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Reflection October 9, 2016
Dark Nights and the Silence of God (Part One)
Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
Since the beginning of July, my beloved Beth and I have been dealing with her diagnosis of terminal cancer. To say that we’ve been placed in “a dark night” is certainly true. I would like to explore the long Christian tradition of the dark night - when God seems silent.
As the prophet Isaiah writes: “Truly you are a God who hides yourself!” Where is God to be found in our world? Why does God keep such a low profile? Where is God to be heard? These are profoundly difficult questions to answer.
As the Anglican clergyman and professor of physics, John Polkinghorne notes in his insightful but difficult book, The Faith of a Physicist: “The paradox about God lies in the fact that he who is most real is also he who is most elusive.“
The silence of God in terms of those suffering terminal illnesses is very unsettling. We know that God can heal but that healing does not seem to be as available to us as we would wish. Where is God in our long history of human carnage and violence? Where is God in the suffering of those trapped in Syria or those imprisoned in North Korea?
Why does God not intervene? Why so much sorrow and sadness? Why so many tears? Why so much heartbreak and human suffering? Why do so many die prematurely because of the plague of cancer and other illness?
The South African theologian, Albert Nolan, begins his compelling book, God in South Africa, with these telling words: “Sin becomes visible in suffering.” True words, to be sure! He goes on to note: “The extraordinary increase in suffering in the modern world has become one of the central concerns of all modern theologians … If one were to try to discern the new starting point for theology and spirituality in most of the world today, one would have to say that it is human suffering.”
Do we believe it to be God’s will that we are so cruel to one another? Some years ago one of the clergy I was offering spiritual direction and counseling to was a priest from Rwanda. He belonged to the Tutsi tribe - of whom perhaps a million were killed by the Hutus in 1994. Where was God in this incredible slaughter?
Do we believe all this killing - all this carnage - all this suffering to be God’s will? Do we worship a sadistic God? Or perhaps God is impotent as Rabbi Kushner suggested in the bestselling book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”
I don’t have the answers. I have questions. My questions have been sharpened over the last few months of my beloved Beth’s suffering and sickness. But I believe the questions only have partial answers. We only get glimpses of possible answers, never certitude, in this impenetrable mystery. We learned this truth during this summer when we explored the wisdom of the Book of Job.
Yet I believe without hesitation that God does not want us to suffer. God does not “give” us sickness. God did not give a uterine sarcoma to my beloved Beth. God does not “give” us trials and tribulations.
Some of us, though, want to believe that our sufferings come directly from God’s hand. I recall a woman I knew in Louisiana who told me that God obviously loved her very much because of all the troubles she had been “given.”
God does not want us to suffer. God is with us in our sufferings. My beloved Beth and I know this in the depths of our souls. God has chosen to suffer with us. This may seem hard to imagine. It may even sound strange to us. Is God capable of suffering? Isn’t God perfect? How can a perfect God suffer. But I believe God suffers because of God’s love for us.
The eminent Lutheran theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, notes in his book, Jesus Christ for Today’s World: “If God were in every respect incapable of suffering, he would also be incapable of love.” In other words, our perfect God has chosen to become vulnerable. God has chosen this vulnerability out of love.
We know loving someone deeply often causes pain because we experience the suffering of our beloved as our own. I’ve come to more deeply understand this truth in the months since Beth had her surgery and the diagnosis of untreatable cancer was given to her.
I believe this is exactly what happened to God in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Moltmann relates the example of the mystic, Catherine of Siena, who once cried out: “My Lord and God, where were you when my heart was plunged into darkness and filth?” And she heard the answer: “My daughter, I was in your heart!”
God has freely chosen to live within each of our hearts and souls. God freely experiences what we experience - our joys and our sorrows. This divine reality lies intertwined with the mystery of the Incarnation. This understanding of God, I believe, is the only true understanding of who God is!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor