Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.1
When I was 12, I got into a bad accident. My family was traveling with another family in a single van in South Africa. The tyre burst, the van ran off the road, hit the barbed wire, and flipped a couple of times.
We later found out that their family’s father had been thrown out of the van, and the van had rolled over him, crushing his chest, and killing him almost instantly. One of their boys had also dislocated his leg.
Every time I share about this experience, I talk about the sand. I remember vividly how fine it was, and how it got into my finger nails, when I knelt down and clutched at it while praying to St Jude to make whatever had happened a bad dream. St Jude is the patron saint of hopeless cases.
I got baptised shortly after I came back from Africa; the accident hardly affected my faith. In fact, when I was ready to talk about the accident, I had even characterised the series of events as a miracle. Our family had only suffered cuts and bruises.
B rebuked me then: “It’s not wholly a miracle if someone else’s father died.”
But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?
Only three years after marriage, C.S. Lewis lost his wife to cancer. In his bereavement, Lewis questioned God and His goodness in his personal journal. Excerpts of this journal were later published as A Grief Observed. It is his most candid work.
During my teenage years, perhaps I instinctively knew that my nascent faith could never have borne the burden of theodicy, and I was therefore wilfully blind to such questions. But there comes a certain point that all Christians grapple with the problem of pain.2 (My own sufferings pale in comparison to those of Lewis’s and others’, but I dare to write this reflection, in pursuit of answers to the same questions and in preparation for the longer road ahead.3)
Why does a good God allow suffering? Why did this happen to me? Was there no other way?
In the face of that pain, we knock on the door, and hear only silence. We feel that God has let us down. We feel that He has wronged us.
It seems arrogant to feel wronged by a God who is goodness and love. And yet, as Lewis posited, “If God’s goodness is inconsistent with hurting us, then either God is not good or there is no God…”
In a sharing one Friday night, Y was just as eloquent: “You either believe in a God who can foresee and intend to hurt you. Or you don’t believe in God.”
For some time, Y found it easier not to believe in God.
Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him. The conclusion I dread is not ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but ‘So this is what God’s really like. Deceive yourself no longer.’
But unbelieving was a luxury that I did not enjoy. I have known Him too much to unbelieve His existence, only too little to believe in His goodness.
In August 2014, my dad and I got into another bad accident. I had left the house for a run, when it began pouring. I would not have minded running through a drizzle, but this downpour was torrential. I asked God if I should wait for the rain to abate. If yes, I would dash for home through the rain, rather than troubling anyone to pick me up.
At the bus stop that I took shelter in, a few people judged that the rain had lightened enough to make a run for it. I asked God to send another sign for confirmation. Another person left. I took that as my cue and ran off.
But the rain intensified again almost immediately. I had no choice but to call my dad to pick me. He had just reached home when I called, and he came without hesitation. I asked God why He sent me signs to continue running, only to stop me again with more rain.
We hit the guy along Upper Serangoon Road. He had dashed across the road during the height of the storm, and appeared out of my periphery. I shouted to my dad to “watch out”. And in the eternal split second between words and impact, I remember thinking: this is South Africa all over again.
We hit the guy so hard that our windshield cracked, our side mirror broke, and the corner of the car dented. He was hospitalized in ICU. (From what we understand, he has since recovered, and has returned back to his home country. He was a foreign construction worker.)
That God was so involved in the causal chain made His failure to intervene more personal. This was not simply a random event that God had remained silent about. But for His ‘signs’ and the way I interpreted them, my dad and I may not have been there at that precise place and time to hit the guy.
I tried to put some of these [theodicean] thoughts to C. this afternoon. He reminded me that the same thing seems to have happened to Christ: ‘Why has thou forsaken me?’ I know. Does that make it easier to understand?
When I finally sat down in ado to talk to God properly after the accident, I realised I was not angry with God. I was disappointed. I was resigned.
I knew the easy answers to the questions I asked. God has a greater plan in allowing bad things to happen. God makes all things new. God works in his own time. God’s ways are mysterious. God works through other people.
I did not object to these answers for being wrong; I objected to them for conforming so insipidly with mundane life. I objected to them being ordinary, when God should be wondrously, awesomely, inspiringly extraordinary.
But the chain of causation proceeded ordinarily that day. There was no deus ex machina, no act of God, no divine intervention.
I told God later, “Today, God, you are ordinary.“
During the first week of SOW, I struggled with the sessions on the Father’s love. I drew closer to Jesus, but I felt this gulf between me and His Father. How could I claim His Father’s love for me? How could I declare that His Father is good, when He had been so unflinchingly passive in what had happened to me?
