As I’ve reflected this week on the meaning of resurrection and Christian hope, I’ve been deeply moved by this essay by Philip Yancey in this month’s Christianity Today. As the author of a famous book called Where Is God When It Hurts? Yancey says he often gets called to speak to groups who are struggling with questions of faith in the midst of suffering. Most recently, he spoke to people in Newtown, Connecticut, in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
As I pondered what to say to the sorrow-drenched community, I felt my faith strangely affirmed, not shattered. Trust me, I know well the nagging questions about a good and powerful God that crop up when suffering strikes, and my writing attempts to address those questions. With Newtown, though, I was drawn back to Bishop Desmond Tutu’s writings on his experience in South Africa. As head of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he braced himself for a test of his theology, in part because “good Christians” had carried out so many of the crimes in his country…
Yet after two years of listening to such horrific accounts, Bishop Tutu came away with his faith strengthened. The hearings convinced him that perpetrators are morally accountable, that good and evil are real and that they matter. Despite the relentless accounts of inhumanity, Tutu emerged from the hearings with this conviction: “For us who are Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is proof positive that love is stronger than hate, that life is stronger than death, that light is stronger than darkness, that laughter and joy, and compassion and gentleness and truth, all these are so much stronger than their ghastly counterparts.” As if by negative image, the events at Sandy Hook also affirmed Tutu’s experience.
As a “theological counterpoint,” he said he’d been reading atheist writers like Richard Dawkins, who believes that the universe has “precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”
“Is that what you’ve seen here?” he asked his audience.
As I stood before the group gathered Friday night, Dawkins’s description rang all the more hollow. “I don’t think that’s what you’ve seen,” I said. “I have felt an outpouring of grief, compassion, and generosity—not blind, pitiless indifference. I’ve seen acts of selflessness, not selfishness: in the school staff who sacrificed their lives to save children, in the sympathetic response of a community and a nation. I’ve seen a deep belief that the people who died mattered, that something of inestimable worth was snuffed out on December 14.”…
Tragedy rightly calls faith into question, but it also affirms faith. It is good news that we are not the random byproducts of a meaningless universe, but rather creations of a loving God who wants to live with us forever. That “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” in order to reconcile with his rebellious creation. That by entering our world, the Son took on our sufferings and temptations, demonstrating in person that nothing—not even death—can separate us from the love of God.
But is the world—even a restored, redeemed, and renewed world in God’s future kingdom—”worth the pain that it encompasses?” Yancey asks.
After talking to parents in Newtown who lost a son or daughter, I have a clue to the answer. If you ask them—”The six or seven years you had with your child, were they worth the pain you feel now?”—you will hear a decisive “Yes.” As the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote after the death of a young friend, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” Perhaps God feels the same way about us, his fallen creation.
This is a profoundly good point.
Near the end of the essay, Yancey offers a three-part answer to the question, “Where is God when it hurts?” Part of the answer, he says, comes from the holiday we celebrate today, Good Friday, when Christ absorbed all evil and suffering in his own person.
Though God has dealt them a death blow through his death and resurrection, evil and suffering continue for now. It’s as if Creation itself were living on Holy Saturday:
Holy Week offers the template. On Good Friday Jesus absorbed the worst of what Earth has to offer, a convergence of evil and death in an event of profound injustice. Easter Sunday gave a sure and certain sign of contradiction, demonstrating that nothing can withstand the healing force of a loving God. We live out our days, though, on Holy Saturday, aware of the redemptive power of suffering while awaiting the restoration power of creation made new.