Justice in Pain, Suffering, and Silence
In a scene from the Martin Scorsese film Silence, Father Sebastian Rodrigues is confronted with the dilemma of his life: choose to surrender his faith publicly and live a peaceful life in Japan, or keep his faith and suffer a slow, painful death along with other Christian followers whose lives depend on his decision. The movie is silent and slow-paced yet intense for the entirety of its 2 hours and 40 minutes; in fact, much of the film is literally just moments of silence. Ironically, these moments of silence were the most interesting parts of the film. For viewers, Father Rodrigues’ pain and suffering is frustrating, but the silence—which represents the absence of God—jars us even more. Somewhere deep within our hearts we hope that God will at least speak to Father Rodrigues, or anyone, that their suffering will not be in vain. But this isn’t that kind of movie. In the entirety of the 2 hours and 40 minutes, we watch as a faithful, spiritually strong man breaks down, tortured, and ultimately renounces his faith. Throughout the movie, we begin to question why God allows pain for even those seeking to work for God or in the very least let us hear His voice instead of just silence. Where’s the justice?
When we see pain and suffering in the world, we often cry out for justice. Pain and suffering is associated very closely with the notion of the worldly justice. Whenever serious pain and suffering is inflicted we tend to identify it as injustice, and justice is brought by inflicting pain and suffering to those who have violated justice. In fact, one of the many questions we receive as Christians by the world is: ‘if God is good and just, why does He allow for all the suffering in the world?’ Disregarding the convenient Christian answer (that it is because man has sinned first thus deserving of the many injustices around the world), this is still a fair question that is worth examining. After all, there are thousands of innocent children and women being victimized all around the globe, and if God really is in control, why do these innocent people suffer so deeply? Is there a place in our lives for undeserved trials and travails? God’s silence in the midst of these pains make it harder to cope with pain; what kind of God with all the power and might stays silent at His creations’ sufferings whom He also loves? He must hate us to allow such pain and suffering.
The Bible records plenty of instances where God acts as the executor of justice. When the first man and woman sinned, God expelled them from the Garden of Eden and spoke to punish them accordingly. In the first recorded act of murder, by Cain on his brother Abel, God speaks and punishes Cain for murdering his own brother.
Stories of Isaiah, Moses, Joshua, and in almost all stories are instances of God acting as the judge and executioner in the Bible. In these instances, man suffers as a result of sin, as a form of punishment, and often when man has brought suffering or pain to another. Let’s have a look at the Book of Micah. In it God speaks through Micah of His plan of punishing Israel for its unfaithfulness and injustice. Chapter 6 progresses with God presenting His case against his people: “for the Lord has an indictment against his people and he will contend with Israel.” Micah speaks out that all God requires is “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Many of the prophetic books, including Micah, Habakkuk, Nahum, Haggai, are about God punishing Israel for its unjust acts and unfaithfulness and restoring them back. God does indeed recognize pain and suffering as a violation of justice and brings punishment to those who are unjust.
However, these punishments as a form of biblical justice are not to be considered solely within the context of pain and suffering. While punishments could come in the form of pain and suffering, suffering doesn’t always signify a form of punishment. There are several instances in the Bible where human suffering was not a result of punishment and even sometimes a form of blessing, which was to follow afterwards. One of the best examples comes from the book of Job. The pain and suffering that Job faces didn’t result from Job’s injustice or unfaithfulness. Rather, the Bible shows that what prompted his series of pain and suffering was that he was “a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil.” Because Job was blameless and upright, feared God, and turned away from evil, he was targeted and tested by Satan with God’s permission. The suffering and pain that Job had to endure is unbearable by any standard across all cultures. He lost his children, health, wealth, and much more. And confronted by Job was the silence of God.
