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Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 36, No.

3, Fall 1997
Suffering, Prayer, and
ABSTRACT: Unrelieved suffering leads many to ask, "How can I trust a miracle-working God,
who will not help me or my loved ones?" From brief exegeses of Jesus' healing of a man born
blind (Jn 9) and of Jesus' response to Pilate's murderous oppression (Lk 13), I argue that (1) God
uses suffering to call its witnesses to repentance and to acts of steadfast love that fulfill the
creation of humanity; (2) miracles are real, rare, and ambiguous; (3) God is good and powerful
enough to deliver everyone decisively, but God's patient commitment to human freedom and
universal reconciliation preclude it; (4) all suffering is sacrificial and will become meaningful;
and that (5) there are at least three faithful and coordinate responses to suffering.
Cancer strikes one person then another, often without explanationone in
two men, one in three women, religious and non-religious. Sometimes it is
life-threatening, sometimes not. Most persons of faith respond to their diag-
noses with prayer and medical treatments. Usually there is some success,
remission for a time; often, there is not. Rarely, but occasionally and aston-
ishingly, the cancer simply vanishes. Beyond anyone's rational hopes and in
defiance of any scientific explanation, the patient is genuinely healed. Praise
and gratitude erupt immediately (and somewhat out of character for many
Christians). Though such miraculous recoveries are too infrequent, the story
is generally familiar.
Whatever a person's theological ilk or church-going habits, if a grave illness
attacks, most will pray and hope for the same grace. The brothers and sisters
of Jesus Christ cry out for divine deliverance much like frightened children
calling out for their parents' rescue. Some believers offer prayers with greater
fear of death than trust in God. Others pray in a rage, challenging God to
prove himself. Still others try to take the kingdom by violence, demanding a
cure "in the name of Jesus Christ." No person's motives are pure. No one is
righteous. These are the heart-felt pleadings of God's creatures who cherish
the gift of life and are threatened with death. In perilous times, all of God's
children hope for a miracle.
Difficult as it is for Christians of the scientific age to confess, the Bible,
church history, and many of our contemporaries demand that we abandon
our modern hubris of knowledge and confidence in technology and affirm
Paul P. Parker, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Theology and Religion at Elmhurst College in
Elmhurst, Illinois.
205 1997 Blanton-Peale Institute
Journal of Religion and Health
what numerous persons claim to have experienced in every culture and from
the beginning of time. Let us finally take as axiomatic that God does mira-
clesreal, inexplicable, nature-rupturing divine acts in history.
Of course God also denies prayer requests and perhaps most often answers
in ways which leave us ambivalent. In fact, the case for atheism is now best
argued by those who look to the inductive argument, pointing out that God's
supposedly incoherent responses to human need is the coup de grace against
God's existence or at least God's goodness. Worthy as this objection may be for
some, I believe there are explanations for ostensibly purposeless suffering,
given God's power and goodness.
Still, those who believe that God acts in the world must answer the com-
mon objections. Why does God grant some prayers but not others? Are the
prayers of the righteous petitioner answered and the unrighteous ignored?
History questions James's assertion that "the prayer of the righteous is pow-
erful and effective" (Jas 5:16b). Despite biblical promises of prayer's utter
power (e.g., Mt 7:7, 17:20, 18:19), we have all known righteous persons who
have prayed for healing for themselves or for others without effect. The inef-
fective prayer of the righteous is our most common experience, whether it is
for a just peace in Bosnia or the health of a loved one. Even Saint Paul finally
had to accept his ailment though he asked repeatedly for healing. Moreover,
in a strange reversal of what most persons want and expect, biblical stories
and contemporary experience show that God sometimes accedes to the peti-
tions of the unrighteous and leaves the righteous to suffer (e.g., 1 Kings 17; 2
Kings 5; Lk 4:25f; Jn 4, 8). While it is true that those who hunger and thirst
for righteousness will be filled, their prayers for health usually go unsat-
Neither is it a common experience that God grants prayers due to the right-
eousness of the one in need. Too many biblical and historical examples refute
this (e.g., Mt 9:35; Lk 4:40). Those who are miraculously healed are no more
righteous than others. And everyone knows about bad things that have hap-
pened to good people without divine relief.
Perhaps God has some particular, crucially important plan for the miracu-
lously healed person that requires God's special intervention. But this too
strains for biblical and historical credibility. Commander Naaman of Aram,
the unnamed tenth leper, the old woman with an oozing ulcer, as well as the
overwhelming majority of the other recipients of biblical miracles, are all
cured without any apparent subsequent impact on history. Though some re-
cipients of divine healing probably go on to accomplish great things, the ma-
jority continue to live without fame or obvious social significance. It does not
appear that God has something special in mind for those who are healed.
