Where is God in Suffering?

17 June 2024

3.1 MINS

by John Little

Who does not suffer? And how do Christians accept and enter its deeper meaning and challenge with clarity, trust and hope, and not with passive, puzzled acceptance, denial, confusion, resentment – or even anger?

For a “full-on” expression of anger, watch the viral recording of Stephen Fry being interviewed on Irish television in 2015. The interviewer asked Fry what he would say to God, if He existed, and if Fry were to meet him at the Pearly Gates.

With barely any hesitation, Fry replied:

“I will basically say: ‘Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you! How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault! It’s not right. It is utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded stupid god who creates a world which is so filled with injustice and pain.’ That’s what I’d say. …

“The god who created this world (if it was created by God) is, quite clearly, a maniac – utter maniac, totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him? What kind of god would do that? … It is perfectly apparent that he is monstrous, utterly monstrous, and deserves no respect whatsoever. The moment you banish him, your life becomes simpler, purer, cleaner – more worth living in my opinion.”

Fr Brendan Purcell, an Irish priest-philosopher, whom Cardinal Pell had invited at the time to come and live and work at St Mary’s Cathedral in Sydney, was asked by Irish Radio to respond to Fry’s outburst. What he said in a short interview led to him to being asked to write this book. But Fr Purcell also includes Australian philosopher Peter Singer as another influence.

He had an encounter with Singer at the Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne in 2012. Singer, who holds views similar to Fry’s, further claims that there is no evidence for God’s existence, anyhow.

Personal Stories

So, Fr Purcell answers both Singer and Fry with great zest, energy and clarity, as an Irish storyteller with substance. He presents a wide range of evidence in seven chapters or themes giving wide and varied accounts of the presence of God in suffering.

He opens by discussing suffering in nature, especially that caused by natural events, such as earthquakes and tsunamis; then of animals devoured by others in the food chain. The world has an order, and this includes natural suffering and death.

In Where is God in Suffering? Fr Purcell offers his view that the denial of God’s existence masks another denial, namely a refusal to accept creation as it is. This is a very telling comment, well grounded in Fr Purcell’s deep scholarship, such as is found in his earlier book, From Big Bang to Big Mystery, a grand tour of creation.

However, he does not attempt to argue with Fry or Singer; neither does he judge them; nor does he give clever reasons why one should believe in God. Instead, his stories do the job – of people he has known and of others who have lived with profound suffering, including the bone cancer that Fry had so railed against. So does his treatment of Russian literature (Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn), of the Book of Job; and, somewhat unusual in a book of this kind, of his own experience as a younger priest of falling in love.

Not all of his examples are Christian. He tells of Etty Hillesum, a Dutch Jew gassed at Auschwitz in 1943. Etty had lived loosely as a young woman, then came to a sense of God’s presence deep within her. Her life changed to one of hope, joy and love, even in the midst of Nazi atrocities.

In Where is God in suffering? Fr Purcell also discusses Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, whose experiences in a concentration camp led him to develop “logotherapy”, a treatment based on the discovery of meaning – particularly the love of another – and how it restores hope in the midst of suffering.

This “little book”, as Fr Purcell calls it, if read slowly and carefully, will bring you, his reader, back to yourself, to your own heart and its journey through its different relationships to love. It will alert you to the deeper thread throughout the book, namely the author’s awareness of the experience of the Living God to whom one is called in personal encounter and who is in all things.

Fr Purcell is a man with great confidence, clarity and hope. This is evident particularly in his final chapter on September 11 and the Twin Towers, and the present state and the future of Christian-Muslim relations.

This great “little book” is well worth buying – and one for a friend too. When it was published, Cardinal George Pell commended it. And I heard that his successor in Sydney, Archbishop Anthony Fisher, bought a copy for each of his 200 priests!


Republished with thanks to News Weekly. Image courtesy of Adobe.

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