Luke 11:1-13, 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time
When he was about 12 years old, one of my nephews told me that he found it problematic to believe in God. “Because if God did exist, then why is there so much suffering in the world?” he said. The question got me unsettled, of course, especially coming from one who was so young and sincere in his asking. And I had no idea how to answer him at that time. I could only be encouraging, saying that if he ever found the answer, to please tell me, because I too wanted to know.
The problem of suffering takes the form of many such questions, questions that many non-believers and believers alike do ask. “If God is all powerful, why doesn’t he just wave his magic wand and end the injustice and violence that plagues so many innocent people? Why does he let it go on? How can He just watch and be so indifferent? “ (Yes, friends, its ok to admit that we sometimes ask these questions, and that as Cardinal Martini used to put it, inside each one of us, there is a believer and a non-believer whose dialogue is lifelong).
This morning, as I was preparing to start writing this homily, I stood up from my desk and stubbed my middle toe on the leg of the chair. In pain, I immediately blurted out “Oh God! Why?!” A little while later and I realized that behind such a question was blame. And I don’t know for sure about all of you here, but maybe at one point or another blurted out to ourselves “Oh God, Why?” Why the cancer? Why that debilitating accident? Why this disease? Why did my son/ daughter/ loved one have to pass away?
I’m not going to pretend to be able to answer the most difficult of faith questions in a 10-minute homily. But what I can share are some thoughts that have helped me and others wrestle with these questions, as I pray they may be helpful in your own searching for answers.
Not a puppeteer
There was a really good Jim Carrey movie more than a decade ago called Bruce Almighty. Does anyone remember that film? God gave Jim Carey’s character, Bruce, the chance to be God for a few days. And as God, Bruce could do anything, of course. He could answer prayers with an email app, whereby he could just tick a box that said – YES to ALL. (This ended up in chaos, of course). He could think of the most absurd things and they would come true. Bruce could do anything as God, anything that is, EXCEPT to mess with FREE WILL. And hilarious as Jim Carey was in that role, the premise, I believe was sound. God in his great love and respect for us does not, cannot mess with our freedom. (Think about it, even Mary had to say her ”Yes” before the Christ event could happen!)
If we believe this, as our faith teaches, then it follows that not everything that happens in our life is controlled by God or comes from God. Because if that were so, then God would be a puppeteer wouldn’t he? Controlling our every choice with the good and bad, carrot and stick kind of manipulation. Contrary to what many of us unconsciously believe then, not everything that happens to us is God’s will.
A lot of the unfortunate things that happen to us are consequences of carelessness, the greed or avarice of others, or of our own sinfulness. And some of the things that happen are but consequences of the laws of nature. And these laws of nature are there for us precisely to engage our freedom – our intelligence, our capacity to work with our limits and to transcend difficulty.
Be careful then of attributing the many sufferings and difficulties of our lives to “God’s will”. That can be a very slippery spiritual slope you don’t want to find yourself in, lest yours be a God who is a puppeteer.
God, too, gets the First Day of School Jitters
Some friends who are parents tell me they remember clearly the first day they brought their eldest child to school. Oh the anxiety, worry and fear for their child. These get to a lot of them, especially the most controlling and most protective among them. Their love for the child naturally has them fearful that the child will get hurt, may be bullied, may be a bully himself or herself, may have to suffer whatnot. But it is the same love for this child that prods them on to bring them to school, to allow them this freedom, to risk leaving the confines of their sheltered home. And they know if they were to deprive these children of such an experience, their children would not grow as they should. And so the first day of school is a painful letting go.
To understand God as loving Father, as Jesus reminds us today, is to see the same painful letting go for God. No good parent would will or intend for their child to be hurt. But they know they must give this child freedom, a consequence of which is pain . In the same way, we cannot and should not see our God as a sadistic, all powerful Being who wills suffering. He is, as Scripture tells us, one whose compassion will not dare to cause collateral damage to the innocent for the sake of punishing the guilty. He is, as Jesus tells us, the loving Father in heaven. And this compassionate, loving Father, has so generously gifted us with freedom.
In a word – if we are still attributing all our problems, our pains and sufferings to God, maybe we haven’t really come to know him yet as the loving Father of Jesus. Maybe we have yet to find ourselves truly asking and seeking out this grace.
Finally, something from one of my favorite writers Madeleine L’Engle who writes beautifully of what can and does do amidst all the suffering. L’Engle writes:
“God can and does come into the most terrible things and redeem them. I do not believe that God wills cancer, or multiple sclerosis. I do not believe that we are ever to regard the brutal death of a child as God’s will. I know only that El can come into whatever happens, and by being part of it, can return it into wholeness. This is the large part of the meaning of the incarnation. Nothing ever happens to us alone. It happens to God, too.” (from “And it was Good”)
So the next time you encounter pain or suffering, don’t simply wish it away by asking God to wave his magic wand. Maybe God doesn’t have one after all. But what he does have to offer is a Son who came in God’s compassion, and through who he is still working to change us and to change the world. A Son who shows us the true face of the Father.
God doesn’t mess with our freedom, but what he does give is the gift of the Spirit, through which we freely hope, endure, and overcome, through whom we are healed, and made whole again, and find life anew. Ask of these gifts – of the Son and the Spirit in our lives and you will surely receive. Seek and you will surely find. Amen.