Dear Donagh,

Why does it appear that some people sail through life and others carry huge crosses…?  Miriam

Dear Miriam,

The Gospel reading for the 26th of this month is directly relevant to your question.  Take a look at it and at the commentary, and then come back to this page.  You don’t mention whether this is a personal problem for you, or a general enquiry. 

Remember the difference between an answer and a response.  The only clear answer that anyone can give you is: I don’t know.  There are many questions that no one can answer.  The 4th-century monk, Anthony of the Desert, asked God, “Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age…?  Why do wicked people prosper and why are the just in need?”  God answered him, “Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.”  He was given no answer, but with his prodigious knowledge of the scriptures he knew God's response: “the Lord is close to the broken-hearted; those whose spirit is crushed he will save” (Psalm 33). 

Despite Anthony (and long before him, Job) many religious people through the ages thought that religion had the answer to every one of life’s questions.  Even today there are many who still make that claim - and the ones who know very little make up their deficit by claiming absolute certainty.  Meanwhile science has tended to move rather in the opposite direction.  Scientists in the 19th century tended to believe that they had the answers to all questions in principle.  But today’s scientists, with very few exceptions, are much more humble and nuanced.  Does this mean that science has gone backwards?  On the contrary, scientific understanding of the world has grown by extraordinary leaps and bounds. 

It is no shame, for a scientist or for a religious believer, to say, “I don’t know.”  The greatest teachers have the least hesitation in declaring the limits of their knowledge and understanding.  (See, for example, the passages from Aquinas and Meister Eckhart on this website: ‘Between Ourselves’, Feb. and Mar. 2013.)  In religion the mystics are nearly always the ones who make the significant leaps and bounds, and this is what saves them from false certainty.  So I don’t want to direct you to any ‘answer’ to the question you asked.  Instead let’s look at the Christian vision of God's response to suffering. 

Would you mind if I quoted a passage from Paul Tillich (1886 – 1965): “When I was of the age to receive confirmation and full membership of the Church, I was told to choose a passage from the Bible…. When I chose the words, ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy burdened’ (Mt 11:28), I was asked with a kind of astonishment and even irony why I had chosen that particular passage.  For I was living under happy conditions and, being only fifteen years old, was without any apparent labour and burden.  I could not answer at that time; I felt a little embarrassed, but basically right.  And I was right, indeed; every child is right in responding immediately to those words; every adult is right in responding to them in all periods of life and under all the conditions…. These words of Jesus are universal, and fit every human being and every human situation.  They are simple; they touch the heart of the simple person as well as that of the profound.” 

If I were in hospital I wouldn’t be longing for a visit from Job’s ‘comforters’, or from anyone like them.  They would bring nothing but their too-fluent answers and their bogus explanations.  I would look to my visitors for human and perhaps spiritual support, not for answers and explanations (for these I would listen to the doctors, who know what they are talking about). 

What we have to hold onto is our knowledge of God who could not stay away from our predicament but took flesh in Jesus and lived among us, becoming “like us in all things but sin”.  We hold onto the assurance that ours is a loving God who watches over us like a father and mother.  Whenever we look for more than this we are looking for something less than love.

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