Some people may struggle with this post and, to be honest, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with it. God just does not neatly fit into my idea of what he should be like, so shaped am I by my culture.
It is easy to question whether the authors of John’s Gospel and John’s Revelations had anything in common. What has a God ‘who so loved the world’ to do with the releasing of the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse? It is a challenging question. Just as challenging as the common complaint about a God who allows, say, a woman to be violently raped or a child killed by abuse. Is God culpable by standing by and allowing it to happen, or is he merely incompetent, not able to prevent it? A stock answer I have heard is that this is consequence of the serpent deceiving Eve and the subsequent ‘Fall’. Yet, whatever we make of that story, it only moves the question: Did God stand by, knowing the misery that would follow, or did he merely not know what was going on in the garden?
Perhaps perversely, I feel that God would affirm that, yes, he is culpable, he has allowed something he could have prevented. No excuses. It is a difficult idea, but then love can be hard to separate from suffering. As a father I have wanted my children to grow up and that meant allowing them to increasingly make their own decisions for their lives. Sometimes that means standing by as they make mistakes and suffer as a result. As a parent I too suffer as I watch on. There is something about love that seems to bring with it its own suffering. For, as John points out, God so loved the world… that he chose to suffer and die amongst us. Extreme suffering on a cross, because of love.
For us though, the problem of suffering remains a big deal, even though, until quite recently, suffering was seen as just a part of life. People die. People get hurt. We accepted it, even if we did not like it. The Apostle Paul, for example, said it was something to rejoice in. Something that the early Christians had plenty of opportunity to put into practice, as they were fed to lions or burnt alive, often while singing. Their joy in death was duly noted, even if it puzzled the surrounding world.
But, our world sees things differently. We are pervaded by the ideas of Enlightenment, such as the ‘pursuit of happiness’ or seeking the ‘greatest utility’. We think we have the power to build for ourselves a better world, with its Benefits system, Health Service, all part of the relentless march of progress, towards a modern Utopia. In this scheme of things, suffering has no part, it is best hidden or buried in some alcoholic or opiate stupor. Suffering has become an embarrassment. A denial of our Utopian dream.
Yet, maybe, suffering is an important part of life, though we may not understand it. I am reminded too that, as Christians, our call is to follow Jesus, the man who suffered and died. A man who showed us the true nature of God, a God who suffers with us. Maybe one day we will stand back and marvel at this part of creation, a part that includes a cross, and a God who does not stand apart from us in our suffering, but firmly alongside us in the middle of it.