Theology Matters: Finding Hope in the Face of Suffering
It was late August in 2005. I boarded one of the last flights going to Gulfport, Mississippi from Atlanta thanks to the generosity of Delta Airlines. After explaining to them that I worked for the American Red Cross and that I had to get back to Mississippi to assist with the relief effort, they quickly upgraded my ticket for a flight out on the same evening. I sat in the plane listening to nervous chatter from people flying into Gulfport. Some of them did not know what they were going to do when they got there. Some were returning home as quickly as they could to prepare their homes for the oncoming storm, and a small number of us were going back to stand before the wrath of nature and to provide relief to people impacted by the storm.
Today, parishes and communities around Dallas, dealing with the aftermath of the Christmas tornadoes, may be faced with the same questions that I faced after Katrina. In fact, many of us around the diocese may be asking the same sorts of questions - looking for some logical explanation for the suffering that ensues after an event like a hurricane or a tornado. The questions that we ask - about suffering and God - may seem even more pertinent after a tornado given that tornadoes come with very little warning and have immense impact on people and communities. In times like this, we may be asking questions like, “Why did the tornadoes have to strike these communities?” or “Why did members of our community have to die?” The questions may get even more personal and more dire the closer we are to the suffering in our immediate community. Why did God allow this tragedy to happen to begin with? Why is it that bad things happen to good people? Why was God seemingly absent?
The why questions asked about God and suffering seem to be good questions at different times in our lives, but they are also questions that only look backwards. The questions asked during times of tragedy are big questions that have no good answers. They are questions that baffle the mind and have the potential to shred the soul into small pieces. The questions turn into a bog, imperceptible on the landscape, until you are sinking further and further into it when you ultimately find yourself neck deep in it with little hope of rescue or escape.
The reality of an embodied life is that it can and will involve suffering along the way. The fall story in Genesis tells us that life will now include certain hardships - from working in order to provide food to labor during childbirth to the ultimate truth that the fall narrative is not simply a story about the fall of humanity but is a story about the tragic fall of creation. And yet, the fall narrative is also a narrative of hope and of love. Instead of dying “in the day that you eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” God shares his redemptive love with Adam and Eve in casting them out of the garden. The result is that God’s action during the fall was one of love towards humanity, and it is that same love that we need to look for in the face of suffering.
Thus, it may better to reframe the question that we are asking about God. Instead of asking why bad things happen to good people, it may prove more instructive and more faithful to ask, “When bad things happen to good people, where am I witnessing God’s redemptive love in action?” By reframing the question in this way, we are recognizing that suffering is simply part of living an embodied life in a tragic creation. Though tragedy and suffering did not exist in the beginning, the fall of creation brought suffering into the world and made the reality of creation a tragic one. In recognizing that suffering is simply a truth of our embodied existence within creation, we are able to move past the why question and begin asking different questions that help us to look forward into the future with hope, faith, and love. We are able to begin looking for the ways that God continues to redeem us - even in the face of suffering.
As we continued the work of attempting to provide emergency relief to those affected by Hurricane Katrina, my emotions began to build into a tidal wave of anger. It was a torrent of anger that was looking for someone to take the brunt of it until I finally turned my rage to God, or, to be more precise, I turned my rage on God. In that moment, I let God have every venomous accusation I could imagine, and I challenged God directly. I challenged the reality of a God that supposedly loves his children but continues to allow suffering to happen. In that moment of rage, God responded. God took my anger and helped me to see that the last word had not been written. God still had something to say about the suffering of people after Hurricane Katrina, and God helped me to see that, even in the greatest moment of pain and suffering I had known, God was there alongside me.
During Hurricane Katrina, I was not able to see that God was there until I took the time to reframe the event through the power of the resurrection. Just as Christ called out to God, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” so too did I call out to God in a moment of great suffering. In the moment of the crucifixion and in the moment of Hurricane Katrina, God wept. In the moments of the crucifixion and after Hurricane Katrina, God responded through love by redeeming humanity. Today, the action of that redeeming love is present with us through the care and love being offered by Eucharistic communities to those that have faced the brunt of the tornadoes.
In the creation narrative, it is important for us to remember that sin and suffering are not a given within creation. Sin is something that enters the narrative after God speaks creation into being and calls it good. As a result, we, as faithful disciples of Christ, need to remember that suffering and sin are secondary realities; the primary reality is that we are created in the goodness of God’s image and that we can be reconciled to the goodness with which we are created. In short, though sin and suffering exists in the world, we are called to look out on the horizon of the future with hope and with expectation. We are called to look for the redeeming love of God, which is our singular hope in the face of suffering.
In the end, a recognition of suffering as part of the reality of the embodied life is also a recognition of the importance of grace in our lives. It is a move that helps us to slowly inch beyond the immediate state of suffering and into a future that is filled with hope precisely because it is upon the grace of God that we rely. Yet, the recognition of suffering as a reality is not enough for us to rediscover the hope that God offers to us. And it is here that being part of a community of hope, a community of thanksgiving becomes vitally important to our ability to experience God’s redemptive love through the care and actions of others. It is within the Eucharistic community that we are able to be reconnected to the reality of God’s redeeming love and that we are able to begin to imagine a future filled with hope and with love. It is within the Eucharistic community and by sharing the love of God through Christ that we become agents of God bringing love and hope into a landscape of tragedy.
Though we are not able to eradicate pain and suffering from our reality, we are able to rely on each other to bring God’s love into a tragic and hurting world. We are able to support and love each other, and we are able to serve as disciples of Christ by sharing God’s love with persons burdened by the yoke of suffering.
Bio: The Rev. Hunter Ruffin serves as the Associate for Mission and Outreach at Saint Michael and All Angels parish in Dallas, TX. Hunter graduated from the Seminary of the Southwest in May 2015 earning a Master of Divinity. Prior to being called to ordained ministry, Hunter worked for the American Red Cross in Mississippi and Florida.
 John Swinton, Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company, 2007), p. 13.
 Genesis 2:17b NRSV; Genesis 3:14-24 NRSV
 Swinton, Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil, p. 57.