Do divine healings have any broader meaning beyond the specific act?
Could it be that God's way is through random acts of kindness? Are God's
actions in the world really unintelligibly random, historically trivial, and void
of discernible justice? Christians appear to wait in vain more often than not
Paul P. Parker
for God to liberate the neediest, the most faithful, and those who are best
able to serve the kingdom. The Lord God of Israel revealed in Jesus of
Nazareth seems not to have interfered with the reign of Thanatos in Rwanda,
Burundi, Bosnia, Idi Ahmin's Uganda, Pol Pot's Cambodia, Hiroshima, Naga-
saki, Nazi Germany, and countless other colossal horrors. The faithful of
every calling and every nation are struck down without divine intervention as
often as anyone else. God rarely grants his children's cries for deliverance.
To observe that God does not miraculously rescue the faithful from danger
and death is not to deny that God is working in the world. God leads the
world "with cords of human kindness, with bands of love" (Hos ll:4a). God
grants wisdom liberally to all who seek it, and joy, peace and patience to the
suffering. Through suffering, God may bring new self-awareness, love for the
divine, or the reconciliation of enemies. Though these gifts are immeasurably
wonderful and more than compensate for any suffering that one might en-
dure, they are not like the biblical and historical examples of divine deliv-
erance that interrupt the normal course of things. Granting peace to the ter-
minally ill is a different type of divine act, and much more common, than the
miraculous eradication of disease.
In light of God's real but seemingly inexplicable mercy (set in bas-relief
among the horrific sufferings of war, disease, poverty, genocide, pollution,
unimaginable oppression, world-wide malnutrition, and the extinction of in-
numerable species), how can human beings trust God? If intellectually so-
phisticated Christians must finally accept that the God who is spirit acts in
the world of matter, then it cannot be too much to ask, "What is God doing?"
and, "Why?"
The Scriptures proclaim that God is working to unite all persons in one fam-
ily and everyone to God. From Adam and Eve as the theological parents of all
human beings, to God's covenant with Abraham through whom all nations
are blessed (Gen 12), to God's revelation through Moses that the Lord alone is
God of all (Ex 4:22; 19:5f; Deut 6:4f), to the prophets' visions of God's inclu-
sive steadfast love (Isa 25:6-10a; 55; Jer 16:19-24; Hos 11:1-9; Mic 4:1-4;
Jon), to Jesus' high-priestly prayer for unity and faith throughout the world
(Jn 17), to Paul's writings about God's eternally established but newly re-
vealed plan for cosmic reconciliation (Eph l:9f, 2:13-16, 3:1-11; Col l:26f; 2
Cor 5:19), God's central purpose is to unite all things in love through Jesus
Christ so that the world may know the goodness of God.
With Israel, "Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body,
and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Eph 3:6). The
"dividing wall" that had separated the elect from all others has been de-
stroyed by the cross (Eph 2:11-26). Moreover, though Paul's mission to the
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Gentiles is his central emphasis, it is not his sole expression of God's eternal
plan for cosmic reconciliation. Recall Paul's teaching on economic parity (2
Cor 8:15), on race, rank, and gender unity (Gal 3:28 and Phil), and on peace-
ful relations as both citizens of Rome and children of God (Rom 12-13). Paul
is not guilty of enthusiastic exaggeration when he writes that it is God's "plan
for the fullness of time to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and
things on earth" (Eph 1:9-10).
This is not to deny the discordant voices of Scripture. Biblical literature
records that God killed Pharaoh's firstborn, destroyed the disobedient children
of Israel, drove out the inhabitants of the land of Canaan before the Israelites,
struck down Ananias and Sapphira, and will eternally punish the faithless. But
these references do not represent the central theme of creation, Israel's election,
the exodus, the incarnation, or the resurrection. Biblical stories of horrific
suffering at the hand of God have more to do with the high cost of human sin,
freedom, and reconciliation than with divine exclusion or punishment.
Precisely because God is "reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19), God
grants only those prayers that work in concert with this end. Prayer offered
"in the name of Jesus" is to be part of God's plan for familial unity. (This rules
out, for example, prayers of fear, greed, and malice.) Whatever the specifics,
petitionary prayers must take part in God's acts of historic reconciliation.
Therefore, those whom Jesus Christ has made his brothers and sisters com-
mit their lives to the Father's purpose rather than their own, even as Jesus
prayed in the garden"not my win but thine." Every prayer that genuinely
follows Jesus' own is guided by God's reconciling purpose for the world
"your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."
