Justifying God in the Midst of Suffering (Opening Convocation Homily, June 2020)

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IWS President Dr. Jim Hart delivered the homily at Opening Convocation on June 10, 2020. The scriptures for the day:

  • Job 38:1-11, 16-18
  • Psalm 6
  • James 1:2-8
  • Matthew 16:21-27

God has called us to be participants in His divine nature, bringing His reconciling life to the world. So, why do we find ourselves suffering in these global crises, surrounded by conflict, sickness and death? In these dark and discouraging spaces, how do we find our way home, to intimacy with God? And, how do we continue to lead our congregations in worship with authenticity and Godly passion?

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“Count it all joy” (Jas 1:2).

What a strange time this has been in our history, an unprecedented, life-altering and defining moment that has not left anyone in our world untouched. Not only have we faced a deadly pandemic and worldwide economic collapse, but we have endured plagues of locusts and murder hornets, intensification of political posturing and polarization, acute racism, political protests and unrest in the U.S. and around the globe, and wars and rumors of wars. Just last week, one of our IWS doctoral students, Emmanuel Bileya was brutally martyred for the faith, along with his wife Juliana and their unborn child. They were killed while trying to advocate for the peace of Jesus Christ to reign in the midst of a tribal war in Northeast Nigeria. All of these crises have affected members of the IWS community in significant ways. These global events may feel like the end times as depicted in media, even in some interpretations of holy writ.

Living in These Times

I was asked recently if I thought these are the end times. Yes, for at least 2,000 years now. I don’t believe that the world will spiral downward to complete disaster until God swoops in and rescues his chosen ones out of the mess. Rather, because of the victorious work of Christ in his life, death resurrection, ascension, and second coming, when we are in Christ, we can see a different vision, a glorious landscape and an infinitely bright future for our existence, rooted in the metaphysical truth of God creating and sustaining the world through love. Everything that is, including this world, is created by God, contains his DNA if you will, and finds its end in union with God. Everything. What differentiates humankind from the rest of the created order, is that we have been given the freedom to say “no” to God, to turn away from him. The Christian life is all about saying “yes” to God, and worship is the source and summit of that “yes.”

Because all of creation is insinuated with God’s presence, when we fail to participate in the life of God as we are called to do, things go wrong.

Second century Church Father St. Irenaeus famously wrote, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive” (Against Heresies Lib. 4, 20, 5-7; SC 100, 640-642, 644-648). God has called us to be participants in His divine nature, bringing His reconciling life to the world. So, why do we find ourselves suffering in these global crises, surrounded by conflict, sickness and death? In these dark and discouraging spaces, how do we find our way home, to intimacy with God? And, how do we continue to lead our congregations in worship with authenticity and Godly passion?


One of the great causes of spiritual emptiness, despondency and depression is a result of what happens to us through little or no fault of our own, much like this pandemic, or the martyrdom of our dear brother Emmanuel and his beloved wife. Such causes fall into the realm of theodicy. Theodicy is the attempt to justify the providential creator God of infinite goodness in the face of suffering and evil. While this leans toward an academic study, theodicy becomes very practical indeed when stuff happens to you: illness, death of a loved one, loss of employment, conflicts in relationships, oppression, injustice, disasters, terrorism, etc., whether these circumstances are personal, in the family, in the community, society or culture.

Theologians distinguish between natural evil and moral evil. Natural evil is not inherently evil; rather it can cause suffering and evil to come upon us. Viruses, hurricanes, earthquakes and plagues fall into this category. Then there is moral evil, evil that is the consequence of our moral and ethical choices, what we do or neglect to do. Most often, though, we see a confluence of natural evil and moral evil working together to cause a tremendous amount of suffering, and most often we can’t distinguish between the natural and moral causalities.

Whether we find ourselves suffering because of what we have done, or, because of what has happened to us, or we are living through some combination of those two, it is helpful for us to avoid over-speculation on the origin of the suffering, and focus instead on how God can use it for a greater good in us and our neighbors.

Theodicy is perhaps the most vexing and challenging of all theological issues. All supposed answers seem facile and fall short of explaining how God, who is ultimate goodness, can allow in his creation what seems to be evil, even unspeakable evil. With the Psalmist we cry, “How long, O Lord?”

Meaning in Suffering

Many have attempted to find meaning in difficulties, Christians and non-Christians alike. There are, it seems, two easy options. First, there are some who ascribe suffering to divine retribution. The problem with that perspective is found in the Book of Job. Of course, Job is the biblical archetype of the suffering human being who has undergone the worst kind of anguish and loss. Job’s “friends” use that same argument: “Surely, Job, you have done something, because God would only attack you in this way if you deserved it.” But Job rightly says “no.” Then the Book of Job presents a much more nuanced answer to the problem, refusing this “easy option.” The second option is the position raised by atheists: the existence of suffering proves there must not be a God at all. How can a good God be reconciled with such evil and suffering? So, either you did something wrong to make God mad, or there really is no God. Both of these options are mistaken and not helpful to the sufferer.

