one of our loses and tragedies. In this scene, just beyond the gates of Jerusalem, we see the all-powerful God dwelling on the destruction of a civilization, while holding in His hands the power to save it or to let it collapse.

But then, what is God doing as He gazes at Jerusalem?

He’s weeping.

“As He approached Jerusalem,” the scriptures recount, “and saw the city, He wept over it.”

You can hear the pain in His voice, as He declares, “If you, even you,” (He’s speaking here as a man would to someone that he knows intimately), “If…even you, had known on this day what would bring you peace, but now it is hidden from your eyes.”

A city is about to be destroyed. Women and children will be killed and every building and monument will be knocked over. And we see God Himself at the scene, at the same moment possessing the power of heaven and earth, and weeping for the city.

In the face of all our life events that tempt us to despair, we have to remember this moment when we see God on the other side. The tsunami that wiped out Haiti in 2010, the current wars in the Middle East, and the brokenness in our own homes and families – all of these should to be put in the same perspective. God is present in our tragedies, and He is weeping with us.

But how can we put it all together?

How is it that Jesus Christ just stands there thinking about the death of so many, and doesn’t stop it?

Jerusalem’s destruction was its own suicide. For hundreds of years, God visited His people, taught them the way of life, performed miracles, brought them teachers and prophets, and offered everything He could including His own son, so that they might flourish. But He never took away their freedom to reject Him, and in the end they chose death over God.

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace,” Jesus Christ weeps, “but now it is hidden from your eyes.”

Here is the messiah. After waiting for hundreds of years for their redeemer, the Jew’s prayer was answered. But when He came, they didn’t want Him.

He was too heavy.

They wanted the benefits of God, but they didn’t really want God Himself.

In a book called, A Severe Mercy, an author named Sheldon Vanauken wrestles with these same problems. Where is God in our suffering? The story tells us about the love that Sheldon shared with his wife, and the utter anguish he felt at her death. But the journey doesn’t end there. The crisis in his life first brought him to an impasse, but afterwards to his knees, for he found in his wife’s death the severe mercy of God. In his former comforts, he had believed in God and attended church occasionally, but never felt a real urge to seek God. He prayed when he wanted something, but ignored God whenever things went well. Robbed of his wife, however, and all the comforts she brought him, the man was plunged into a realization that deep inside he was desperately in need of God.

On looking back at his life, he makes a profound confession:

“Thou I wouldn’t have admitted it, even to myself, I didn’t want God aboard. He was too heavy. I wanted Him approving from a considerable distance. I didn’t want to be thinking of Him. I wanted to be free – like a Gypsy…I didn’t want us to be swallowed up in God. I wanted holidays from the school of Christ.”

The death of Sheldon’s wife was a tragedy, and like death in every form that it can take, it will always be a tragedy. Nonetheless, Sheldon discovered God’s ability to take our tragedies into His arms and to use them for a greater good. In Sheldon’s case, he was given a radically new perspective on life. His suffering awoke within him an insatiable hunger for God.

An entire life would be worthwhile if it could only bring us to this place.

What does it mean to have God in our life? To be swallowed up by God?

The closer we get to God the more we realize that most of the time we don’t really want Him as much as we we’d think. We want to be part of a club, but to still cling to our freedom to wander around and dabble with the other gods in our lives. We want a little slice of God, but not too much. We find Him “too heavy.” Perhaps, as Sheldon puts it, “We want holidays from the school of Christ.”

We desire the benefits of God, but not God Himself, just as the Jews did in Jerusalem, who brought their own destruction to themselves, and broke our Lord’s heart.

The truth is, God is heavy.

Sometimes, when we say we want a loving God, we really mean we want a kind God, someone to leave us alone most of the time but make sure we’re happy. Here’s how C. S. Lewis put it, and you know he was smiling when he wrote this, “We want, in fact, not so much a Father in Heaven as a grandfather in heaven- a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves’, and whose plan for the universe was simply that it might be truly said at the end of each day, ‘a good time was had by all’. . . .”

God is not, in fact, a grandfather sitting upstairs waiting to hand us candy and indifferent to how we play down below. He loves us, more passionately than any lover ever loved his beloved, and wants us to grow and mature into His very image and likeness.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul writes that, “Our God is a consuming fire.” Deuteronomy 4:24 further emphasizes this, “The Lord your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God.”

Could He be otherwise?

What wife could wink at her husband when she finds that he’s been unfaithful? If she truly loves Him, she must be jealous. Love is always a consuming fire.

