Recently, I was having a conversation with someone who struggles to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the suffering that goes on in our world. The question to which this person returns again and again is, “If God is love, why does God allow so much suffering?”
In talking about this question, we spoke about love in the context of human relationships, and he touched on the death of his wife a few years ago and on a love he shares with a woman now. This woman is beginning to have memory problems, and he wonders how it will feel if and when the day comes that she no longer remembers who he is. In the midst of this poignant conversation, the words, “love is costly” floated through my brain.
Love is indeed costly. The moment we sign up for it, we are not only signing up for great joy, but also for deep pain. The human condition is such that making a commitment to love a partner or a child or a friend also means making a commitment to one day be parted from that person — either because of their death or ours. And before that happens, the commitment to love also opens the door to other kinds of suffering: the suffering of disappointment in the relationship, the possibility of betrayal, of misunderstanding, of fundamental disagreement about some important matter, and a whole host of lesser pains that dwell always as possibilities in the realm of human relationships. We continue to choose love in the face of all of this because, in part, we are made for love — we cannot really realize the full depth of our humanity without loving someone, somehow, in some way. We also continue to choose love because we have faith that the joy it will give us will be worth the painful parts. And, we probably also continue to choose love because we don’t think about the painful parts. After all, we commonly use the phrase “to fall in love” — which carries with it that sense that love happens to us, we are caught up in it before we consciously make any choice at all. Love is indeed joyful — but it is also certainly costly.
It seems to me that if this is the case with human beings, then it is also the case with God. I suspect we don’t really think about love costing God anything, but if the love of God is real and genuine, then how could it not be costly? There simply is no such thing as love without cost. For Christians, the crucifixion is certainly a sign of the costliness of love. It shows us that God suffers because God chose to love. And it shows us the nature of this suffering: that God suffers every time human beings choose not to love. And God suffers every time we suffer. It is impossible to know what the suffering of God is like, because we cannot know what it is like to see as God sees, to know as God knows. But what we can be sure of is that if God loves, then God also suffers — because love is always costly.
In the moments when we are overwhelmed by our own suffering, or that of others, it is natural and understandable that we would wish that God might somehow intervene to end all suffering once and for all. But that would require that God bring love to an end. And that would require the end of existence itself. In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we read, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:4-8a). One of the points Paul is making is that love, by its very nature, does not seek to exercise control. “It does not insist on its own way.” We do not realize sometimes that when we wish for a God who intervenes to prevent suffering, or when we wish for a universe designed to exclude suffering, we are, in fact, wishing for an absence of love. We might wish that God would create a love that had no cost — but the physics of theology tells us that is simply not possible.
So the love of God cannot provide us with a life free of suffering. But that love does assure us of something very important: that it will never leave us alone. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39a). Which means that, in the end, our suffering is not removed but it is transcended and transformed into a greater depth that surpasses our understanding — if we allow it.
All of this seems to me to be summed up in a quote from the great Frederick Buechner:
Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.