The following forms the substance of a talk given as part of a webinar from Holy Trinity Church, Norwich.
We were being shown round the charming spa town of Great Malvern, in Worcestershire. Our friendly guide pointed out the statue of Sir Edward Elgar, the famous composer. We looked at the gas lamps that were probably part of the inspiration for the description of Narnia at the beginning of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe. He showed us the many grand buildings to which in Victorian times the well-to-do would bring themselves and their sick children in the hope of benefiting from Dr Gully’s ‘water cure’. Then we walked on to the Priory. Outside, I noticed a small, unassuming gravestone. In fading lettering, the inscription read:
Anne Elizabeth Darwin – Born March 2, 1841 – Died April 23, 1851 – A dear and good child.
I thought, “I know that name!” Annie had indeed been a ‘dear child’. In fact, she had been the apple of her father’s eye. He never forgot how affectionately she stroked his hair and smoothed his rumpled clothing. She was a neat and methodical little girl, who loved to store away her keepsakes in a little box.
When Annie became ill, probably with TB, her father brought her to Malvern to see if she might benefit from the water cure. She did not. There she died, and there she is buried. Her grieving father wrote:
“We have lost the joy of the household, and the solace of our old age…. Oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & and shall ever love her dear joyous face.”
Her father was the celebrated naturalist Charles Darwin. His name will for ever be associated with the theory of evolution. But we can be sure that that it was Annie’s death, much more than his scientific theories, that led to the collapse of his already-fragile belief in God.
Millions of others have hit the same formidable roadblock. Surely any God worthy of the name would be both able and willing to relieve suffering in its myriad forms?
- Where is God as we face the global perils of Covid-19 and climate change?
- Where is God when the headlines scream at us about the latest international atrocities?
- Where is God in our own personal pain, sadness, disappointment, regret, failure, guilt, shame, broken vows, broken homes, broken hearts?
- Where is God as we contemplate the ultimate indignity of death itself?
With Louis Armstrong, we can sing, ‘What a wonderful world’. But there’s no denying that this is also a very messed-up world.
Many different voices can be heard trying to make sense of this.
- The voice of despair: ‘Life has no meaning, a struggling through the gloom. And the senseless end of it is the insult of the tomb.’
- The voice of defiance: ‘It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll. I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’
- The voice of the stoic. The Duke of Edinburgh, when asked how he coped with the various problems and challenges he had faced during his long life, replied: ‘Well, you’ve just got to get on with it, haven’t you?’
- The voice of the idealist. What she wanted was for everything to be just perfect. A perfect relationship. A perfect husband. A perfect baby. A perfect home. A perfect school. A perfect job. All she got was a neighbour who was a perfect nuisance!
- The voice of the dreamer. You can hear this voice in John’s Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ (the ‘My Little Pony’ of philosophical utterances!)
- The voice of self-reliance. ‘You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think’ (as Christopher Robin said to his teddy bear).
A reality check
First, the Bible encourages us to ask the question. Large swathes of the Bible, including many of the psalms, ask questions such as, “Why?” and “How long?” In the midst of his suffering, Job cries out, “If only I knew where to find him.” Even a dying Jesus calls out to his God, “Why have you forsaken me?”
Second, the Bible does not attempt a complete answer. There are things revealed, and there are hidden things. If you were to tell me that my wife had been unfaithful to me, I wouldn’t believe you. Why? Because I know exactly where she was and what she was doing on the day in question? No: because I know her, and I know enough about her to trust her completely.
Third, the Bible confronts us with the reality that we ourselves are part of the problem. People are capable of acts of great kindness and self-sacrifice. But there is within us all a bias away from what is true and good and right. As a race we have fallen far short of God’s good purposes for our lives, and we are living with the consequences.
A Christian response in three words
Someone once complained that God ought to come and see for himself just what a mess this world is in. Well, he has. The heart of the Christian message is that God stepped into this broken world in love.
A challenge: read Mark’s Gospel.
Reflect on Jesus’ statement that he must ‘suffer many things, he must be killed and after three days rise again.’
