God in our pain

Bill Reimer explores the Christian claim that God enters into human pain.

Alister McGrath debated Christopher Hitchens in DC late in 2007. I look forward to listening to the debate on the web sometime soon. I read that Hitchens quipped something to McGrath about not believing that Jesus healed the blind man since God hasn’t healed blindness. ‘Why not?’

The ‘Why not?’ remains a mystery to me. You come to something approaching terms with it as you make your way through life. I am not referring to stoic terms. Again and again I fall upon the distinctively evangelical understanding of the death of Christ. I have not read through The Cross of Christ by John Stott, but a number of times I have read the passage from it on Auschwitz, Elie Wiesel, and the Cross of Christ. Stott writes in response to Wiesel:

I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross.’ In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have to turn away. And in imagination I have turned to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wretched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in light of his. There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. ‘The cross of Christ . . . is God’s only self-justification in such a world’ as ours.
John Stott, The Cross of Christ, InterVarsity Press, 1986.

A few weeks ago I visited a little bookstore in Stanwood, in Washington State. Stanwood happens to be the birthplace of my friend and author of the immensely poplar paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, Eugene Peterson. It was the 60th anniversary of the publication of Tolkien’s The Hobbit, (September 21, 1937) and we wanted to pick up a copy for a friend who was an MA in English Literature but had never read it. I’ve asked before if they carried anything by Stanwood’s most published author and on this visit I was pleased to see a copy of The Message in the New Age/Religion section.

At the front of the store in the ‘New Releases’ section I noticed a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ God is not Great, strategically placed alongside Mother Teresa’s posthumous Come Be My Light. Some years ago Hitchens pilloried Mother Teresa in a book entitled The Missionary Position. Now here was that little woman standing up to Hitchens simultaneously on the main street of Stanwood, WA and on the New York Times bestseller list, where it remains ahead of Hitchens.

Mother Teresa is an embodiment of the biblical paradox of deep strength in weakness. Her book gives the reader a glimpse of her often deep, inward despair, a despair that Hitchens interprets as manifest proof of the absence of God. But surely God has rather manifested great power by taking a small Albanian woman, born in Skope, Macadonia, and giving her the agency to transform the lives of the dying in Calcutta and to rebuke the powerful in the halls of places such as Harvard.

Over the centuries Word, theology and music have been able to combine in ways that speak to us and for us.

  There is a river that washes you clean
There is a tree that marks the places you've been
Blood that was spilled, although not your own,
For all of your tears, are the wages for things you have done

And all of those nights
Spent alone in the darkness of your mind
Give it up, Let go
These are things you were never meant to shoulder
(Jars of Clay, from ‘Good Monsters’)


Bill Reimer manages the Regent College Bookstore in Vancouver, Canada. He studies History at the University of British Columbia.