If God is love, why is the world hurting?
Vincent Donovan, a Catholic priest, described humans as “God appearing in the universe”. God is supposed to be love. If we have been created in his image of love, then something has gone seriously wrong. Love has been abused. Read any newspaper – a catalogue of man’s loveless inhumanity. And the same stories have been written throughout history.
Have we trivialised ourselves?
I wonder if we have lost what it is to be truly human with the result being hurt – by ourselves and others. These are the consequences of choices we make to not live in full humanity as God intended. Because of the inescapable mesh of relationships we are a part of, humanity’s abuse of itself can inflict pain on the innocent in the most intolerable and unjust way: structural poverty, illness, heartache, war, terrorism, rape. C.S. Lewis describes pain as a megaphone, screaming out at us that something is wrong with our world. A distress signal to all of humanity – a broken people groaning in a desperately broken world.
So is humanity simply God’s failed experiment? Or has there ever been someone so perfectly human that the only way to describe them is God appearing in the universe?
What about Jesus? If it is true that he was perfect humanity, love in the midst of creation, then can his life show us what humanity really is and what God really is?
Jesus felt things. He felt compassion, he wept, he felt anguish, rejection, excruciating physical pain, and ultimately death. Jesus never created pain. But he always responded to it. Time and time again he offered hope. There are stories of the sick being healed, the oppressed set free and broken hearts mended. His response to our messy world was to get involved, God appearing and suffering in the universe. In the words of a Charles Wesley hymn (1738):
He left his fathers’ throne above,
So free, so infinite his grace
Emptied himself of all but love,
And bled for Adam’s helpless race.
But suffering did not destroy love. It could not stop the creator from continuing to create even in the midst of destruction. Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates that pain and death are a very real part of living in the world, but they are not the end. Love, life and hope had the last word.
Jesus’ life shows that although love is not pain, it can’t exclude it. As C.S. Lewis put it: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free-wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” Love and pain have a bitter-sweet connection, two very different imprints on the same coin. Life encompasses both entwined. I see it as I watch my grandparents who have spent their lives devoted to each other. I wonder what must go through my grandmother’s heart when her husband with Alzheimers can’t even remember her name. But I know that she won’t stop loving him.
Our culture strives to control and minimise pain, seeking a utopia that denies the inevitable physical decay of our own bodies, that hankers after unobtainable permanence. Channelling all our disaffection with the world into this vision of avoidance is futile. We are not immortal, we can’t escape pain. But we can respond urgently, desperately, passionately to our broken and decaying world. We can be God in the universe.
I was listening to a talk at the weekend by a lady who works with drug addicts. She was speaking at a festival and I was sat outside in the rain thinking about how drenched I was getting. From out of nowhere she suddenly started screaming down the microphone about the outrage and injustice of domestic violence in a voice I can only describe as desperate compassion. You could feel the pain in her words. I can’t possibly imagine what she must have seen and experienced. She was expressing something of our groaning world. Her life was all about responding to it.
Christianity cannot be a theory, an analytical answer to the question of pain. Answers don’t make the experience of hurt any less painful. To have any point, Christianity has to offer a response, a way to live in the midst of pain, a way to hope, to have peace and the promise of transformation.
“Seek not answers, but live in the question marks.” That is the only way I can make sense of painful moments. During one of those times I remember thinking a lot about spider webs – the intricate patterns that are created through a web of negative shapes and spaces. Waiting in the aching gaps. I couldn’t see God in the hurt, he wasn’t giving me any answers, but I knew he was in me, creating in the negative spaces something beautiful that I couldn’t see yet. God’s promise to me.
John Donne talks about the experience of death as mysteriously transformative: “When one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language … some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again.” God’s promise through death.
In the midst of all the uncertainly that surrounds pain we can’t control, there has to be something consistent, something enduring if we are to find hope for ourselves, for others and for our world. One Christian writer put it like this: “I am absolutely convinced that nothing – nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable – absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us.” God’s promise to his creation, to us.