There is a great deal of talk from pulpits about the love of God for his world; but to many people living and dying in that world, such talk is nonsense. How can we possibly believe in a loving God, when he has created a world full of cancer, multiple sclerosis, earthquakes, famine, wars and general misery; a world in which, if things are left to God, life for most men, as Thomas Hobbes remarked four hundred years ago, is ‘poor, nasty, brutish, and short.’ The idea of a loving God is plainly so irreconcilable with the facts of a suffering world that many of our fellow men conclude that either God does not exist, or, if he does, the last thing he could possibly be is loving. So where do we go from there?
On the face of it, such people have a strong case to answer. So how can those of us who are Christians reconcile the idea of a loving God with the fact of a suffering world? Before I begin to look at that question, I must say that I don’t believe that an entirely satisfactory answer exists. Some people will believe in the love of God in spite of the obvious difficulties, while others will remain unconvinced, however many arguments are marshalled in favour of the divine benevolence. We are not exclusively rational animals - incarnate computers - and thank God that we are not such creatures. For where would the poets - the Homers, Psalmists, Shakespeares, and Eliots - be, if we were computerised automata? Where would the visionaries of God’s world - the Bachs and Beethovens, Giottos and Cezannes, Isaiahs and Abelards, Darwins and Einsteins be, if the human intellect was never fertilised by those creative moments of illumination, which seem to come from nowhere and provide the key to their problems and turn whatever they are doing into works of creative genius?
However, God gave us our intellects to use, and even if there is no wholly satisfactory and universally acceptable answer to the problem of how to reconcile the facts of a suffering world with belief in a God of love, there are things, which are worth saying and which may help to dispel some of the confusion which often surrounds the problem; and I will try to say something about a few of them as briefly as possible.
The first thing to say is that I am not talking primarily about pain. Pain and suffering are not synonymous; of course, extreme or prolonged pain can be one cause of suffering, but it is a mistake to equate the two. Physical pain is the complement of physical pleasure; the same nerves which provide us with much of our sensual delight in life also warn us usefully, if painfully, of those things which we should avoid as dangerous and destructive. For instance while it is enjoyable on a winter’s afternoon to warm our bottoms in front of the fire (if we are old fashioned enough still to have an open fire in our centrally heated house), it would be both painful and destructive to sit on it. So - I repeat - I am not talking primarily about pain, which has its obvious biological uses, but about suffering, which seems to play no useful part in anyone’s life.
The next thing to say - and the most glaringly obvious - is that much suffering cannot be blamed on God but is the result of man’s inhumanity to man. I am tempted to say that this has never been so manifestly true as it has been in my own lifetime, which has more or less spanned the twentieth century with its infamous record of wars, holocausts, genocidal campaigns of ethnic cleansing, mass murder of the kulaks in Russia, Chairman Mao’s
Great Leap forward over a mountain of Chinese corpses, Islamic jihad and righteous assassination called for by the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, and much else; but my reading of history dissuades me from making such a claim for the twentieth century. As we mass produce junk food, Ford cars, and tabloid newspapers, so we may have outdone our ancestors by mass producing the means of inflicting suffering on our fellow human beings; but even the most superficial study of the past is enough to show that our ancestors, with the limited means at their disposal, were quite as bad, we have proved to be at inflicting human suffering. While all this is obvious enough, it should also be remembered that an enormous amount of human suffering is also caused by less spectacular means; by people being bitchy to each other, gossiping behind each other’s backs, spreading hateful rumours, indulging in a little violence, the occasional domestic rape, and even the odd domestic murder, all of which swells the ocean of human suffering for which we ourselves are directly responsible.
But suffering created by man’s inhumanity to man is not the only cause of suffering in God’s world, for it leaves out of account the suffering caused by what Insurance Companies actually call ‘Acts of God’ - flood, famine, fire, earthquakes and similar calamities - and these cannot be laid at man’s door; nor can the suffering caused by disease - cancer, for instance, bubonic plague, or whatever. But here we must be very clear-headed, if we are to understand the problem; for strictly speaking it is neither the so-called ‘Act of God’ - forest fires, volcanic eruptions, terrible floods - nor the many diseases, which attack mankind, which on their own create human suffering. I can read in the morning paper of the death of three thousand Turkish villagers in an earthquake in central Anatolia without turning much of a hair; and when I turn to the page on which obituaries are printed, I can read of the death of some eminent civil servant, historian, or write, who has just died of old age, lung cancer or AIDS, or has been killed in air crash, and whom I have never met, and it would be nonsense to pretend that I suffer as a result.
We all have to die sometime. I don’t suffer. I do the Crossword. But when someone I love - one of my children, my sister, an old and dear friend - when one of those people who are part of the very fabric of my life and soul, more important to me in many ways than my own existence, falls ill, is threatened by some malignant disease, or dies, then I suffer. Even though I know that I can trust them to the love of God - know that their deaths are passing moments in their eternal lives - I still know what the depths of suffering can be like, fathom the darkness of human dereliction and unhappiness; and I will probably plumb something like the same depths of suffering, when I am told that I myself have only a few weeks or months or whatever to live. It would be stupidly dishonest not to admit to a measure of self-love. And why not, indeed? It would be almost blasphemously ungrateful to God not to love my life - the life he has given me.
The point of all this is that only a world without love would be a world without suffering. Love and suffering are Siamese twins; you cannot have the one without the other. Immediately you love someone, you become liable to suffer. Thus, the fact that the world is a world full of suffering is evidence that it is also a world full to bursting point with love, and far from being a reason for rejecting the idea that it could have been created by a loving god, it is virtually a proof that it could not possibly have been created by any God but a loving God.
The fact that God suffered what he suffered on Calvary is the supreme measure of his love for us; for why should he have bothered with us at all, if he didn’t love us? If we wish to know something of the riches of that love, as the saints down the ages have always prayed and hoped, like them we must be prepared to share something of his suffering. On the other hand, if we want to avoid all suffering, we can probably do so. At least, I think it may be theoretically possible, though I am not at all sure that it is actually possible. For the price to be paid for such avoidance is obvious enough; it is to live without any knowledge whatsoever of either human love or the love of God - rather as insects seem to live - and I doubt whether a human being could ever live like that and still be a human. I hope not, for I can imagine no more impoverishing way of existence.