A book group I’m in is discussing Belief in an Age of Skepticism: The Reason for God, by Timothy Keller. Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He is also a theologian and a Christian apologist.
In case you’re wondering what a Christ-follower has to “apologize” for (beyond apologizing to God through our confessions), the word means something different here. When we tell someone we’re sorry for something we did, that’s one kind of apology. Apologetics, though, means something very different; rather than an expression of remorse, it is a defense, from the Greek word “apologia.” Christian apologetics, then, is the defense of our beliefs, often through systematic argument.
You’re probably familiar with the work of C.S. Lewis, who used imagination—think The Chronicles of Narnia—as well as reason—Mere Christianity—to explain or defend the faith. I think of apologetics as an offspring of Peter’s admonition to “always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).
In that spirit, one of my teachers in Lay Pastor training encouraged us to create an “elevator speech,” a 30 second statement of our belief—a kind of mini-apologetic. If you know me well, you know that I am much more likely to give a longer statement of almost anything! So I never really crafted a good one.
In “The Leap of Doubt,” Part 1 of his book, Timothy Keller identifies and counters seven commonly held questions or reservations about Christianity. One of those is “How could a good God allow suffering?”
You may be someone for whom that question has never resonated. But it’s likely that most of us, at some points in our lives, have wrestled with it.
Both of our children have struggled with health issues for most of their lives. And I couldn’t begin to tell you how many times I have begged God to intervene, how often I have raged at God for allowing their pain. Mostly, this kind of response centers on one question: Why? Why? Why?
The problem, of course, is that we may never understand the “why” of any situation—and even if we did, the reasons for suffering would never be good enough! If we do reach some understanding (if not acceptance), it is almost always after the fact, looking back at what happened and seeing how it changed things.
Last Sunday, we celebrated Easter with a beautiful, joy-filled worship service. During Lent, we meditated upon the suffering of Jesus that we knew was coming. On Good Friday, we solemnly marked the day of his betrayal, his agony, and his death. And on Easter, we rejoiced once again in his resurrection—the transformation that could only be accomplished through the death of his human body. And the same is true of us. We, too, can be transformed by suffering. In his meditation, “Why Suffering?”, Father Richard Rohr writes:
“Sooner or later, life is going to lead us (as it did Jesus) into the belly of the beast [like Jonah’s whale], into a situation that we can’t fix, can’t control, and can’t explain or understand. That’s where transformation most easily happens. That’s when we’re uniquely in the hands of God.”
In other words, when we are at our most broken, when we are most vulnerable to despair, we are often most open to God’s healing Grace.
At this moment, you may find the suffering of the world to be unbearable. The murder of innocent schoolchildren, the massacre of civilians in Ukraine, the millions killed by COVID. So much is wrong. Father Rohr writes, “Right now, it seems the whole world is in the belly of the beast together. But we are also safely held in the loving hands of God, even if we do not yet fully realize it.”
We do not ask for suffering. And we do not understand it. We cannot see through the darkness in the belly of that beast. But—because of the suffering, death and rebirth of Jesus, the Christ—because of his transformation—we live in hope for our own.
Why suffering? Because, as Rohr teaches, “Two universal paths of transformation have been available to every human being God has created: great love and great suffering…Only love and suffering are strong enough to break down our usual ego defenses, crush our dualistic thinking, and open us to Mystery.”
The Divine Mysteries of beauty, love, suffering, death. We do not understand the why. But Keller writes:
“If you have a God great and transcendent enough to be mad at because he [or she] hasn’t stopped evil and suffering in the world, then you have (at the same moment) a God great and transcendent enough to have good reasons for allowing it to continue that you can’t know. Indeed, you can’t have it both ways.”
So, brothers and sisters…
When we are faced with unspeakable suffering…
When we cannot see the light that shines in the darkness…
When we are driven to our knees in despair…
It is then that God is most present in our lives.
It is then that our brother Jesus wraps his arms around us, and will not let go.
That is the beautiful mystery of the Christian life.
Blessings to you and those you love,