Some time ago on my blog I posted a story about what seemed like a supernatural angelic intervention in our family. My little sister fell through the bleachers at a football game and was heading for the concrete foundations. My mom watched in helpless horror, and said at the last moment her little girl’s body moved sideways. It was as if unseen hands moved her two feet in the other direction, so she landed on the soft grass, thus sparing her life.
A heartbroken father commented on the post. His son was a young husband and father. He delivered emergency medicines for a living and one morning at 5:30 he fell asleep at the wheel, went off the road and into a tree and was killed instantly. Where was the guardian angel then? Where was God in the midst of that seemingly senseless accident?
Good question, and in the face of what seems absurd suffering of good people we must avoid all smug answers or nice theological answers. Instead, while we believe in guardian angels and God’s miraculous interventions we must also be able to answer the questions of those who suffer without any seeming reason.
The only answer which is possible is simply that we do not have all the data. We can’t see everything. We don’t know what God is doing, except that he is at work bringing the best out of the worst and redeeming all things. The problem is, he doesn’t always do this the way we think is best. God’s providence is often a severe mercy. Because we do not have all the information we cannot provide all the answers.
So, for example, what was I to make of the situation I found myself in while serving as chaplain to a Catholic school, when not one, or two, but three of our ninth grade boys were diagnosed with cancer?
I don’t have an easy answer, but I must believe that God is doing something somewhere with these events that I can’t see. So, for example, let us say that a boy called Peter is hit with cancer. I don’t know Peter’s heart. I don’t know the spiritual condition of his family. In fact, there is more that I don’t know about the whole complex matrix of his life than I do know.
He is hit with cancer. It seems good to me that he should not be hit with cancer. I think he and his family should not suffer. But perhaps there are other things going on and other prayers being answered and this suffering is the lesser of the two.
What if there is a spiritual dimension I can’t see? What if that boy is already a saint, and his suffering is the final test for him? What if there is another saint in the making somewhere in his family and this trial is the final polish on a saint that God is already completing?
What if, in the whole mysterious business of sacrifice and suffering and redemption this boy is some sort of a victim soul, or what if he is simply the innocent victim of a cruel and absurd evil power that is part of the terrible network of sin in which we are all bound up?
The fact of the matter is, I don’t know. I don’t have all the facts. I can’t see how it all fits together, but I have had enough experience and seen enough of God’s work in the world to believe that it does.
That is why in the middle of even the most heartbreaking and absurd suffering we turn back to God and co-operate with his grace to see how even this cross may have a resurrection somewhere, somehow on the other side.
For this is ultimately the lesson of our faith, not that we have an easy answer to suffering, but that we have a difficult answer to suffering. Not that suffering is one of the extra credit questions, but it is right there in the very heart of everything, and that figuring out this riddle is not only at the very heart of our faith, but at the very heart of our human existence.