Set Alight, Part 3 of 3

This is the third part of an essay I wrote on human suffering and God’s power. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here


Alberto Giacometti

God is just, I say, because He died. We can’t accuse him of causing us any pain that He himself didn’t bear. It’s upside down: the world doesn’t look right, so we doubt that Christ died. But we have to believe first that Christ died bearing an infinite weight of suffering, and then the world looks like it was meant to be here. If I’m right, Christ came to Earth as man and God decanted together to solve the problem of evil. We still have to deal with the aftershocks, but if God is dead and alive again, then this world is the trial that comes before the judge’s decision. And He will judge in our favor, because He himself died to balance the scales.

Imagine Nazareth—Christ as a child, in a scrubby field. His young tormentors are there, in a half-circle around him. They have debauched slave girls, or stolen food from an old man, and yet this young boy threatens them. He is standing with his fists clenched nervously, and his eyes hot with tears—of course our Lord shed tears and grit his teeth to keep from sobbing! Of course he suffered! He was one of us.

This boy who suffered, this God—there He is, in an unloved corner of Zion, walks through the circle of bullies as if they aren’t there. (Later, when they try to stone Him, he knows what to do). He did not lash out, because He was content to suffer. We scream at God. We scream at the God who suffered what we suffer. “The Son of God suffered unto death,” said George MacDonald, “not that men might not suffer, but that their sufferings might be like his.”

Christ died for our sin. He also died for our suffering.

Christ took on the fullness. The sum total. Everything in the world that there is was created by the Son or borne by Him on the Cross. We cry and lash out at God over horrible things that Christ already died for. So is this God just? If He isn’t, he is a masochist, flatus in the wind, an absurdity. But where is God when a child dies? He is bearing the child’s sin on his back to the place of the skull, as he bears the child up to heaven. Would God be just if He didn’t die? If I believe that Christ suffered everything that anyone has ever suffered, then how can I believe that He is unjust? But if God didn’t die, then He is not God.

Christ the Lord told us to repent and believe, not to root through our minds like dusty scholars, trusting in logic and reason to refute doubt and disprove fear. Empirical evidence is based on our senses, and what are our senses based on? We can’t know, because we can’t go beyond them, or if we can, we don’t know how. Our beloved ziggurat of axioms and a priori deductions is built on our minds—thank goodness human reason has always proved so reliable in the past! We’re all set!

Story, my weapon of choice, is no more truth-telling than its rational rivals. None of them straps us to the rails and hurtles us toward truth. Truth is as far beyond us as God is—God is truth. But God is the candle-lighter, the storyteller. We don’t have to cry in the dark anymore. But some of us still do.

We still have to defend ourselves and our God from the charge that we believe in a monster who skulks invisibly until He can next cause us pain. I say that we caused ourselves pain, and God let us, and then God died as painfully as He could, in bloody squalor, because our story, the one with a dead God and ungrateful people, is a good one. But there’s a better one coming. This one has a living God walking a new Earth; it has singing saints and answered questions. We already have the words of power, from the storyteller Himself, and He will make them real. Why on Earth would I believe such a thing? For the only reason anyone believes in anything; it’s a good story, a cracking yarn. Praise the God, the world-weaver, the Ultimate.



What am I doing?

I believe everything I’ve just written, but I can’t bloody well solve the problem of human suffering. God save anyone from the hubris of claiming he can. We are too small to account for the world, let alone God. But each of us who believes in a good God has accounted for suffering to himself, so there’s hope for us all. It’s a miracle if anyone believes, and if many believe, well—we’re witnessing something real.

For myself, I am a doubting Thomas, a cynic, a skeptic, a wet blanket—and I believe in a good, great, God. I am not a moonfaced Jesus freak, I am not validating my own self-righteousness and shouting my prayers loud enough to drown out the world. For right now, I’m in and of this world, this mélange of cancer and divorce. Until I put on immortality, I’ll have doubts.

Responsum. I also have a crazy story, in which man falls and God dies to raise him up.

This story that we have cobbled prayerfully together is not a lie, but it’s not the whole truth either. Augustine said, “We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do not understand, then it is not God.”

Jesus’ answer to the problem? “Repent and believe.” Annie Dillard has agonized over this problem, and now she is gone from the church. I don’t have any words of revelation, but I know a few things. I know that every day except our last yields us enough grace to make it to the next—and even death can be a grace. Weighed on the scale, human suffering is featherweight compared to grace. Evil talks a big fight, and strikes like a cobra. Grace is quiet. Grace is anything that makes sense at all. If there is grace, then there is a God who died and lived. In the end, I don’t need logical proof. I have enough to believe, and to believe is to know, if your mortal heart is still beating. When it grows thready and stops, there will be everything, or nothing.

In my story, God is Act. We are Response. He is Word, and we are worshiping. He is the teller, and we are the story. A good God is an anchor. A good God gives meaning, like nothing else does. I believe in God, and I won’t let go unless He blesses me. If Jesus isn’t there at the end to pick us up and dust us off, then meaninglessness is absolute. Tell me now if you can prove this, so I can break all the windows on the block, drink so much beer that I can’t see, smoke a pack of Gauloises, and then kill something. But no, even then I would believe. Giacomettti said, “The more I work, the more I see things differently, that is, everything gains in grandeur every day, becomes more and more unknown, more and more beautiful.” Just like a story, unfolding around us. Believe what you will, but I believe this: the LORD our God is One, He is Good, He is mighty to save. Amen.


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