What about the pain?
Recent weeks have been coloured by tragedy. With all New Zealand still grappling with the immediacy of the Christchurch earthquake, we were shocked and horrified by the cataclysm in Japan, on a scale that reached beyond our ability to imagine it. And then for me, and for my school community, we were saddened by the sudden death by illness of a healthy, active and admirable 19-year-old former pupil. Tragedy at national, international and personal levels.
They are, of course, all the same thing. When a person dies, we have sadness and loss. When a lot of people die we have it again, many times. Death numbered by hundreds, or by thousands, is not a worse kind of death. It is still sadness and loss. The arresting feature is being simultaneous, not a change of nature. Nor should we be surprised. We know that people die, and that all of them die. The question is when, not whether.
So we shouldn’t be too surprised when we find that one or other of the many possibilities of death has caught up with members of a mortal race. And yet we are. We nearly always are. Whenever death strikes, we are outraged. I think that fact points to God’s original plan for things to be different, and our subconscious selves retain that knowledge. Deeply, we cannot accept that the world should be so fallen.
This was put into personal focus for me yesterday afternoon. In glorious sunshine, a tui sang in a nearby tree and the light reflected on the grass in a hundred different shades, while I stood on the steps of a little crematorium chapel with the grieving father of the girl who had died. “I absolutely cannot understand why this should have happened,” he said.
My problem was different. My problem was that I could understand it, but I didn’t have any idea of how to tell him. It happens to the individual because illness exists, and by a process of cause and effect it was this girl’s time to succumb to it. Illness exists because the world is fallen and it “groans in travail” and we are party to the groaning. The world fell because it chose to conduct its affairs without recourse to God, who made it. And God will redeem individuals who ask him to, and is redeeming the whole world according to a time scale not yet revealed.
That’s the theology, give or take. But it’s not the reality for a man preoccupied with immediate personal suffering. It would be hard to imagine a less helpful response to his comment than for some bystander to say, “You can’t understand? Let me tell you.”
The classic dilemma for the Christian is how to communicate the reality of the love of God to people who see no reason to think about it, or whose very real reasons for thinking about it actually block out the possibility. “Why should this happen?” — whatever the present “this” might be — is an ultimately meaningless question unless we accept an ultimate purpose. Bertrand Russell, atheist and philosopher, knew that. His philosophy took him to the “why” of life, and he concluded that if no one was there to give life meaning, it was illogical to expect any.
We believe in God. We believe in his purposes. We know we are to represent him to his people. We probably all imagine we don’t do it well enough. Can we ever get it right?
Who knows? But I do know that the job is not all mine. “If I go,” Jesus said, “I will send the Holy Spirit, who will lead you into all truth.” Is that outcome instantaneous, and final? No, it’s not. He leads us on, day by day, a bit here and a bit there.
So if that’s true, I do not have to stand on the crematorium steps and shower a man with everything there might be for him to hear. I have to be there with him, being who I am in the presence of God, allowing him to be the same, letting him see who I am and trusting the Holy Spirit to reveal to him whatever he needs to see just now, and providing him with what he needs to see tomorrow. Some people plant, some water, some reap, and God gives the increase.
But — Father, make me a better gardener, and help me to trust the Lord of the harvest in a broken world.