FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

The Meaning of Suffering 27 November 2008

Sounds a bit portentous, that title: it’s a bit like saying ‘the meaning of life’. Indeed, if you were able to understand the ‘meaning of suffering’, then you probably would be a long way down the road to discovering the meaning of life.

It’s a natural reaction to natural or man-made disasters – like yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India – to wonder and even despair at a supposedly loving God who could permit such things to happen; indeed, who could allow them to be perpetrated in his name. Why didn’t he and his angels step in to thwart the plans of the bombers and hi-jackers? Why didn’t he prevent there from being so many innocent people in the murderers’ firing line?

Might as well ask Christ to step down from his cross. As an all-powerful and all-loving God, you’d think he would be capable of doing so; but he chooses not to. Why?

Well, the beginning of an answer is indeed to be found in the Cross of Christ. God doesn’t just hang around while his human children suffer; he hangs there with them – on the cross – and suffers in their place. This is not an abstract concept: our suffering is Christ’s suffering. When we suffer, we are not sharing in Christ’s suffering and cross in a ‘merely’ symbolic and sacrificial sense (in that we might choose to offer up our suffering as a sharing in Christ’s suffering for the remission of humanity’s sins); but Christ truly suffers in us: our life, our suffering, our death are one. God therefore allows suffering to happen in that he suffers it – in both senses.

Why? Because he loves those who cause the suffering. Ultimately, that means all of us, as – through our sins – we bring suffering into the world both directly (by hurting others) and indirectly: through the tear in the sacred, living fabric of the created order of which our sins partake, like the tear in the veil of the temple at the time of Christ’s death. But, in a special way, Christ’s love appears concentrated upon those who least ‘deserve’ it from our all-too human perspective that mixes justice with revenge. Christ in the people mown down and blown up in Mumbai passionately loved those who were doing it, and offered the suffering and death of the victims for the forgiveness of the murderers’ sins even as they were committing them.

Why? Because only such an unfathomable, endless love has the chance to stir the hearts of the gravest sinners when at the appointed hour they might realise that God did not love the sin but loves the sinner, and allowed the sin to happen because he wanted to give the sinner that very chance to sense the love of God and turn in repentance towards it. Otherwise, the sinner – the beloved of God – might well be lost for ever, and not just in this life.

But what of the victims? Who could ever doubt that those beloved-of-God, and sharers in his passion, are not alive in him for ever more: their sins remitted? It is we who mourn them who must suffer; and we do so – if we do so in Christ – for those who caused us that pain. And in Christ, that suffering will be made good – for all.

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