A few years ago, my wife and I had neighbors with two lovely daughters. We belonged to the same local swim club, and we became friendly with them socially. One day we learned that the neighbor wife was pregnant.
The baby was delivered uneventfully, but was immediately seen to be very handicapped. While this handicap was not life-threatening clearly this baby’s future life would be very limited. People who knew the baby’s talented older sisters were stunned and worried for this family.
When my wife and I called on them to express our sympathy and support, their church minister happened to be there. The dad was tearful and angry – “Why us, to have a handicapped child,” he demanded, “considering our lifetime of religious and highly moral behavior. This is so unfair !”
He continued, “Many of us were taught an image of God as an all-wise, all-powerful parent figure who would treat us as earthly parents did, or even better. If we were obedient and deserving, He would reward us. He would discipline us, reluctantly but firmly if we got out of line. He would protect us from being hurt or from hurting ourselves, and would see to it that we got what we deserved in life. But that does not explain the unfair distribution of suffering that we see with the arrival of our new baby!”
Then the church minister spoke up:
“There is a problem in giving sympathy to others by arguing there must be a purpose for such heart-break. When we are just meaning to help the sufferer or to explain the suffering, the “purpose” line of approach is meant primarily to defend God. It is to use words and ideas to transform bad into good and pain into privilege. We are encouraged to think that God is a loving parent who controls what happens to us, and on the basis of that belief, we would adjust and interpret the facts to fit our assumptions.”
“Don’t you think there needs to be some clear connection between the fault in us, and the punishment by God?” suggested the minister. Parents who discipline a child for doing something wrong, but never tell the child what he or she is being punished for, are hardly a model of responsible parenthood.”
“Many of our responses to tragedy have at least one thing in common,” the minister continued. “They all assume that God is the cause of our suffering, and they try to understand why God would want us to suffer. Is the suffering for our own good to get us back on the “path”? Or, is it a punishment we deserve? Or, could it be that God does not even care what happens to us? Some times we blame ourselves in order to spare God’s reputation. Other times others ask us to deny reality or to repress our true feelings. We are left either hating ourselves for deserving such a fate, or hating God for sending the trouble to us when we did not deserve it.”
“There may be another approach,” continued the minister. “Perhaps God does not cause our suffering. Maybe it happens for some reason other than the will of God. Could it be that God does not cause all the bad things that happen to us? Could it be that He does not decide which families shall give birth to a handicapped child, but that He stands ready to help us cope with our tragedies if we can only get beyond the feelings of guilt or anger that separate us from Him? Could it be that ‘How could God do this to me’? is really the wrong question to ask.”
It semed to me that belief in a “world-to-come,” where the innocent are compensated for their suffering, could help people endure the unfairness of life in this world, without them losing faith. But it could also be an excuse for not being troubled or even outraged by the injustice around us, and could be used as an excuse for us not using our God-given intelligence to try to do something about it. In the face of tragedy, why is it so hard sometimes for us to just ask God to HELP us in our coping with a tragedy?
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC’s Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage you to pursue some personal spiritual growth this Fall at CPC.