Writing on Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane for His Father to remove the cup of suffering, Raymond Brown frames the precise Christian problem: “Could not the Father bring about the kingdom in some other way that did not involve the horrendous suffering of the Son delivered into the hands of sinners?”4
This suffering is not only physical. In Gethsemane, Jesus addresses God as Abba. But on the cross, in the full grip of sin’s effects to separate man from God, Jesus cries out to Elōi. “The shift,” James Martin S.J. writes in Jesus: A Pilgrimage, “from the familiar Abba to the more formal Elōi is heartbreaking.”
This resonated. At times, when I prayed, I could only talk to Jesus, and rant to Him about His Father. I could not call God my Father.
When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’
At the nadir of my faith crisis just after the 2014 Accident, I drew consolation from Job.
In Scripture, no other person grapples with God’s acquiescence to suffering more than Job does. Made to suffer even though he is a righteous man, Job demands for an explanation. Why did bad things happen to him when he was not a bad man?
And God responds. In The Art of Travel, Alain de Boton writes: “God draws Job’s attention to the mighty phenomena of nature. Do not be surprised that things have not gone your way, he declares: the universe is greater than you.”
Around a month after the 2014 Accident, I went to Tonga with two friends. We swam with whales. We actually entered the endless cobalt water, and came face to face with their mass and their puissance. We looked them in the eye, and we understood, both gently and profoundly, just how small we were in the grand scheme of creation.
On hindsight, that trip was God’s most loving way of telling me: it is not about me.
This is hardly an answer to the questions I had. But it was an answer that gave me strength. And as Madeleine L’Engle wrote in the foreword of A Grief Observed: “For the true consolations of religion are not rosy and cozy, but comforting in the true meaning of that word: com-fort: with strength.”
It’s the quality of last night’s experience — not what it proves but what it was — that makes it worth putting down. It was quite incredibly unemotional.
Perhaps what is more comforting is not so much what God responded, but that He even responded at all. Alain de Boton thus continued, “God assures Job that he has a place in His heart, even if all events do not centre around him and may at times appear to run contrary to his interest.”
My friend recently went through a breakup, and she too, entered a faith crisis. As she began to get out of her own darkness, she heard Jesus say to her, “I am sorry.”
I would think that Jesus apologised, not because He was wrong, but because He caused hurt. He caused hurt, in the sense of how a parent who refuses to give ice-cream to a coughing child causes hurt. The comforting point is the same. It matters less what Jesus did and what was the result; it matters more that He is present and that He cares.
During a P&W last week, I re-visited my memories of the 2014 Accident. This time, I imagined Jesus being there as the events unfolded. I saw Him crouching over the guy we hit, caring, healing, comforting. I saw an isolated and disillusioned me, with Jesus nearby, a wall of silence between us. I was oblivious to His presence, but He was there.
He was there.
And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face?
After the Bread of Life discourse in John’s Gospel, many of Jesus’s disciples stopped following Him. They could not accept a teaching, or rather, a person, a God, whom they could not understand. When Jesus asks His disciples whether they too will leave Him, Peter answers, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
I understand Peter’s response a little more now. As I stood at the back of the Mount singing the bridge of Alive Again — “‘Cause I want You / yes, I want You / I need You / And I’ll do whatever I have to / just to get through” — I found myself tearing. After confessing my resentment towards God, I was ready to accept and surrender to a mystery that was beyond me. I was ready to assent to the words I was singing. Because even in my incomprehension, there is nothing else, no one else, that we can go to.
At this point, I still don’t know the answers to the questions I had. And again and again, bad things will happen, and I will not know why. Again and again, I will be led to Peter’s hopeful emptiness, which in turn, leads back to the cross.
And as James Martin S.J. writes, our great comfort is that “[w]e do not, as St Paul said, have a God who does not understand our suffering, but who participated in it.”
If Jesus can cry out to His Father while hanging on the cross, surely we can do so too. If He can trust in His Father while hanging on the cross, maybe we can too.
For there is another interpretation of “Elōi, Elōi, lama sabachthani?”. James Martin S.J. suggests that these words could also come from the beginning of Psalm 22, a psalm that ends with an expression of hope in God.
James Martin S.J. thus concludes: “The answer to the question of ‘How can I go on?” is by being in relationship with Abba.”
And so the Son reveals and leads us to the Father. Even as I draw closer to Jesus, I am drawn towards His intimacy with our Father. I open myself to our Father’s love. After all, if God loves His Son, and yet loved us so much that He gave His Son for us, who am I to question God’s love simply because I endure but an iota of His suffering?
1.All unreferenced quotations are taken from C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed.
2.Before A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis had expounded on theodicy in The Problem of Pain. The two works are often contrasted with one another: the former is the reality of the latter.
3.I read this Highline article about the refugee crisis over this CNY holiday. If I intend to confront such systemic evil, I had better come to terms with my own petty theodicean struggles first.
4.Raymond Brown, Death of the Messiah, 1:177-178.