In Matthew’s Gospel the joy of the birth of Jesus is overshadowed and sent fleeing with the holy family’s flight into Egypt and the loud cries of lamentation from the parents of the children slaughtered in Bethlehem (Matt 2:16–18).
Life is filled with interruptions of tragedy and tumult. The abundant life made available to us in Christ does not provide immunity against the discomfort and distresses of life. Any version of Christian faith that downplays suffering or attributes it to God’s displeasure needs to reinvent itself.
The intricacies of the interplay between divine power, divine goodness, and human freedom will always be a mystery. Jesus believed that God loves the creation and is creatively engaged in its healing and redemption. Jesus taught that God knows the number of hairs on our heads, which is to say that God takes special interest in each one of us. Even the minor players of creation, according to Jesus, do not escape God’s attention, for God observes a little sparrow when it falls to the ground. Jesus’ faith was firmly grounded in the goodness of God. He was convinced that God is “with” and “for” the creation.
God’s care for the creation, however, does not prevent bad things from happening that are the opposite of God’s good will. We live in an open universe. God has bestowed upon and built into creation the element of freedom. This freedom is essential to the biological, evolutionary processes of life. God does not (or perhaps cannot given the nature of reality) intervene to stop hurricanes and floods, nor does God alter the processes of life so that children are born free of mental disabilities and physical handicaps. This holds true in the moral life as well. We are granted the freedom to do good or evil, to harm or heal, to destroy or save life. The Herods of the world exercise their freedom to dispose of any person or group that threatens their position and power.
Freedom, then, is at the core of evolutionary life and moral existence. It is, of course, influenced and limited by many factors: genetics, time and place, circumstances of birth, education, the entire socialization process, and numerous factors beyond our control. Cancer strikes randomly, as do terrorists exercising their God–given freedom.
God does not (or cannot) override this freedom. God does not intervene to stop holocausts, genocides, tragic accidents, and random natural disasters. There are powerful forces of evil at work against God’s will: egotism, classism, racism, nationalism, militarism, and narcissism. The powers of greed, hate, and selfish ambition are strong in our world and they reside in some degree in every human soul.
Does this adequately explain why God does not or cannot intervene to stop monstrous evil in the world? Not really. The biblical writers offer no solutions, and the great thinkers—the theologians and philosophers—continue to debate issues of theodicy.
For some people of faith it is enough to know that God absorbs into God’s self the world’s anguish; that God participates in and is influenced by our misery and travail. God is “Emmanuel,”—God with us. God cannot stop tragedies from happening and people from dying, but God walks with us, sharing our struggles and pain.
God is not a spectator in our suffering, but rather, an active participant in the ebb and flow of both the good and bad in our lives. Our experience, rapturously joyful or horrendously painful, or anywhere in between, becomes part of God’s experience.
An artist was painting a bleak picture of a winter storm sweeping across the countryside. Over in the corner was a cabin that looked dead and hopeless. But with one small stroke, the painter dramatically changed the mood of the picture. He took the tip of his brush, dipped it in gold paint, touched one window of the cabin, and the golden glow from that cabin transformed the picture from one of coldness and gloom to one of warmth and welcome.
No matter how dark the night or how fierce the storm, the warm glow of “God with us” shimmers in our hearts. And that is sufficient, that is enough to get us through.
(The following reflections were adapted from my book, “Shimmers of Light” available at wifpandstock.com).