Over three years ago, a helicopter crash in Cranbrook killed four people, including the crew and a young pedestrian named Isaiah. Such events often provoke us to wonder how could a loving God allow suffering? How can God even exist in a world where suffering can come so suddenly and so randomly?
The little group of mourners on a hill outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago must have asked the same questions. Watching the beaten body of one they had called “Lord” and “Master,” now racked with pain on the cross, Jesus’ mother and the other women, along with the disciple John, must have asked themselves the same question we all do when faced with devastating sorrow: how could this happen?
In the face of these questions, and all platitudes aside, Christianity can offer no propositions, statements, arguments, rationalizations to explain events that engulf us in flames and tears, and leave us empty and desolate.
What Christianity can offer is something at once unsatisfying (on an intellectual level) and more profound, radically satisfying on the level of human experience. Forty days after the crucifixion, Jesus’ disciples returned to Jerusalem and were to be seen in the temple daily, praising and glorifying God. (Luke 24:52-53) What had happened? Ten days later, at the feast known as Pentecost, the disciples began to proclaim in many languages that Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended into heaven.
The implications of the Apostles’ preaching took many centuries to make themselves felt, but felt they were. The most important of these implications is expressed in the Eastern Orthodox hymn for the Ascension: You ascended in glory, O Christ our God, granting joy to Your disciples by the promise of the Holy Spirit. Through the blessing, they were assured that You are the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world!
“The Son of God.” In the language Jewish scriptural thought, this means Jesus is “of the same kind as God,” a quality rendered in the Greek of the Nicene Creed by the phrase “of one essence with the Father.” Which means simply that the man who suffered and died before the eyes of his mother and his friends on Golgotha was, according to the Apostles’ preaching, none of other than eternal God present in the flesh.
But there is a more profound implication to this statement. If the man who suffered on Golgotha is God, then human suffering is somehow a part of who God is. The eternal, unchangeable God is a suffering God. And since God created the world in His image and likeness, His own suffering was built into the very fabric of the universe.
It’s a little mind-boggling, and undoubtedly difficult (if not impossible) for the intellect to grasp. That’s why Eastern theology calls it a “mystery”—something that does not satisfy the mind, but works on another, deeper level, one that can be understood by anyone who has suffered in their own life. For if the man who suffered on Golgotha was God, then the converse is also true: God suffered as a man. God suffered as we do when tragedy, pain, illness and sorrow overcome us. The silence of Jesus on the Cross is our silence in the face of circumstances that defy all reason and explanation.
This is the only ‘answer’ that Christ can offer us in times of suffering: he suffers with us. No rationalizations, explanations, propositions, arguments or theologies can be offered because none exist. Suffering cannot be explained, because suffering just is—the fifth dimension of the universe. In response, all we have is the silence of One who is walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.
This may not be enough for intellects that crave explanations. But to those who are suffering and mourning at this time, I would ask: what is more comforting for you: a trite ‘reason’ offered by someone who has no idea what you are going through? Or the friend or loved one who says nothing, but simply spreads their arms to embrace and weep with you?
On the Cross, the eternal God spread His arms to embrace the pain and sorrow of this world. It may not be the answer our minds want, but it’s the only one our hearts really need. And it’s the only one we’re going to get.