Some years back, just a few weeks after being ordained a priest, I found myself chaplain for a month at one of the London hospitals. One day I was called to the bedside of a young boy dying of cancer. His parents were there and we all sat together for the last few hours of his life.
At one point the mother asked, 'Why does God let this happen?' An obvious question, a natural question, but still the kind you dread. And really the only thing that I could say was that I did not know. I had no answer that could satisfy the bewilderment that a mother feels as she watches her son die, let alone soothe the pain. All I could do was to be with them in those hours, to offer the sacraments, to pray with and for them.
Two years later I too found myself asking that same question, 'Why does God let this happen?' This time it was my father who was dying of cancer. Though perhaps more easily in the face of old age comes the answer that this is only natural, the way our bodies are, still it did not satisfy the questions I had about why it had to happen to him, why he had to be the one to suffer that fate, satisfy the deeper yearning that I had for more time, for his company for longer. So all that I could do in those last few hours in his presence was to be there with my bother and sister and later with them perform the funeral rites.
In the passage for today from the book of Job, God is said to give Job an answer as he asks, 'Why does God let this happen?' Throughout the many chapters of that book many others have tried to find an answer that will meet Job's bewilderment, his anger and his pain. Job has lost everything, his family and his possessions. He has lost his health and reputation. Why had God let this happen to him, when he has done nothing wrong? None of the answers others give can satisfy him. Perhaps God, however, will explain why he has done this to Job, why he lets it happen.
And yet God's answer when it comes is more a barrage of questions that challenge Job himself to account for his impudence in calling God to account. Is Job on a level with God the creator either in power or knowledge, so that God should explain himself to Job? The wisdom and justice of creation and of the fate of each being within it is understood by God, yet it remains beyond the reach of men and women.
In the end Job receives no straightforward answer to his questions, but is reduced to silence in the awesome presence of God. The questions he kept on asking and the answers he searched for, are themselves transcended in this great theophany, in this experience of the divine.
Well, we might think, that is our experience too, though without the comfort -- if that is what it is -- of such a display of divine presence. Job is reduced to silence and we are reduced to silence, without answers to our bewilderment and pain.
And yet, if not an answer, we do find here the beginnings of a solution. God is the creator and there is a wisdom and justice in his creation even if this lies outside our comprehension. God is also not absent from the bewilderment and pain of those who suffer in his creation. Instead God reaches into his creation to be present with those who suffer and finally to release them from their sufferings.
This point is made by the link between the different passages forming the readings for today. The God revealed in Job as the one who alone controlled the mighty waters in creation is the same God praised in the psalm as the one who stills the seas when sailors cry out to him in their distress. It is the same God who present as the man Jesus calms the storm when the disciples in their distress implore him: 'Teacher, do you not care if we perish?'
Do you not care? Why do you let this happen? The same question once again.
The solution these passages give is that God is present with us in our sufferings. As Paul tells us in the passage from Corinthians, ultimately God in Jesus suffers with us in his presence, bringing about a new creation:
For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.
The solution Jesus offers us is his own suffering, a suffering which finally will mean the end of all our suffering, which finally will mean a new life in God's new creation. This is not an answer in any straightforward sense and the many attempts to explain the Passion of Christ in the New Testament or in the Church's tradition can never fully satisfy us if we ask why God let it happen.
We are faced not by an answer, but by a solution. A solution we might ponder in silence, even share with others in silence.