My last post was about Suzuki’s story of tragedy & resilience. Ever since I met some of the people who survived the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan (and of course many, many times before that) I’ve been thinking about the human condition as it relates to suffering. My friend Richard Beck feels that human suffering is the ultimate theological question, the hardest to answer. It’s the “why” question.
Whether clearly man-inflicted suffering, such as wars and holocausts, abuse and oppression, and the like, or, “natural” disasters, such as tsunami, droughts and quakes, it simply is hard not to wonder… what was God thinking? And where is He, when we need Him most? It’s the thorny question of theodicy: how can God be all-powerful and all-loving and yet stand by as His creation suffers the worst of agonies?
Like most helping professionals who deal with human suffering, I’ve wrestled with the question a lot myself. And like most believers, I’ve heard my share of answers, many not quite satisfactory. Here’s a sampling:
- God wishes no one to suffer; it’s just that we’re so evil that we keep inflicting pain on each other. True, the Bible does describe the ways we hurt each other as actually shocking to God. In reaction to the infanticide practiced in the worship of Molech, God says “I did not command them, nor did it enter my mind that they should do this abomination”. That doesn’t really explain natural disasters, though, does it? It also doesn’t explain his failure to intervene, when the miracles of old suggest he’ll counter nature to save one man from a snake bite… why not some 20,000 people who died in Japan this year? Was that not enough to rouse him?
- God uses both man-made and natural disasters to bring about good, much like a surgeon causes pain with an end to heal the person. From this perspective, God takes the long view of things. No matter how intense, the trials of this life are “light and momentary troubles”, which are mere flesh wounds viewed against eternity. The loss of life is justified if it is part of God “working all things out” in the bigger picture. It’s not that this idea has nothing commending it; in fact, my friend Jim does an excellent job developing something along these lines (Celebrating the Wrath of God: Reflections on the Agony and the Ecstasy of His Relentless Love). On the other hand, this utilitarian view of suffering still paints a problematic picture of God. There’s also the part of leaving us in the dark as to exactly what we’re supposed to take away from devastation.
- We’re fatally rebellious and we deserve what we get. This is perhaps the toughest “explanation” to swallow, and the dimmest view of God, because (a) none of us actually asked to be placed here on earth, (b) holocausts and tsunamis seem like a serious case of divine overkill, considering the average Joe’s sin (though I know the case is easily made that the repercussions of our sins are far more serious than we’d like to think… but still!). Of course, there are those (think Pat Robertson) who are more than willing to tie natural disasters to some specific “abominable” sins… always other people’s sins, of course! But, all I can say about the credibility of such claims…. well, Dave Matthews’ words come to mind (“Time Bomb“):
No one would believe it
Except the f……g nut jobs
At 51 years old now, I’m less and less convinced that a satisfactory answer is on the horizon as far as suffering. The best we can hope for are various scattered pieces of answers. And while I think it’s good and right for us to keep asking the “why” question, for me, the “now what” is ultimately the better question.
Suzuki’s story, namely her response to her own tragedy, encapsulates what I’ve come to believe about suffering.
Rather than wonder “why”, the best we can do is choose how we respond to tragedy. A couple of Viktor Frankl quotes speak a powerful message for those who face devastating suffering, as he did, first hand, in Auschwitz:
Suffering is the price of love. It’s a simple fact that the more you love people, family, life, the more painful is the loss of the same. I suppose you can suffer even if you don’t love, though the Stoics were pretty sure that detachment was the surest way to avoid suffering. The Buddhists seem to have a version of that, too. But, what is certain about Suzuki is that her suffering at the loss of her daughter has been so great precisely because her love for her was so great. When our love of life is great, our grief at the loss of life is great.
But only love can break your heart
Try to be sure right from the start
Yes only love can break your heart
What if your world should fall apart?
There have been many covers of that song released. Here are links to the original as well as a very original cover. You should also check out Amilia K. Spicer’s version on Cinnamon Girl: Women Artists Cover Neil Young
Neil Young original (from “After the Goldrush”)
Saint Etienne electronic version
Only love can break your heart… how true! As Christians, I’m convinced one reason we hold the memory and the symbol of the cross of Jesus so dearly is that it reminds us — no matter how confusing tragedies might be, no matter how brutal the pain that leaves asking why, no matter how great the silence from above in the face of suffering — that God, too, weeps, God, too cares, and God joins us in our suffering and angst, on a wooden cross…. that God, too, bleeds…. love has broken His heart too!