St. Augustine argued that evil is sometimes a necessity to bring about a greater good, as in just war or the death of a martyr. Church Father Tertullian wrote, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” (Apologeticus, L.13). Irenaeus seemed to argue that suffering is a necessary evil for the development of free moral agency in humans who are striving for godliness. Church Father Origen saw suffering as a kind of opportunity for schooling, or healing of the soul.

Some see the crucifixion of Jesus as God’s identification with and summation of our suffering, justifying God’s use of suffering to mold us into the fullness of his image. But, all of these “explanations” fall short for those who are suffering.

Here are some thoughts that perhaps gesture towards a way to interpret suffering. First, God can never be construed as the cause of evil. God is love, through and through. That’s all he is. God cannot will something that does not contribute to human flourishing, nor can he cause evil directly. Instead, God seems to permit evil to bring about a greater good, even when that evil is our own abuse of free will. So, God does NOT cause evil.

Second, the good we do to others to relieve their suffering can be understood as an expression of God’s loving care working through us. God is pleased to give us the joy and privilege of involvement in his work. God calls us to share in his loving care of others.

Third, believers in the God of the Bible should not expect that they will be free of pain. It is actually puzzling that so many of us think that the love of God is incompatible with suffering, when the major figures in the Scriptures—from Abraham to Daniel, from John the Baptist to John the Evangelist—all of them, go through periods of enormous suffering.

And this puzzlement only deepens when we recall that Jesus is typically displayed to us nailed to a cross and in the throes of death. St. Paul tells us in numerous places that we should participate with Christ in his sufferings. God in Christ submitted himself to the suffering and evil of the world in order to defeat it and triumph over it. And, God has promised in Christ that suffering and evil will come to an end in the eschaton.

Do these interpretations “solve” the problem of innocent suffering? Obviously not. But perhaps they shed light on key aspects of it.

In the Book of Job we find that Job has, in one fell swoop, lost all that counts toward human flourishing: his health, wealth, family, livelihood, even his friends. And, he knows he is a good and an innocent man, but he sits in spiritual, physical and emotional agony. Job then endures his friends’ pathetic and insensitive explanations. At the climax of the story, Job dismisses his friends and calls God himself into account. Why am I suffering in this way? What ensues is Chapter 38 and following, God’s longest speech anywhere in the Bible. God says, “Where were you when I made the heavens and the earth? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world? Where were you when I told the sea where to stop? Where were you when I stored up the wind and the hail?” He takes Job on the tour of the cosmos, revealing to him all of the mysteries and glories of the created order. God doesn’t specifically answer the problems of Job, but situates his suffering in the ever-widening framework of meaning. God is the Lord of all of space and time, and has providential care for everything. Whatever we are experiencing is in the context of an infinitely wider and more complex order and purpose. Our suffering is not the end nor the victor. Beyond suffering and death lies resurrection and divine life. We read in James 1, “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (Jas 1:2-3). Count it all joy.

The Only Solution to Suffering and Evil

Finally, let’s look briefly at our Gospel for today. Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

In this passage, Jesus presents the only valid solution to suffering and evil, and thereby the only valid pathway to real joy. It’s a great paradox, but the solution is to sacrifice oneself in love to find our true meaning and purpose. The solution to going through suffering, and the key to the entire spiritual life is to give yourself away in love for the other, becoming a source of life for the other. Difficult? Yes! In fact, it’s a lifelong journey that is only possible in the power of Christ and His Spirit. Robert Barron wrote, “The divine life of God increases in the measure that it is given away.”[1] Only by giving away the life of God can it increase in us. “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” To get out of a place of dryness and suffering, give, serve, find practical ways to love the other as other, expecting nothing in return.

In a very real sense, this is the entirety of the Christian life, being poured out in love, willing the good of the other as other. St. Augustine gave us the perspective that you become what you adore. As we worship God in all circumstances and give our lives away for the sake of the other, we become more like our Lord, and we discover the truth that our lives are not about us, not for our benefit alone, but for the life of the world. And that is where we find true joy and peace, and reconciliation with God and others.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Robert Barron, Exploring Catholic Theology: Essays on God, Liturgy and Evangelization. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2015) 161.

About the author

Dr. James R. Hart served as President of the Robert E. Webber Institute for Worship Studies from 2007-2024.