Pioneer magazine

Where’s God When We Need Him?

novembercover2011When evil things happen in life we may ask where God is. Why doesn’t he prevent wars and famines? Why does he allow people to do bad things to each other? But if we expect accountability from God we don’t really know what we’re asking for, suggests TOM CAHILL SVD

When pictures of starving children in the Horn of Africa appear on TV news I close my eyes. I just can’t watch them. Seeing their pencil-thin arms too weak to swish away the foraging flies clustering on their emaciated and wizened faces is too much to bear. It`s a situation in which the awful silence of God is at its loudest.

A prayer of rage silently surges in my heart: "Why, oh why dear God do such things happen?" It’s not a question in search of an answer. It’s not faith seeking understanding. These things can't be ‘understood.' It‘s a cry of outrage at man’s inhumanity to man. Much of this suffering is avoidable. It’s man-inflicted whether it’s from the wanton carnage of gun-toting killers fired by hate and probably fuelled by drugs, or from the greed of the self-serving sellers of weapons of death, or from the indifference of those who manufacture armaments as to how they’ll be used later.

In a sense it’s not surprising that we want to blame God for not preventing the awful things that happen and that are done in this world of ours, especially things so dark and evil that they inflict pain and suffering of a magnitude that defies comprehension, lf we blamed ourselves we might have to do something about them. Easier to blame God. After all, he created this world and us in it.

And the reality at once great and terrible, is that he created us as free beings, able to do as we please. Would we want it any other way? No we wouldn’t! Who would want to be no more than a hairless, high-performing primate, programmed to react to all of life’s contingencies, thereby carrying no responsibility for anything? Were we like that we would not be the image and likeness of God that we are ever more clearly becoming. If we’re free, we can’t be free only to do what is good but not free to do what is evil. That would not be freedom but programming. Freedom requires the capacity to choose either good or evil and to act accordingly.

Giving us freedom was an almighty act of trust on the Creator's part. A person’s freedom is something that by definition God cannot control. Any control of it on God’s part would destroy it. Having given it he can't take it back from individuals or groups at our behest when we see them misusing it. Should we ever rashly demand that God account for his seeming absence and inscrutable silence when he's most needed, and his apparent inaction in the face of evil, then we would not know what we were demanding.

When dealing with human freedom one thing is certain: we must be consequential. Freedom is with us when we use it well and it’s with us when we abuse it. We must live with the consequences. We cannot expect miraculous interventions from God when things go terribly wrong. We have the capacity to - and we absolutely must - learn from our mistakes. Otherwise, we turn our Garden of Eden into our Gehenna.

In giving us such a wonderful but dangerous gift our Creator also provides us with safeguards for its use; a conscience to guide our behaviour, a mind to comprehend the inestimable value of each and every person, a heart to respond with respect to each other’s uniqueness, a faith to convince us that we are all equal in the sight of God, and that distinctive quality we call the milk of human kindness. lt’s when we disregard these that we misuse freedom. And when we do and terrible consequences follow we may feel that God is absent, that he is silent when he should cry out, and that he is cold and unfeeling when he should be caring and supportive. lt may indeed seem to us at times that he is no more than an illusion when harsh reality intrudes into our lives.

For those who can continue to believe in his existence despite his seeming distance and indifference he will seem inscrutable at best. Coming to terms with the inscrutability of God is a priority in our life, or should be. Sadly, for many, it isn’t.

When we try to come to terms with that God we find, as Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, points out in his book, Love and Living, that much of God’s activity in the Bible has quite “an aura of secularity” about it. So much so in fact that those of a particular brand of religiosity want to improve on it by making it more spiritual, or more divine, he writes. That secularity is found not only in the Bible but in real life too.

If we compare the number of times we’re told in the Bible to pray to the number of times to love our neighbour we’ll note a bias very much in favour of loving our neighbour. Jesus even calls it the greatest of the commandments. He further shows just how down-to-earth that love must be. It's the sleeves up, hands on approach of the Good Samaritan. God wants action not just intention. There’s nothing inscrutable about that.

God’s presence in our life is difficult to explain and being aware of it is difficult to describe. It’s subtle, very subtle. Sensitivity to that Presence requires a life of faith dedicated to God. It would be a bit much to want God only at times of dire need and to be indifferent to him otherwise. To raise our level of awareness of God`s presence at all times but especially when we need him most it’s worthwhile opening the Bible and listening to passages such as: Even if my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me up. (Psalm 27.10) and, I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you (Isaiah 43.2).And of course beautiful Psalm 23 that begins, The Lord is my shepherd there is nothing I shall want, fresh and green are the pastures where he gives me repose.

Time given faithfully to prayer each day is vital to experiencing God’s presence in our lives. So too is taking seriously what we hear in prayer: God telling us through his word in scripture what he requires of us: to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God (Micah 6.8).When we do what God tells us we won’t ever have to ask where he is.