Today would have been my sister’s 46th birthday. She died in a car accident in 1987. She was 23 years old and a newly-minted 6th grade teacher. Her name was Kim.
In the fog of grief that November my parents and I listened to the well-meaning words of family, friends, and neighbors who tried to offer comfort, whose own heads were spinning with disbelief at the loss of this beautiful girl whom they too knew and loved. We were all groping, in vain, for meaning.
We rarely seem to ponder questions of theodicy (why a good God permits evil and suffering) when things are going well, when we have our wits about us and the issue is more theoretical than personal. Unfortunately, theodicy usually kicks us in the stomach through a tragedy or loss that leaves us stunned, emotionally spent, and choking with rage and grief.
What has struck me most about God-talk and the recent earthquake in Haiti is this: Whether God’s (inscrutable) ways are being defended or God’s very existence is being denied, the kind of God under consideration seems to be something on the order of a comic-book superhero.
God could have prevented the earthquake if God wanted to, goes the first line of reasoning, ’cause God is all-powerful. God can do anything. Like Superman, he can swoop in at a moment’s notice and save the day. But sometimes he doesn’t.
For the skeptics and deniers, that last point is the kicker. If Superman-God can intervene but doesn’t, what kind of a sadist is he?
Years after my sister’s death I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who famously wrote that “only the suffering God can help.” Bonhoeffer was challenging a long-standing doctrine in Christian theology — that of divine impassibility — which holds that God is incapable of suffering since God is incoporeal, fully-realized perfection, and therefore always and eternally what God is.
But Bonhoeffer’s understanding of God was rooted in Scripture and history — in the passio of the person Jesus of Nazareth. “The Bible directs man to God’s powerlessness and suffering,” he wrote.
This is not Pat Robertson’s God, nor Joel Osteen’s, nor that of a host of persons and movements throughout history who have laid claim to a God and a faith that is militant, triumphalist, all-powerful, all-controlling.
But Bonhoeffer, from his prison cell in a Nazi death camp, knew that God is found, most definitively, in the suffering Christ on the cross. It’s there we discover theodicy’s truth: there is no place in our own godforsakenness that God in Christ Jesus has not already been.
Today would have been my sister’s 46th birthday. I still miss her. I would like to know the woman she would have become. I wish my sons could have known her and she them. Most days I can think of her with gratitude and a smile; on rare occasions grief washes over me like it was 1987.
But there is consolation in the knowledge of the mystery of the suffering God, “weak and powerless in the world,” as Bonhoeffer says — no comic-book superpower to the rescue. But this divine vulnerability is “precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us.”