Nevertheless, when Jesus' followers pray and work for reconciliation through
the church, health care, politics, etc., God still does not grant their petitions
reliably. To say this is not to find fault with God, but simply to describe hu-
man experience. Miracles are and always have been the exception, not the
rule. Religious history shows that God does not regularly grant the prayers of
the wise, the needy, the deserving, or the righteous. There must be hundreds
of millions of Christians (and equal numbers of other persons) who die, en-
dure unspeakable oppression, live in abject deprivation, or languish in chronic
illness and who have also sought God's deliverance without relief.
If God can and sometimes does deliver some folks, why doesn't God help all
the afflicted more dependably, especially since this would be clear expression
of God's cosmic reconciling purpose? God must have overwhelming reasons
for not acting more deliberately to rescue his children from suffering.
Though not a complete theodicy, Jesus' interpretations of real world suffering
offer reasons why God seldom uses miracles to deliver humans from suffer-
Paul P. Parker
ing. Jesus understands God to have created human beings so interrelated
with each other that any person's suffering is to stimulate all persons to re-
pent. The biblical connotation of repentance does not necessarily mean gloom
or remorse, much less self-flagellation. Though repentance can include deep
regret, it can also alternatively be accompanied by relief or great joy. Funda-
mentally, to repent is to change. In biblical Hebrew the preferred term of the
prophets, shub, "to return," is understood as a change or turning away from
faithless attitudes and actions to a new way of life, internally and externally,
which expresses repudiation of evil (e.g., Isa 33:15; Ps 15) and loyalty to God
(e.g., Isa 1:17; Jer 26:13). Thus, God uses suffering to call humanity to turn
freely and wholly from evil to good.
In contradistinction to attitudes in his own day (and among much of mod-
ernity), Jesus did not accept the iron-clad Deuteronomic formula of cause and
effect: God rewards the righteous with blessings and punishes the sinful with
suffering. Thus, when some of his followers pointed out the suffering of fellow
Israelites that was the apparent consequence of their sins, Jesus took the
situation as a pedagogical opportunity.
At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, "Do you
think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners
than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish
as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on
themdo you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in
Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they
did" (Lk 13:1-5).
According to first-century Jewish and Christian writings, Pilate was a
ruthless, paranoid, self-serving tyrant who did Rome, Israel and the church
more harm than good. Because Galilee was known for its revolutionary agita-
tors, Pilate may have executed the Galileans as they prepared for worship
because he believed they were seditionists. Or perhaps Pilate's despotic
slaughter of the innocent was intended to warn would-be Galilean revolution-
aries. Maybe those who reported the incident intended to admonish Jesus to
soften his own revolutionary rhetoric about the coming kingdom. Whatever
the reporters' intention, whatever Pilate's purpose, whoever the victims, the
mainstream theology of early first-century Israel would have interpreted
those gruesome deaths as God's punishment of sinners.
For Jesus this misunderstood the nature of God. He reinterpreted the inci-
dent, first by denying that the deaths were related to the depth of individuals'
unrighteousness. Of course these Galileans were sinners; everyone is (Ps 14;
Rom 3:23). But they were no worse than "all other Galileans" (Jesus' disciples
and his would-be advisers not excluded). The proper theological response to
these unjust executions was not self-righteousness ("I am not that bad!"),
righteous indignation ("Pilate will have to answer to God"), just retribution
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("An eye for an eye."), or even thankfulness ("Thank God it wasn't me!").
Jesus advised repentance. Whether innocent or guilty, the suffering of others
was a call to consider one's own life and to change.
Similarly, "those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on
them" were popularly judged to have been punished by God for working in
collusion with the occupying Gentile army. The workers were probably Isra-
elites employed by Rome to reinforce Roman military positions located in the
towers along Jerusalem's walls. Jesus' followers apparently reasoned that
this must have been why God crushed them under the very stones with which
they had committed treason against God and country. But Jesus again rejects
this theological explanation of suffering. The first theological response to
these deaths was not judgment of the oppressor or the sufferer, but repen-
tance of the survivor.
For Jesus's first-century disciples and most moderns, this is a hard gospel.
Just as all America heard about the Oklahoma City bombing and the down-
ing of TWA Flight 800, all Jerusalem would have known of the tower's cata-
strophic collapse. Therefore, let all the people of Jerusalem (and America)
consider their own need for repentance. Frankly, when Jesus looks back at
the present from the future eschatological fulfillment of history, it really does
not matter whether his countrymen's deaths were caused by carelessness,
sabotage, nationalistic bigotry, oppressive working conditions, or some other
particular sin. Whether "those eighteen" were workers or innocent bystand-
ers killed by some incredible accident, the enduring meaning of suffering is
not suffering per se, but that through such tragic suffering all persons might
sense the urging of God to repent.
