This week I had the opportunity to write for a weekly ‘Christian Comment’ section of a local paper. After last weekend’s horrific events in Paris, there’s a sense in which it would have been odd to write about anything else. And yet, as I say in the piece (below), there’s a sense in which words shouldn’t be our first response at a time like this. Indeed, a few hours after I submitted the piece I saw this challenging post by a pastor, reflecting on the same events and pointedly entitled, ‘Please Stop Talking’.
Of course, the reality is that suffering is rarely an academic question. It’s not abstract or detached. It’s real, as is the ache we feel.
And yet suffering’s also always there, somewhere. Be it personal, national, or global; be it physical, mental, or even spiritual.
So, do we have anything to say? What does it look like to even begin to ‘give a reason for the hope we have’, at times such as these? Can we navigate through the darkness?
One of my friends likes to say the Bible doesn’t give us clear-cut answers to the question of suffering, but it does mark out solid steps forward in the fog. So I suppose what follows is an attempt to put forward (within the confines of 450 words, for a local newspaper) what those steps might include…
This time last week we were beginning to come to terms with the horrific news from Paris, of the brutal attacks in which 129 individuals lost their lives.
Of course, after events like these there’s a sense in which words fail. We instinctively ‘weep with those who weep’, showing our solidarity. We turned our Facebook profiles red, white and blue. We joined the spine-tingling singing of the French anthem at Wembley on Wednesday.
But one of the questions that’s already being put to those professing a faith is, “Did God go AWOL in Paris?” Certainly some people’s first reaction is to look heavenwards. After all, it didn’t take long for #PrayforParis to begin trending on Twitter.
And yet, although the French atheist and Charlie Hebdo cartoonist Joann Sfar thanked people for their prayers, he was also adamant his country didn’t need more religion.
But does removing God from the equation make things any more comfortable? Guillaume Bignon, a Frenchman and former-atheist, pointed out that without God, evil just becomes a human construct. If we’re only bones and blood, then why does it all even matter? As such, to be a consistent atheist you’ve got to affirm that the terrorists didn’t do anything objectively ‘wrong’.
Unsurprisingly this just doesn’t sit right. We all inherently recognise this isn’t the way the world’s supposed to be. But the very fact we feel outrage at last weekend’s horrors (not to mention what’s going on worldwide) suggests we’re more than just atoms. Christianity’s explanation for this is we’re made in the image of a God who is perfect love and justice.
And though it doesn’t answer all our questions, as we open the Bible we find this God is even more appalled at evil than we are. As I write, security forces were still hunting for some of the Paris attackers. Yet what if they’re never brought to justice?
With God there’s no letting evil slip through the net. He has promised to judge with true justice, bringing about a world without evil. After the horrors of Paris we see why that’s a precious truth.
But can we be sure? Christianity all hangs on the person of Jesus Christ. God did more than turn his profile pic to the Tricolour. He stepped into history and entered our world as a human, willingly suffering on the cross for us, all so that our suffering could one day cease. And like those flowers bursting from bullet-ridden restaurant windows, Jesus’ resurrection calls us to turn to him as God renews this broken world.
Far from being absent without leave, God has entered the trenches for us. Evil has been defeated, it’s just having a hard time accepting the fact.
First published in the North-West Evening Mail, Saturday 21st November 2015.
You may remember Stephen Fry earlier this year ridiculing that a belief in a good God could be held alongside the reality of suffering. I tried to collate some of the best responses to Fry, but for a personal, moving, yet fullsome account from a Christian perspective, try this: “An Alternative Fry-Up”.