How much you matter to God is revealed even more through the mysteries of sin and suffering. What we might have thought was a case against God reveals a more wonderful God. So how did evil and suffering get into God’s creation at all? How could a God who is loving and powerful allow terrible things to happen? The question is not so much about “how,” but about “why.” It is a question of meaning.
The entry of sin into history is pictured in an early biblical story. Adam and Eve, who represent all of us and the kind of things we do, are seen in the Garden of Eden. This symbolises what it is like to receive the gift of life with wonder, thanksgiving, joy, and simple trust.
What God has revealed through Christ’s death and resurrection is a purpose so great that suffering and evil, even at their worst, cannot defeat it.
But instead of receiving their existence as a gift, they wanted to claim it as a right. They wanted to be on equal footing with God. But what isn’t owed to us can only be a gift. So their desire to take ownership of it and be independent of God was a distortion of themselves. “Punishment” is not God’s doing:
Do not court death by your erring way of life, nor draw to yourselves destruction by the works of your hands. Because God did not make death, nor does God rejoice in the destruction of the living. (Wisdom 1:12-13)
That we would want to bring such harm on ourselves is a mystery. Adam and Eve are depicted as having been put up to it by the one Scripture calls “the father of lies,” the deceiver, the seducer, the one who wants our death.
To overturn this travesty and restore us to a relationship of trust in God, One who was “with God from the beginning and was God” did not cling to his divine status and became as we are, even to the point of experiencing death, and an unjust death at that. By choosing to be faithful to his mission even when it was going to cost him his life, Jesus showed us that God really can be trusted, even when evil and injustice are doing their best. Total, loving trust allows God full sway over one’s life. And when God’s power in us is so complete, it shows up as resurrection.
One of Christianity’s earliest hymns has been recorded for us by Paul in his letter to the Christians at Philippi:
Though he was in the form of God,
He did not deem equality with God
something to be grasped at.
Rather, he emptied himself
and took the form of a slave,
being born in the likeness of men.
He became as we humans are;
And being as we are,
he was humbler yet,
even to accepting death,
death on a cross.
Because of this,
God highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
above every other name,
so that at Jesus’ name
every knee must bend
in the heavens, on the earth,
and under the earth,
and every tongue proclaim
to the glory of God the Father:
Jesus Christ is Lord!
The Jews of Paul’s time found this message a “scandal” and the Greeks called it madness. But for Christians, what God had done was reason for great joy. Now they knew that no matter how bad a situation might be:
neither death nor life, no angel, no prince, nothing that exists, nothing still to come, not any power, or height or depth, nor any created thing, can ever come between us and the love of God, made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)
Trusting that his Father would not fail him, Jesus allowed injustice and death to take him. Their victory was short, however; they had become instrumental in their own defeat.
Knowing Christ’s victory enables Christains to look the full, terrible reality of human suffering and cruelty in the eye. Patience in the presence of evil or suffering when there is nothing more we can do about it is more than just a virtue. It witnesses to what Christians already know about the wonderful outcome of all history. They can face whatever comes. They have the peace of Christ, a peace the world cannot give.
Not all suffering is related to sin. But what God has revealed through Christ’s death and resurrection is a purpose so great that suffering and evil, even at their worst, cannot defeat it. This does not answer all our questions or take away our pain, but it points to an answer more marvelous than any we could have expected. Knowing that God can be trusted absolutely is what counts. We can live with unresolved questions when we know that.
It also gives us our greatest incentive for giving life our best. Why would we, if we didn’t know it was all worthwhile? Even a relatively untroubled life can become tedious if we can’t see meaning in it. Conversely, there isn’t much people can’t live through if they know there is meaning.
Far from despairing in the presence of evil, we can respond with compassion and creativity. Compassion and forgiveness are among the higher achievements of the human spirit. But they are possible only because there is sin and suffering, and because we know that sin and suffering don’t have the last word.
As children we learned that God was good and loving. It was true, but it was more true than we knew. It seems that a world in which God comes close to us in our sins and suffering is somehow a greater creation than one in which there would have been no need for compassion and forgiveness.
Suffering and sorrow can be transformed through the way we receive and use them:
In the saving program of Christ…suffering is in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards others, and in order to transform the whole of human civilisation into a “civilisation of love” … In (this) persons discover themselves, their own humanity, their own dignity, their own mission.
