Sunday evening through last night was Holocaust Remembrance Day. In 2006, Pope Benedict XVI, during his visit to Auschwitz, raised the question of how God could tolerate the Holocaust. He said, "In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence, a silence which is a heartfelt cry to God, Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?"
Benedict's words remind us that as Christians, even though we can hold firm to our convictions and put forth our basic doctrines in a confident (but not certain) way, at the same time we do not know and understand everything, nor do we need to in order to have assurance that the Gospel is true. We see through a glass darkly, says St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13:12). Any discussion of the problem of evil must take this into account. There are times in the midst of great evil perpetrated, in the midst of tremendous suffering, the only adequate response is silence.
It takes great faith to question God over things we do not understand. I was raised in a certain kind of Protestant tradition, where questioning God was a sign of doubt, not faith. I have come to realize how untrue this is. The Psalmists are not afraid to put the tough questions to God, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent" (Psalm 22:1-2). In such times we echo the words of the anxious father to Jesus in Mark 9:24, "I believe, help my unbelief."
There is a kind of false humility in certain sectors of Protestantism that does not want to claim much in the way of truth, that does not want to insist on such basic and necessary affirmations of faith as the doctrine of the Trinity or the bodily resurrection of Jesus. I do not speak of nor support this kind of doctrinal knownothingism. What I am referring to is the assurance that we can be confident in and affirm the critical things of the Christian faith and at the same time understand that we are ignorant in other things, particularly when it comes to evil and suffering.
Christians have affirmed from the very beginning that God is dealing with sin, suffering, and evil in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In the end, God will have God's way; but prior to this it is important that the church not avoid asking God the tough questions. In this, Pope Benedict XVI provides an example for us. As Job's friends sat with him in silence for seven days and seven nights, they were a suffering presence (Job 2:11-13). The church also needs to be a suffering presence in the world and avoid the temptation, as Job's friends would later succumb to, of providing an explanation for all of life's miseries.
To be sure, there is a day coming when God in Christ will have finished putting the world to rights (Revelation 21:1-5), but in the meantime, less talk and more action, less speech and more presence is the task of God's people in a world still being ravaged by suffering and evil. When the church is a suffering presence in this world, it is reflecting the way of Jesus, who is the suffering presence of God among us.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)