I continue to confront the issue of “where is God when we suffer”. It came up yesterday in conversation with a friend. It came up in the sermon at church today. Where is God when bad things happen? When the bombs explode in Boston or when the fertilizer plant explodes?
At a staff meeting this week we looked at Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Someone said in regard to it that it’s nice to know God walks with us when we go through our valleys of death. That observation rang hollow for me. It came across as a God who simply sidles up to us during tremendous suffering and says “there, there”. It’s not very helpful.
In Sunday School we are studying the play “Wit”, about a professor of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets who has cancer and undergoes extreme treatment. Throughout the play, in her worst moments, people ask her “how are you feeling?” when it’s plain to see she is feeling god awful. It’s an awkward nicety, the question. That’s what it feels like to say God walks with us through the dark times- like someone who can plainly see how we are really doing and asks the banal question anyway. I don’t want a God like that.
Perhaps asking “where’ is God when we suffer is the wrong question. God is here, with us. So what. “What is God DOING when we suffer” is for me the more accurate question. In the play “Wit”, different people are doing different things in regard to the professor/patient. Vivian is suffering- some treat her formally, some treat her as a test case, some treat her with kindness, and some see into the very depths of her humanity with compassion. As I talked to my friend yesterday, I told her I didn’t want an impotent God. I want a God who can DO something. The word that came to me during the sermon today was “passive”. I don’t want God to be passive. I want God to be active, a god of action.
“Wit” shows the need for both action and compassion. That each person does what they can for Vivian to help her and to also see her in the midst of that action, really see her. The hero of the play is Susie, the primary nurse. She does what she can for Vivian in the moment and long range, but the best thing she does for Vivian is see her as a human being who is hurting and deserves kindness. The safe veneer of being a professor of poetry is dropped. Or being a test case for “the full dose” of treatment is let go. She is just Vivian. Susie sees that and acts on it.
The 23rd Psalm was sung in church today. I paid attention to the verbs in it: he makes me lie down, he leads me, he restores my soul, you prepare a table, you anoint my head. Even the mention of God’s rod and staff (“they comfort me”) invokes imagery of action. The psalmist is comforted by God’s action on their behalf.
Does God act on our behalf? Acts of justice, acts of mercy? I’m choosing to believe God does. I don’t believe God is passive. I do not believe God has called me to be passive. I am called to acts of justice, acts of mercy. I don’t believe my best actions supersede God’s. St. Paul said we see as in a mirror dimly now. My best actions are just a pale reflection of God’s actions in this world. I choose to believe God is at work in this world. That when we suffer, God does act on our behalf. I choose to believe the Lord is my Shepherd.