Jesus concludes both examples by warning those who do not repent that
they will experience a similar fate. Jesus' cautionary words should be taken
just as seriously and literally as God's threat of death if Adam and Eve eat of
the tree of knowledge. Sin has always been the alienating separation of hu-
man beings from God. Rather than some cosmic law of spiritual-cause-and-
material-effect, however, this is the simple character of interpersonal rela-
tionships. If we would have a loving relationship with God, we must turn to
God and away from evil. The focus of Jesus' reproof is not on any future
punishment, but on turning to God.
Though it is considered by many persons as politically naive, Jesus' de-
manding interpretation of suffering has not gone unrepresented in modern-
ity. Martin Luther King confessed that through his own suffering he had be-
come convinced of "the value of unmerited suffering" for personal and social
change.1 Prior to King, Christian liberalism's social-gospel movement was so
strongly influenced by God's justice and goodness that it interpreted the horr-
ible massive suffering of the last quarter of the nineteenth century through
World War I as God's call to humanity to reform the structures of society.
Walter Rauschenbusch, the movement's most insightful theologian, under-
stood God to have created human beings with such solidarity that social suf-
Paul P. Parker
fering cannot help but reveal social sins which require social repentance for
the liberation of humanity. He explained,
Society is so integral that when one man sins, other men suffer, and when one
social class sins, the other classes are involved in the suffering which follows on
that sin. The more powerful an individual ... or a class, the more it will be able
to unload its own just suffering on the weaker classes. . . . Social suffering serves
social healing, if the sense of common humanity is strong enough to set the
entire social body in motion on behalf of those who suffer.2
Rauschenbusch's final caveat, "if the sense of common humanity is strong
enough," is crucial for the future of the world. If individuals and society em-
brace their solidarity with and their responsibility for those who suffer, then
much suffering will come to an end. But so long as human beings deny their
fundamental unity with all others, suffering will not only continue but will
grow to unimagined dimensions.
An heir to the social gospel movement who then went his own way, H.
Richard Niebuhr wrote in several of his most ethically demanding, anti-cul-
tural, and generally ignored essays that all suffering was "crucifixion." Nie-
buhr understood that God uses suffering, regardless of its cause, to call hu-
manity to revolutionary repentance and universal peace.3 All suffering is
sacrifice. While King and Rauschenbusch focused on suffering caused by sin,
Niebuhr understood that any suffering of anyone, innocent or guilty, was a
divine cry for its witnesses to repent. For King, Niebuhr, and Rauschenbusch,
Jesus' followers were not to regard the suffering of others as their just de-
serts, but as their own call to a life of repentance.
In part, then, the loving Father of Jesus Christ usually refuses to grant
Jesus's sisters and brothers' cries for deliverance because God has created the
world with such great unity that the suffering of anyone is to warn everyone
to turn from evil to good, from fear to hope, from hate to love, from merit to
grace, from vengeance to forgiveness. Repentance is not the only response to
the suffering of others, but it is the first one. God redeems the suffering of
individuals by using their ordeal to call all persons to new life.
However, if God were to liberate human beings from suffering, regularly
and miraculously, God's acts of presumable kindness would soon weaken hu-
man awareness of the need for change. Rauschenbusch explains that just as
"physical pain serves a beneficent purpose by warning [an individual] of the
existence of abnormal conditions," the suffering of others serves a good end by
calling humanity to change.4
When the evening-news programs report incidents of suffering, therefore,
whether of the innocent or the guilty, Jesus teaches his followers to consider
the reporter as God's mouthpiece crying out for them to repent. When a mid-
dle-aged man is struck by AIDS, the disciples of Christ are not to raise judg-
mental questions of illicit drug use, irresponsible sexual activity, or technical
Journal of Religion and Health
incompetence at the blood bank, but first to tear down their own pantheon of
self-indulgence. When unmarried women and their children suffer from pov-
erty, rather than pointing the finger of judgment, Christians are first to turn
from their own materialism, selfishness, lust, promiscuity, adultery, parental
failings, intra-familial feuds, disregard for aging parents, and indifference to
childhood poverty. When gangs, urban blight, and drive-by shootings are re-
ported and roundly condemned, rather than joining the choir, followers of
Christ are first to weigh their own responsibility and repent. When the faith-
ful read about the brutality of the Bosnian-Serbian war, the fratricide of
Northern Ireland, or the inter-tribal butchery of the Tutsis and Hutus, God's
children are not to respond first with God's judgment or the self-indulgence of
moral outrage, but are to move away from the potentially murderous conse-
quences of their own family bigotry, religious intolerance, and nationalistic
loyalties. The tragic and seemingly endless stories about cancer, racism, pov-
erty, violence, and starvation will not push Christians who know the loving
Father of Jesus Christ to atheistic despair, but to greater responsibility for
themselves and for the world. The eschatological promise of Jesus Christ on
which Christians depend is that those who hunger for righteousness really
will be filled.
