[ part one | part two |part three ]
SUFFERING AND THE SILENCE OF GOD
PART TWO: THE FACE OF GOD
The question of Theodicy - "how can a loving and all-powerful God allow suffering?" is a question of God's character - of who God is. Therefore understanding this wont be accomplished with a theoretical explanation, but by encountering God in a deep, profound, and personal way. We need to look God directly in the face and see his character first hand if we really want to understand it.
This is what Job longed for. When he was assaulted with suffering and tragedy and underwent the silence of God, he was not helped a bit by the theories of his friends. He wanted God. But how can you see God and live? How can you commune with one who is invisible? Job asks: "Can you by searching find God? Can you know the Almighty to perfection? It is high as Heaven; what can you do? Deeper than Hell; what can you know?" But Job longed to see God's face just the same. In the end he did, and it changed him. He had expected to find a cold uncaring face. Or even a sadistic one. But when he encountered God, Job was completely turned around as God opened his heart up to him. Job's bitter and cynical words turned to praise.
What did he see? What did that face look like?
Christianity offers a simple yet astounding answer. God's face looks like Jesus, because Jesus is God among us. Immanuel. The Word made flesh. In Jesus we see the face of God. It is a profound and amazing statement that the invisible unknowable unsearchable God is made known to us in the face and person of Jesus Christ. And that statement deserves some explanation. All too often it has meant that we take Christ and squeeze him into the narrow mold of a triumphalistic authoritarian judgmental God in heaven. But Jesus jumps out of this box just like he jumps out of every box we try to contain him in and challenges us to radically alter our concept about who God is.
Albert Nolan in
Jesus before Christianity
If we accept Jesus as our God, we would have to conclude that our God does not want to be served by us, he wants to serve us; he doesn't want to be given the highest possible status in our society; he wants to take the lowest place, without any status; he does not want to be feared; he wants to be recognized in the sufferings of the poor; he is not supremely indifferent and detached, he is irrevocable committed to the liberation of humanity, for he has chosen to identify himself with all the people in a spirit of solidarity and compassion. If this is not a true picture of God, then Jesus is not divine. If this is a true picture of God, then God is more truly human, more thoroughly humane, than any human being. He is a supremely 'human God'
And this is precisely what Jesus said. "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the father does the Son also does." Everything he did, everything he said, was demonstrating the priorities and character of the Father. "Have I been with you so long and you still don't know who I am? If you have seen me, you have seen the Father". God did not become human so that he could finally relate to us, we were made in His image and that image is perfectly reflected in Jesus. Jesus is the heart of God, everything that really matters about who God is we encounter in Jesus because Jesus reveals and embodies God at his core. The New Testament says "He is the image of the invisible God. The exact representation of his being"
Now how can we get a hold of that? Really we can't. But it can get a hold of us.
This is what Christians mean by "knowing". They don't mean that they have
somehow proven by rational means something that is beyond human knowledge, but that they have been encountered, been loved, been known and their hearts reaction is to cry out "I know you! I trust you!". This goes way beyond rational proof. It is a deeply profound and liberating revelation that reveals the core of what life is about, of what reality is, not in a reflection of our own superior reasoning and ability, but an expression of devotion and love to the Other who has come and known us, touched us intimately, like a sword piercing the heart.
"God did not become human so that he could finally relate to us, but reveals in Jesus his heart. "
This is a very different paradigm from the predominant western one of rationalization and deduction, so it is hard to grasp for many people. The best way to understand "knowing" with God though, is how we mean it when we say that we know that another person loves us, or that we know another person. We know it through trust. We know it through relationship. Because we have seen that other person's heart and given ours to them, as we live in that relationship, we become more and more sure of the love. Out of that trust we say I know. It is exactly the same with God.
This kind of personal relational proof is the only kind that we humans have available to us. It keeps us humble because we cannot prove it, or dissect it, or put it in a box. But once you really get a hold of it, or rather once it gets a hold of you, it is like dynamite.
It completely turns your life up side down. When you give yourself to the reality of who God is, it can transform your whole life and all of who you are. It encompasses and touches you and changes you completely down to the core of your being. I do not argue this, I simply testify to its reality.
"Seeing God's face is the answer to the question of suffering embedded in our hearts."
This is the only way something of this nature can be "proven" - individually. No one else can experience it for you. All I can tell you is of my subjective experience with the face of God and trust that as you open your heart to God that this same reality will be demonstrated to you personally, individually, subjectively so that it becomes yours. Truth can only be possessed, understood, owned when it is lived and experienced personally. I say Jesus is the face of God. I am absolutely convinced of it. How do I know? Because I have seen that face. My reaction was like Job's - it blew me away. Seeing God's face is the answer to the question of suffering embedded in our hearts. So let's look at that face.
Since the question of Theodicy is essentially a question of the character of God, we are going to look at Jesus who is the embodiment of the very heart of God. It is my prayer that as you read this and meditate over it, that the truth of who God is as seen in Christ will go beyond mere concepts and theories and become a living reality in your heart and life. So I would ask that you would open your heart to God to encounter you, and that you would read on prayerfully.
