I cannot think of a single person who, when faced with horribly tragic circumstances, would not think to themselves or shout out loud, 'How can God do this to me?' or 'How could God let this happen?'
In the face of unimaginable pain and suffering, we often take one of two paths: We blame God or we blame ourselves.
It is easy to look at the man dying of lung cancer and think if only he had not smoked, this would never have happened. Or to look at the young woman who dies of heart disease and say, well, she was just so overweight. Or perhaps the youth killed in a car accident and think, you know how reckless these young drivers are. He was probably talking on his cell phone or speeding.
To explain away pain and suffering in this world as the fault of the sufferer is to justify our own actions. It could never happen to us because we would never do that. I am safe because I will never ... overeat, smoke, drive recklessly. But this justification is hollow and empty and only possible if you are untouched by tragedy. We are raised in a culture that says bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people. If you pray hard enough or are kind enough or go to church on Sundays, God will take care of you. If you are bad, you will be punished.
Then one day tragedy strikes. And regardless of the circumstances, we think, what have I done to deserve this? Those of you who have read my blog regularly know I have struggled with this one myself. If there is some lesson I must learn, why couldn't I have learned it sooner to spare Craig's life? If only I had woken him up better that morning, or stalled him with a phone call, or convinced him we should live somewhere else... where you find survivors, you will find an overwhelming feeling of guilt.
Often that guilt and anger becomes deflected outwards and upwards. Where was God in this? How could he sit by and do nothing? Many well meaning but misguided christians will say, this is part of God's plan as a way of explaining away the unexplainable. They will follow up with, 'God needed him now more than you do' which only says, if you had needed him more, he wouldn't be dead (and back to the guilt). Still others will say this is part of some great tapestry that you cannot simply understand and your suffering is somehow an act of martyrdom - you should feel honored to suffer so. After all, God never gives us more than we can handle, right?
But I reject all these notions, as I suspect most others do who suffer.
Because to believe these things mean that I could no longer believe in God. If He is trying to teach me a lesson, what lesson could possible justify someone's death? And what could God possibly need Craig so desperately for that I didn't? And just look at any marriage that falls apart after the death of a child or the widow who cannot bear the pain and hides from the world and you will see that God either does give us more than we can handle or is just terrible at predicting the amount we can handle. And if this suffering is just a part of some master plan of His, that means He brought Craig into this world and into my life only to intentionally kill him in such a violent and painful way, causing so much suffering and pain to his family and to me. What kind of a God is that? Surely not one I would want to know.
But I have pondered and questioned and agonized over these things and slowly come to a few rather important conclusions.
God is not all powerful.
At least not in the way we traditionally think He is. Up there on His throne with a magic wand, able to cure any disease, arbitrarily deciding who will die and who will not, who will suffer and who will not, who He will punish and who gets a reward.
He was able to create the Heavens and the Earth and bring so much order out of so much chaos. He created Man - a beautifully balanced mixture of animal and Himself. But He endowed Man with a gift no other living creature had - freedom. Unlike animals, we are not preprogrammed. We have the right to choose. And in giving us this choice, God has limited Himself. He cannot interfere - it would break His own rules and violate the very foundation of our life on this planet. God must work within the confines of nature and the rules He Himself created.
This means that he no more 'gives' us diseases or car accidents or suffering than he forces us to love him or be perfect and good and holy. To allow us the freedom to choose goodness, he must also allow us the freedom to choose evil.
Pain and suffering exist because they are a part of this world. Craig did not die because God wanted him dead that day at that moment. God's desire for Craig's life is much the same as His desire for all our lives - for them to be happy, fulfilled, and enjoyed with a close relationship to Him. When we suffer and hurt, it hurts Him. What parent would not be moved to tears by the suffering of their own child?
But to step in and intervene, to force Craig's car magically out of harm's way, would have broken His own rules. Craig did not die as a part of God's plan. He died simply because we humans have the right to choose between what is right and what is wrong and another human simply chose wrong - to drive when he was too tired to do so. The part that lead to Craig dying as a result of that was a frightening mix of chance and bad luck.
And after all, isn't that what scares us the most? That we are all vulnerable, all susceptable? Craig could have just as easily be anyone. If it is all random, and all chance, than any one of you could have been the one who died or the one who lost their spouse or the one who lost their child. There is nothing you can do to earn a life of protection and invincibility. This quote sums up perfectly what I am trying to say:
"God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws. The painful things that happen to us are not punishments for misbehaviour, nor are they in any way part of some grand design on God's part. Because the tragedy is not God's will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to Him for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are." - Rabbi Harold S. Kushner
Strangely, this brings me comfort rather than fear. God does not promise to protect us from pain, rather He promises to be there for us when pain happens in our lives. He will walk with us, hold us, wipe the tears from our eyes. When He physically cannot, He sends other people to do it on his behalf.
That is a God I can love and know.