When a lover sees his beloved going down a self-destructive path, what kind of man would he be if he were to shrug his shoulders and sigh, “Oh well, she might kill herself, but I accept her for who she is, and can’t ask for anything different”? Rather, the true lover would do anything he could to keep his beloved from hurting herself and to nurture their love together.

A loving God must be a jealous God. Otherwise, His love wouldn’t be worth a second thought.

And a good God must be a consuming fire, for goodness and evil can never mix, just as light and darkness can’t co-exist together.

Imagine holding a candle in your hand and walking into a dark room. The candle’s light banishes away the darkness. Light and shadows don’t blend. In the same way, if God is to enter into our hearts, then He will also do away with all the darkness within – and if we still savor that darkness, even a little, then the process may be painful.

His presence may indeed feel heavy.

If a beloved finds her lover to be sick, then she will spare no expense to cure her lover of the sickness. In the same way, when God comes to us He also brings us the medicine we need to heal, which might not be very tasty. But in the end, that medicine is the only thing that can cure us. God’s presence is our only hope for true life and true joy.

So, we ask, why does God allow us to suffer?

C. S. Lewis suggests, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: [pain] is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” At times, we’re tempted to avoid God because His presence reminds us of something we don’t want to think about. We don’t want light to be shown into our back rooms, because we’re afraid of what might be revealed. But we have to put that aside and trust Him. His heaviness is our one hope.

To open our lives to God is to expose ourselves to Fire. But there is no other way to really be yourself. It is only in God that you can become the real person that you are deep down, and in doing so find true peace.

God is a consuming fire, and He is also paradise.

We could talk all day about the problem of pain, but we would always have the disadvantage of sitting down here below talking about something so far beyond us. But in our Gospel story, we’re given the opportunity to see God at the scene of suffering, and to feel what He feels.

“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace – but now it is hidden from your eyes.”

You can almost taste the tears of Jesus in this passage, heartbroken that His people refused to have God in their lives. They found Him to be too heavy. But if they had only known that the God they rejected was their very hope and peace.

Reading on, what does Jesus Christ do next? He’s wept for their sins and mourned their fate. But He doesn’t stop there. He goes down the hill, through those gates, and into the very heart of the city, and once there, he purges the temple of its sins and teaches the people about God’s love.

First thing, we’re told, He enters the temple courts, and when he finds men prostituting what belongs to God, He drives them out. According to the Gospel of Matthew, “He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves. ‘It is written,’ he said, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer, but you are making it a den of robbers.’” And after he’s kicked out a handful of people, then he sits down and teaches the crowd.

It’s easy to see why someone might feel that Jesus is too heavy.

The doors of Jerusalem opened to Him, but His presence wasn’t exactly comfortable. Before teaching in the temple, He had to first purge it of its evil, because, “He is a consuming fire,” after all. His light banished away the darkness of the room. But there were many who preferred the darkness, and they hated Him for bringing an end to it. But those who were willing to sacrifice their comfort, and opened their hearts to God’s light, found in Him a peace more beautiful than all the former comforts, and a joy that lasts for eternity.

Someone once said, “You should always read the scriptures as though they’re speaking to you directly.”

What is the message in all of this, and what can we take from it today?

When we wonder where God is in our suffering, we have to remember Jesus Christ at the gates of Jerusalem, and trust Him, that He is with us and is weeping along with us.

He never causes us to suffer, but He allows us to feel the consequences of sin. It’s because He loves us, and respects our freedom, that He doesn’t prevent anyone from making one’s own decisions, whatever the repercussions might be. And whenever anyone sins we all feel the impact; we share the pain. But afterwards, God will do everything possible to take what happens and to bring good from it. “For those that love God all things work together for good.”

And it doesn’t even stop there. If we’ve decided to open our hearts to God, we will still suffer, and we might wonder, “O great, now we’ve started cooperating with God, we’ve opened the gates of our city to Him, so why are we suffering?’ And the answer is simple. There’s still work to be done. Each of us harbors dark places in our souls, and our only hope is for God to come inside and banish away the shadows. Our heart is meant to be a house of prayer, and if God comes within and finds a ban of robbers and moneychangers, you can be sure he’ll drive them out and overturn the tables. It’ll sting, but be a lot better afterwards.

God is heavy.

He is our lover, and He’s preparing us to be His Bridegroom, to share a wedding feast together for eternity.

You can only have Him in your life if you’re willing to be swallowed up in Him. But all you have to do is to crack open the gates of your soul, and allow Him to do His work. Then you will know what it means to have peace.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Saint Benedict Orthodox Church

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