Making sense of suffering: Does God always get what God wants?
By Tim Reddish
I returned to my pew, having just received the bread and wine of Holy Communion. It suddenly dawned on me that the same power that had raised Jesus from the dead was now mystically embodied within Anne, my wife, and me. The risen Christ was not just with us, but in us. At that moment, I suddenly felt warm, as if I had been wrapped in a hot blanket. I felt that the Holy Spirit was pouring healing, hope, courage, and peace into the core of my being.
Some who read these words may find this weird and emotional; others will recognize it as a gracious anointing. This special moment didn’t last long. In my experience, such occasions never do. But it was, for me, a quiet but vivid reassurance of God’s presence in our situation. It was a confirmation, if one were needed, that God was on the case: God was powerfully at work.
This was in 2010. Anne’s breast cancer had been diagnosed in late 2004, and we had been on an arduous journey since then. Throughout this expedition, climbing emotional mountains and travelling through deep valleys, I devoured many theology books relating to suffering. Traditional “explanations” were unhelpful and unsatisfying. I wanted to know: How do we make sense of “God and suffering”? Can we make sense of it? Should we even try?
From the start, doctors had told us that the cancer was virulent, so they wanted to treat it aggressively. Anne was energized for that; she was determined to live! After surgery, she underwent chemotherapy followed by radiation, long-term medication, and periodic scans of various kinds.
Even so, as time went on, the cancer metastasized in her vertebrae – requiring surgery, radiation, intensive pain management, and bone strengthening drugs. At one point Anne described herself being “locked within her pain-filled body – a prisoner to pain.” The disease later spread to her liver, requiring further chemotherapy, and it reoccurred in her breast, requiring a mastectomy and more radiation.
Then we learned that Anne had multiple brain tumors. This was particularly devastating, as the brain is one region where standard chemotherapies cannot reach. Returning home from hearing that diagnosis, I pulled an old hymnal from my bookshelf and found Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, the well-known Charles Wesley hymn that we had sung at our wedding. I was crying as I read out loud the last verse to Anne:
Finish then Thy new creation:
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see Thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in Thee,
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before Thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
As we cried in each other’s arms, I told Anne that heaven was now a step closer for her than it had been before. The journey wasn’t over yet; for a time, treatment reduced the size of those tumors. But in 2011 Anne died, at the age of 49.
If we are honest, suffering causes us to doubt or question our understanding of God. Whether we are considering cancer or COVID, the questions remain the same: Where is God in this crisis? Why doesn’t God do more? Why is there suffering in the world anyway – and so much of it? Do our prayers make any difference?
Our experience of suffering makes us think about three things: the kind of God we believe in, the kind of world God has created, and the relationship between the two – God’s action in the world. I found a good place to begin exploring the problem of suffering is the question: “Why did Jesus have to die?” How we respond to that question inevitably colours how we regard God when we experience pain and suffering. Personally, I see the cross as the ultimate expression of the Trinity’s identification with a suffering creation. This means a suffering God, the antithesis of a deity that is invulnerable to – or uninterested in – creation. God’s character matters.
The biblical record is not just about Israel: it is God’s ongoing story, one that we find ourselves in. In this narrative, we not only recognize and experience God’s presence, but we also see that our God is not distant or disinterested. God is intimately involved in history – in our suffering world. This, I believe, brings genuine hope in suffering and purpose to our communal lives, and – with the Spirit’s help – enables us to live in faith, hope, and love as we carry our sufferings and scars, and trek onward.
From the very beginning, Anne and I had a special sense of God being with us, of Emmanuel, of Jesus walking alongside us day by day. Christ was with us and gave us hope, strength, peace, and a quiet assurance of his love as we walked on this unwanted path of suffering together. That moment of warmth during Communion in 2010 was a special and vivid reminder.
I can’t explain it rationally. I just think it has been one of those profound gifts that God gave us, which neither of us expected at the outset and one which, despite the deep sadness that we felt, resulted in us having no major crises or crippling fear.
Christians trot out the biblical phrase “the peace that passes understanding” (Phil 4:7) all too glibly. But I would describe it as “having a quiet, calm awareness of God’s peace and presence in a way that defies all logic in the circumstances.”
Of course, we were not saints or perfect in our situation. Nor were we stoics. We were human. It hurt, we wept, and we quietly mourned the loss of our future relationship together. But somehow we knew that it was not just two of us on this walk, but three; Jesus himself shared with us in the good times and the funny times, as well as in the very sad and painful times. This, to me, was the most important aspect of our journey.
This was aided by close friends, God’s agents, walking alongside us and supporting us in wonderful ways, such that we will never be able to truly express our gratitude. Thank God for his family, the church; when it functions well, it is awesome.
My quest for a theological framework that was more constructive and faith-enhancing eventually resulted in me writing a book, titled, Does God Always Get What God Wants? (Cascade, 2018). I also discovered that I was enjoying theology significantly more than physics. I had been Professor of Physics at the University of Windsor (Ont.) since 2002. Twenty-five years earlier, however, I had considered becoming a minister. Before Anne died, I told my minister that I sensed this present journey would lead eventually to a new direction in my life.
Following Anne’s death – and now with much more life-experience – I left my tenured professorship. No one close to me was surprised to hear of my prayerful decision to pursue this new path. Beginning again as a seminary student at Knox College was the next step – continuing to walk alongside the suffering God of love each day.
Tim Reddish (Knox 2015) is the minister of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Amherstburg, Ont., and was formerly a physics professor. He is the author of three books, and his forthcoming The Jesus I Didn’t Know I Didn’t Know will be published by Wipf & Stock later this year.