Our Refuge and Strength
Last week’s earthquake in Nepal has, at last count, resulted in well over five thousand deaths and has crippled the nation in all the devastating ways that “natural disasters” do. We see these images and read these reports on our screens and we feel numb. We have few categories for such suffering. The weight of the pain seems too much to contemplate. We don’t know what to do or say or how to pray. For a while, at least.
Eventually, though, a familiar script begins to unfold, at least online. Social media begins to be flooded with a combination of opportunities to donate to relief efforts (which is laudable and desperately necessary and one of the increasingly few good uses of social media) and inspirational stories of “miraculous” survivals after days in the rubble (I saw two of these today). Oh, and articles from Christian bloggers with titles like “Where Was God in the Earthquake?” Where, indeed.
Jason Micheli is a pastor/blogger whose voice I have come to appreciate greatly over the past few years, not least because he recently had a seismic shift in his own life with a devastating cancer diagnosis. Today, he wrote a great piece about the question of where God “is” when bad things happen. This is the question that we are always asking, isn’t it? Why does God allow what he allows? How can we think about something like “divine providence” in the context of the world’s horrors without going insane or extending the middle finger of protest to the God who allows such things?
In his article, Micheli quotes one of my favourite books on the problem of evil, David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea:
Simply said, there is no more liberating knowledge given us by the gospel—and none in which we should find more comfort—than the knowledge that suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all.”
Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering and death, that cannot be providentially turned towards God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in another and ultimate sense, suffering and death—considered in themselves—have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts.
Is Hart right about this? Suffering has no meaning at all? Is this the “most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts?” So many people would say the exact opposite of this. The liberating wisdom of the gospel is that their suffering does have a purpose in God’s ultimate plan, however indecipherable such a purpose might be.
Many people need this to be true. I recently sat across a table from someone who demanded that this be true. If there was no meaning for all the bad things in the world, if God wasn’t somehow using each instance of pain and suffering to accomplish his ultimate plan—if suffering wasn’t planned by God and somehow necessary—the only logical response was despair. No, meaningless suffering is certainly not seen as “liberating” for many people; it is seen as a threat, and little more.
Catastrophes like the one in Nepal sharpen the question of how or if divine providence works. But there are “ordinary horrors” that each of us moves through each day. The following is the result of a (very) quick mental scan of the past week or so in my own personal orbit.
A relative roughly my age who just discovered multiple tumours. This after recently losing his wife and raising two high school kids on his own while struggling with a chronic illness that has affected him since he was young, and after his father-in-law recently barely survived open-heart surgery.
A friend and colleague whose spouse recently received a cancer diagnosis and a bleak prognosis.
Another friend who continues to stumble around in the fog and darkness left by the loss of a child.
Another relative who has suffered from debilitating chronic pain for a decade (or more).
And there are those that struggle with infertility, with addictions, with relational dysfunction and breakdown, with depression, with poverty, with…
Yes, I know that as a pastor I regularly encounter people in pain—perhaps more than those in other professions. But that’s a lot of suffering. And, again, that’s only based on a week’s worth of conversations and encounters. Does God have a specific providential plan for each and every one of these instances? Is there a reason that person x gets cancer and person y loses a young daughter? Is there a specific divine plan at work in this particular diagnosis or that particular natural disaster?
I don’t think so. I can’t think so. To think that God is somehow micromanaging the horrors of the cosmos for his (or our) benefit, or putting the jigsaw puzzle together, or calibrating the pain for some master plan seems to make God morally incomprehensible. The God that I see in the face of Jesus does not operate this way, does not deliberately pile burdens upon those already bowed low with sorrow, does not break a bruised reed or snuff out a wick. I’m inclined to agree with David Bentley Hart—it is good news that suffering has no inherent meaning. It fits with my experience. It fits the world I observe. It frees me from having to root around in pain (my own or others) trying to decode whatever message God might be trying to communicate. It allows me to pray.
The truth is, I don’t know how the providence of God works, and I am increasingly convinced that I never will. The only “reason” that some things happen is because the world is a screwed up place where terrible things happen. All. The. Time.
This Sunday we have a choir coming to our church, and they are coordinating our worship service. The scripture they have chosen as their theme is Psalm 46. I spent some time reading and praying this psalm this morning.
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult…
God is our refuge—our place to hide, our shelter, our hiding place…
God is our strength—for strength will surely be required in this world and all that it contains…
Therefore we will not fear—though awful things will always be happening, though the plates shift and all comes to rubble, though we are finite and fragile, and not long for this place… Though this world is not (and has never been) safe… Though meaningless awful things happen every day around the world… Though the pieces don’t fit, though the explanations elude us, though we ache for insight into some kind of master plan (or at least, we think we do—would we really want there to be a “reason” for what happened in Nepal?), though it often seems like destruction and chaos are stronger than love and hope, though this world often seems virtually tailor-made to frustrate human longings….
Despite all of these things and more…. We will not fear.
Because God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Even if that trouble has no meaning or purpose other than to one day be exposed as being exactly what it felt like to us at the time—damnably false and unjust, mercilessly contrary to the character and purposes of God.