In the three weeks or so since a Magnitude 9 earthquake off the coast of Japan triggered a tsunami that has claimed at least 12,000 lives, heart-rending images of suffering, depression and even some stoicism and heroism have been broadcast to our televisions, newspapers and computer screens. In the face of natural disasters, the religious believer has to confront her beliefs. Where is God in all this? How can a loving God permit such tragedy? In fact, the believer confronts the question far more often than our media. When a parent dies of cancer, when a child's life is cut tragically short, when a brother or sister dies or is seriously injured in a meaningless accident – the believer asks, “Where the hell is God?”I recently picked up a copy of Fr. Richard Leonard, SJ's Where the hell is God? (Hidden Spring, New Jersey, 2010) while browsing the shelves of the Pauline bookstore near college. On his twenty-fifth birthday, Fr. Leonard received a call from his mother in Australia – his sister had been in a car accident and was paralysed below the neck. The title of the book springs from his mother's anguished cry of pain, betrayal and helplessness. The book is one believer's attempt to understand his belief at a time when it has been pushed to its very limit.
When tragedy strikes, believers respond in many ways. Fr. Leonard identifies the following common – and unhelpful – comments he received from other believers (xv-xvi):
ñ “Tragedy is punishment from God.”
ñ “The more suffering in this life, the better the reward in the next.”
ñ “God only sends the biggest crosses to those who can bear them.”
ñ “It's all a mystery.”
Sometimes, believers can be their own worst enemy. In response, Fr. Leonard offers “seven steps to spiritual sanity” (xvii):
1. “God does not directly send pain... God does not punish us.”
2. “God does not send [tragedy]... to teach us things.”
3. “Prayer asks God to change us to change the world.”
4. “God's will is more in the big picture than the small.”
5. “God did not need the blood of Jesus.”
6. “God has created a world that is less than perfect … otherwise it would be heaven.”
7. “God does not kill us off.”
In his series on God in literature on this blog (see here, here and here), my confrere Stefan has been looking at images of God through the lens of books. Fr. Leonard tackles the issue of erroneous / unhelpful images of God head-on in the question of suffering. Fr. Leonard's book is by no means perfect – there are pastoral, theological and philosophical nuances missing in his presentation. But, at just 67 pages, it is a very quick read and captures the essence of the turmoil that a religious believer undergoes when faced with tragedy and meaningless suffering.
For me, personally, the challenge has always been to retain trust in God's goodness and fidelity when confronted with suffering. How can a God who loves each of His children individually allow any of them to come to harm? How can I trust God to keep me and my loved ones from harm? What greater good could possibly be served by innocent victims? I don't pretend to have an answer.