Matthew Shardlake had seen it all – burnings, hangings, beheadings and torture – all in the name of religion. He had witnessed these gruesome, hellish, barbaric acts committed by Protestant on Catholic, Catholic on Protestant – and even Protestant against those of their own brand who disagreed with the ruling elite on matters of conscience.
Matthew had started out as a young man with a strong faith – but now, much older and wiser, that was all but dead.
One afternoon, in the summer of 1545, despondent and broken, he found himself in the vicarage of an old alcoholic Priest – Reverend Seckford. As he shared a mug of beer to the Priests’ three they recounted together the terrible times they had lived through. Suddenly Matthew burst out – ‘How can God allow such things to happen? – forgive me but sometimes I think God only laughs at us.’ With a shaking hand Seckford put down his cup and replied – ‘I understand how people think like that nowadays. And if God were all powerful, perhaps you would be right. But the Gospels tell a different story. The Cross, you see. I think Christ suffers with us.’
I think the old priest had something there! Much may have changed since Tudor England in 1545 – but some things have not – and Shardlake’s question in C.J. Sansom’s brilliant novel ‘Heartstone’ is one we hear as often today as, I suspect, way back then – ‘How can God allow suffering and injustice?’
One of the interesting things we discover in the Bible is the absence of such question! And that is not because the Bible sidesteps the issue or concentrates on those who have never suffered. To the contrary the vast majority of the characters we come across in the Bible did suffer, some greatly. But their suffering, sense of injustice, pain or confusion seems to have driven them to God – not away from him. Yes, they complained, cried out, questioned his compassion and sometimes addressed him in ways that we might not dare – but never did they doubt the existence of God.
In the light of what we have said above I sometimes wonder if we have expectations of God that are incompatible with the revelation of who He is and how He interacts with our world. I sometimes wonder if we have lost sight of the fact that God moves, God works and God fulfils his plans and purposes, very often, through suffering (in the widest sense of the term). The old Priest in the story, Reverend Seckford, goes on to say in the light of Matthew’s objections – ‘I have faith. It is the only way to live with the mystery.’ In this he and the characters in the Bible are in complete agreement.
And mystery it is. Yet it appears sometimes more like a contradiction. Again this is to be seen throughout the Bible. I don’t think there is a clearer illustration of the mystery of glory revealed in shame and majesty disclosed through suffering that in the introduction of God’s Messiah through the prophet Isaiah. Here are a few verses leading up to his revelation to the world –
‘Listen closely, you who are Mine; lend an ear, My nation;
for My instruction will go straight out into all the world
And My justice will illuminate all people wherever they are.
My justice is coming closer. My rescue is on the way.
My strong arm will extend justice to the nations.
Distant shores are looking to Me with hope that I will accomplish it.
(Isaiah 51: 4 & 5 TV)
‘There’s no need to be anxious—the Eternal One goes before and behind you.
The God of Israel paves the way with assurance and strength.
He watches your back. See here! My servant will succeed.
He will grow in character and reputation, achieving high standing and status.’
(Isaiah 52: 12 & 13 TV)
Surely we are expecting a display of power, majesty, glory, universal salvation and a day of justice for the world!
But in the very next breath we have this –
‘Just as people used to be shocked by you,
even so his appearance was disfigured;
His form—once glorious—was marred until it hardly seemed human.
So he was despised and forsaken by men,
this man of suffering, grief’s patient friend.
As if he was a person to avoid, we looked the other way;
he was despised, forsaken, and we took no notice of him.
We just figured that God had rejected him,
that God was the reason he hurt so badly.
And in the face of such oppression and suffering—silence.
Not a word of protest, not a finger raised to stop it.
Like a sheep to a shearing, like a lamb to be slaughtered,
he went—oh so quietly, oh so willingly.’
(Isaiah 53: Various statements – TV)
Where is the glory in this? But then –
‘As a result of the trials and troubles that wrack his soul,
God’s servant will see light and be content
Because He knows, really understands, what it’s about; as God says,
“My just servant will justify countless others by taking on their punishment and bearing it away.’
(Isaiah 53: 11 TV)
And then, when the Messiah came, immediately after Peter declares that he believes Jesus to be the Christ (Mark 8: 29) Jesus, we are told –
‘Began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.’
(Mark 8: 31 WEB).
Furthermore he then goes on to tell them –
‘If any one of you wants to follow Me, you will have to give yourself up to God’s plan, take up your cross, and do as I do. For any one of you who wants to be rescued will lose your life, but any one of you who loses your life for My sake and for the sake of this good news will be liberated.’
(Mark 8: 34 & 35 TV)
Where is the modern gospel of health, wealth and happiness here? No – it appears that the cross is for the disciple as well as the master! But with the cross goes His presence – and that for me is the core of the issue. He is Immanuel – God with us’. (Matthew 1: 23)
So it is not that I am spared from the storms of life, the pain, the doubt, the dark nights of distress – but that in it all He walks with us! Not only so but I believe in some mysterious way He bears our pain still and suffers with us!
I may have quoted this before – but it seems appropriate again today –
Our fellow sufferer yet retains
A fellow feeling of our pains:
And still remembers in the skies
His tears, His agonies, and cries.
In every pang that rends the heart,
The Man of Sorrows had a part,
He sympathizes with our grief,
And to the sufferer sends relief.
With boldness, therefore, at the throne,
Let us make all our sorrows known;
And ask the aids of heavenly power
To help us in the evil hour.
Michael Bruce (1764)