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Why God seems to be MIA.

ON SATURDAY, Feb. 13, 2010, the gymnasium roof of Blacksburg High School fell in. It was a complete collapse. The first call from neighbors came to the police department at 1:37 p.m. Just hours before, the girls' basketball team had been practicing. The boys' basketball team had played there the night before. So, no one was in the gym at the time of the collapse. Had it occurred during a weekday, or almost any other Saturday, the outcome could have been catastrophic. All over town, people were grateful that the collapse occurred that particular Saturday, at that particular time. I have thanked God more than a few times myself.

Yet, in situations like this, a few questions often lurk behind the gratitude. "God, if you are there, and are able, why not always have buildings fall a couple of hours after practices?" We know that often is not how it is. Many times, disaster is not averted. The earthquakes in Haiti and Chile; tsunamis; the horror of terrorism; leaders who have the opportunity to bring peace and assistance to their regions instead bring money into their personal accounts. It painfully is clear that, more often than not, things do not work out like they did with the Blacksburg High School gym. People are hurt; the innocent suffer; the powerless are victimized at the hands of the powerful. A quick scan of the headlines can be one of the most depressing things we do during our day.

Some would say that Blacksburg is due for some good news. Virginia Tech, which is located in that town, was the site of the most deadly university shooting in our nation's history. On April 16, 2007, Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty and wounded many others before taking his own life.

I graduated from Virginia Tech and am one of the pastors of New Life Christian Fellowship, a church that hundreds of Virginia Tech students and local residents attend. The morning of April 16, I was a block away from campus. I could hear the sirens from the police cars as they raced by. I never will forget the pain that was created by one event. I remember walking around campus or the town that surrounds it and seeing people staring blankly ahead or breaking down into tears; nor will I forget the terrible math that took place when we knew whom we had not heard from that day.

Three of the victims had attended our church. The events of those next few hours and months are forever fused into who I am. As the father of one of the Columbine students told our church a week after the shootings, "After something like that, you don't go back to normal--just doesn't happen. After that, you have a new normal."

Part of my new normal is that once I expressed gratitude about what happened with the Blacksburg High School gym, my thoughts went to those who are not grateful for a near miss, but are suffering from a direct hit. Since the shootings, I have talked with an enormous number of people suffering from those hits. They might be like me, a follower of Jesus. They might know that God is good and loving and attentive to us, but they still can have a very hard time with the amount of suffering this world levels at us--or they may be like many of my friends who are not convinced that God is real, or attentive, or kind. They would tell me that a god that is handling the world this way does not seem to be very good at his job. As one friend emphasized, "That God of yours is either distracted or creel. Either way, not interested."


I find myself in these conversations quite often now and, to be perfectly honest, I am not always sure what to do in them. Yes, I think there are answers to some of the "why" questions. There are things we can know, but I also am aware that people, speaking for Christ in a very un-Christ-like way, often have carelessly and callously shared some cheap versions of those answers. The tension of those two realities requires that we enter into these questions with great humility.

In just one weekend, a mother and her 12-year-old daughter asked me why God did not stop a 13-year-old friend from accidentally strangling himself to death; a Haitian immigrant told me about the members of his family no one can find; and a husband confided in me about his wife's infidelity. It does not matter if it is a collapsing roof, an earthquake, or some interpersonal harm causing the suffering: sometimes the best thing to do in the face of such pain is to say nothing at all, but rather stand in reverential silence and weep with the hurting.

I am asked how I can align what is occurring all over the world with the concept of a loving and involved God. Probably the best thing I can do is to shale a situation in which Jesus found himself. There was a moment in Jesus' life recorded in the book of Luke where He was walking with a reasonably large crowd. Over the preceding number of months, He had been talking about how God was working to transform the world. Jesus had been healing people who were sick, performing the miraculous, and challenging everyone to see that real life with God was possible.

Then someone did the first century, Middle Eastern equivalent of raising his hand. This person asked Jesus about something terrible that had happened to some people who were from Galilee. From the account, it seemed they were ambushed while offering their sacrifices in the temple. These men were expressing their Jewish faith and some soldiers, apparently sent by Pilate (the Roman leader of the area), descended upon and then murdered them. The Galileans were being devout; they were worshipping God; they were doing the right thing. Jesus had been speaking to the crowd about the Kingdom of God, showing how we truly can love one another, and teaching about God's love and care for his creation. It is almost as if the person was saying, "That sounds great, but this is wrong. How does this level of wrong fit in with what you are talking about?" Jesus responds with something that is decidedly not very Jesus-y, at least not in terms of the stained glass window Jesus image we have. You know the one: His allegedly light brown hair and immaculate white robe covered with the lambs and little kids who are climbing all over Him. Jesus the nice, uncontroversial mall.

One of the things Jesus does in that moment is remind the crowd around Him of something else that had recently happened. A tower had fallen in Jerusalem, killing 18 people. He brought up that event and asked the same question of both. "Did any of those people that died in either of those events deserve it? Did they bring any of that on themselves?" Also, let us not forget the question underneath it, "Did God make this happen?" Not a very stained glass Jesus way to respond. Yet, I think He did it for a reason. He was speaking to a long-held Jewish belief that you got what you deserved. If something bad happened or was happening to you, it was punishment from God for something. Jesus said that coming to that automatic conclusion is wrong. Our interactions with God are far too complex to lend themselves to formulaic equations.

