I was asked recently how I find words to say when someone tells me, as their priest, they’ve just been diagnosed with a life-changing or life-ending illness. Human suffering, for many, is proof God isn’t there or at least proof that God is not worth believing in if he lets this kind of thing happen. Our film & faith discussion group recently watched the film Tolkien together, a biography of the famous author of the Lord of the Rings series which explores this question in the face of the first world war. The priest in the film speaks about his difficulty in dealing with families who have lost their loved ones, when he visits the young author. Tolkien himself had just returned from the horrors of the first world war, having lost his close childhood friends to it.
Tolkien’s priest, like me, struggled. There are no words or platitudes which can make things immediately easier or make sense of human suffering on the individual scale or on the wider scale of war, even with a belief in God. But, the film gives clues towards the approach I take – and I think – God takes. Instead of trying to explain the unexplainable or minimise the difficulty of human suffering, we sit with it and God sits with it. We find this truth in the battlefield scene, when Tolkien goes in search of his friend in the trenches only witness a colossal loss of life. He imagines the wraiths and dragons of his Lord of the Rings trilogy destroying countless persons across the front line. Yet what Tolkien also sees in his mind’s eye alongside this is a life-sized crucifix on the Battlefield. As a devout Christian, Tolkien believed that God in Jesus suffered with humanity on the cross. God didn’t keep a safe distance from our suffering but embraced it and continues to embrace it wherever human suffering arises.
What keeps me going and what I try to focus on when horrible things happen to good people is that God is on the side of those who suffer, always has been and always will be. God doesn’t offer us platitudes or reasons but went far further: suffered as one of us on the cross, experiencing loss, pain and death as fully in himself as we do in ourselves. Only that kind of God can be trusted with our illness, our pain and our doubts. Only that God stands up to scrutiny when we are told devastating news at the GP surgery or hear of another war in the making.
The next Film & Faith event will be on Thurs 7th Nov at 7pm, as we watch Selma together – a film about the black civil rights movement in the American south, starring David Oyelowo as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Come, enjoy and join the conversation!
Rev. Lee Johnston (Curate, Christ Church Lanark)