Where Is God When it Hurts?

Apologetics Series - 5

Where Is God When it Hurts?
Human Suffering and the Death of Jesus

Suffering is not just an intellectual difficulty for faith in God. It is a tragic, cruel and intensely personal reality in human experience. In this message, given at a combined churches’ Good Friday service on 2 April 1999, Rob Yule, minister of St Alban’s Presbyterian Church, Palmerston North, New Zealand, discusses the problem of suffering in the light of Jesus’ crucifixion and what it reveals of God’s solidarity with all who suffer.

James Emery White, senior pastor of the Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, was in New Zealand recently for a Willow Creek Association seminar on helping seekers find God. He tells in his book A Search for the Spiritual (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker, 1998, p. 83), about one of the most difficult tasks he has ever been called on to perform, which took place during his seminary training, while pastoring a church near Louisville, Kentucky:

A deacon in the church called me at home and told me the wife of his next-door neighbour had just committed suicide. She was the mother of five girls. Her youngest daughter had found her. He said, ‘Would you come?’ When I arrived, I saw the five daughters and their father huddled in a corner of the house. I thought to myself, What am I doing here? What could I possibly say? What can I do that would help at this moment? I went over to the family, introduced myself, and said the only words I can think of: ‘I just want you to know that I’m sorry. I’m so very, very sorry.’

The girl who had found her mother looked up at me and said, ‘Would you pray for us?’ So I prayed. I don’t remember a single word of that prayer, but when I finished, that little girl looked up at me and simply said, ‘God’s here, isn’t he?’

And I said, ‘Yes, he is.’

She said, ‘I thought so. I could feel him hugging me when you prayed. It’s going to be all right, isn’t it?’

And I said, ‘Yes honey, it’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be all right.’

God’s Here, Isn’t He?

‘God’s here, isn’t he?’ That poor little girl’s words could easily be dismissed as wishful thinking in a tragic situation. The pastor’s agreeing with her could be viewed as just reassuring words of comfort. Suffering is terrible, and inexplicable. When we suffer like this, God seems to take a holiday. But the Bible supports the little girl’s view. God is here when it hurts.

Jesus was crucified between two criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Their reaction to their situation is typical of people’s response to cruelty and suffering (Luke 23:39-43).

One criminal kept taunting and deriding Jesus, saying, ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ He reacted negatively to his sufferings, blaspheming and blaming God for them. He is typical of those God deniers - like Ivan in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (V, 4) - who make suffering a reason for rejecting God. Even though he showed no reverence for God, he demanded that God do something to relieve his suffering and show that he was worthy of belief.

The other criminal showed a different response. He rebuked his companion in crime and said, ‘Don’t you fear God, since you’re under the same sentence of condemnation?’ He showed a humbler attitude, an acceptance of his just deserts, an awareness that his own wrongdoing has something to do with the evil in the world. He said to the other criminal, ‘We indeed have been condemned justly, for we’re getting what we deserve for our deeds. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

This stark story of people in their death throes sheds light on the age-old question, ‘Where is God when it hurts?’ The truth is, God was right there when it hurt. The cross of Jesus, God’s Son, was right there in the midst of that scene, between the two criminals. He suffered with them. But not all people recognise where God is when they suffer. Like the blaspheming criminal, many blame God for their sufferings. They rant and rave, swear and curse, taking it out on God - even though, frequently, they don’t even believe in God. They reject God as unworthy of belief: as unjust, uncaring, and powerless to help.

But the other criminal shows a different attitude to suffering. Most people, when they prosper, turn away from God. But when they suffer, they turn to God. Suffering, as C. S. Lewis put it in The Problem of Pain (London, Geoffrey Bles, 1940, p. 81), is God’s ‘megaphone to rouse a deaf world.’ So this criminal accepts responsibility for his situation, sees God in the midst of his sufferings, and turns to God for help and mercy. ‘Jesus,’ he cries in his agony, ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus’ response shows that when we recognise God in our suffering, he will receive us in his glory. ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise.’