There are other incidents from Jesus teachings that help account for God's
perplexingly infrequent use of miracles to reconcile those who suffer to whole-
ness. When Jesus and his band came upon a blind man, his disciples initiated a
discussion on a contemporary theological issue: Whose fault was it? "As [Jesus]
walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi,
who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?'" (Jn 9:1-2).
Deuteronomic theology still prevailed. Everyone knew suffering was caused
by sin. The only theological debate in this situation was over whether the
cause had been the parents' sin (Ex 20:5), the blind man's sin of watching his
parents in sexual intercourse while still in the womb, or a singularly heinous
sin that the man would have committed if not born blind.5 Who then sinned?
Folks are not so different today. When things sour, when a loved one's un-
diagnosed cancer grows beyond the stage of treatment though the symptoms
were apparent to everyone months earlier, when the over-weight and seden-
tary man is disabled by a stroke, when starvation devours hundreds of mil-
lions in a world of plenty, when urban rot consumes a city's heart, when
nations sacrifice their young for the prizes of war, the first response is re-
crimination. Who did it? Who is responsible? Contrary to this very human
Jesus answered [his disciples of every epoch], "Neither this man nor his parents
sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. We
Paul P. Parker
must work the works of him who sent me while it is day. . . ." When he had said
this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud
on the man's eyes, saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam. . . ." Then he
went and washed and came back able to see (Jn 9:3-7).
The disciples' theological debate (and much of modernity's) held no interest
for Jesus. He was typically uninterested in fault-finding. The disciples asked
Jesus who caused the blindness (Aristotle's "efficient" cause); he explained its
purpose (Aristotle's "final" cause, or for Jesus the eschatological meaning).
The point of the man's suffering was "that God's works [God's character]
might be revealed." While in no way minimizing the blind man's suffering
and without any attempt to justify it, Jesus taught that his suffering had
cosmic significance.
God has created the world with such integration that any cry of suffering is
to be heard as God's beckoning for human beings to respond with good works
of steadfast love"God's works." According to Marc Ellis, Jewish activist and
theologian, the world's incomprehensible suffering attains cosmic meaning by
"enjoining us to acts of loving kindness."6 Even through the unspeakable suf-
fering of the Holocaust, God implores humanity, "Never again."
Individuals can choose freely whether or not to respond to God with good
works of steadfast love. Irenaeus, second-century Bishop of Lyons, finds that
when individuals choose to do God's work they experience transformation.
For God from the beginning made man free. ... so that he might freely fall in
with God's intentions without compulsion from God. For God does not use force..
. . He has equipped man with the power of choice. . . . Through obedience and
discipline and training, man, who is contingent and created, grows into the im-
age and likeness of the eternal God. . . . Man gradually advances and mounts
towards perfection, . . . and this is God.7
God is good. God does not cause, ordain, or justify suffering. For the sake of
human freedom, God allows suffering that is caused by others and suffering
that is part of the natural world, and then uses it to call humanity to repen-
tance, beneficence, and ultimate reconciliationvoluntarily. In this way no
suffering is meaningless. God redeems all suffering by giving it a part in the
final cosmic reconciliation. It is the very design of the universe that all suffer-
ing is sacrificial and has a part in God's purpose of utterly inclusive recon-
ciliation. To ignore this fundamental structure of reality by refusing to prac-
tice mercy for any in need is to tear at the fabric of creation self-destructively
and to alienate oneself from God and humanity. God has created the world
with such interdependence that human beings cannot help but see suffering
and experience an inner compulsion to repent while still remaining free to
Augustine correctly observes that when limited to one's own abilities, with-
out God, no one consistently chooses the good (though he is again right that it
is theoretically possible).8 Thus, it is common to walk the city's streets in fear,
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count the change from check-out clerks, and retain copies of correspondence
with "difficult" persons. Because others abuse their freedom, most persons
are grateful for a free press, a well-trained police force, a fair judicial system,
the Bill of Rights, and the federal government's three branches constantly
counter-balancing each other. Most persons find it uncomfortable to trust
strangers and wise to trust no one with greater power than their own. Free-
dom threatens everyone.