Ponder his statement that he came ‘not to be served, but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many.’
And ask, when you come to the end of Mark’s Gospel, ‘Does this have the ring of truth’?
God offers to us ‘a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.’
Personal hope. Laura, a thirty-something, dying of cancer, says to a room for of students: ‘When you face death, I want you to know there is something good to go on to. You can die with confidence in the arms of a loving Father, knowing you are safe and that you are His child. It has been great living out my life as a child of God. It has been wonderful – the best part of my life! I want you to know, like I do, that whatever happens to you tomorrow, you are secure. You can know that God loves you; that nothing can happen that He can’t protect you from and keep you safe throughout.’
Cosmic hope. ‘According to God’s promise we look for a new heaven and a new earth’. God will one day put all wrongs to right.
Throughout the Bible, God sides with the victims of injustice, poverty, oppression, and violence.
Jesus’ words are inescapable: “Love one another, as I have loved you. Freely you have received, freely give.”
Despite their many failings, Christians have a remarkable record of costly, sacrificial love.
As he hung on the cross, Jesus prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And his followers have been practising that extravagant love ever since.
For thirty years Michael and Jo Pollard had taken humanitarian aid, medication, Bibles and Christian books into Communist Europe. One day, as they were travelling through Hungary towards the Ukraine with much-needed provisions, they were robbed. Michael was beaten to death and an attempt was made on Jo’s life. Three teenagers were later found guilty of murder. But, from a hospital bed in Hungary to the ITV News, Jo said she bore no malice. She regularly prayed for the three men who had killed her husband. Later, she visited the jail in Hungary where the men were held. Two of the three prisoners were willing to meet her, and she told them that she forgave them. One of them has subsequently asked Christ for forgiveness. Jo was not minimising what had happened, but recognised that she too had received forgiveness, and now she could show it to these men.
Joni Eareckson Tada
Popular, intelligent, and athletic, 17-year-old Joni Eareckson had her whole life in front of her.
Then, one fateful day in 1967, she dived into water that was too shallow, and broke her neck.
She was paralysed.
At first, doctors held out the hope that the damaged nerves might mend themselves. But they didn’t. Later, she felt sure that God would miraculously heal her. But he didn’t. She would never walk or run again.
A deep depression set in, as she realised all that she had lost. Glancing at herself in the mirror, she screamed, “God, how can you do this to me!”
A visitor tried to cheer her up by quoting the words of Jesus: “I have come to give you life in all its fullness.” Those words seemed to mock her, as she contemplated the empty life she now faced.
Three long and painful years passed before she began to realise that fullness of life might still be a possibility.
One key moment came when a friend blurted out, “Joni, you aren’t the only one. Jesus knows how you feel – he was paralysed too. He was nailed onto a cross.”
Slowly, Joni began to realise that God does know and care. In her helplessness, she found herself clinging to him, trusting in him, hoping in him.
“Maybe God’s gift to me is dependence. I will never reach a place of self-sufficiency that crowds God out. My need for help is obvious every day when I wake up, flat on my back, waiting for someone to come dress me. I can’t even comb my hair or blow my nose alone!”
“But…peace is internal, and God has lavished me with that peace.”
“[What is more,] I have hope for the future now. The Bible speaks of our bodies being “glorified” in heaven…I now realize that I will be healed. I haven’t been cheated out of being a complete person—I’m just going through a forty or fifty-year delay, and God stays with me even through that.”
Thrown back on complete dependence upon God, Joni has been able to build a life in which she has become an accomplished artist, singer, writer and speaker.
The distinguished Bible teacher Dr Jim Packer says that he twice had the privilege of introducing Joni:
“Each time I have ventured to predict that her message would show her to be the healthiest person in the building–a prediction which, so far as I could judge, came true both times.”
Where is God in a messed-up world? The answer is not so much an explanation, as an invitation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
‘Laura’ and ‘Jo Pollard’ stories – ‘Where is God in a messed-up world?’, by Roger Carswell.
‘Joni’ story – mainly taken from ‘Where is God when it hurts?’, by Philip Yancey.