Here on this Gallows

Elie Wiesel is a Holocaust survivor and an internationally acclaimed author. A Romanian-born Jew, he describes in his first book Night (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1981), how he was taken to the death camps in the spring of 1944 at the age of only fourteen, along with all the Jews of his community. They travelled by train for three days, eighty people in each cattle truck. On arrival at Auschwitz, the men and women were segregated, and Elie never saw his mother or sister again:

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke.... Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith for ever.... Never shall I forget those flames which murdered my God and my soul, and turned my dreams to dust.... (p.45)

One of Wiesel’s most horrifying memories was when the guards first tortured and then hanged a young Jewish boy, ‘a child with a refined and beautiful face’, a ‘sad-eyed angel’. Just before the hanging Elie heard someone behind him whisper, ‘Where is God? Where is he?’ Thousands of prisoners were forced to watch the hanging - it took the boy half an hour to die - and then to march past, looking the corpse full in the face. Behind him Elie heard the same voice ask, ‘Where is God now?’ Wiesel writes, ‘And I heard a voice within me answer him: "Where is he? Here he is - he is hanging here on this gallows." ’(Night, pp. 75-77).

Wiesel meant to imply that God was dead, powerless to help. As a result of his experience of the Holocaust he rebelled against God for allowing people to be starved, tortured, butchered, gassed, burned. But Wiesel’s words have another meaning, a meaning he never intended. Where is God when it hurts? Here he is - hanging here on this gallows. When applied to the cross of Jesus Wiesel’s words are truer than he realised. Where was God when Jesus died a cruel, shameful death? Another Jew, the apostle Paul, says God was there. ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ (2 Corinthians 5:19).

God With Us

The Bible not only says that God suffered in Christ. It says that God in Christ suffers with his people still. God is not far away when it hurts. He is right there, in the midst of his people’s suffering.

• During Israel’s four hundred and fifty years of forced labour in Egypt, God heard their groaning and was distressed at their distress. ‘The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he . . . looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.’ (Exodus 2:23-25). God, as Jewish scholar Abraham Heschel says, ‘is involved in history. He is engaged to Israel - and has a stake in its destiny. Man . . . is a perpetual concern of God.’ (The Prophets, Vol. 2 [New York, Harper & Row, 1975], p. 6).

• When Saul of Tarsus, later known as Paul, was converted, the voice of the risen Jesus spoke to him in a vision, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Saul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ was Jesus’ reply (Acts 9:4-5). In these words, Jesus completely identifies with the sufferings of his persecuted followers. This is an enormous comfort to Christians who are persecuted for their faith, like in Indonesia, southern Sudan, and some other Islamic societies today. Jesus is there, in their hurts.

• Most clearly of all, Jesus said that when we minister to the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the prisoner, we are ministering to him. Jesus identifies himself with all needy and suffering people in the world. ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:34-40). Jesus truly is ‘Emmanuel’, ‘God with us’ (Matthew 1:23). Even in the worst situations of cruelty, abuse, rape, sadism, torture, expulsions, genocide, he shares and understands our situation and our sufferings.

As New Zealand poet James K. Baxter wrote in Autumn Testament (Wellington, Price Milburn, 1972, p. 24):

King Jesus, after a day or a week of bitching
I come back always to your bread and salt,

Because no other man, no other God,
Suffered our pains with us minute by minute

And asked us to die with him.

English Christian leader John Stott testifies, ‘I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as "God on the cross". In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?’

Stott describes the statue of the Buddha he has seen while visiting Buddhist temples in Asian countries, ‘his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world.’ He contrasts this image of detached serenity with ‘that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God forsaken darkness.’

‘That is the God for me!’ says Stott. ‘He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us.’ (The Cross of Christ [Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 1986], pp. 335-6).

Sentenced to Suffer

Where is God when it hurts? There is an imaginative piece named ‘The Long Silence’ which sums up the issue powerfully (Stott, op. cit., pp.336-7):

At the end of time, billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne.

Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly - not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.

‘Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?’ snapped a pert young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. ‘We endured terror . . . beatings . . . torture . . . death!’

In another group a Negro boy lowered his collar. ‘What about this?’ he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. ‘Lynched . . . for no crime but being black!’

In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. ‘Why should I suffer’ she murmured, ‘It wasn’t my fault.’

Far out a cross the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light, where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that human beings had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a Negro, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth - as a human being!

‘Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured.

‘At last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.’

As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled.

And when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No-one uttered another word. No-one moved. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.

Rob Yule
2 April 1999
© 1996, St Albans Presbyterian Church