Augustine believes that freedom changes from threat to blessing only as
God elicits human benevolence through the revelation of the divine nature
and human responsibility. When human beings accept God's call, "induce-
ment, or invitation," "the Spirit . . . comes to pass in us [so] that we find our
delight in not sinningwhich means liberty."9 What humans are unwilling to
do, God entices us to desire through personal solicitation. While exiled on the
isle of Patmos, John the Seer proclaims God's shockingly intimate invitation
for all time: "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice
and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me"
(Rev 3:29). Free human consent is necessary and now possible. Like a lover
who is overcome by the other's beauty and now wishes only to love the other
faithfully, a believer is one who is overwhelmed by God's goodness and now
wants only to love God faithfully. Even though believers still break God's
heart and betray their love, their remorse and repentance demonstrate their
commitment to God. Created by grace, the faithful live by grace in a freedom
not their own that one day will be fulfilled. Faith in, love for, and gratitude to
God flow out in good works (Eph 2:10). Freedom is no longer the mad curse of
human potential abused; it is now fulfilled through acts of kindness in gra-
cious communion with God and others.
Divine commitment to human freedom in the light of the historical cost of
suffering is stunning and for many persons an insurmountable scandal. The
tragedies of human freedom are blistering. Yet, human reconciliation to God
without the freedom to do otherwise seems less like divine familial love than
institutional coercion. God will transform individuals only as they freely de-
sire the new life. God could have predetermined humanity to choose nothing
but good. God can still today "bribe" humans with riches and miraculous
healings. But God wants individuals to choose him, to do "God's works," with-
out coercion and without self-interest. God longs to be loved freely "for who he
is," for his character, not for his power to make faith pay off. The groans of
creation (Rom 8), the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham (Gen 12), the
incomprehensible unity for which Jesus prayed (Jn 17), and the consumma-
tion of the Pauline "mystery" of cosmic eschatological reconciliation (Eph 1-3)
all require free human consent made possible by God's grace.
Even though it sometimes appears that history is moving in the wrong
direction, it is crucial for the church and for individuals to grasp the biblical
confidence that by the patient love of God "all things work together for good
for those who love God and are called according to his purpose" (Rom 8:28).
Paul P. Parker
God is good. God will not fail (Isa 52:11). Contrary to protest atheism, no
suffering is for naught.10 The blind man's suffering, the Holocaust, all suffer-
ing will be made meaningful by its part in calling human beings to do "God's
works" in freedom and thus to fulfill the creation of humanity. This is God's
promise. The Christian hope is that God can pull it off.
Interpersonal objections to regular nature-rupturing acts of God are formida-
ble. If God were to grant every prayer for deliverance, it would be hard to
argue that humans were genuinely free to choose God or not. Would it not
become tempting to do the works of God in order to get the gifts of God rather
than from genuine commitment to God? Also, how could humans grow and
learn through suffering and why would they even want to? If God is going to
rescue the suffering, let him; who could respond to suffering more quickly,
effectively or mercifully than God? Moreover, if God were to grant the inter-
cessory prayers of the faithful, sin would not cease, obviously. Humans would
just be freed from suffering. Human beings would still lie, hate, and kill but
without deleterious consequences, while God would clean up behind human-
ity with deliverance upon deliverance. How ludicrous! Still more, any una-
bated suffering would have lost its value for cosmic reconciliation. If God
were to liberate the suffering whenever the righteous prayed in faith, any of
the suffering that slipped past their compassionate watch would be an un-
justifiable waste. Suffering would be meaningless. Every divine deliverance,
though seemingly consistent with eschatological cosmic reconciliation, would
actually militate against God's purpose by muting God's call to humanity to
change and do good works.
Why, then, does God grant any miracles? The answer is so simple that the
temptation is to dismiss it. God answers prayers because God loves human
beings. God is compassionate. God is good.
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?
Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know
how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in
heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Mt 7:9-11).
Of course the God and Father of Jesus Christ grants his children's prayers!
Even when we complain most bitterly about divine absence, God is still loving
and sustaining us. God reminds the faithful of this through Hosea: "When
Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. ... It was I
who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not
know that I healed them" (Hos 11:1-3).
God loves human beings and therefore miraculously grants prayers, but
very rarely and ambiguously, and in unfathomable ways that safeguards hu-
Journal of Religion and Health
man freedom while working for cosmic reconciliation. As much as individuals
might be comforted to think that God directly intervenes in today's many
inexplicable deliverances, God does not. Even in the biblical world of ostensi-
bly common miracles, everyone was amazed, for "never since the world began
has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind" (Jn
9:32; see also Mt 12:23; 15:30f; Mk 2:12; 5:20, 42, 7:37; Lk 9:43). Now as then
miracles are highly unusual.
The rarity of miracles is matched by their ambiguity. God's infrequent mir-
acles are sufficiently well hidden (see Isa 45) so as not to undercut human
freedom or God's plan for reconciliation. The irregular and miraculous inter-
vention of God can always be interpreted otherwise. Scripture records that
many persons witnessed Jesus' miracles and resurrection without believing
that they were of God (Mt 11:25; 16:1-4; 28:17; Jn ll:45f).
