My passion for answers arose from experience, grappling with a tragedy which forced me to confront believing in a loving God in the face of evil.
On 23 October, 1988, my sister was involved in a freakish car accident. For 28 years, until her death in March 2017, Tracey was a quadriplegic. She had lived in Calcutta for three years and nursed the poor at Mother Teresa’s House of the Dying. Then she worked with the Sisters of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, running a health centre for Aboriginal people at Port Keats.
Within 12 hours of Tracey’s accident, my mother was standing in a hospital room in Darwin asking, “Where the hell is God?”
In the months that followed I received appalling letters from some of the best Christians I knew. “Tracey must have done something to deeply offend God so she had to be punished.” They actually believe God gets us. This theology is far more common than I imagined. I have met people with cancer, couples with fertility problems and parents who have lost a child who have asked me how they deserved to be cursed by God.
“Tracey’s suffering is sending up glorious building blocks to heaven for her mansion there.” I did not know that in the many rooms of the father’s house, there are first, business and economy class suites.
“Your family is blessed, because God only sends the biggest crosses to those who can bear them.” Some people, not receiving that particular blessing, see it so clearly in others’ suffering. We should all be praying, “God, I am a wimp. Do not consider me strong.”
“It’s a mystery”, invoking Isaiah 55, “My ways are not your ways” and “Only in heaven will we learn God’s plan.” There is truth here, but surely the Incarnation indicates that God wants to reveal his ways and thoughts, wants to be known, especially when we are likely to despair. We do not believe and love an aloof being who revels in mystery and goes AWOL when the going gets tough. The Incarnation surely shows that God is committed to participating in all of the human adventure.
All this alienated me from believing in a God who wants us to have intelligent discussion about the complexities of where and how God fits into our world. So here are seven steps to spiritual sanity that helped me hold on to faith in a loving God as I walked through the “valley of tears” in the “shadow of death”.
God does not directly send pain, suffering and disease. God does not punish us, at least not in this life. 1 John 1:5 tells us, “God is light, in him there is no darkness”, so deadly and destructive things cannot be in the nature and actions of God. Jesus reveals God as being about life not death, forgiveness not retribution, healing not pain.
God does not send accidents to teach us, though we can learn from them. We do not need to blame God for our suffering to turn it around and harness it for good. Spiritual sanity rests in seeing that every moment of every day God does what God did on Good Friday. Easter Sunday is God’s response to Good Friday.
God does not will natural disasters: can we please stop praying for rain? If God’s in charge of the climate, he’s a poor meteorologist. When people ask, “Why did the earthquake and tsunami happen?” I tell them, “The earth’s shelf moved, setting off a big wave.” Behind the meteorologist-in-the-sky idea is not God, but Zeus. Petitionary prayer cannot change our unchanging God (James 1), so it asks our unchanging God to change us to change the world.
God’s about the big picture. I believe the will of God is discovered on the larger canvas. I work with God to realise my potential, even if that involves having to do things that are difficult, demanding and sacrificial. This response comes not from fear and compulsion, but from love and desire. We should be very careful about lines like, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” Did God not care about those less blessed?
God did not need the blood of Jesus. This is “offer it up” theology: it was good enough for Jesus to suffer, it’s good enough for you. I cannot baldly accept that the perfect God of love set us up for a Fall, then got so angry that only the grizzly death of his perfect son was going to repair the breach. The right question is not “Why did Jesus die?” but “Why was Jesus killed?” Jesus did not come to die, but to live. The way he lived threatened the political, social and religious authorities − so they executed him. But God had the last word on Good Friday: Easter Sunday.
God’s world includes suffering, disease and pain. So many say, “I can’t believe in a God who allows famine.” I think God wonders why we let famine happen. God’s not responsible because we refuse to make the hard choices that would see our world transformed into a more just and equal place.
God does not kill us off. When I’m regularly asked, “Father, why won’t God take Grandma?” I want to reply, “Because Grandma won’t stop breathing yet.” I think it’s entirely appropriate to believe that life is not a span allotted by God, but that our bodies will live until they die, and then our souls begin their journey home.
I am passionate about God’s personal love and presence. Thinking that God is removed from the intricate detail of how things develop does not remove God from the drama of our living, suffering and dying. Christ meets us where we are, embraces us, holds us close when the going gets tough, and helps us find the way forward, especially on that day when we find the way home.
Dr Richard Leonard sj is author of What does it all mean? A guide to being more faithful, hopeful and loving. (Paulist Press, 2017). For a longer version, please visit www.mnnews.today/aurora-magazine/