“My God, my God, why?” — Mark 15:34

Pietà, by Jacob Jordaens c. 1670. Taken from wikiart.org

Holy Week is nearing — can you feel it? I wanted to share a few loosely connected thoughts on the human experience of suffering and evil as we approach those days of awe. In those days we come face to face with the unspeakable vision of evil’s apogee: God’s corpse.

Theodicy of theologians

After I read David Bentley Hart’s remarkable book on the December 26, 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, The Doors of the Sea, my way of thinking about the problem of evil and suffering (aka theodicy) was radically transformed. It’s a book you read, re-read, re-read and then say, “I think I’m getting it now.” Now after the fifth re-read, it’s finally begun to seep into the deeper parts of my thinking. And after that fifth go-through, I decided I would read it again every summer until it’s so deep in my memory that it sinks from my thinking head into my intuitive heart. Why all this fuss over one book? Because I believe Hart offers an exceptionally compelling Christian view/Gospel response the problem of evil and suffering, which St. Thomas Aquinas identified as the chief intellectual obstacle to Christian theism. For me Hart’s book is nearly unrivaled in its honesty and clarity, and in its relentless application of the “word of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18) to every aspect of existence.

Here’s an example of Hart’s jolting and dense prose:

There is, of course, some comfort to be derived from the thought that everything that occurs at the level of what Aquinas calls secondary causality — in nature or history — is governed not only by a transcendent providence, but by a universal teleology that makes every instance of pain and loss an indispensable moment in a grand scheme whose ultimate synthesis will justify all things. But consider the price at which that comfort is purchased: it requires us to believe in and love a God whose good ends will be realized not only in spite of — but entirely by way of — every cruelty, every fortuitous misery, every catastrophe, every betrayal, every sin the world has ever known; it requires us to believe in the eternal spiritual necessity of a child dying an agonizing death from diphtheria, of a young mother ravaged by cancer, of tens of thousands of Asians swallowed in an instant by the sea, of millions murdered in death camps and gulags and forced famines. It seems a strange thing to find peace in a universe rendered morally intelligible at the cost of a God rendered morally loathsome. Better, it seems to me, the view of the ancient Gnostics: however ludicrous their beliefs, they at least, when they concluded that suffering and death were essential aspects of the creator’s design, had the good sense to yearn to know a higher God.

I do not believe we Christians are obliged — or even allowed — to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world, or to assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes”and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”

Theodicy of the poor

I sat and spoke about this book last summer with an older priest who has spent most of his priestly life working with the poorest of the poor. We had both read the book and sat together to discuss it. His insights were challenging/mind-expanding for me, but there was one comment he made that has remained in me ever since. He said,

It’s good to think about these things and use God’s gift of the mind to explore the mystery with language — that’s the gift of theology, right? But not everybody needs to get this to have faith. In my experience with the poor, I found they were far too occupied with day to day survival to reflect like this. How can you when you’re faced daily with children’s sudden death, insufficient food to feed the family, unemployment, abusive injustices. You know, all life throws at you. For these people it’s about faith, an unshakable faith that says behind all the chaos is a God who’s there always; that says saints are all around us walking with us and blessing us; or that God’s heaven awaits those who keep faith. This faith keeps their hope from dying, gives them the will to move on and not resort to violence, crime or succumb to hatred. They don’t speculate, they just kiss their crucifix, light a candle and move on.

Theodicy of Tears

Pope Francis, when he was in the Philippines, drew a huge crowd at Manila’s Catholic university. He came close to tears as he listened to two rescued street children speak of their lives growing up poor and abandoned. The pope set aside his prepared remarks and spoke off the cuff in his native Spanish — which means from the heart — to respond to a 12 year-old who wept as she asked Francis why children suffer so much. She said, “There are many children neglected by their own parents. There are also many who became victims and many terrible things happened to them like drugs or prostitution.” She wanted to know, “Why does God allow this?” Here she is embracing him:

Taken from media.zenfs.com

Here was his disarmingly simple reply:

…the heart of your question has no reply. Only when we too can cry about the things you said can we come close to answering that question. Why do children suffer so much? Why do children suffer? When the heart is able to ask itself and weep, then we can understand something. There is a worldly compassion which is useless. You expressed something like this. It’s a compassion that makes us put our hands in our pockets and give something to the poor. But if Christ had had that kind of compassion he would have greeted a couple of people, given them something, and walked on. But it was only when he was able to cry that he understood something of our lives. Dear young boys and girls, today’s world doesn’t know how to cry. The marginalized people, those left to one side, are crying. Those who are discarded are crying. But we don’t understand much about these people in need. Certain realities of life we only see through eyes cleansed by our tears. I invite each one here to ask yourself: have I learned how to weep? Have I learned how to weep for the marginalized or for a street child who has a drug problem or for an abused child? Unfortunately there are those who cry because they want something else.