We find in the gospel account of the resurrection of Lazarus profound insight into the nature and character of God in our lives in times of silence:
Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair. So the sisters sent word to Jesus, "Lord, the one you love is sick."
It is clear from the text that Mary knew that Jesus loved her and her brother. It tells us that she is the same Mary who washed Jesus' feet with her tears, and in the letter the sisters refer to Lazarus as "the one you love", so the familiarity and trust between them is quite evident. But Jesus chose to remain where he was for two days. He only conveyed the message "This sickness will not end in death".
When he heard this, Jesus said, "This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God's glory so that God's Son may be glorified through it." Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. Yet when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days.
Jesus did not come. Her brother died. Mary was absolutely devastated.
When she has most needed God's help he was inactive, and his promise that the sickness would not end in death turned out to be, in Mary's eyes, false. She felt abandoned, alone, helpless, and without hope. Even if we know that God loves us as Mary did, silence is crushing.
Four days after Lazarus' death, Jesus came. There were people all around who had come to comfort the sisters in the loss of their brother. Mary fell at his feet in tears and said to him "Lord if you had been here, he wouldn't have died".
Partially because we know the story and its outcome already we half-expect Jesus to respond by saying something like "Oh ye of little faith did you not know that this is for the glory of God?". But he doesn't. His response is extraordinary and offers great insight into God's character.
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.
The Greek word translated in the English as "deeply moved" means to make the snorting noise of a horse. In other words he was so overwhelmed with the sorrow that it literally knocked the wind out of him. It was the kind of pain where you can't catch your breath. Christ's second response is to be "troubled", the Greek word translated here conveys a feeling of outrage or anger- in his heart Jesus was instinctually insulted at the injustice of suffering. To anyone familiar with grief, these two reactions: on the one hand shock - an intellectual and spiritual numbness, and on the other hand anger at the evil of suffering - are exactly how we feel. And at the same time it mirrors God's heart as seen in throughout the Old Testament in the prophets. Jeremiah writes,
My grief is beyond healing, my heart is sickened within me, because of the plight of the daughter of my people from the length of the land to he breadth of the land. For the would of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded. I mourn and dismay has taken hold of me.
Declares the Lord.
This all culminates in what Jesus does next: two powerful words:
Even though he knows that in a few minutes Lazarus will rise from the dead, the next thing he does is to weep. Not some pious controlled socially appropriate tears, but hot honest choking tears. He is deeply and intimately involved with us in our pain. God suffers with us, feels every anguish, knows every doubt. Being infinite does not mean merely infinitely large, but infinitely small as well, so that he understands and experiences our silence, our pain with us, not just in a theoretical way, but deeply and completely. Sometimes in our suffering, in the midst of silence we have the wind knocked out of us, and there is nothing left to pray with. God knows this, and you can be sure that he is at that moment praying for you.
Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. "Take away the stone," he said. "But, Lord," said Martha, the sister of the dead man, "by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days." Then Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, "Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me."
Mary knew that Jesus could have healed her brother, but she did not know that he was even stronger than death. Paul writes that "nothing can separate us from the love of Christ" Nothing. Now Mary knew this first hand. She learned that she could trust in God, no matter what the situation looked like. Not based on her understanding of promises or principles, or the strength of her faith, or her at all, but based on the very character and person of God revealed in Christ. Jesus did not say "I will resurrect" but "I am the resurrection and the life." The difference is immense.
When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, "Take off the grave clothes and let him go."
Though this was a crucial lesson for Mary to learn, it did not make the death of Lazarus a good thing. Jesus felt this, and suffered it with Mary. God suffers with us and always has. God is not sitting comfortably in Heaven in our times of silence observing us from a far. God knows and experiences our pain vitally and intimately. This is not some celestial game of Chess for Him. God did not become human in order to finally understand and relate to our suffering, but to demonstrate to us that he always has understood it, felt every tear, known every doubt more that we know ourselves. God came down to us, not expecting us to rise above our suffering, or to deny it, but knelt beside the empty faces, and cried with us.
But the story does not end with Jesus just crying. Like Job, we are most afraid of hearing God say in response to our cry of suffering either: "shut up!" or "sorry". We expect to hear (to borrow a phrase from our parents) "Because I said so that's why! Now quit balling or I'll really give you something to cry about!" or else we fear to encounter a sad eyed emaciated Christ who would like to help, but just can't, so sorry. Both of these images of God are extremely limiting, and shortsighted. God is way bigger than that. And these two responses we fear the most, and half expect to hear from God, are blown out of the water by this account with Lazarus. We see in the story of the resurrection of Lazarus that this is patently not the way that God is.
