I recently sang a familiar hymn by William Cowper which now rang a false note. It began: “God moves in a mysterious way / His wonders to perform; / He plants His footsteps in the sea / And rides upon the storm. / Deep in unfathomable mines / Of never failing skill / He treasures up His bright designs / And works His sovereign will.”
Indeed, when Jesus is in the wilderness at the start of his ministry, he perceives the kingdoms of the world as being in the grip of Satan. The New Testament portrays the divine not as wafting serenely on the clouds and looking down complacently but rather entering into a messy, imperfect universe and inviting humans to join in transforming it into a place of justice and peace. Christ suffers and dies, offering hope of an end to the hold of destruction and death through his self-giving love, but no instant fix.
What is more, the concept of free will – that God does not reduce people to puppets, even if they make choices that harm themselves and others – is important in Christian tradition. Without being overly critical of Cowper, who struggled to deal with his own suffering and perhaps found this approach consoling, it may undermine rather than bolster faith.
Perhaps the later compromise of the church with worldly rulers fostered images of the divine as being rather like a worldly monarch but even more powerful. Being resigned can also be seductive – if everything is being sorted out by God, the government or some other authority, we need not wrestle with complex questions or challenge the powers that be. Nevertheless, even mainstream churches were involved in care of the sick and relief to the needy, while a few prophetic voices and smaller denominations and movements questioned the whole way that society was ordered.
Amid social change, images of God changed too. By the 20th century, many theologians found the notion of an untroubled divine being arranging floods and epidemics, and sanctioning each bloody war, positively offensive. Yet much worship can still give the impression that this is what Christians believe.
There is, however, a risk in going too far the other way: if God is caught up in this mess alongside humankind, suffering with us, who can get us out? And how can an almighty God not be able just to stop young mothers getting cancer or tip off police when mass murderers are planning their crimes?
Christians continue to wrestle with such questions. Perhaps part of the answer is that God’s power is to some extent constrained by unwillingness to override the freedom of created beings. Indeed, it has often been said that God relies on people to act. According to a prayer attributed to 16th-century reformer and mystic Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours / No hands, no feet on earth but yours / Yours are the eyes through which He looks / Compassion on this world.”
At any rate, many Christians will agree with theologian David Bentley Hart when, after the tsunami of December 2004, he wrote: “I do not believe we Christians are obliged – or even allowed – to look upon the devastation visited upon the coasts of the Indian Ocean and to console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God’s goodness in this world … [which] remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.”
The Journalist Savitri Henseman is an active member of a London Anglican Parish, whose ‘Guardian’ articles are often thought-provoking, and a reminder of the fact that Christians are not a ‘protected race’ separated out from the rest of humanity by our intrinsic holiness. Rather, as Savi reminds us in this article (according to the words of Teresa of Avila: “Christ has no body now but yours / No hands, no feet on earth but yours / Yours are the eyes through which He looks / Compassion on this world.”
It is in this understanding that we come to realise that the Incarnate Jesus, who shared our humanity and who suffered in his own body, mind and spirit from the ‘changes and chances of this fleeting world’, was not immune – though he was the Son of God – to human suffering. This fact alone should warn us against any sort of triumphalism, as fellow Christians, over the natural disasters, sickness or other elements of suffering that every member of the human race can be subject to at any time in our lives.
God never promised to protect us from the accidents and incidents of life that all humanity is heir to. What God did promise us was that, by faith, we would be able to discern the presence of God being with us in our sufferings – our joys and our sorrows – as Jesus was with his disciples during his life-time in the Holy Land.
By the grace of the Sacraments, we are also promised that we can enjoy the spiritual presencing of Jesus in the sacraments he left to his Church – Baptism and Holy Communion. Baptism guarantees the gift of the Holy Spirit who will accompany us on our life’s journey; while the Eucharist gives us the guarantee of His life within us through the benefits of the gifts of Christ’s Body and Blood. Jesus does not leave us when trouble comes. Rather, He is present within to comfort and sustain us, helping us to deal with fear and pain, while at the same time giving us hope of resurrection and the fullness of life. It is this reality – Christ within us – that comforts us in our trials.
God does not take away from us the gift of free will. What true Christian faith does, is equip us to seek out and try to follow God’s will – as is best for us in every circumstance of our lives. A wise old parishioner once described it like this: I see God as the Divine Quilt-Maker, and we are the materials God uses. As we are shaped by the circumstances of our lives, so God designs, and re-designs the quilt to accommodate our measurements.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch , New Zealand