Tony Campolo retells an incident involving William Sloane Coffin following the death of his son, Alexander. Alex, as he was called, was killed in a car accident in 1983 when he was only twenty-four years old. His father, William, who was a pastor, theologian, and chaplain at Yale University, was forced into coping with the emotional fallout. At Alex’s funeral, according to Campolo, the minister conducting the ceremony made a lame statement about the accident being part of God’s will. Coffin, one not afraid to state his opinion, stood to his feet and yelled, “The hell it was! It wasn’t God’s will at all! When my son died, God was the first one who cried.”
This was the Reformer Martin Luther’s response as well. He and his wife also buried a son, and in the aftermath his wife demanded of Luther: “Where was God when our son died?” And Luther responded, “The same place He was when his own Son died – weeping.”
Who among us have never pelted heaven with our questions and doubts: Where is God now? Why doesn’t he intervene? Why is he ignoring me? How could he let this happen to me? Why doesn’t God do something about the suffering in my life and my world? But I believe God is in the pain and the suffering. God has intervened, for in Jesus he knows what it is like to be found in the fashion of a man and subject himself to suffering. And every time you suffer, you will find him there, hurting again.
In your most bitter prayers and violent outbursts against heaven, Christ kneels beside you. When you cry, Jesus weeps with you. When confusion overwhelms and frustrates you, the Lord himself holds your hand and keeps you company. When you turn your head on the cross of suffering, you will see that it is the Galilean Rabbi who bleeds and suffers beside you. I cannot solve the problem of injustice in the world. Most times I cannot even understand it. And I don’t know why God allows/permits/causes/tolerates the things that happen in this world and in our lives. I have given up on that question altogether. I just know that he goes with us through it all.
I take comfort in the fact that Jesus never explained injustice and suffering, but he never avoided it. He embraced it and brought redemption from it. God may not always rescue us, may never explain things to us, but He always identifies with us and can never abandon us. For example, if later today you were to arrive at a terrible accident on the highway, you would have one of two options: First, you could take notes, measurements, pictures, break out your laptop and graph paper and begin re-enacting the scene, attempting to explain how this disaster occurred.
Or, second, you could start administering first-aid, putting hands of compassion and help on the bloodied bodies of those who are suffering. Those involved in the accident would certainly prefer the latter at that moment, and more times than not, that is what God gives us: Few explanations, but all the help and first-aid we need.
Returning to William Sloane Coffin; ten days after Alex’s death, Coffin delivered a sermon entitled “Eulogy for Alex” to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City. It is one of the most tragically, beautiful things you will ever read. To his congregation, in the repercussion of his son’s death, he said: “In my intense grief I felt some of my fellow ministers were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply could not face…But what God gave me is what God gives to all of us: Minimum protection, and maximum support.”
Faith in God is not an insulator from tragedy or injustice. Following Christ or holding to faith does not guarantee a trouble-free life. Nor will having “more faith” lead to less difficulty in this unfair world. Faith is minimum protection from suffering, but thank God, it is maximum support.