You may have read about the consultant anaesthetist, who has moved into a caravan to allow him to keep treating COVID-19 patients whilst protecting his son, just three years old, who is undergoing chemotherapy for lymphoma. The chemotherapy will result in his son’s immune system being suppressed and means COVID-19 is a significant threat to his life. His father, treating those going to intensive care as a result of the disease, could therefore unknowingly be a threat to his son. The father has made the sacrifice of separation.
Many people are asking, ‘Where is God? Where is the all-good and all-powerful God?’
And the surprising gentle answer is surely that he’s there.
The Christian understanding of suffering is different from that of non-Christians. In the Christian story, God is not remote from suffering; he immersed himself in it by becoming a man and living a human life.
And in the Christian story, the Father encourages and permits this sacrifice. This pain. This love. It costs both Father and Son to save us.
The Christian understanding of God is of a divine communion of persons. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons one substance in perfect love. Out of this love, the world is created. Not because God wants to be loved or worshipped. God is already perfect love between these persons. But because love is necessarily outward-looking and creates more love.
And we were created. But we chose not to trust God. We broke his trust, and we broke the relationship with God. And God is the perfect sustainer of this physical world, so when we broke away from him, we allowed this physical world to break.
But God did not stop loving us or wanting to repair this brokenness. So, the son, Jesus, entered the world as one of us. He suffered alongside us, as one of us. He knew physical pain, emotional pain and spiritual pain. He was crucified. He took all the pain that we had caused and took it on himself. Like this consultant anaesthetist, freely choosing to experience pain he does not deserve, to save others. Because ultimately, where there is brokenness, there is no way to fix it without someone absorbing the pain.
As Timothy Keller, a New York pastor, gives a helpful analogy, ‘What if a friend of yours accidentally smashes a lamp in your apartment? One of two things can happen as a result. Either you can make him pay – “That will be $100, please” – or you can say, “I forgive you, that’s okay.” But in the latter case what happens to that $100? You have to pay it yourself, or you have to lose $100 worth of light and get used to a darker room. Either your friend pays the cost for what was done, or you absorb the cost’. (Keller, T. King’s Cross: The story of the world in the life of Jesus. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2011)
And this works on an emotional level too. When someone breaks your heart, when someone breaks your reputation, when someone breaks your happiness, then a debt is created. You can try and make them pay. You can try to break their heart. You can shatter their reputation. You can break their happiness. But unlike the lamp example, this won’t restore what you have lost. This is more like you breaking your friend’s lamp than asking them to replace your broken one. To extend the analogy, the result would be just two broken lamps. Or two broken people.
The truth is, nobody can actually pay you back emotionally. So, you have two options; you can desperately try to make them pay, though they never can, and though you’ll actually become more callous and colder yourself as you pursue this. Or you can bear the cost. When you can absorb the hurt and the pain, you can forgive.
Keller summarizes it well when he writes ‘forgiveness always entails suffering for the forgiver’.
The story of the doctor and his son that we began with, expresses something of the Christian story, with the roles reversed. In the gospel, it is the son who treats the sick. He does this by separating from the Father. So, Jesus went to the cross and died. The divine Father and Son endured separation. Perfect love was separated for us. To save us.
Suffering is not something we transcend. It is not something that must overwhelm us. But it is also not meaningless, and it is not something we go through alone.
Where is God in suffering?
He is in it with us.
Grace Petkovic is a foundation doctor