Then He took it a step further and issued a challenge--to realize that they needed to be mindful of a dangerous pitfall, to be careful of allowing the moments when God is not responding the way we expect, to cover over the fact that He was real, and we needed Him. If I am being honest, my first thought is that I wish He had answered that question differently.

What I would like Him to have done would be to have sat everyone down, given them a hug, then clearly and succinctly explained how suffering interacts with God's plan. Jesus certainly had hugged a lot of people; He had touched and accepted individuals who no one else would. This would be the time, but He did not do that here. Instead, He dispensed with the pleasantries and acted more like a fireman storming into a burning building to find people who are trapped. There is a very clear "This is the way out. Let's go!" vibe in what Jesus was saying. He was asserting: do not get tripped up by these cultural traps, stick close to Me.

After all, the Bible teaches that it is humanity's rejection of God's guidance and oversight that has put us in the situation we are in. Throughout the history of humanity, we have chosen to handle things on our own, and the results are what we see.

In that moment, Jesus did not give the people the answer they were looking for. On other occasions, He taught them that, in this world, the innocent sometimes will suffer and the evil prosper. Here, though, He did not get into that. He told them something else, that something deeper was happening--and they needed not to lose sight of it. God's Kingdom was there for them. He was calling them to a real relationship with the God who created the cosmos and them in it. He was telling them not to get turned around in the burning building, because the smoke it kicks up can be confusing. Stick close to Him, not so they could get out and just save themselves, but so that they could join Him in putting out the fire--not just escaping the damage, but seeing the building put back the way it was intended.

I like that Jesus was asked that question, and I have asked similar ones of Him myself. In the book of Isaiah, God says that, "For as the sky soars high above earth, so the way I work surpasses the way you work, and the way I think is beyond the way you think." That is not God being arrogant; that is God being honest. So, that part of our human nature really has not changed. Asking the question does not mean the answer always will make sense. Though as we walk with Him the more we can understand Him better, we never really get Him. So, we need to engage with Him continually to understand how we are supposed to interact with the suffering in our world.

Why is God confusing us?

As I talk with people about these issues in our day, I get the sense that God might confuse us in a different way than He was confusing to the crowd. Sure, the idea that "you get what you deserve" can be enticing, but I do not think it is as embedded in our cultural thought as it was for first-century Jews. I think that, for us, we take issue with the fact that God is not using the power that is available to Him to help us. We want Him to get in the game more often and more powerfully than He seems to. To us, not helping someone when you have the ability is seen as unfeeling and creel. So, a god that claims to be able to do whatever he needs to, but does not step in to help us avert suffering, is not seen as very kind at all--actually, quite the opposite. It seems totally unacceptable.

I often am asked why He does not step in more often. My guess is that, were He to do so, the consequences would be more significant than we suspect. We often can see the benefits of not suffering, but do not consider what that would require. I know I do. We do not understand how God would need to manage the world in order to provide that level of protection.

If we all put our heads together and came up with a list of everything that God should protect us from, initially, things would go very well. Massive earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis--check. Child sex trafficking--gone. University and high school shooting sprees--never again. However, besides the public stuff, very private pain would be gone as well. Domestic abuse, infidelity, poverty--the list could go on and on. I would love to be on the team in charge of compiling that list. The start would be fantastic.

Yet, what of the end? Is any suffering allowed? What about unintended suffering or the pain caused by genuine misunderstanding? What about the pain that is generated when two people want different things: the relationship that one needs to end and the other needs to continue? What then? What about suffering that is ill informed, such as the addict who does not want to stop using because he does not want to be sober?

While I do think that God does protect us from many things, I think He takes a different path, one that is much more risky and painful for Him. He is allowing us to be free to make our own choices. We can be both the source of great suffering and of comfort for those in pain. We can choose to turn to Jesus to forgive us and show us this new God-reality that we can live in, or we can choose to push Him away. That is why I think Jesus took that moment to warn the crowd not to miss the main point. He was not coming as a professor who would explain all of the mysteries of God and humanity in climate-controlled comfort. No, in Jesus, God came busting back onto the planet to show us how to live and what to live for. He made the ramifications of each choice clear, but left the choice to US.

Those people in the crowd around Jesus that day did not receive a blanket promise of protection nor a complete explanation. What they (and we) received was a guide. Not some guide whose only goal is to get them out, but a guide to show them how to live while they were in. A guide that told them they would not be as protected as they would like, but also one that did not protect Himself, either. In Jesus, we see that God plays by His own rules.

So, we do not get the full answers, but neither are we abandoned in our pain. In Jesus, God came back to the earth we asked him to leave--to remind us that we are much more than what we see, that we are remarkable, exquisite, deeply loved, and just as deeply broken. We do not just need someone to provide us with some answers; we need God to heal and guide us. In Jesus, if we choose to follow Him, we get that.

That does not mean we get a pass on the suffering this world will level at us or that all of it will make sense. As each anniversary of the horror Seung-Hui Cho brought to Virginia Tech reminds us, those two facts are all too painfully clear. More shootings will happen; roofs will fall in at the wrong times and people will be severely injured and die. We will continue to be discouraged by what we read in the news and see in our neighborhoods, but we must never forget: God came back for us. That means there is reason for great hope. The story is not over.

Jim Pace is a pastor at New Life Christian Fellowship at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., and the author of Should We Fire God? Finding Hope in God When We Don't Understand.
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Title Annotation:Religion; suffering and religion
Author:Pace, Jim
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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