Nils von Kalm
23 September 2023
An earthquake in Morocco, hunger crisis in Kenya, war in Ukraine. It seems that everywhere we look, there is something going wrong in the world. At times like this, I regularly hear Christians comfort themselves with the reassurance that, despite all the suffering in the world, God is in control and we don’t need to worry.
Saying that God is in control is a well-worn cliché in Christian circles. Like Job’s comforters, it is often what well-meaning people say to us when we are going through a difficult time.
But is it what we need to hear? When bad things happen, I think we need to hear something deeper.
When I have suffered, and some well-meaning person has told me that it will be ok because God is in control, I have never felt heard or understood. Not deep down. It’s the same when I’ve been assured that it will all work out for good (generally referring to Romans 8:28) or that God has some bigger plan for it all.
Our natural tendency is to need and provide answers for everything. Certainty is easier, it helps us make sense of suffering.
But when I suffer, I don’t want the right answer. I want presence, I want someone to just be with me and not necessarily say anything.
As Jesus reminds us in Matthew 5:45, the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Good and bad things happen to all of us, regardless of how moral a life we are living. Sometimes life just happens, and we have no idea why.
One of the attractions of Jesus for me is that, in him, I see a God who understands me at my deepest level. If we look at his life, we see that he never tried to explain suffering; he just went through it with us. For instance, in Matthew 8, Jesus heals the man with a skin disease, showing extraordinary compassion by assuring the man that he is willing to heal him, and then doing so. He is present with the man in his pain and in his healing. The letter to the Hebrews reminds us that God, in the Incarnation, became like us in every respect, identifying with us in our suffering so that he could be with us in the middle of it. That’s the very definition of compassion: putting yourself in the shoes of another, being willing to suffer alongside them. That’s the type of God I want to follow.
While it is true that God might have a bigger plan for it all when we suffer, what we need most at such times is comfort that touches us personally. Once that comfort is given, my experience is that it is then that people will be more ready to hear the truth that God ultimately has a bigger plan. That truth can then provide additional comfort.
The love of God does prevail in the end. But, as Father Richard Rohr says, a healthy way to see God is not so much as almighty as all-suffering. That is, as a God whose comfort we can know personally. God chooses to relinquish control in order to love.
It is the vulnerable, suffering love of God, showing strength in weakness, that ultimately has the final say. This is the wonderful message of the crucifixion, that through death, life comes. It is why St Paul said he preaches Christ crucified. And as the Irish singer, Sammy Horner, has said, it is victory in defeat. The beautiful imagery of heaven and earth coming together in the Book of Revelation tells us that there is coming a day when Jesus will fulfil all things, that there will be no more tears, no more pain and no more death. That is our great Christian hope. We do need to hear that. But what suffering people need before that is personal presence and comfort.