Set Alight, Part 2 of 3

This is the second part of my theology paper about Annie Dillard’s theology of suffering. Click here for Part 1 and here for Part 3. 


Every day brings new suffering and new grace, from who knows where. Naturally we see this and are afraid.

A theologian may convince me that a tsunami or a birth defect reveals the justice, not the caprice, of God—but he cannot tell me anything about my own private suffering. Every day brings a new cohort of doubts and a legion of fears. Why does God let X happen? I read the book in which we are supposed to find solace, and I worship God, but I can’t hold the beach ball under the water forever.

So—it’s time to write. I’m going to respond to Annie Dillard’s doubts, if I can. Her doubts are not only her own, every one of us has wondered the same things.


The ‘problem of suffering’ is small. It is only as large as one life and the hardship and sorrow thereof. No one ever suffers more grief than one life’s worth. This is, of course, more than enough. No one’s asking for more. But if God is just to each of us, then he is just in everything—if I can begin to see sense in my own suffering, then I can reckon about other people’s. Headlines like Millions Dead in Pacific Tsunami—God save us all—take on perspective. We all of us die. Sometimes we all die together. But it is in each life, not in frightening statistics, that we will find God’s justice, if we can.

Oh GOD where are you?

It seems that asking the question is answering it. God is here. God is in that sentence, and this one. I feel sheepish asking where God is, where an omnipresent Being could possibly be hiding. What I really want is not to know where God is but to hide from Him, to abandon the way of the cross and flee.

But why doesn’t God, if He is inescapably present, make sense of our lives?


Who am I, to question God? I am no one, less than Job or David; I am nothing.  

Miryam and I tramped up the hill, toward heaven and toward power—power lines, and a brawny wind. We scrambled over rocks, past the cow pats and the brambles. I’ve done this many times, but somehow never made it to the top. I will, one day. The grass is young and green on that steep fell, but death is still everywhere—the shattered spine of a cow, the carcass of a tiny shrew. These are the beautiful hills above the Snake River, and we have left them to the livestock and the mule deer and, I hear, the mountain lion. Our towns are little geometrid spots on the flanks of the green Earth where we think we can hide. Out here, I know I am small. I am footprints on the beach. Wash me, and I will be clean. Wash me, and I will be gone. I have no scroll, not like Isaiah or John the Revelator. But I am praying as I write this. I am praying that my happy shouts (“Look! An eagle!”) will drown out my whispered mistrust. If this is a beautiful story, shouldn’t I be able to do at least that?

I wonder about this good God, who shackled us to the world and will, all too soon, launch us as naked spirits right out again. God and the world He made are both huge, hard, unyielding. You must take each thing in itself, and not let the sum of suffering weigh down your prayers. If my toast burns, what right have I to curse? God is still good. When my parents divorced, God was good. God was even good when my Mom got cancer again.

It was horrible to see her, angry and weak from the horrible cocktail of drugs that was somehow killing her cancer without killing her. Her hair is grayer now, but it has grown back; praise Father God she is here still. God pulls tragedy out of joy, but then He does the reverse, again and again until the whole world is dizzy. Am I desperate, trying to find something good, something just, something beautiful in this mess? God help me, I do not think so.

But the tragic reality is that cancer might strike Mom again, when she’s older, when her hands grip mine with less strength. And then later, of course, I will follow her, to the far country or into nothingness. We will none of us make it out of here alive, and maybe we should praise God for it. This life is a beautiful but grisly pageant, and in the first and last acts we’re invalids, gumming our food and thinking about nothing at all. It makes me wonder, really, why we’re so zealous to live. We know enough to hold on to a good thing when we’ve got it, even if a better thing comes after. And we have life, for now, and for a few years more. Let’s talk, then, about the cancer wards and the burn wards, before, God forfend, we end up in one.

It’s okay to be impermanent. It’s okay to live, as we all do, on Death Row. We imagine God is doing us wrong when his purposes run afoul of ours. But Hell is the fruition of what we want, if we don’t want God—so what can we say, then, if a man gets there after twenty-five years instead of eighty? Can we charge God with snuffing out a candle He himself set alight, after He himself made it, after He himself created wax and wicks and flame? Flame, which He set floating above the apostles’ heads, and deep within our hearts. “We move between two darknesses,” wrote E. M. Forster. “The two entities who might enlighten us, the baby and the corpse, cannot do so.” We are flames, set alight in darkness and soon to be gone again. But for now, we blaze.

We are beings set alight, luminous in our brevity, so sincere in the childlike belief that we matter in the trackless wastes of time that behold, God changes things so that we do.


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