'To each his suff'rings, all are men,
Condemn'd alike to groan;
The tender for another's pain,
Th' unfeeling for his own.'
Thomas Gray 1716 - 1771
'Why does this so-called God of Love allow such suffering and misery in the world?' is the question I am continually being asked by those who, although they have a feeling there is a God of sorts out there somewhere, nevertheless, wish to reconcile the seemingly conflicting components of that proposition. Certainly, suffering, in one form or another, is a stark and ever present reality in all our lives.
If heaven and life immortal are so wonderful then why do we first have to develop inside these pain-wracked bodies that are so sensitive to the rough seas of our human senses and emotions. It must be that we cannot become whatever God wants us to become by any other means; or we cannot become that something by a manufactured means. Does this mean therefore that God is not omnipotent after all, and that there are limitations to His power? The answer to that must be both yes and no. It would seem that He wants people to come to Him of their own free will, and so, for that to happen, He must voluntarily surrender some of His omnipotence, or at least lay it aside for a period of time. There can be by Him, neither compulsion, nor coercion. He cannot be a God of opportunity who interferes when things are not going in exactly the way He would like them to go. If He wants creatures that come to Him because they want to, rather than because they have no alternative, then He must in no way interfere with their development in a compelling or dictatorial way. The corollary to that is if we must inhabit fleshly bodies that are capable of developing, then those self-same bodies need to inhabit some sort of environment that will test and stretch them, as well as presenting opportunities for growth. Therefore, that environment must itself be capable of exploiting and of being exploited so that its inhabitants have a choice; for if we lived in a scenario where exploitation could not possibly take place then we could take no credit for not being exploitative. If free will is to be exercised then there has to be alternatives available: for example, if a desire for goodness is to be tested then the potential for badness must also exist. If badness could not exist then goodness would have no merit, for how could we be anything else? Is God therefore responsible for the badness in the world? Again the answer must be yes and no. He allowed badness to enter the scheme of things when He gave His creation the freewill to develop as they pleased. He must have realised the dangers and, because there was and is no alternative, He accepted them. It is no good our blaming God for the badness in the world as it has all come about due to the fact that the type of creatures that inhabit it could only come into being through evolution. Evolution, unfortunately, by its very nature must be what we term cruel and exploitative as it depends for its continuation upon an element of chance combined with the survival of the fittest. An organism can only develop in a dynamic environment, and that is perhaps best illustrated by the proven belief of many sportsmen that there is no gain without pain.
Christ showed us that we now have the spiritual wherewithal to overcome, at least in part, our basic natures if we so desire and to that end He showed us the way by His own selfless existence. If our ultimate aim is to live forever in timelessness with God then we have no choice but to realise the limited value of our present surroundings. All the clatter we place so much value on, such as status, class, cars, houses, health, clothes, jobs, clubs, organisations, music, television and even the environment will, when we shed them at death, drop away like snake-skins that we have outgrown. Then the real inner core of our being will stand naked and exposed to the aweful gaze of the Eternal Light. The trouble is that while we are humanoid, we inhabit and make sense of this world through our physical senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and sound and because of this it all seems very real; perhaps one might say that it seems to many to be the only reality. Nevertheless, when we make a quantum leap of faith and the seed of faith takes root in our hearts and minds then another reality is born, and if we make the soil of our hearts fertile, then the seed of faith will continue to grow and flourish. What can stop it from so doing is the difficulty a person has in believing that the ultimate reality is spiritual reality. The warmth of a fire; the taste of a favourite food; the sight of a traffic laden motorway; of Concorde taking off; of a moon-rocket launching; the pain of toothache; the pleasure of scratching where it itches, all feed our physical senses and misleads them into believing that the only reality is that of the here and now.
It is hardly surprising that we form into groups for mutual protection, take sides, continually acquire possessions and fail to love each other as ourselves and finally come to believe that God is a load of old superstitious nonsense. We take our human institutions and possessions far too seriously and the desire to have more than our share accounts for the success of a media and advertising industry that plays on our fear, greed and pride and by so doing encourages our acquisitiveness. Strive to conquer the world and eventually we will have nothing, but if we make Heaven our objective we will get that and the earth will be given to us as well.