We see that God is love, that God identifies with us in our pain, so much so that it is shocking. We see Jesus grieving and this revolutionizes our picture of who God is, and we see in the same picture that God is able to help us beyond anything we would have dared ask or expect. We see a God who is able to completely relate to us in the deepest way imaginable, and who is at the same time unimaginably powerful. Seeing the human aspects of God as revealed in Jesus does not limit God, it bursts the seams of our limited definitions. In seeing God small, our understanding of God becomes enormously big.
Jesus came to show us God's character, who God was, how God responded to suffering, to need. The culmination of this was on the cross, God's ultimate response to suffering. The answer to the question "where is God when I hurt?" is quite clear: He is on the cross giving everything to restore us, to bring an end to suffering once and for all. The cross demonstrates just how hard and grave the problem of suffering is. The same God that snapped his fingers and made the
world had to sacrifice everything, dying on a cross to solve this. We see not only that love takes on all the sin of the world - that God takes on every hurt, every injustice, every rape, but that God takes on the blackness and the lostness as well, not just taking on the rape, but the blackness in the heart of the rapist as well - being both the rapist and raped. The image is staggering. The cross shows us that God is willing to break every rule, to sacrifice absolutely everything to solve the problem. It hurts him. He hates it. It shows us that he is deeply intimately involved in our suffering. And it gives us reason to hope.
"The answer to the question "where is God when I hurt?" is quite clear: He is on the cross"
I hope you noticed that I said that God died on the cross for us. Christ is the image of God, the heart of God, not the victim of God. As
God was not sitting comfortably in Heaven, pouring out his wrath on a separate third party. God was in Christ on that cross, suffering, taking on the sin and pain of the world and securing hope and liberation for a lost world that he loved. This is an incalculable mystery that goes so beyond our ordinary ideas of God that it is difficult to comprehend. But this is absolutely crucial: God died for you.
the man on the cross was no demigod, no puppet-godling. no fragmented piece of Godhead, but God himself. Once people begin to realize that, there is bound to be an explosion in their thinking.
This image of God that we see so vividly reflected in the
character and life of Jesus and that culminates on the cross and resurrection needs to inform how we approach the question of Theodicy. The cross is about passion. God demonstrated how passionately he cares about us on the cross in wanting to break the silence, to end the suffering. God does not care how much it costs, who's fault it is, or what the rules are. God cares about you.
"Jesus does not come giving explanations, he comes giving himself."
Through Christ, God put to death the worst of agonies - our fear of abandonment. God is with us. Imanuel. No matter how dark it gets or how bad it hurts, you are never alone. But pain hurts. Silence hurts. Knowing that God is there in the darkness is hard. When Jesus was in Gethsemane he clung to God, but he was in agony. He said "My heart is overwhelmed to the point of death" and asked his friends to stay with him for the night. On the cross he cried out to God "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" and heard nothing. And in this silence, holding onto a lifetime of trust and knowing who God is, he said into the darkness "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" When that same Jesus says to us "my peace I leave with you" we know immediately he doesn't mean some feeling, but a profound trust and a hope that was strong enough to carry him to Hell and back. It is the face of a God like that which allows me to pray even when it hurts. When it hurts too much, I need you to pray for me.
So we have our answer, not in the form of an explanation, but in the form of Christ. Suffering exists, and Theodicy concludes that therefore God must either not be sovereign or not be loving. Jesus grabs our face in his hands and says to this "look at me! look in my face. I am love. I am in control. And it will be hard. Very hard. But trust me" Jesus calls us to see in that face a radical vision of a God who is one with us in our suffering, who is close to the broken hearted. In him we meet a God who identifies with us in our pain, and calls us to participate with him in healing it. Jesus does not come giving explanations, he comes giving himself.
You may wonder why there has to be suffering here, or why God couldn't have made the world different. Why is it possible for us to hurt each other so much? Why is God so hard to see? Some people say it is because we need freedom to develop character. This is not a bad concept, and it is certainly true in our world. But it begs the question: why couldn't God have made a different world with different rules?
Ultimately the question we are really asking is "God what are you doing?" and the answer we have is that God is intimately involved in answering us , in meeting us and providing a solution, and end to suffering. Our question at its heart is one of trust, and this is exactly what Jesus speaks to. God entered our world of suffering and showed us his heart. On the cross he showed us that he is willing to confront suffering head on and sacrifice everything to end it. And with the resurrection that redemption has begun here in us.
Throughout the Bible we are steered away from asking for an explanation and steered toward how we are to respond to suffering and to God. Honestly I don't think we'll ever find an adequate explanation for why there is suffering. If we were try to comprehend how God wants to establish justice it would blow up our heads. God tells Job if he can't make a sunset or and ostrige which is easy for God, then how does he expect to understand something as mind boggling as how God governs the universe? It isn't our job to understand this, but what we can do is participate with God in solving it. We can see on the cross a foretaste of the solution, a flash of what justice looks like. We can see how God wants us to respond to the question of suffering in us, by responding to God, by participating with God in a relationship of developed experiential trust, through real hope, and through participating in loving God and loving others. In the next section we will look at how we can do this.
click here to go on to
PART THREE: SHARING IN GOD'S SUFFERING
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