This is a date we shall never forget. Images of planes hurtling into the twin towers, the collapse of the buildings, the faces of the police, firefighters and other rescue workers who lost so many friends and co-workers, the anguished cries of family members who refused to accept the obvious. Images, too, of the Pentagon in flames, followed by the rerouting of Air Force One and the cautionary hiding out of the Vice President. War had come to American soil.
The World Trade Center and the Pentagon: the most powerful symbols of our nations’ economic, political and military might. And with the continuing threat of biological and chemical assaults, we well know that the terror, and our sense of helplessness, are not over.
In times like these there is a great temptation to fall into despair, to lapse into a kind of fatalism because it all seems so cruel and meaningless. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is the age-old question victims of barbaric acts have been asking themselves throughout history, in the wake of the sack of Rome or Constantinople, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, in the face of the heart-breaking grief and agony brought on by ethnic cleansing. It is a question raised by the parents whose infants were slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers. It was surely on the lips of the Mother of God as she watched her beloved son endure the agony of crucifixion. Why must the innocent suffer?
The only reasonable, the only acceptable answer to the question is the one God Himself offers us in the Gospel of His Son.
God has created us as free human beings, capable of goodness and love, but also capable of wanton sinfulness. Our freedom is necessary for us to love God and one another. Without it, there is only compulsion; and love cannot be compelled. Therefore, God runs the risk of granting us freedom, so that we might love Him and each other.
That freedom, as we know from personal experience, can be tragically misused. In some cases, as on September 11, it can lead people to perpetrate horrendous acts, believing all the while they are faithfully obeying the will of God. Without the message of the New Testament—the Good News, revealed in Christ, that God is love and that He loves us from the depths of His heart—our natural human inclinations or passions lead us inevitably to sin, even to justify acts of murder and mayhem. Without God, Dostoevsky declared, anything is permissible. He was speaking of the one true God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Seen through any lens other than the Gospel, the image of God is distorted. As a consequence, our understanding of His will and purpose are distorted as well. Yet so often even we who claim allegiance to the Gospel read into it our own will, our own desires and prejudices. The result is that we, too, distort the image of God, both in Scripture and in ourselves.
It would be easy to conclude from this that suffering is God’s punishment meted out to the guilty. That, we know, is simply not true. In the first place, God is not vengeful. If He allows us to experience His “wrath,” it is for our spiritual growth and edification. But He does allow us to bear the consequences of our own actions. Much of the suffering we endure results from our rejection of God, our rebellion against His will and refusal of His guidance, which always seek our well-being and salvation.
On the other hand, we are also painfully aware that a great deal of suffering is borne by those who are basically innocent. In the case of these recent events, the tragedy so outweighs whatever sinful acts any of the victims might have committed, that the “punishment,” if it were such, would be wholly disproportionate and unjust. Yet God is a God of justice, righteousness and mercy.
What, then, can we say about the reason God allows events such as those of September eleventh? The Church Fathers made a crucial distinction between God’s intentional will and His permissive will. God certainly did not intend the WTC attack and other tragedies of that day, yet He did permit them to occur. Why He did so is a question we simply cannot answer. Its answer lies hidden in the impenetrable mystery of the divine will. In fact, it is this unanswerability of the question “Why?” that distinguishes suffering from mere pain. Pain becomes suffering to the degree that it remains inexplicable.
There is one thing, though, that God reveals to us that speaks directly to the problem of suffering. It is the fact of His presence and His participation in our anguish, our pain, our sense of overwhelming loss. He drinks the cup of our suffering to the bitter dregs. He shares our pain, our grief, our agony to the full measure.
When I think about these things, there are three passages that always come to mind, two from Scripture and one from the French Catholic philosopher Pascal. “If I make my bed in Hades,” the Psalmist declares, “Thou art there!” (Ps. 138/139:8). As the angel greets the Myrrhbearers in the Empty Tomb, he speaks of the Risen Lord as “the Crucified One” (the actual meaning of the Greek in Mark and Matthew): the Resurrected Christ will forever remain “the Crucified One,” bearing in Himself the suffering of us all. This truth, finally, was well expressed in a familiar phrase of Pascal: “Christ is in agony until the end of the world.”
These three statements don’t answer the question as to why in this tragic and sinful world persons acting in the name of God could perpetrate horrific acts that killed thousands and brought unspeakable grief to so many more.
But they do say what each of us needs to hear in these days.
They remind us that in our doubt, our fear and our pain, the Risen Lord is present in our midst. He is and remains “Emmanuel, God with us.” As the Crucified One, He journeys with us, He bears us up, He consoles us, He shares to the full our pain and anguish. In return, He asks merely that in the darkness of our incomprehension, we place our firm hope and our unwavering trust in Him, the Vanquisher of death and the Author of eternal life.