I have just returned from watching The Theory of Everything in the cinema. It was a wonderful example of finding hope and love in our broken lives. At times during the film, though, the uplifting element feels merely a superficial bandaid to cover up our feeling of helplessness and anger at the unjust pain and suffering that we witness in the film. Not only do we see Motor Neurone Disease ravage Professor Stephen Hawking’s body, but we also see the mental anguish his friends, wife and children go through as they face the consequences of a terminal disease. Like Stephen Fry, I felt like screaming to the heavens in outrage and indignation. There is certainly no “theory of everything” for Christians to explain the presence of suffering in the world. Like most people, my family and I have had our share of suffering, and, as a member of the clergy, I also have pastoral care for many who go through all manner of heartbreaking situations. The irony is, though, the only way this pain and suffering makes sense for me personally is in light of a loving and compassionate God, who reassures us that he knows what it’s like to face such anguish, stands alongside us in our tears, and affirms hope and meaning in seemingly hopeless and meaningless situations.
Towards the end of The Theory of Everything, as the couple face separation and divorce, Stephen Hawking looks at his wife, tears running down both of their faces, and utters four words that are so difficult to hold onto when we face times of darkness – “everything will be ok”. The wonderful peace behind those words, affirmed by Jesus himself and then countless Christian thinkers down the ages from Julian of Norwich to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, is at the heart of the Christian response to suffering. The following extract is taken from my book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering and asks whether we can make any sense of our suffering:
“In the film Cinema Paradiso (1989) the character Alfredo voices a sentiment that many of us feel at times in our lives. ‘With all due respect to the Lord who made the world in two or three days,’ he says, ‘I’d have taken a bit longer, but certain things I could have done better’. If we were playing God, there are certainly things about our fallen world that we may well want to change. Even at happy and upbeat times in our own lives, twenty-four hour news channels serve as a constant reminder that the dark side of life is uncomfortably close. The world continues to be troubled in so many different ways – wars, natural disasters, murder, child abuse, prejudice, hatred, and racism. When we personalise suffering, the situation seems even worse, as each one of us has endured pain and suffering at many levels during our lives. We may have lost someone we love, have been affected by illness or disability, have experienced broken relationships, have lost a job, or have experienced other traumas in our lives. Such incidences often take us by surprise, as they strike without warning and with devastating consequences. The playwright Christopher Fry compares the impact of suffering on our lives with an innocent walk on a minefield. ‘One minute you’re taking a stroll in the sun,’ he writes, ‘the next your legs and arms are all over the hedge’. He simply concludes that ‘there’s no dignity in it’.
The presence of such awful and indiscriminate suffering in the world is certainly one of the greatest challenges to belief in a loving God. As misery breaks through and our worlds are turned upside-down, words like ‘grace’ and ‘mercy’ often seem defunct. It is, therefore, unsurprising that the unfairness and injustice of life is one of the principal reasons given for rejection of God. In the song ‘Dear God’, the 1980s group XTC stood alongside many of their fellow agnostics and atheists in positing the depth of pain and misery in the world as a reason for their apostasy. God stands accused of failing His creation, as wars, natural disasters, and vicious diseases render him culpable. The song concludes that Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are nothing but ‘somebody’s unholy hoax’.
Christians themselves have long recognised that suffering has the potential to alienate people from the faith. ‘If this is the way you treat your friends, it is little wonder you have so few of them’, the sixteenth-century mystic St Teresa of Avila was overheard screaming up at God when her ox cart overturned. The consequence of suffering is, however, often more wide-reaching than a mere rejection of faith. Many fall into resentfulness, intolerance, callousness, or insensitivity as a result of their afflictions. It is certainly not our place to judge those who succumb to such bitterness or hard-heartedness, but each and every one of us does have the option of taking a different path through the dark night of our pain.
In facing our suffering, then, our aim should not be to explain away or justify, in the words of Dostoevsky, ‘the human tears with which the earth is soaked from its crust to its centre’. Rather, our aim should be to start to make larger sense of, and ultimately learn through, the apparent senselessness of our circumstances. After all, if we are to find meaning and hope in our lives, then it must be equally valid, if not more valid, in times of suffering as it is in times of comfort. Furthermore, at the centre of that search for meaning and hope must be the experience of the world’s freely-given love. Our world may well be deeply flawed in its present form, but it still offers us a wonderful experience of the love that flows from joyous and life-affirming gifts such as laughter, nature, memories, art, and other people. Nietzche reminded us that ‘he who has a why to live can bear with almost any how’. It is in these gifts, which for Christians could be termed ‘glimpses of transcendence’ or ‘rumours of another world’, that we can discover the why in our torn and troubled lives.”
(extract taken from Trystan Owain Hughes, Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering SPCK, London 2013)
Stephen Fry, Russell Brand, and God in a suffering world: Part 1
Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (blog post)