In times of crisis like we find ourselves in today, it’s easy to ask the question, why does God allow us to suffer like this. With all the things my own family has had to go through over the past couple weeks, I definitely had a moment where I had to retreat away into a quite place in our house and let it all out and I honestly can’t remember the last time I did that.
I hope there’s something to be said about how something like deprivation and suffering can teach us to be grateful for the good things that we have because long before any of the current tribulation that we are all going through, there was a disturbing trend in the world that I think is worth revisiting.
According to a 2016 survey conducted by market research company YouGov, only 6% of respondents in the USA believed that, all things considered, things were getting better. In the UK and Germany, the number was 4% and only 3% in France. [i]
But in reality, based on all the metrics that governments and sociologists like to measure, especially those related to material well being, things have dramatically improved over the past several centuries and instead of rattling through all the statistics, I’m going to leave a link in the description on YouTube for you to read up for yourself. [ii]
So how is it that we can have so much to be grateful for and yet our instinct is to decry how bad things are and insist, against all facts, that they are getting worse.
The simple answer is, because there’s something wrong with us. We either take good things, like health, safety, and wealth for granted, or we abuse them.
Let’s look at money as an example of what I’m talking about. Money has all kinds of negative connotations. Some call it the root of all evil and whenever there’s some disparity, we love to denounce the rich simply for having more money than everyone else.
But the fact is, when you break down what money is, it’s hard to claim that it is intrinsically evil. Money is simply a tool that multiplies choice. So in the hands of a benevolent person, they will likely do benevolent things on a greater scale. In the hands of a selfish person, they will do selfish things on a greater scale.
And so it multiplies our ability to make choices but it also multiplies the consequence of those choices which is where the negative association arises because people with excessive wealth, tend to use that wealth excessively on themselves.
One thing I’ve noticed during the lockdown is videos of celebrities giving tours of their extravagant homes and posting them on social media. It’s a testament of their own selfish inclinations that when they have the ability to multiply their choices, they tend to fixate on material comfort and luxury exclusively for themselves.
So it’s no wonder so many of us often resent the wealthy. Their wealth tends to act like an amplifier for their bad decisions and bad character and the same would be true for any of us in their position.
But again, money or wealth, could be argued to be a moral good when we define it as a tool that multiplies your freedom to make choices. In the hands of a truly good person, that would only be a good thing.
So why is it that when we fall into possession of some good like wealth, prosperity, or freedom, the effects so often fall short of what we would hope from ourselves or others.
Again, what this underlines for me is that there’s something fundamentally wrong with us. If you take a neutral or good thing like wealth or power and place them in the hands of human beings who end up misusing it, then it seems plain that we carry some kind of serious defect.
In terms of a simple equation, if you take a moral good and mix it with another ingredient who’s moral quality is ambiguous and the consequence is something morally suspect or just plain evil, then you should be able to conclude that the ambiguous ingredient (namely us) is to blame.
Every major pre-modern philosophy and religion had the fortitude to admit that human beings are flawed. Christianity doctrinally defines it as the fall and with it our fallen nature. And among all those belief systems, they proposed various ways of correcting or remedying that dysfunction.
And these remedies almost always come through some kind of program of sacrifice, mortification, or self denial. We see this in all the major monotheistic religions, we see it in ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, and in countless pagan cults.
So when we ask, why do bad things like this happen to us. Some of the time, like wars, they happen by our own design. Other times, they happen to us, like pandemics and the reason is, because we need to be reminded of our dysfunction.
C.S. Lewis said that God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.
When things are going our way, we easily succumb to the mistaken idea that there’s nothing wrong with us and that’s when we do something stupid like start wars or become so blinded by our ingratitude that we can’t appreciate how good things are until it’s all taken away.
If there really is something wrong with us, and I’d say it’s evident that there is, then the best thing for us is for reality, or the universe, or God, to announce that fact through some kind of adversity.
Now it’s easy to resent God for this kind of thing as a kind of remote puppet master who is indifferent to our suffering. There’s a scene in a movie that I liked when I was a teenager although I’m sure if I saw it now, I’d think differently. But the movie was the Devil’s Advocate in which Al Pacino plays the Devil and he accuses God in this one scene of being a quote absentee landlord.
And then he congratulates himself for being in the muck with the people while God looks down from Heaven.
Well, maybe according to most conceptions of God, but you certainly can’t say that about God as he is proposed by the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus who was God incarnate, who was the word made flesh.
Not only is Jesus a God who willingly becomes a tenant in his own creation, but he chooses the worst accommodations. The last thing you can say about God is that he’s an absentee landlord remote from the human experience.
Jesus is a revelation of a God who willingly suffers alongside us when he doesn’t have to. He experienced the most unspeakable physical torment, psychological anguish, and social rejection imaginable so that when you or I go through something similar, God can stand next to us and relate to that experience, not as a divinity removed from our story, but one who can say he knows what we’re going through and he will help us through it.
Even feelings of abandonment by God. Jesus cried out on the cross, my God why have you abandoned me? So that when I broke down in the dark in my storage room where my kids couldn’t see me, God himself knew exactly what I was going through and he was there to pick me back up to try again.
That’s what Christians commemorate this week at Easter. Friday is the day that Jesus suffered torture and death and Sunday is the day he rose again from the dead a fact that changed the course of history. If you have never explored that story for yourself, now is as good a time as ever to take another look. You may just be surprised by what you find.