Thinking Anew: The Christian answer to suffering
Emma Mhic Mhathúna: a truly brave woman. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Just two weeks ago the family of Emma Mhic Mhathúna were coming to terms with the tragic loss of a truly brave woman, one of many affected by the cervical cancer controversy. They were not alone as a nation joined them in grieving for a mother devoted to the care of her young family.
In a radio interview last May, she had first revealed that she was terminally ill and in heart-rending words explained what that meant for her: “I’m dying when I don’t need to die. And my children are going to be without me, and I’m going to be without them . . . And I don’t even know if my baby is going to remember me.”
She was 37 when she died, a woman in her prime, leaving five young children to grow up without her. We are left to struggle with the unfairness of it all.
Tomorrow’s Old Testament reading is about suffering and in particular innocent suffering. Job, the principal character, cannot understand why he has suffered so badly, having tried to be a good person and believing that the good deserve better. In utter frustration, he questions God. We do the same: Why her? Why him? Why me? Does God care? Does God even exist? These are of course religious questions; those who deny the existence of God cannot call God to account.
However, those who believe in God are, like Job, troubled and ask how a God of love can allow awful things to happen.
The reading reminds us that there are limits to human understanding. Job is put in his place: “Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know!’”
This does not answer Job’s question but in Life’s Great Questions Jean Vanier offers this explanation: “There are some causes of suffering that we have little control over. People fall sick, accidents happen, natural disasters wreak havoc. Why is it that one person has cancer, and another does not? ... Why is there such a thing as an Ebola virus? There is no answer to these questions. We are part of nature, subject to its laws and movement. Although it is always good to ask why, sometimes we must accept that we cannot fully understand.”
In the gospel reading two disciples ask Jesus an inappropriate question, seeking special status for themselves, a reminder of how easy it is for the church to have the wrong priorities. Jesus declines and implies that his mission is to serve humankind by confronting suffering and death on the cross.
This points us towards the Christian answer to suffering because in the suffering and dying of Jesus and what follows we are assured that these terrible things are not the final word – God’s love takes us through and beyond them.
Dr Penny Jamieson, former Anglican bishop of Dunedin in New Zealand, points out: “The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead was the public demonstration that he had defeated the forces of evil and conquered death itself, the end result of evil. What I am saying here is that the answer to the problem of suffering is not an idea – it is a person . . . God’s answer is not just to give us words, but to give us Jesus.”
And that is the key: the Christian hope is given by God not invented by human beings; it is not a mere wish by those who cannot face reality – it is the conviction of those who believe God is to be trusted even in the worst of times.
Lord Tennyson’s words encourage us: “For nothing worthy proving can be proven, / Nor yet disproven: wherefore thou be wise, / Cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt, / And cleave to Faith beyond the forms of Faith.”