When my younger sister was three years old, she walked accidentally into
the sword-shaped leaf of a Spanish bayonet yucca plant and punctured one of
her eyes. It deflated like a beach ball. The attending physician pronounced
her blind and offered what treatment he could. My parents prayed and asked
the church to pray. In several weeks, my sister could see again. The church
and my family praised God for a miracle. The physician sheepishly objected
that he had misdiagnosed the injury and the eye had healed quite naturally.
If we become convinced that God intervenes in the normal course of nature
to rescue the faithful, would not healthy self-interest compel us to choose
God? Love for God, then, would be based on what God could do for us. Love
for God would be just one more instance of self-love. This so-called love would
express one's desire for health and prosperity, for example, more than faithful
love of the holy God of the universe. Who would be genuinely free to love God
or not to love God, if faith paid off in the everyday world?
God does not lack the power to deliver the suffering clearly and regularly.
God is the beneficent Sovereign, Creator and Redeemer of the cosmos. God
created the least significant particle of matter and every one of the estimated
3.75 quadrillion solar systems in the universe. Neither the human mind nor
the farthest planet is a mystery to God. God is able to liberate convincingly.
The problem for God is to act in the world and not so overwhelm finite
humanity that real freedom to choose God is obliterated. God will act in no
more self-revelatory ways than he has in Jesus Christ because to do so would
imperil human freedom to fall in love with God. Human beings are free to
accept God only if they are also free to reject God. If God's acts were more
historically convincing, what mere mortal could refuse the powerfully wooing
affections of the almighty Lord God of the universe? God wants human beings
to love him on the basis of his character (Lk 4:43; 11:27-32; Jn 6:14-15, 30-
35) without the fear of punishment (1 Jn 4:18) or the lure of prosperity (Mk
8:34f; 10:17-22). God seeks human love and faith in freedom and therefore
works miraculously only in rare and ambiguous circumstances.
Faithful human beings will respond to God in the presence of suffering in at
least three different and coordinated ways. First, they will pray for the libera-
tion of those who suffer. It is the case that God works miraculously, albeit
infrequently. If in this whole great world, God delivers some individuals from
sickness or danger, contrary to the normal course of things, let the persons
involved praise God with all their heart, mind, and soul, and proclaim the
deliverance to all who will listen. Be bold; it will encourage the faithful. But
no one today should expect masses to hear and praise God as well. Most
persons will think that an individual who was healed was just lucky, mis-
diagnosed, overly optimistic, or a "mental case" from the start. Miracles re-
main ambiguous to spectators even when they are clear to the healed.
Second, the faithful will pray for all persons, themselves included, to be-
come more sensitive to those who suffer. They will pray that those who see
suffering will hear in it God's gentle pleadings, change and do the works of
God. As individuals respond to God, they will join with each other in surpris-
ing ways to work with God in the ministry of reconciliationhealing the sick,
freeing the oppressed, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Wars, dis-
ease, poverty, starvation, and social disintegration have often been reduced if
not eliminated by persons who heard the call of Grod through the suffering of
others. Organizations like the American Friends Service Committee, Bread
for the World, World Relief, and Christian Peacemaker Teams come imme-
diately to mind. Every denomination and nearly every church has a benevo-
lence committee or social-ministries organization that sees Christ in "the
least of these" and responds with the works of God. Secular efforts, too, like
increased funding for medical research, national health insurance, urban-re-
newal programs, the World Court, the United Nations, and international
treaties are examples of human fidelity to God in response to suffering.
Thirdly, because human petitions for divine help are met with infrequent
and obscure miracles, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego's response to the
king of Babylon is an enduring paradigm of faith confronting disaster:
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to present a defense to you in this matter. If
our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and
out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O
king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue
that you have set up (Dan 3:16-18).
These three young Jewish exiles demonstrate that God's faithful ones need
not be anxious about divine liberation from disease, poverty, malnutrition,
violence, or repressive structures. Whether God heals or not, God is good. God
reigns. Serve no other. Trust God. Therefore, in good times and bad the Apos-
Paul P. Parker
Journal of Religion and Health
tie Paul (who was no stranger to success or failure) urges Christians to "re-
joice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this
is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thess 5:16-18).
Etty Hillesum, a vibrant, deeply reflective, twenty-nine-year-old scholar
and victim of the world's largest and most systematic destruction of Jewry,
refused to accept evil or to resist it by its own standards. Her diaries record
that, like the three young Israelites, she bore witness to God in the midst of
suffering, but was then killed. This has been our dilemmabut it was not
hers. Fully aware of the daily horrors that consumed others and stalked her,
yet refusing opportunities to escape, she asked in an affirming rhetoric,
"Ought we not, from time to time, open ourselves up to cosmic sadness? . . .