If, as I believe, the universe is indeed God's 'theatre' where His drama is unfolding, then indeed everything does come from Him and of His own do we give Him. We should not simply pay lip service to that fact but truly understand it. Just as an actor uses the props to enable him to make the part he plays come to life while all the time understanding that those props do not belong to him, so too must we understand that the physical world is there to assist us on our journey to our Father and is not an end in itself. It is for us to use but not for us to keep. If an actor has been given a particular part to play then he does so according to the script he has been given, and the latter certainly applies if he wants to be acclaimed as a success. No actor worth his salt would claim to know more about the plot than the author. We have been placed on this stage to play the part we have been given according to the script, which in our case is the Bible and, in particular, the Gospels. Within that script, there is an enormous amount of room for manoeuvre, a huge amount of room for us to stretch and develop our talents. The script tells us that we can do exactly as we please for so long as we love God with all our hearts, and each other as ourselves. That way, no matter how big an empire we might build, it will always be done totally to the glory of God and for the benefit of others.
Sadly, the strident clamouring of the physical world's reality impinges upon us until, in the press of the day we are in danger of suffocating the still small voice of our emerging spirituality. More and more we see with our eyes and not with our hearts. We succumb to those temptations that Christ overcame when in the wilderness. He was hungry but refused to turn the stones into bread. That would have been the easy way which, once followed, would have meant that his resolve to do His Father's Will to the end would have been weakened. Why struggle when a magic act could be performed? He could also have used His powers to rule the physical world and that knowledge was the Satan in Him but, in spite of Him having donned human form, He knew that the conquering of this world would not give Him eternal satisfaction. Finally, He refused to put God to the test by throwing Himself down from a great height. Are we not all tempted to put God to the test in an attempt to ease our suffering? Christ knew what awaited Him when He had successfully run the race and completed the course, and He needed no spectacular, gimmicky proof to tide Him over in the meantime.
Christ told us to live the consummate ethic now but we, on the other hand, want a foot in each camp: one in this world and one in the next. We want to assuage our fears, insecurities and anxieties in this life by accumulating more than we need to sustain our bodies. Look around the house, there are pots and pans galore. A surfeit of furniture; food aplenty and more clothes than we can ever wear, e.g., I still have over thirty shirts left from my days at work, before my retirement. When I go anywhere I dress according to what is expected of me. A suit for church, a blazer for weddings, my best suit for the cathedral, old clothes for the garden, etc. Instead of simply playing the part I have been given, I spend time amassing props that would be better used by others who, in many cases, have a much greater need. My excuse is that I worked damned hard and deserve more than those confounded layabouts who wasted their time and talents in idle or frivolous pursuits. God help me, I have no such excuse, for the truth is that I know that none of these props belong to me and when I make my final bow and leave the stage I will have to leave them all behind, whether I want to or not. I have therefore chased the world, using time that would have been more profitably spent loving God and others.
Sadly, we all anarchically continue to write our own scripts. We decide that our income, possessions, land, real estate, are not big enough or good enough and so we go to war to obtain more or at least to keep that which we have. War is not only between nations, but also between villages, towns, families and individuals. We think that we understand the plot better than does the Author of this life. More to the point, perhaps, we don't give a damn whether or not we understand it better just for so long as we are able to maintain or increase our status in it. Increasingly I try to place less and less importance on the here and now and more and more on the eternal. How? By trying to love God more and by trying to love others, as myself. Like Christ, I must turn my back on those temptations to test God and to own more of the world than I need or to which I am entitled. Unlike Him, I shall fail and fail and fail, but for so long as I recognise the failure, say sorry and come back on stage and continue to try and play my part to the best of my ability, all will be well.
The real problem that I find is how on earth do I try to stick with the original script when so many, including me, have left it to follow their own inclinations? Perhaps this is what He meant by 'you must take up your cross, daily, and follow me'. As for the question, how do I know what the script is? He gave me the Gospels to provide the answer to that. How to live, uncompromisingly, the Gospel life? A minister once said to me that even as a Hospital Chaplain, he had to compromise the pastoral side of the job he loved so much and to attend those dinners given by senior consultants. Why? Is it perhaps that deep down he knew, just as Christ knew, that if we live a truly uncompromising life of service, shunning those human institutions that attempt to make us one of them, we will be crucified