notre dame montreal

Remembrance Sunday

The Reverend Charles Royden

How can a good God allow suffering?

flanders poppy poem

Remembrance Sunday

We gather together today and there are several different aspects to our service

  1. We thank God for those who have suffered as a result of war, and for those who have been disabled and injured in recent wars who suffer daily.
  2. We remember those who have been called upon by our country to put themselves in danger who are currently engaged in war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  3. We remember loved ones who we have lost. Increasingly Remembrance Sunday has overtaken All Souls as the yearly time in our society to remember all of those who have died. So we remember loved ones and bring to mind our own bereavement.

This means that this service is inevitably a time of mixed emotions.

  1. There is thanksgiving for memories
  2. There is pride - and quite rightly some of it is national pride for the courage of our armed forces
  3. There is also pain, possibly anger, emptiness and all of the other things we feel when faced with death and suffering.

So it is that Remembrance Sunday confronts us with some difficult questions

  • about ourselves.
  • and about God.

About ourselves

This is because wars happen as a result of what we humans do to one another. They come from human anger, resentment, greed.

Religion is often blamed for war, sadly doing away with religion would never stop wars. At the heart of war lies a willingness to kill other human beings because they are different, or because they have something which we want. We would fight with or without a God who we use to try and justify ourselves.

But, if there was no religion we would have to stop some of the nonsense which we think when we do go to war
In wars we often convince ourselves that somehow God is on our side

And we imagine that the people we are bombing are somehow not God’s children too, so it doesn’t matter how many of the other side are killed, the casualties which really matter are our own.

Remembrance Sunday also confronts us with difficult questions about God

I was on top of the Cairngorms recently. I didn’t climb up, you will know that there is now a little train which takes you up, every mountain should have one. In the exhibition centre there are all sorts of displays and charts which show how mountains were formed.

The recognition that life originated 15 billion years ago and that creation has been evolving ever since is truly remarkable and awe inspiring. Looking at the wonder of the natural world many people find it difficult not to be drawn to the conclusion that there is a creator God.

Then I was listening to Simon Schama the historian this week on the radio, he asserted that in America over 90% of people believe evolution to be just a quirky theory, preferring the literal creationist 6 days work and a day off idea. Many of these folks will take literally the Biblical stories and assert that it all happened about 5,000 years ago.

I am not disputing a persons right to believe creation came about in such a way, I wasn’t there so I don’t know. But of course Darwin has been vilified by many who see him as somebody who attacked faith and believe that if we allow that some form of evolution might have taken place then our faith is in vain.

Of course this is not true. Darwin was somebody who did not take pleasure in arguing with the idea of God. As Owen Chadwick remarked, rather than being the pugnacious heretic, Darwin was "a direct, humble and reverant seeker after truth". It has to be remembered that his wife had a committed faith and Darwin did not consider himself to be an atheist. He preferred the description used by Huxley of 'agnostic.'

Where am I going with this?

Darwin struggled with belief like all of us do. Evolution did not cause him to question his faith in God. Bishop William Temple preached a sermon welcoming the insights of evolution, not everybody in the church was closed to the insights he provided.

It was not evolution, but rather the death of his daughter Annie at the age of 10 which had a profound negative effect upon his religious views. He simply could not countenance the fact that a god had intended this to happen.

Nevertheless when his daughter died in Malvern, where Darwin had taken her in the hope of finding a cure for her, he wrote a touching letter to his wife which might have been that of a religious man:

'My dear dearest Emma, I pray God Fanny's note may have prepared you. [Annie] went to her final sleep most tranquilly, most sweetly at twelve o'clock today. Our poor dear child has had a very short life but I trust happy, and God only knows what miseries might have been in store for her - God bless her. We must be more and more to each other, my dear wife.'

Looking into the face of evil and suffering challenges our faith in God

Some people look at creation and see evidence for God. cicadas have reproductive cycles that are prime-numbered years long, 13 or 17 but never 15 or l6. This is one of those amazing creation facts, like fibonacci numbers. Does creation suggest a creator God?

In his book 'River Out Of Eden,' Richard Dawkins tells of getting a letter from an American minister of religion who had been an atheist but was converted by reading an article in the National Geographic on wasps. It was a very special wasp which fertilises a special orchid. The flower of the orchid resembled very closely the female of the species of wasp. The male wasp, thinking the flower to be a female, tries to copulate with it by reaching down an appropriate opening and in so doing gets covered with pollen. Flying to the next flower the wasp repeats the process and cross-pollinates the orchid. What makes the flower attractive to the wasp in the first place? The flower emits a pheromone attractant identical to that produced by the female wasp.