Job lived a life so good that God Himself had said Job was “blameless and upright” and yet Job was given unimaginable pain and suffering. When God does confront Job at the end, Job is inundated with God’s intimidating questions like “Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?” and “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand?” Any expectation of God saying something like ‘sorry about that Job, you okay? I just had this bet with Satan’ is completely gone. For us, it’s easy to sympathize with Job a little more and not understand God’s hostile line of questioning to a man who went through so much suffering for really no apparent reason. But Job fared well and replied in humility, to which God responds that Job has “spoken the truth about me.” And for this, Job was rewarded with greater wealth than before, beautiful children, and a long life (140 years). When God says Job has ‘spoken the truth about Him,’ Job didn’t say anything out-of-the-box meaningful or give an explanation to the pain and suffering that were inflicted upon him; Job simply replied saying that he is too ignorant to know and that he repents.
There is another worthy moment of silence in the Bible that is worth examining. It is the moment when Jesus dies on the cross. Anyone who’s watched Mel Gibson’s rendering of the crucified Christ is disgusted at the ghastly portrayal of the violence at Jesus’ torture and death. In that very moment when His own son Jesus was brutally tortured and murdered on the cross, God was silent. Even on that last day as Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, God was silent. Jesus went through pain and suffering for our own sins in God’s silence. There is nothing as painful as being treated with silence by your own Father in the midst of pain and suffering, but Jesus knew what had to be done and took the silence of God and the sins of the world and died on the cross. The ground shook, the veil was torn, and there was darkness. One can imagine as Jesus died on the cross, God speaking out with an army of angels and something a lot more dramatic than what happened, but what happened instead was relative silence to what could’ve been expected. Mel Gibson’s movie portrays the torture death of Jesus in a span of an hour; he spends more than half of his movie portraying the torture and death of Jesus—the pain and suffering. Anyone who has watched the movie would be surprised to find that in the gospel the torture and death of Jesus using the elaborate torture objects the Romans used is not recorded as elaborately, oftentimes no more than 2-3 lines. It is because the writers of the gospel understood that the works of God lay not in describing Jesus’ pain and torture but in how his death paid the price of sin and brought new life to us all.
Here’s what we notice from Jesus’ death: Jesus’ suffering and death was certainly not a just death. He broke no laws and committed no sin to deserve the worst form of humiliation and death at the time in the Roman Empire. Pontius Pilate, asked to crucify Jesus, recognizes this: “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.”
While all men and women are sinners in the eyes of God, Jesus was not; he was the one man in all of history who was clean before God. And yet Jesus died in the most unjust form in the silence of God.
Back to the question of justice in the midst of pain and suffering. When there is pain and suffering in the world, it doesn’t necessarily mean that God is somehow punishing those who are going through difficult times, nor is He blindly absent to the sufferings that happen. But as the story of Job goes, we also can’t fully fathom His reasons for allowing pain and suffering in this world. Yet, He gives us a promise. He is a good and just God, one who had sacrificed His own son to be with us: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” While we may not understand the pain and sufferings of this world, He’s shown that He’s gone through much more suffering by sacrificing His own son on the cross and promising us eternal life.
God’s silence to tragic events does not mean He is simply absent or content with the pain and suffering, and He most definitely doesn’t let even a single act of injustice go unpaid. But He was silent when Job cried out in pain despite his innocence; He was silent when His own son was murdered on the cross; He can be silent when there is pain and suffering in this world. His judgment may not be an immediate, vengeful one that many of us might want because of the pain and suffering this world carries, but one that is just in every sense of the word. He promises in the Book of Revelation:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.
When the day comes is when pain and suffering will disappear. This is the context in which we should understand pain and suffering. It is that which will be gone when the days of man dwelling with God are restored.
1 Genesis 4:1-16
2 Micah 6:2
3 Micah 6:8
4 Job 1:8
5 Job 42:8
6 John 19:4
7 John 3:16
8 Revelation 21:3-4
Bryan Lee is a senior in Columbia College who will graduate this Spring with an Economics degree. He also serves on the Editorial board of Crown and Cross and is a long time member of the Columbia Soon (KCCC) Christian club.Tags: apologetics, evil, faith, justice, Martin Scorsese, Silence, suffering, theodicy, theology