This is the first thing I want to say: let us learn how to weep as she has shown us today and let us not forget this lesson. The great question of why so many children suffer, she did this in tears. The response that we can make today is: let us really learn how to weep.

In the Gospel, Jesus cried for his dead friend, he cried in his heart for the family who lost its child, for the poor widow who had to bury her son. He was moved to tears and compassion when he saw the crowds without a pastor. If you don’t learn how to cry, you cannot be a good Christian. This is a challenge. When they posed this question to us, why children suffer, why this or that tragedy occurs in life – our response must be either silence or a word that is born of our tears. Be courageous, don’t be afraid to cry.

Taken from media4lifeministries.files.wordpress.com

6 comments on ““My God, my God, why?” — Mark 15:34

  1. Joanna Brady says:

    Thank you for posting this,I found the theodicy of tears so moving,all of us called to become real.God Bless you x

  2. Jennifer says:

    Oh Dr. Tom! So many words, especially my own, feel neither adequate nor worthy of expressing the disquietude one feels in contemplation and confrontation of sheer horror. Whether it is an event of widespread destruction or staring intimately into the face of one person’s deep suffering.
    I think perhaps this is why Paul’s expression that creation is groaning is so apt. A groan in my spirit is always more true than any words I can muster.I immediately ordered “The Doors of The Sea” on kindle this morning and 9 pages in, I see that Hart has the words, even when he doesn’t.

    I feel silly, almost narcissistic, so “first-world-problems” to even share this anecdote because it is so unimportant in the light of the death and personal loss that occurred, but I do so just because I think it might express something. Christmas 2004 my husband and I were on top of the world. Sitting in our living room of our first home, adoring our beautiful newborn daughter, Grace, she who was greeted upon her birth by the Aurora Borealis, introducing her to her great-grandparents for the first time, celebrating with my parents and siblings who marvelled over their first grandchild and niece as much as we did. Then late in the evening as we closed the doors behind our last guests and began to wind down our perfect day we began hearing the first reports of the Tsunami. Then as the story unfolded and the news brought more and more reports of the carnage and the first home videos captured by unsuspecting tourists started to burn into my retinas and the gutteral wails of shocked parents whose own beloved children were literally ripped out of their arms by the sea haunted me then and stay with me now, we just sat there dumbfounded. My husband and I just looked at each other, we feebly decided to take the Christmas money that we had been given as a gift for our daughter and send it off instead to the Red Cross or World Vision, or something like that. It was so impotent but it’s the only inadequate response we knew how to make.

    Maybe it was just because I had the new eyes of a parent, but this is the first time I remember the presence of religious commentators weighing in on the issue, usually with comments that seemed more cruel than anything. (The earthquake in Haiti was the next big tragedy that was treated like a punching bag that I can recall.) I understand the outrage in response to these preachers, but I understand the temptation to explain away too. I remember reading blog after blog by everyday Joes who were hungry for an explanation. I think one of the upsides of a sometimes explosively argumentative comment-culture –even though moral relativism has contaminated much of the arguing- is that we can not get away with easy answers or half-truths. I have no doubt that only truth can ultimately prevail.
    Hart notes of the atheist’s arguments of evil as proof against a good God “at the heart of all such unbelief lies an undoubtedly authentic moral horror before the sheer extravagance of worldly misery, a kind of rage for justice, a refusal of easy comfort, and an unwillingness to evil that no one who believes this to be a fallen world should disparage. For the secret irony pervading these arguments is that they would never have occurred to consciences that had not in some profound way by the moral universe of a Christian culture.”

    The photograph of this beautiful girl in the arms of papa Francis and their haunting dialogue took my breath away.

    Lord, let us not be tempted to dismiss the groans of suffering so as to keep our idea of you safely wrapped up in a pretty box, but give us hearts to weep and mourn and ask why.


  3. number one sinner extrrodinare. says:

    One doesn’t know how one will act when confronted with a life altering event . Oh many who have a knowledge of such events often are affected only by their heartfelt sense of empathy and compassion for their fellow creature. They more often than not file that memory away not long afterwards , continuing with life after a short question to GOD as to why such a suffering as this . Perhaps l am being a bit harsh on my fellow creatures , l don’t know their hearts, hereafter I shall speak only foot myself .
    We catholics have such an underused gift from GOD , one that l certainly took for granted prior to an event that would have Grace after Grace not only for my family but others as well. The Communion of Saints was as stated not in my prayer wheelhouse, intercessory prayer also was a forgotten gift. Thanks be to GOD both are now tightly wound around this pathetic sinner.
    When the doctor brings the family into the private waiting room 12 hours after your child’s fall and with voice trembling says ” l have horrible news. If your child survives chances are she won’t ever walk or talk again. The collective wailing of her siblings and mother were heard all the way to that mansion with many rooms . The fall had caused two bruises to form in her brain distant from one another. The initial brain scan one hour after the fall indicated the one surrounding the nerve bundle on her dominant side as it enters the cranium as the one he was most concerned with. Fast forward to the waiting room 12 hours later. The reason for his dire and hopeless report was that the bruise had tripled in size and had shredded the nerve bundle on her dominant side and that it was still growing. A call to a friend and fellow parishioner less than an hour after the fall to ask for his and his family’s prayers set in motion a chain of events that truly speaks to the inherent beauty and charity of our catholic faith. A call by him to our parish rectory set in motion the arrival of one our young priests to offer her the last rites. He then proceeded to call several other parish members who in turn called several others . In the few hours proceeding the “‘tragic” news l went to pay a visit to our Lord in our adoration chapel . I took two of my children with me. I loudly proclaimed my selfish desire to our Lord. I then quickly added ” but if you want her with you please give me the faith to accept your will amen.” It wasn’t long after this that I was given an incredible gift ,the first of many during this “tragic” time. To this day I don’t know how this epiphany came to me . God calls out and says hey you come with me I want to show you this house that I built . So I go with the big guy . I can’t for the life of me remember what he looked like but be that as it may I went. Now this place is out of this world literally. What a mansion. GOD I say it’s beautiful but the door is in the wrong place . It should be over 6 inches . So GOD says hey it’s me, GOD, THE doors perfect right where I put it. Who am I to argue with the ALMIGHTY. Wow what a gift. A ” tragedy” I think not , rather , a wonderful gift not only to me but to so many others who now don’t ask My GOD My GOD, why? But in the words of beautiful St. Faustina K. J.I.T.I.Y.
    The induced coma for the next month saw a continual stream of so many from not only our parish but other as well. The youth group was brought up and overflowing the big waiting room said the rosary quite loudly what a beautiful witness of our faith. priests from other parishes as well came up and prayed over her. Her room was like a shrine . People brought up first class relics second class relics water from the healing pools of Lourdes , rosary blessed by popes. Oil touched to a 1 st class relic of Beloved St. Padre Poo which my wife annotated her with daily. Oh my what a grabber Magee I am so sorry . Long story ongoing to this day cut short. Thru the many faithful whose love of and faith in the communion of saints and their hope in intercessory prayer a miracle was given to our family. My daughter today is a beautiful girl who doesn’t hesitate to tell dad to put away his flip phone and to please go and get her and mom a dish of ice cream . Just kidding I don’t own a cell phone I do , however , own an Indian blanket and a stack of Westwood. But with my ethnic dialect no one can read the signals.

    P.B.W.Y. all. THY WILL BE DONE. buy into it it’s liberating beyond words.

    • O Sinner: Thank you for your lovely witness of grace, saints, the cross, human love, sacramentals and humor! Your witness fills out even more the diverse approaches to the mystery of evil that are our Catholic tradition. It includes tragedy, gift, Thy will be done, Why?, hell, heaven, mystery, redemption, irredeemable loss, and so much more. Catholics are, as they say in Latin, “et…et,” people — “both, and” — who, when confronted with the question “Thy will be done” or “My God, my God, why?” answer: yes. All of it finds its place in God’s providential will that both ordains what God positively wills to be and permits what God does not positively will to be, but allows to be. What I love about your comment, and Jennifer’s is that you actually face evil and suffering with faith that’s engaged, alive, passionate, honest, intelligent, trusting and surrendered to the power of grace to redeem what is lost. Great stuff — I am deeply moved by this number one sinner extraordinaire who has no cell phone, but has an Indian blanket, a stack of Westwood and a wicked cool ethnic dialect.

  4. Dismas Dancing says:

    My dear brother, Dr. Tom, I am humbled before the beautiful words of Jennifer and NumberOneSinner. I read a goodly number of blogs and comments made therein. But I have yet to find another at which one may find the spiritual beauty and gut-wrenchingly honest faith you and your commenters post here. Their comments on your timely post provide a level of truth to what otherwise might serve as mere opinion.

    As you might imagine, one cannot spend thirty years in the “warrior” business without being directly exposed to or personally involved in all sorts of tragedy, including those in our own families. The two comments to which I refer above are so beautifully written I need only thank them for allowing me to know a bit of the personal side of a couple of fellow travelers, rather than add my own story. Perhaps, many of the early martyrs may not have so willingly gone to their horrible deaths were it not for their ability to console and comfort one another in the Love of Christ as they fell together into the lions’ mouths. I take great comfort in knowing that, indeed, I am not alone as I struggle down the thorned and narrow path of this earthly existence. I am never alone; nor am I lonely. With the faith, comfort, consolation, and prayers of each of you, and all the faithful of the Communion of Saints, Christ Himself leads us to a better place. “Wherever two or more are gathered in my name, there I am also.” That is ever true when I come to this site!

    For that, and all of His rich blessings, I will use a great phrase that you often use, Dr. Tom, “Deo Gratias; Deo Gratias; Deo Gratias!”

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