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An article by Amy Orr Ewing, author of the book 'Where is God in the Suffering?'

An article by Amy Orr Ewing, author of the book 'Where is God in the Suffering?'

Suffering. For Me, It's Personal

A few days ago, I walked behind a casket into a funeral service, carrying a five-month-old baby girl in my arms. Her mother was in the casket. My dear friend Brenda has just died. She was 36 and left a husband and three children. I found myself asking: is there any hope in this seemingly hopeless situation? Is there any comfort for a daughter who will grow up not remembering her mother? Is there a loving God who could pour His love and comfort into our grieving hearts? Is God really there in all our pain and heartache?

Books on suffering written by academic types like me rarely connect with people who are actually suffering. I work in Oxford, and have had the opportunity of studying and teaching throughout my adult working life. In the course of that time, I have found myself drawn to thinking about and reflecting on some of the toughest questions of life. Through all of that, I have come to realise that if Christian faith is worth considering, it needs to be deep enough to cope with our most rigorous human scrutiny and our most heartrending questions.

Just have faith?

One of the worst things people in religious circles sometimes seem to say to someone suffering is ‘Don’t ask why’, closely accompanied by ‘Don’t think about it’ or ‘Just have faith’. These comments are just so unhelpful.

A questioning and thoughtful response to our human experience of suffering can be a really important part of coming to terms with terrible things that have happened to us. But I want to suggest that it can also be a crucial part of exploring the Christian faith. The Bible is full of people’s questions to and about God in the context of human suffering. Questions like, ‘Why would you let this happen? and Where are you, God?’

My own personal experience has graphically coloured this question of suffering for me. Although I am a writer, a thinker and a teacher, I spent fourteen years living in deprived neighbourhoods in the inner city. As a teenage girl I was physically attacked, but, perhaps more significantly, in my early thirties I lived under the specific threat of violent attack (rape and murder) for two years.

For me this question is not academic, it is profoundly personal. ‘How do we make sense of the suffering in the world around us when it feels like this?’

Up close and personal

Wondering why a loving God might allow suffering, or, for that matter, where He is while we suffer, are not questions that any of us can dissect with sterilised instruments in a laboratory. Because, even as we ask these questions, we live here – in this world – where brutal, senseless, tragic things happen to people we love. My book Where is God in All the Suffering? is a reflection from within this dark world on why there might be such suffering if God is loving, and how God – if He exists at all – interacts with people who are in pain.

When my university friend died in a freak accident while travelling in South America a year after our graduation, a whole crowd of us in our twenties, just starting our first jobs, gathered at his funeral. I remember one of them saying, ‘Is pain the price we pay for love?’ Grief was, and is, a strange and disconcerting experience. Grief involves fear, sadness, tears, a sense of shock and maybe even a disconnect from the loss. And then, as life goes on, the intense feelings subside only to suddenly and unexpectedly resurface. One moment life is bumbling along, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, a wave of sorrow and sadness crashes over you, threatening to drown you, sucking the very life from your lungs. You realise that the person you have lost is not there and you will never see their face again.

The price of love

A Hebrew poet in Psalm 23 powerfully describes this experience as ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. This shadow is cast most profoundly over those who loved the person who has died most intimately, but it touches all who knew them. So, as my friend asked, ‘is pain the price of love?’ For me, love is the starting place for untangling questions of pain and suffering. Love is at the core of why suffering feels like it does. Suffering feels so wrong to us because of our love for another person who is in distress. We instinctively rage against injustice because we feel that people deserve love and dignity. And when I suffer, the question I am struggling with at the deepest level is this: ‘Am I loved? And if I am truly loved, how could this be happening to me?’

 

Amy Orr Ewing is co-director of OCCA The Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics and the co-founder of REBOOT, a youth initiative aimed at helping young people think deeply about faith, which now runs in countries all over the world. Amy is married to Frog and helps lead Latimer Minster, a church community based on a farm in Buckinghamshire. 

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Where is God in All the Suffering? (Paperback)
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