Love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah. -Leonard Cohen
By Barbara Comito, Director of Marketing
A young friend asked me the other day, “What do you say to someone who doesn’t believe in God because his past has been so wretched he doesn’t see any possibility for the existence of God?”
How could God – being, as we Christians claim, both all-good and all-powerful – allow for such tremendous suffering?
My friend's friend had shared with her that he had been abused as a child by his stepfather over a period of several years.
How could God allow that?
Hear me clearly: I do not know.
It’s not that the question is new to me. I would venture to say I’ve been wrestling with the problem of evil from my teen years on, and for the last nine years at UGM, it has become a part of my everyday consciousness as I hear the stories of the men, women and children coming through our doors. Underneath the problems of homelessness and chronic addiction is pain – loneliness, abandonment, abuse, neglect, rejection and shame.
At yet, at 56, I am still speechless in the face of horrendous suffering.
In this recent conversation, I admitted my lack of understanding to my friend. All I could say was that for a Christian worldview to mean anything it had to encompass suffering. I believe the short-term answer is silence, listening to the pain, being present.
For a larger answer, I turned to a couple of my favorite theologians: Timothy Keller and Paul David Tripp.
Keller has written a whole book on the subject (Walking with God through Pain and Suffering), but in an eight-minute interview on the Veritas Forum (available on YouTube), he gave me good food for thought: 1) Eliminating God from the equation doesn’t help anything. In fact, it takes away any objective understanding of what suffering is. We only know that the stronger should not eat the weaker because of the existence of a Good beyond ourselves; and 2) We know from the Incarnation that the answer cannot be indifference or a lack of caring. The whole story of God becoming man is about him entering into our suffering.
Paul David Tripp, in a post on passages to read and consider at Christmas time, suggests reading the passage about Herod murdering the children in Bethlehem. Here’s why: “This is the Christmas story. That babe in the manger was the Son of the Most High God. He willingly came to a place where such unthinkable violence and injustice exists. The wrath of the ruler would eventually fall on him. He would die a violent death at the hands of evil men. Followers would weep that the Messiah was dead, but he would rise again and complete the work that he came to earth to do.”
And that is the answer to the title of this post: Christmas has everything to do with suffering.
As much as we might try to make it so, the trappings of Christmas – gifts, good food, trees, decorations, even family gathered – are not the whole story. The whole story includes suffering.
Truly, I’m not trying to throw a large dose of Grinch on your festivities. Please, please enjoy all the good things God has given you. Give. Embrace. Love. Laugh. Eat. Drink. Tickle the little people. Celebrate each other. Pray. Sing hallelujah! At the same time, remember, the best news of Christmas is that God chose to join us in the midst of all the messiness, the laughter, the births, the deaths, the cancer, the questions, and yes, the suffering.
Immanuel: God with us!
Click below to download UGM's free Advent devotional and reflect on the meaning of Christ's coming.