Tony Woodlief | Author

On suffering

If you believe God loves His children, and then you suffer something terrible and tragic, you have to face head-on the question: Is there God? Close on its heels comes the second query, just as hard: Why does He sit quiet as we suffer?

Now, you can avoid these questions for a time. You can put on your pious face, and receive the good wishes of your pious admirers. The wakeful hours, however, are stacked up on your life’s horizon like so many storm clouds. You will grapple with these questions, if only by retreating into safer things than God, like work, and easy friendships, and church. One way or another, though, you will answer them with the testimony that is your every day of life from this moment until your heart’s last quiver.

Raging as I was against God, my ashen daughter in an urn on my shelf, the first question answered itself. You can’t rage, after all, against a Nothing. It was the second question that nearly undid me, and that schemes sometimes to undo me still. “Where is your God?” the mockers asked the psalmist, and so escapes the thought from recesses of my mind still given over to anarchy and gloom.

In my book I work through the answer that gave me a measure of peace. I can’t fathom what purpose of God is served by my three year-old girl writhing in fear and pain for weeks on end. But I can grasp that there are things I am not equipped to understand. I can imagine there is a universe, and a Creator atop it, that are each inexplicable to this man.

This was how I let go the anger, in faith that there is a Why beyond my own, scarcely illumined why.

I recently finished G.K. Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday. His protagonist confronts Satan as the deceiver stands before God, denouncing man. The First Attorney is incensed that we should receive God’s favor, having paid nothing for it.

The protagonist cries that suffering persists on the earth “. . . so that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, ‘You lie!’ No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, ‘We also have suffered.'”

Now here is an interesting possibility, that a purpose in suffering might be to rebuke the very devil. Do we testify, with these scars, that we have been humbled, and yet did not make God our enemy?

This reminds me of an interview I read years ago, with the writer of the screenplay for The Exorcism of Emily Rose. In the telling, a faithful girl was seized by demons and tormented unto death, despite the ministrations of a priest. When the writer was asked what he makes of a child being slowly murdered by demons in the very sight of God, he replied that the only sense he can make of it is that some among us are appointed to suffer, to be witnesses that in spite of all man’s advances, we are still a creation crying out to God for deliverance from hell.

Still, there is this other fact, this inescapable reality of God that we cannot forget in our suffering. Chesterton’s protagonist, going too far in imagining that it is man who has paid the bill, demands of God, “Have you ever suffered?”

“‘Can ye drink,'” comes the reply, “‘of the cup that I drink of?'”

I can’t understand why this suffering, any more than you can know, perhaps, your own. But we know that God has suffered with us, out of love for us. Perhaps, if nothing else, knowing a portion of that suffering enables us to grasp, in turn, the depths of the great love for which it was undertaken — for me, for you, for those we have loved unto their graves.

It’s not an explanation. But maybe it’s something even greater than an explanation, if you can imagine such a thing.

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