One of the greatest barriers to faith for young people is one of the great questions of existence; how can God exist when so many horrific things happen in the world?
The list is endless. Wars, famines, the Boxing Day tsunami and cancer to name but a few.
In the last few days, who has not been deeply moved by the shocking loss of life on Malaysian Airlines MH17? 298 people. Not a moment of warning. Lives, futures and hopes obliterated in a millisecond. Families destroyed. Is there any more poignant image than that of the three young Australian children who perished. The photograph, taken in the weeks before they flew, it shows an impish delight in life. The open skies of possibility. All gone in a moment of hatred, violence and most likely, and most tragically, probably a moment of rank stupidity and bravado on the part of some drunk or befuddled Ukrainian separatist.
How do we help students navigate this awful event within the context of a Catholic school?
How can a moment of such sorrow be transformed into something of an encounter with God? Surely, if God exists, He would have intervened? It’s one thing for the old to come to the end of a life but the terrible and senseless death of children is another category altogether. Questions, questions, questions. The lack of answers means so many students decide that if God is all loving and all powerful then he’s missing in action. He’s not a God they can trust and they eventually want no part of Him.
I wonder if this seeming unresolvable tension between the God they learn about in primary school, a God of rainbows and arks, a smiling Jesus and loaves and fishes and the God who seems absent, silent, even disinterested in the tragedies that beset the human experience can, in fact, be resolved?
The good news is that as Catholic educators we have an incredible opportunity at the moment of tragedy to introduce them to a God they have never known. The scandal of a God who suffers with us.
The Cost of Love
Earlier this year I was asked to speak to a group of students at a prestigious Catholic secondary school. Many of them come from very privileged backgrounds. Does that mean that none of them have known true hardship or loss? No. But most had made it this far shielded from the pointy end of life. My topic was Finding God In Hard Times. The staff gave me free choice of topic and I had felt for a long time that this topic presented not only a chance to speak into their experience but was also a rare and powerful opportunity to both catechise and evangelise.
I spoke of free will. I spoke of how God gifted us a created order of perfection open only to one possible vulnerability. The vulnerability of extravagant love. If God withdrew free will we could never respond in love. We could never have relationship.
I asked the young men to imagine the most perfect girlfriend they could possibly shape in their mind. I told them that this mystical young woman would be perfect in every way. She would like what they like. She would choose what they chose. She would always want to go and do whatever the young men wanted to do. The only caveat was that she had no free will. She could never respond in truth. Ultimately, there could never be a true freedom, a true meeting of persons. They sensed, even in the moment of that adolescent idyll that something would be broken here. Something would be lacking.
In short if God withdrew free will we would never sin but we would also be robots.
For the moment let’s skip the theology of the fall and exactly how sin and evil entered the world and made MH17 possible. Let’s just stay focused on the free will question. I help students understand that if God broke into creation and stopped evil acts before they unfolded then free will would cease to exist and love could not exist either.If you cannot choose evil freely then you cannot chose its opposite freely. It seems, perhaps, that evil is permitted so that love may remain a possibility. Many will choose wickedness and cruelty and depravity but even in the darkest heart free will remains and the door is always open.
So what, then, was God doing as MH17 broke up? He was grieving. He was suffering with us, The divine heart was broken at the loss of every life and over every tear shed since. This is the point that we must make to students. We have a God who suffers with us. He knows our grief and pain and walks in it with us though we feel him not.
Stories and Proofs
Some examples. First, as a teenager, I went to live in Europe on my own for a year. I remember the first days after arriving. Body clock subverted and an incredible sense of being on the other side of the planet and incredibly far from home. I was miserable, lonely and homesick. Over a two or three day period in that first week I experienced an incredible sense of the Christ’s solidarity with me. I was given an insight of sorts into the man of sorrows, who was acquainted with grief. I could literally feel him incredibly present in my pain because somehow I knew that he had also experienced it. I can say after all these years that I don’t think I have ever experienced His presence more directly than in the moment of that suffering.
Second. I once interviewed a religious sister who among other things talked about her anger with God over the tragic suicide death of her brother. One day she was walking along a beach yelling at God for taking away her baby brother. She suddenly sensed God scream back at her, “Your brother was my son, and I loved Him more than you ever could.” God was grieving. His heart was broken. He suffers with us.
Third, two years ago I was in the back of an ambulance with my three-year-old son who was barely able to breathe. I was utterly terrified. Marooned for hours in the confusion of a hospital emergency ward I suddenly realised that God knew exactly what it’s like to watch your Son suffer but not be able to intervene. That was what happened on Calvary. God knew my terror and powerlessness intimately. He had been through it before. He was holding me together. I just had to realise it.
Telling Young People a Bigger Story
Please tell your students, friends and colleagues that God suffers with them. His heart breaks over the loss of MH17. He is not removed from us. He stands in the home of every grieving family. He witnesses every tear shed and every sleepless night for those left behind. We are not left alone in our grief.
We need to break our students out of their tooth-fairy mentality about God which has been termed elsewhere as Remote Therapeutic Deism. It’s the idea, closely held by many students, that God is a mystical force out there ‘somewhere’ who exists to make them feel better. This is a heresy. God does not exist to make us happy. At least not completely in this life. Many students and many adults need to know this. The truth is more visceral and more challenging to our preconceptions. The truth is that God has his sleeves rolled up. He is deeply immersed in the reality of human suffering and will remain so until Christ returns. We are not alone.
MH17 offers great Catholic schools and great Catholic educators a chance to speak a word of life and hope into confusion and sadness. God always brings opportunity out of evil. After every forest fire green shoots emerge. This evil tragedy allows some small window to answer our students deepest and often unspoken questions. Let us not waste this chance to speak into their hunger for answers even as we pray for the victims and even for the perpetrators.
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