(Pope John Paul II, On the Christian Meaning of Suffering)
Christ’s victory over evil continues to be revealed in the experience of people who, like him, trust God absolutely when they are the victims of injustice and tragedy. Despite itself, evil now serves the cause of Christ’s gospel. Reflect, for example, on the following excerpts from the last letters of people who were awaiting execution, after they had opposed Hitler and been found out:
Marie Kuderikova was born on March 24, 1921, worked in a factory after leaving secondary school; was active in an illegal organization, betrayed in December 1941, arrested, and executed in Breslau on March 26, 1943. Here is what she wrote to her parents on that day:
My dear parents, my beloved little mother and father, my only sister, and my little brother…Today, the 26th March, 1943, at half past six in the evening, two days having reached my 22nd birthday, I shall draw my last breath. And yet, up to the last moment, to live and to hope. I have always had the courage to live. Moreover, I am not losing it in the face of what is called death. I should like to take upon myself all your sorrow and all your pain. I feel in myself the strength to bear it for you too, and the desire to take it with me …
Today is a beautiful day. You are somewhere in the fields or in the little garden. Do you feel as I do that fragrance, that loveliness? It is as though I had an intimation of it today. I was out walking, I was in the open air, which was full of the essence of Spring, of warmth, the shimmer and scent of memories. The naked nerve of the soul was stirred by the poetry of the commonplace, the smell of boiled potatoes, smoke and the clatter of spoons, birds, sky, being alive - the everyday pulse beat of life. Love it, love one another, learn love, defend love, spread love …
I feel so much warmth and love, so much faith, so much resolution, that I spread out my arms and stretch out my hands, that you may feel it too, that you may receive it. I am not afraid of what is coming. Always, even when I have failed and hurt others, I have felt an urge to the good, the sublime, the human. My whole life has been beautiful …
Beloved people, dear life, and dear world, I kneel before you, you most precious beings in my life, and ask for love and forgiveness. I ask forgiveness for everything and of everyone who I might have ever injured ... I kiss your hands and thank you with all my heart, with all my soul, in this the most solemn hour of my life.
Your loving daughter,
Peter Habernoll was born in 1924, was recruited for military service at the age of seventeen. Arrested on March 27, 1944, having been denounced by a comrade, he was condemned to death on July 14, 1944, and executed by firing squad on September 20, 1944.
You dear ones - my dear little mum. The hour has struck, and I am calm as I have never before been in my life, and full of confidence …The Lord is close to me and has stretched out his hands to me, and he has given me strength. He will not withhold it from you …
This is from a letter to Peter’s mother after his death:
Dear Frau Karen Habernoll: Your son Peter wanted me to write something about his last moments. He died fully composed, brave and calm … He went to eternity about 4:50 o’clock. The verdict was read to him at 4:30. A few seconds before his death I said farewell to him and told him quietly to pray. In reply he said to me, “God is with me.” Looking towards heaven, erect and composed, he collapsed. It was as if the breath of God were about him. His wish was that you should not mourn. May he find in God the fulfillment of his young life. And may God take him up into his eternal dwelling.
G. Jurytko, Catholic Chaplain
Kim Malthe-Bruun, born on July 8, 1923, in Canada, was a resident in Copenhagen and active in transporting arms. The death sentence was carried out by firing squad. This is from a letter of farewell to his sweetheart: Western Prison, German Prison, Cell 411 April 4, 1945
My own little sweetheart: today I was put on trial and condemned to death. What terrible news for a little girl only 20 years old! … And what shall I write now? What notes are to go into this, my swan-song? The time is short, and there are so many thoughts. What is the final and most precious gift that I can make to you? What do I possess that I can give you in farewell, in order that you may live on, grow and become an adult, in sorrow and yet with a happy smile?
We sailed upon the wild sea, we met each other in the trustful way of playing children, and we loved each other. We still love each other and we shall continue to do so. But one day a storm tore us asunder; I struck a reef and went down but you were washed up on another shore, and you will live on in a new world ...
You will live on and meet other marvelous adventures. But promise me one thing - you owe this to me because of everything for which I have lived - promise me that the thought of me will never stand between you and life ...
And this excerpt is from a farewell letter to his mother:
Dear Mother: Today, together with Jörgen, Nils, and Ludwig, I was arraigned before a military tribunal. We were condemned to death. I know that you are a courageous woman, and that you will bear this ... I have travelled a road that I have never regretted. I have never evaded the dictate of my heart, and now things seem to fall into place. I am not old, I should not be dying, yet it seems so natural to me, so simple … The time is short, I cannot properly explain it, but my soul is perfectly at rest … Jörgen is sitting here before me writing to his two-year-old daughter, a letter for the day of her Confirmation … Finally, there is a girl whom I call mine. Make her realise that the stars still shine and that I have been only a milestone on her road. Help her on: she can still become very happy.
In haste, your eldest child and only son, Kim
(These letters come from the book Dying We Live: The Final Messages and Records of the Resistance, Helmut Gollwitzer, ed; Harper Collins, 1983.)
My spirit is faint within me;
my heart is dismayed.
I remember the days of old;
I ponder all your deeds;
the works of your hands, I recall.
I stretch out my hands to you:
I thirst for you like a parched land.
Hasten to answer me, Lord;
for my spirit fails me.
Do not hide your face from me,
lest I become like those descending to the pit.
At dawn let me hear of your kindness,
for in you I trust.