And if you have given sorrow the space its gentle origin demands, then you
may truly say: life is beautiful and so rich. So beautiful and so rich that it
makes you want to believe in God."11 Later, just several weeks before her
death, confined by the barbed wire of Auschwitz, her joy in God became ec-
You have made me so rich, oh God; please let me share Your beauty with open
hands. My life has become an uninterrupted dialogue with You, oh God, one
great dialogue. Somethings when I stand in some corner of the camp, my feet
planted on Your earth, my eyes raised towards Your heaven, tears sometimes
run down my face, tears of deep emotion and gratitude. At night, too, when I lie
in my bed and rest in You, oh God, tears of gratitude run down my face, and that
is my prayer. ... I always end up with just one single word: God. That says
everything and there is no need for anything more.12
Make no mistake, sacrificial and reconciling suffering is no recipe for pious
quietism. More than once, the three Jewish youths opposed their tyrannical
king's orders. The Apostle Paul echos Jesus' teaching to the faithful to "Bless
those who persecute you. ... If your enemies are hungry, feed them. ... Do
not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Rom. 12: 14a, 20a, 21).
Hillesum, too, embodies this alternative ethic by refusing to escape when she
could have in order to provide comfort for those who could not flee. Through
Nazi brutality, God called her to "be all the more merciful."13 Rather than
self-righteous inaction, suffering calls for faithful action that builds upon and
is an expression of the fundamental truths of human freedom and the incom-
prehensible goodness and patience of God.
Even the sciences affirm in their own way God's cosmic patience to unite all
things in Jesus Christ to himself. The best estimates are that the universe is
about 12 billion years old and the earth about five billion. Life first appeared
on earth three to four billion years ago. Hominids have been around for only
about three million years, from which homo sapiens branched off quite re-
cently, about 200,000 years ago. Israel rose to its zenith nearly 3000 years
ago. Jesus of Nazareth was born in Bethlehem about 2000 years ago. He lived
and taught in Palestine until he was about thirty when he was killed, buried,
Paul P. Parker
and Christians believe rose from the grave on the third day after his execu-
tion. Modern social, economic, and political systems arose within the last 250
years. And in today's post-modern age, God is still reconciling the world to
himself. If anything can be said about God that is broadly informed by the
sciences, it is that God must be very, very patient. As long as the earth has
existed, God has ruled only on rare occasions against the normal course of
things through ambiguous nature-rupturing miracles. God reigns more per-
vasively and protectively of human freedom through sacrificial and reconcil-
ing sufferingthe world's and his own.
1. Martin Luther King, "Pilgrimage to Nonviolence" in The Strength to Love (Philadelphia: For-
tress Press, 1963) p. 154.
2. Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel. Nashville: Abingdon, 1978 [1917],
pp. 180-184.
3. H. R. Niebuhr, "The Grace of Doing Nothing," The Christian Century (March 23, 1932), pp.
378-380; "A Communication," The Christian Century (April 6, 1932), p. 447; "War as the
Judgment of God," The Christian Century (May 13, 1942), pp. 630-633; "Is God in the War"
The Christian Century (August 5, 1942), pp. 953-955; "War as Crucifixion," The Christian
Century, (April 28, 1943), pp. 513-515.
4. Rauschenbusch, A Theology of the Social Gospel, p. 183.
5. Wolfgang Schrage, "tuphlos," Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kit-
tle and Gerhard Friedrich, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972,
VIII, pp. 283-291.
6. Marc H. Ellis, Toward a Jewish Theology of Liberation. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1987, p.
7. Though Irenaeus's theology has often been contrasted to Augustine's, they are not antitheti-
cal. Their starting-points are different, but Augustine's view of human free choice by the
grace of God does not necessarily contradict Irenaeus's understanding that God takes into
account human limits. Irenaeus writes that despite human freedom, God's "love and kind-
ness will overcome [the weakness] of the nature of created man." See Adversus Haereses in
The Early Christian Fathers, ed. and trans. Henry Bettenson. New York: Oxford University
Press, 1956, pp. 68-72.
8. Augustine, The Spirit and the Letter, pp. 245f.
9. Ibid., pp. 196f, 216, 236-245.
10. Kelly James Clark, "Evil and Christian Belief," International Philosophical Quarterly, (June
11. Etty Hillesum, An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum 1941-42, ed. J. G. Gaar-
landt. New York: Pantheon, 1983, pp. 81-82.
12. Ibid., p. 205.
13. Ibid., p. 157.
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