Thousands of Jewish prisoners stood in the Appelplatz, the concentration camp’s roll call grounds. SS with their machine guns surrounded them. Before them stood three gallows, in their shadow three prisoners condemned to die–two men and one pale, sad-eyed boy. The three were ordered to step onto the chair in front of them. In unison, nooses were placed around their necks. Somewhere among the crowd, a prisoner muttered, “Where is merciful God, where is He?” At the signal, the three chairs were tipped. Total silence. Then the SS forced the prisoners to march past the victims, to see up close the cost of disobedience. When Elie passed, he could see the two men were dead. But the third rope still moved. The child, too light, was still breathing. For another half hour the boy lingered between life and death, writhing on the end of the rope. Again came a voice from among the Jewish prisoners: “For God’s sake, where is God?” And from within Elie rose this silent answer: “Where is He? This is where–hanging here from this gallows . . . ”
Elie Weisel, authored Night, the story of his horrendous suffering in a Nazi concentration camp. It’s a gripping, sickening, beyond-belief account of outright Evil. (Available from Amazon. Under $6 in paperback, under $4 on Kindle) It raises the bold-face question: Where is God when we need him?
I’m raising the question because most of us have asked it though our suffering has been less. Yet some of us have endured unbearable pain and permanent emotional scars. We might call that “common” suffering, not because it’s minor but because it’s everywhere. Yet Evil has risen up like a real-life horror movie at certain times and places in history, such as 80 years ago when a dozen or so Nazi leaders gathered around a dining room table in a palatial home and, while they ate and drank, planned the extermination of every Jew in Europe. Where was God when whole neighborhoods were jammed into box cars and taken away to die in gas chambers? When babies were thrown into the air to be shot like beer cans? When men and boys on interminable forced marches through the snow fell exhausted and were trampled and froze to death?
History is littered with more atrocities than I can cite here. But not only history. Read or watch today’s news. War in Gaza, in Syria, in the Ukraine, still in Iraq. A “humanitarian crisis” on the U.S. southern border. Ebola virus in Africa. Terrorist threats in Europe and the U.S. Not just stories or statistics, these are people like us going through a personal hell. Imagine if we, like God, could view the whole earth’s suffering in one panoramic sweep! I suspect we might feel as I did when I read Weisel’s book–shocked by Evil, sickened by suffering, wondering how God could have allowed such barbarism.
That brings us back to the question: Where is God when we need him? Skeptics and atheists point to the suffering world as evidence for no God. Christians have wrestled for centuries with “the problem of suffering.”
Where is God when we need him? We can’t placate questioners with platitudes. Nor can we criticize people who honestly ask it–because we’ve asked it. So did the psalmists . . .
- “Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing; heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled. My soul also is greatly troubled. But you, O LORD–how long?” (Psalm 6:2,3).
- “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1).
- “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1).
- “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22:1,2).
We need answers. We need them when we are dragging through our own “dark night of the soul”. We need them when family or fellow believer is suffering. We need them to answer the unbeliever who honestly doubts how a good and powerful God could allow such a hurting world.
Next post I’ll try to suggest some answers. Meanwhile, think about the question. Remember some of your suffering and how you felt when you found yourself asking it. We can’t brush it off or hide it with “positive thinking.” We who believe in the God of the Bible have to acknowledge the question and find reasonable answers–for ourselves and for this world that hurts so much. If we don’t, and if we can’t speak with acts of mercy, we’ll have nothing to say and no one to listen.