When bad things happen to good people – what philosophers and theologians call the problem of evil – is one of the most troubling and persistent questions facing religious believers. How does one reconcile belief in the existence of a God who is all-loving and all-powerful with the reality of evil in the world?
It’s a question that echoes down the centuries and was asked at Auschwitz, Rwanda and Srebrenica, to name just a few places that have become bywords for man’s inhumanity to man.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the Enniskillen bombing when a Provisional IRA explosion killed 12 people attending a Remembrance Day ceremony. We might well ask: ‘where was God?’
The same thought comes to mind in the aftermath of the mass shooting at the church in Sutherland Springs in Texas at the weekend that say 26 worshippers lose their lives.
How – as people of faith – do we make sense of such senseless tragedies?
There are no easy answers, and pious phrases do little to sooth the reality of the heart-aching pain that provokes the question. In fact, overly-simplified book-learnt answers can often put the final nail in the coffin of a faith that a bereaved person is struggling to hold on to by their fingertips.
We need to be honest and admit that religious faith does not automatically make the questions any easier to answer. How often have we hard people of faith utter the clumsy phrase “it was God’s will”. It’s a well-meaning phrase, but how could such barbaric acts be the will of God? Who would ever want to know such a God, never mind love and serve him?
No, there are no easy answers. But, we do know that God is there in the heartbreak and suffering. We saw in at Enniskillen when Gordon Wilson – who had just seen his 20-year-old daughter Marie die as he held her hand reach not with anger, but with love. “I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge. Dirty sort of talk is not going to bring her back to life…She was a pet. She’s dead. She’s in heaven and we shall meet again. I will pray for these men tonight and every night.”
They were the words of a man of extraordinary and heroic faith and are among the most-remembered from the decades of conflict.
I thought about them again this week when I watched the Texas Pastor respond to the shooting that had left his 14-year-old adopted daughter among the dead in Sutherland Springs.
As he was finishing his tribute to his daughter, Frank Pomeroy was asked by a reporter “what do you tell the other grieving families?” His response was as swift as it was honest, “I’m still working on that,” he said. He then turned back to face the camera saying: “Christ is the one who is going to be lifted up, that’s what I’m telling everybody: you lean in to what you don’t understand – you lean in to the Lord…whatever life brings to you, lean on the Lord rather than your own understanding.
“I don’t understand, but I know my God does, and that’s where I’ll leave that,” he said.
It is a remarkable testimony of faith and trust in the midst of the most appalling tragedy.
Faith is, above all else, the overwhelming trust that – in the end – all will be well. Even when we can’t see it.