While thinking about the Auschwitz memorial last week I read the moving story of one of the inmates, Elie Wiesel, who wrote about his experiences in his book “Night.”
Because of the terrible persecution and massacre, Elie found himself losing his cherished faith in God. At Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, he was unable to bless the Lord, finding only words of execration in his tragic inner conflict.
“Blessed be God’s name? Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fibre in me rebelled. Because He caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? Because He kept six crematoria working day and night, including Sabbath and the Holy Days? Because in His great might, He had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna, and so many other factories of death? How could I say to Him: Blessed be Thou, Almighty, Master of the Universe, who chose us among all nations to be tortured day and night, to watch as our fathers, our mothers, our brothers end up in the furnaces? …But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy.”
This isn’t the intellectual atheism that comes from science and psychology – inevitably relying on its own fiduciary framework, but the bitter cry of the believer trying to salvage a faith that is being shipwrecked on the rocks of incalculable suffering.
Perhaps Christ himself battled with the same agony when he cried out:
“My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”
This strident cry, owned by millions over the years, still questions the goodness of God in a world where there is both personal and universal suffering. Some noble fellows, like Elie, prefer to choose atheism – or agnosticism, in a brave effort to exonerate God from the responsibility of being a despot!
Every generation is confronted with the basic question of why a good God permits the manifestation of evil – a question which the thinker Leibnitz framed in the term “Theodicy”. Is it possible to answer both of the following questions in the affirmative?
Is God good?
Is God all powerful?
For Wiesel, an affirmation of God’s power was in contradiction to an affirmation of his goodness. Why didn’t the all powerful God step in and change things if he really is good?
I remember hearing a young Rwandan lady testifying. She hid behind a large chair while Hutu rebels invaded her home and began to massacre her Tutsi family. She watched them raise the blade of a machete over her beloved father and brother. She said how hard she had prayed at that moment, asking God for help and divine intervention. In spite of her prayer, the deadly blade still drew blood and killed.
“It was at that moment that I lost my faith,” she continued.
Is it possible to still affirm God’s goodness in the face such apparent contradictions?
The Biblical Patriarch Job faced the same contradictions in his own life. Why had he, a just man, been so painfully afflicted and suffered such unbearable loss? In his struggle for understanding – and it always is a struggle, he refuses to compromise on God’s goodness.
“Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised. In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.” Job 1:21-22
Never sin by compromising God’s essential character of love! Always begin your answer to the theodicy question with a relationship, with intimacy, with total affirmation of God’s goodness. Begin with the person before the power. This is the tragedy of Wiesel – having begun with affirmation God’s omnipotence he finds his faith overcome by the inability to equally affirm his goodness in the midst of such horror.
Convinced of God’s immutable love, we can now dare to consider the question of his power. Let God himself answer the question. The apostle Paul was faced with dreadful suffering from a satanic messenger. In spite of his earnest prayers and upright life he found no relief. In despair he cried to God and heard the Lord answer him.
“But he said to me. My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness…” 2 Corinthians 12:9
We need to reframe our idea of power. True omnipotence has vulnerability at its heart. The apostle John, weeping at the tragedy of world history, received a paradigm shift on power when he had a vision of the Sovereign throne of heaven.
“Then one of the elders said to me, Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals. Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the centre of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.” Revelation 5:5-6
Lions and thrones – the things of power, and yet at the heart of all that is a little, suffering lamb –“Slain from the foundation of the world.”
We cannot simply affirm a pagan, totalitarian power to God. His power often seems totally defeated by evil, only to rise again in the perfect sevenfold strength of resurrection.
Paul, still painfully pierced by his thorn, also understood such a radical concept of God’s power which passes through a cross.
“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9-10
Many have asked the very legitimate questions of why it is necessary to “rejoice in weakness.” No easy answers here. Suffering is always shrouded in a certain mystery. However, here are some thoughts?
My first advice is to always resist suffering in all its forms. Paul prayed three times! Don’t seek it out. There are basically three approaches.
Resist – A huge amount of suffering is a direct result of Satan’s attack on the human race. God has sown good seed but evil seeds are also sown in the middle of the night.
“An enemy did this!” Matthew 13:28
Before having the knee jerk reaction of blaming God, it might be worthwhile considering that there may well be an evil adversary at the origin of such suffering.
Linked to this, is the notion of suffering as a consequence of our own wrong decisions, sins and errors. The Apostle Peter speaks about this.
“But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God.” 1 Peter 2:20
“If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” 1 Peter 4:15-16
Don’t blame God for the consequences of your own bad choices. Resist the enemy and he will flee from you. Turn away from your sins so that times of refreshing may come upon you.
Grow – St Irenaeus saw suffering as a necessary part of “soul making.” The simple, sin stained clay of Adam is destined to sit with Christ on a throne alongside God. When suffering comes it can purge us of human dross and transform us to Christ’s image.
“In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith – of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire – may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honour when Jesus Christ is revealed.” 1 Peter 1:6-7
“Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” Romans 5:3-5
Purpose – Corrie Ten Boon, The famous Dutch author of “The Hiding Place” – which recounts her ordeal in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, saw suffering in life as two sides of a tapestry. Sometimes we only see the ragged, incomprehensible, disordered strands from our side. However, on the other side there is a beautiful tapestry woven in heaven. This is her famous poem which brough her comfort in the horrors of the camp.
“Life is but a Weaving” (the Tapestry Poem)
My life is but a weaving
Between the Lord and me;
I may not choose the colours–
He knows what they should be.
For He can view the pattern
Upon the upper side
While I can see it only
On this, the under side.
Sometimes He weaves in sorrow,
Which seems so strange to me;
But I will trust His judgment
And work on faithfully.
‘Tis He who fills the shuttle,
And He knows what is best;
So I shall weave in earnest,
And leave to Him the rest.
Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Shall God unroll the canvas
And explain the reason why.
The dark threads are as needed
In the Weaver’s skilful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.
There is a sense of some divine plan, some redemptive suffering, some purpose behind it all.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28
Suffering will always cause various emotions to rise up in our hearts. Let’s call them the tree “R’s”
Rebellion – This is the most natural emotion. It is important to give it space to come out, but do not let it take root.
Resignation – When you realise that you can’t actually change some things a certain stoic fatalism can set in. This is better than rebellion but must never be our final destination.
Resurrection Hope – This is the place of glorious victory – the place where the dry bones live again (Ezekiel 37:1-10), where a devastated Marie Magdalene hears her name (John 20:16) and where the world finds hope.
“If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” 1 Corinthians 15:19-20
God was not entirely lost to Elie Wiesel. During the hanging of a child, which the camp was forced to watch, he heard someone, outraged by the cruel spectacle, ask:
“Where is God? Where is he?”
Not heavy enough for the weight of his body to break his neck, the boy died slowly. Wiesel filed past him, seeing his tongue still pink and his eyes clear.
“Behind me, I heard the same man asking: Where is God now?
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
Here He is – He is hanging here on this gallows.”
We end with a paradox. Is God hanging dead in the Nietzschean sense – overcome, vanquished by horror? Or is he hanging with us in our deepest sufferings, identifying fully with our pain as the little slain lamb and leading us to the hope of resurrection?