Where is God in this crisis? Is this punishment? Why does God allow this to happen?
Seventy-five summers ago, locked in his prison cell, German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented: “They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.” Such potent questions resist easy answers, so I distrust anyone who tries to give any. There is wiser company among those who ask them: Bonhoeffer, long-suffering Job, wailing Rachel, the psalmist, Christ on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34).
Martin Luther wrote about his painful experience of “Deus Absconditus,” the hidden God whose absence he sometimes felt acutely. God’s presence and purpose are often shrouded in impenetrable mystery. Indeed, it’s our certainty that gets us into theological trouble. If we are certain that God is all good and powerful, what can we credibly say when tragedy strikes? This conundrum is so common it has a name: theodicy. No human mind has satisfactorily resolved it.
Even if we had an airtight answer, would that comfort a grieving family or help a heroic front-line health care worker?
But theodicy does serve us well by exposing the limitations of our assumptions about God. Like anyone, God has the right to defy our definitions. God won’t be a tidy, consistent micromanager of cosmic happiness just because we expect it (or dream of being that ourselves). Nor is God a punitive judge, though that can be a seductive line of thought. Paul explained to the Romans that the punishment for sin is enduring its natural consequences, not serving some divine sentence. Reality isn’t as clear-cut as we might wish. God is wiser, more powerful and more loving than we are, but that can be awfully difficult for us to trust when God seems hidden and terrible headlines are so visible.
Where, then, should we look for God? Luther points us to the cross. In the weak, suffering, dying Jesus, we see the heart of God most clearly.
God is with us
On her deathbed as a young adult, Julian of Norwich saw a vision of Jesus in agony on the cross and was overwhelmed with joy. She grasped as never before the depth of God’s love for her in its profound solidarity with her suffering—or it grasped her. God enters, shares and transforms our questions and death rather than magically removing them.
Perhaps this is why, in the Gospel we read each Sunday after Easter, the disciples don’t realize Jesus is speaking to them until they see and touch his wounded hands and side. Transformed by resurrection, Jesus remains hidden until they recognize the evidence of his suffering. Their reports are empty words for Thomas until he, too, sees the scars. Only then does he know who this is: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:19-29).
Where is God in this crisis? Look for the scars. God stands in line for a ventilator, struggling to breathe. God works behind a makeshift face mask, exposed to death while fighting to save a life. God waits at home from a painful distance, caring for restless children and lifting heavy questions to a silent sky. God takes abuse while restocking toilet paper for less than a living wage. God walks alone, delivering critical supplies. God sleeps on the street, sheltered in place beneath a bridge until the cops come and once again “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Immanuel. God is with us.
Paul has something to add, reminding the church: “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Now we are the ones sent, broken, scarred and risen to bring hope to the world.
In 251, a plague ravaged northern Africa. “The question for [Bishop] Cyprian was not why the plague had broken out but how Christians should respond to it,” wrote Alan Kreider in The Patient Ferment of the Church (Baker Academic, 2016). Cyprian’s answer was to imitate God by patiently showing mercy to everyone, even nonbelievers. The world learns who God is by watching us.
Our scars might not be physical. They might be punctures in the heart from an eloquent silence shared with someone who has just buried a beloved they can no longer see, a “life hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). They might be the wounds of lonely questions and unanswered prayers. They might be open gashes of exhaustion. Love reaches in multiple directions and cuts in different ways.
Where is God in this crisis? Where do you see love? Look for the scars.