Dawkin's correspondent then said that with a terrific sense of shock he realized that in order for the reproductive strategy to work it had to be perfect to work at all. The flower had to look like a wasp. It had to produce the right chemical pheromone. It had to have a hole in the right place for the wasp to enter. Here was a wonderful design. It must have a designer.

"I came to believe that the designer must be God."

Dawkins begins his next chapter this way. "My clerical correspondent of the previous chapter found faith through a wasp. Charles Darwin lost his with the help of another."

"I cannot persuade myself", wrote Darwin, "that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae (wasp) with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars". Their macabre habits are shared by their cousin the Digger Wasp. The female not only lays her eggs in a caterpillar so that her larvae can feed on it but she carefully guides her sting into each ganglion of the prey's central nervous system so as to paralyse but not kill it. In this way she keeps the meat fresh. Maybe the prey is aware of being eaten alive from inside yet unable to move a muscle to do anything about it.

Darwin asked the right question about the Ichneumonidae. Could a kind God deliberately create this? He said no. His challenge led many after him to question their pre-scientific understanding of God.

Truthfully, when faced with suffering, many good people find it impossible to believe in God.

A Jewish survivor of Treblinka told how the Nazi’s kept a squad of Jewish slaves to clear out the gas chambers and bury the bodies. The Jewish prisoners had to open the doors of the gas chambers and drag the bodies to the grave. He said that sometimes they found living children, still alive, clinging to their mothers. They strangled them before throwing them into the grave. People who visit Auschwitz say that the thing that most shatters them is the pile of children’s shoes.

The dilemma is simple

  1. If God is good God cannot be almighty
  2. If God is almighty, God cannot be good.

Some suffering is human in origin and we all need to know that there are consequences of our actions. We make choices and those choices can be good or bad. But, ultimately no answer is given for the great sufferings, many caused through natural disasters like eathquakes, over which we have no control, only the realisation that we have to learn to live with the mystery of suffering and continue to trust in God.

We might all shout at God asking why he allows it. But ultimately the question is what are we going to do after the shouting has stopped?

In one of the great texts of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel describes the execution by hanging of a young boy in one of the concentration camps. He tells us that the boy twitched in his death throes on the end of the rope, a voice was heard crying out ‘Where is God now’ To which came back the answer

‘God is there; hanging on the gallows’

There is an ambiguity in the reply.

  1. Was God killed with the boy, because it is impossible to believe in God amidst such dreadful suffering.
  2. Or was God so identified with us in our sorrows that God dies our deaths and suffers our pains.

So for many people ideas about God have to be challenged. It is not defensible to believe in a loving, omnipotent God who sits and observes impassively. The denial of God as one who feels the world's joys and sufferings was largely due to the Greek notion that perfection involves immutability - if God is perfect then God cannot be changed in any way by what happens in the world.

But on the contrary, to be enriched by the enrichment of the world is to be responsive to the world and therefore to be more loving. Responsiveness, not immutability, is the nature of perfection.

The only God who can be worshipped is a God who suffers with us. At the heart of our faith as Christians lies the fact that Jesus of Nazareth, who reveals God to us, dies. The crucifixion of Jesus rescues us from naïve optimism because it identifies God with our pain and suffering.

The death of Jesus shows God bearing the pain most visibly, God suffers. There is no easy way out, no legions of angels flying to the rescue. God like us suffers. Like us when faced with unbearable grief, Jesus shouts ‘why me’

‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me’

Yes we have pain, yes we have doubt, but we believe in a God who speaks to us of goodness in the world. We are confronted all around us by evil, but so too are we faced daily by goodness. There are great saints as well as appalling sinners.  The great love that we know in others is a love which finds its source not in a meaningless universe, the result of an accident.


We do not have the answers to the suffering and pain in the world. But the death of Christ shows us that the idea of a God who watches impassively is wrong. We do not know why God allows suffering, but we do know that it hurts God as much as it hurts us and there is nothing which he is able to do to wave a wand and make it go away.

A love that leaves the lover unaffected by the joys and suffering of the one who is loved is not love at all.

A lot of this is expressed in the hymn  God is Love: let heav'n adore him; I leave you with the second verse

God is Love: and he enfoldeth
all the world in one embrace;
with unfailing grasp he holdeth
every child of every race.
And when human hearts are breaking
under sorrow's iron rod,
then they find that selfsame aching
deep within the heart of God.