An Easter Reflection

IEC's International Sunday,from the balconyThe “International Sunday” service was in full swing. We’d sung in several languages; the Dutch choir had done their thing; over 50 nationalities had been counted. A hush fell over the buzzing auditorium as Pastor Jerry went to the stage to preach, but first, he said, there was something we needed to pray for.

Choking back the tears, Jerry shared with us that the day before, barely 3 minutes’ walk from his home and affecting a number of his charity’s beneficiaries, a huge landslide had occurred at the vast rubbish dump in the Koshe area of Addis Ababa, trapping up to 300 people. Many were dead, but no-one knew how many. What emergency services Addis can muster had swung into action. Digging was underway. The shanty town that had grown up around the dump, filled with some of the neediest and poorest people in the city, had been devastated. Around 500 people scavenge there every day, attempting to eke a living out of other people’s flotsam. Now many had been killed; families had been torn apart; dwellings lost; property buried under thousands of tons of mouldering rubbish.

After the landslideThe joy and thrill of our annual International Sunday, where over 1000 people from all over the world come together in celebration, was now tempered by the knowledge of this disastrous situation a short distance away. And that in a city already constantly riven by poverty and suffering.

Travelling across half of the city every day I shut my eyes to what goes on around me all the time. To live here amongst it I have to – it’s a survival thing. But the day after the Koshe disaster I looked. And watched. Street kids with no families, no homes and no hope; people with missing or damaged limbs struggling to get around with no aids and no support; poverty-stricken beggars at every junction; the blind sitting forlornly in the gutter shaking a small handful of coins; a half-naked mentally ill man lying on a small concrete wall between the carriageways; brief glimpses into the shacks behind tumble-down corrugated iron fences, with no water, no sanitation, no kitchens. People going about their business trying to survive by selling small amounts of fruit and vegetables, small piles of charcoal or wheel-barrows full of bananas or mangoes.

Chris and RuthAnd then there’s Ruth. We don’t know (and will likely never know) exactly what happened to Ruth - she either fell or was pushed from a moving vehicle, sustaining her skull fracture and brain injury (initial reports of an incident with a motorcycle were not accurate). She’s made a remarkable recovery, but has no memory of the accident or her time in hospital. She’s back to work but is needing Chris to re-educate her about her classroom duties. Will this lovely, caring, dedicated Christian woman every be the same again? We don’t know, but we pray on.

As I look at the suffering and poverty all around us here, it’s tempting to ask “why?” But as Tim Keller puts it in his excellent book “Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering”: “Before suffering is a philosophical issue, it is a practical crisis – before it is about “why?” it is about “how?” How do I survive this?” Jerry’s charity is helping the Koshe folks; her family, the school and her students’ parents are helping Ruth; SIM has all sorts of projects bringing aid and comfort as well as the Gospel to the suffering and the needy around the country. People going through suffering don’t need to know why – they need love, care, support, comfort, and someone who’ll weep with them. But still, the “why?” question won’t go away.

Many look at suffering in the world and conclude that it shows there can be no God. After all, as David Hume so eloquently put it: “Is he willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”[1] As a Christian, how do I cope with this?

Well, disposing of God solves the problem of God’s involvement in suffering, but it doesn’t change the suffering -that’s still there. In fact it makes the situation worse – removing God removes any hope, and removes all expectation of justice. In fact, in a Godless universe derived entirely from chance and necessity suffering becomes meaningless, as does any concept of right and wrong. But we all know it’s not meaningless, and we all know suffering is wrong – it’s not how it ought to be. It was reflecting on this universal innate sense of morality that helped take C S Lewis from atheism to Christianity. [2]

Which brings us to Easter. God’s purposes with suffering remain mysterious and we may never have our questions answered. We must remain sensitive and caring to those who suffer and must avoid trite and pat answers to their very real pain and anguish – after all, one day it will be our turn. But God hasn’t left us alone in our suffering - as John Lennox puts it, what was God doing on a cross? He came and joined in our suffering, experienced it, endured it. It all looked hopeless as he hung there, suffering and dying on that Friday afternoon.

Friday was awful. But Sunday was coming. Resurrection, new life, and above all – hope.

So there is hope, there is the expectation of justice, and for me the only way to cope with the suffering all around me here is to trust God, that he has matters in hand, that he knows what it’s like in a much more profound way than I ever will, that he walks alongside us in it, and that he will work it out in such a way that in the end we’ll all see that he was right all along.

A recent communication from SIM-UK recounted the reaction of an SIM missionary elsewhere in Africa to the tragic death of a student in a swimming accident: “You might think that when a tragedy like this strikes it would make people question their faith but we have seen the very opposite of that. If anything, his death has reinforced his classmates’ dependence on God. When they see how fragile our hold on life can be, they know they must rely on God throughout.”

[1] David Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, ed. Richard Popkin (Hackett Pub, 1980), p. 63.

[2]My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? If the whole show was bad and senseless from A to Z, so to speak, why did I, who was supposed to be part of the show, find myself in such violent reaction against it?

Of course, I could have given up my idea of justice by saying that it was nothing but a private idea of my own. But if I did that, then my argument against God collapsed too – for the argument depended on saying that the world was really unjust, not simply that it did not happen to please my private fancies. Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist – in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless – I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality – namely my idea of justice – was full of sense.

Consequently atheism turns out to be too simple. If the whole universe has no meaning, we should never have found out that it has no meaning: just as, if there were no light in the universe and therefore no creatures with eyes, we should never know it was dark. ‘Dark’ would be without meaning.”

C S Lewis – Mere Christianity (1952)




Hi thank you for this blog. It's gets us to the essence of Christianity. We don't understand all He allows to happen, but without God things are so much worse. All actions are Meaningless in a meaningless world. No right or wrong, only what I happen to think or want at a particular time. The cross is the ultimate sign of the justice and mercy of God. It also points to a meaningful existence in a purpose filled world. 

Hay Dad, John Lennox has put a talk up on YouTube about suffering that says the same thing, there is no pat answer, but do we have a God who we can trust with this answer? That has really settled things on this subject for me.  Helpful blog Dad, thank you!

Hi Aaron. When I was preparing a short talk on suffering for the medical students at the Christian medical school in Addis a while ago I listened to John Lennox on this subject, and what I said in this blog post reflects that. I also did some reading in the book of Job - I nearly mentioned that in this post but it became too long. the startling thing about Job is that he never found out the reasons for his suffering. We know, because of the first two chapters, but Job was in the dark. He just had to trust.

Thanks for this dad. This is something we have been grappling with as a home group/ church during lent. I may be too simplistic about it all and maybe it is easier to see this in the abstract but I see it as part of God giving us choice to know him.

He wants to have relationship with us without forcing us to. We live in a broken world - not how it was intended to be because we had choice to follow him and we have all made the choice not to over and over again. Yet he lets it continue, to give as many people as possible the chance to choose to follow him through faith and trusting in his grace and sovereignty despite what this imperfect world throws at us. It is not that God allows suffering but more that he allows us a chance to choose to know him.

Also it is finite. God has sent his son to conquer death and save us from punishment for our continued rejection of Him. But gives us hope of a future with no more crying, pain etc.

Revelation 21:4
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

Thank you for a very thought provoking blog post. One of the best yet!

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