This Sunday’s Gospel assures us that suffering is not a punishment for sin. After a local tragedy, Jesus says, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!”
Why do people need this reassurance? Because, as we wrestle with the mystery of suffering, we look for a reason. If bad things happen because of people’s sin, then they brought it on themselves, right? There’s almost a comfort in holding a person, and God, accountable for suffering. There’s an element of control in an unpredictable world, isn’t there? If God punishes bad behavior, I can say, “If I follow the rules, I can avoid suffering. Bad things will not happen if I am good.”
But what about when bad things do happen to good people? Or, a bad thing happens to you? Do you blame yourself? Do you blame God?
I would love to have control over the chaos of life, but by now I know that’s not how it works. Tragedy strikes good people and families. Each of us endures hardships of some kind. Also, the reward-and-punishment God seems mean, and God’s not mean. The God I know is love and freedom, not punishment.
God’s not mean, but sometimes people are.
What I have come to understand about suffering is that much of it is a result of human meanness, not God’s. Just look at the suffering coming from the shooting in New Zealand. That has caused great anguish – in the families and friends of victims as well as Muslim communities and allies and neighbors throughout the world. Like the other shootings that have happened, it’s the result of human evil caused by those who, rather than working to heal their brokenness, have projected it onto others.
Even natural disasters, which some label “acts of God,” are not God’s punishment. As natural disasters get more violent and frequent, it’s clear that they are a direct result of human irresponsibility with our earth, a collective sin. God’s not mean, but we’ve done some mean things to our planet. Consequently, we all suffer.
And sometimes misfortunes are not the result of a human action. They just happen. I don’t know why. A side effect of suffering is that it shows me my vulnerability, and the more a tragedy seems to have no cause, the more vulnerable I feel.
The season of Lent invites me to wrestle with the question of evil and suffering. And as I wrestle, I notice a couple of invitations:
God is calling me, and us, to move against evil with some actions beyond “sending thoughts and prayers.” Yes, let’s pray, but let’s also act. White supremacy is a supreme evil, and white people need to call it out. The longer we continue to benefit from our privilege without speaking out, the more we are complicit in the evil of white supremacy. Also, Christians are not a persecuted group in most areas of the world. We must be allies to people of other faiths, especially those who are targeted by hate.
In addition, as much as I would like to see those who do mean things get theirs, I also see how any potential for meanness in someone else is also a possibility in me. I need to seek healing for my own pain so I don’t project it onto someone else. For me as a Christian, Lent is a good time to do that. As I reflect on the suffering, broken body of Christ, I reflect on my brokenness too.
And I know the end of the story. Brokenness is real, but it is redeemable. As community, we can bring our woundedness together, owning our incompleteness, and drawing near each other. God is present when we come together in our brokenness, God who has chosen to be vulnerable too. Therein lies our redemption and our resurrection. Rising is not just an action of an individual. It’s something we do together.
Sunday’s Gospel ends with a parable about the possibility of growing and cultivating new life. So, let’s do that. Let’s work. Let’s heal. Let’s rise.
By Sister Leslie Keener, CDP
Sister Leslie Keener, CDP is the director of God Space, a community-building spirituality ministry in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. She’s a Sister of Divine Providence with a Masters in Ministry and a Certificate in Spiritual Direction and Retreats from Creighton University. She directs retreats, meets with people for spiritual direction, and serves as the vocation director for her community. She also serves on the Coordinating Council of Spiritual Directors International. She enjoys music, meaningful conversations, and dancing.