In the fifteen seasons of the television series ER, there is one scene for me that uncomfortably stands out among the many. In a hospital bed rests a former prison doctor named Truman, ridden with cancer and laden with guilt. Julia, the ER chaplain, sits beside him, trying with great compassion to listen, and being slower to give answers than he’d like. One of Truman’s roles as a prison doctor was to administer lethal injections to those who were sentenced to die. With great torment, he remembers one man in particular who did not die after the injection and needed to be given a second round. Looking back, Truman believes it was a sign from God, a sign which he ignored and would never be able to undo; the man he injected was later found to have been innocent, framed for the crime for which he was killed.
Now desperate for answers—blunt and solid answers—Truman reels at Julia for the uncertain comforts she attempts to offer. “I need answers, and all your questions and your uncertainty are only making things worse!” he yells. But in his last, livid outburst he is even more honest: “I need someone who will look me in the eye and tell me how to find forgiveness, because I am running out of time.”(1)
The problem of injustice and the difficulty of forgiveness are specters often met with cries for answers. Christians who attempt to respond at all often invoke the story of Job, for in it, the questions of injustice reel like Truman in his hospital bed, and unexpected answers from God counter in a way we never fathomed. The story begins with an accusation that Job only serves God because God has allowed him to prosper. To prove Job’s accuser wrong, God steps back, removing divine protection and leaving the tempter to his destructive game. Job loses everything; he writhes in his own anguish, confusion, and ashes. In the end, he remains in his belief of God, though limping with his weighted questions, and he encounters God without pretense.
Former evangelist turned atheist Charles Templeton heard the story similarly, but thoroughly detested the idea that the tormented Job is an answer to anything at all. Templeton held that the story of Job reveled God as a “cruel and callous despot” and for him the story was anything but an answer to suffering.(2) His anger is often pointed at the seeming attempt to speak into pain and suffering at all, to make sense of that which often cannot be explained, and to bring God into it in a way that is meant to trump the cry for answers: “[The story of Job] is an immoral story and it portrays an immoral God.”(3)
However the story strikes us, it is before this God that Job’s suffering moves beyond what most of us can imagine for ourselves. And Templeton is right to point out questions of injustice in Job’s pain, similar questions are often asked of pain. As outsiders looking in on a horrific scene, no one can deny the injustice of Job’s agony. But can we say with certainty that it was simply random and cruel suffering for Job, that God’s permissive stance or Job’s difficult questions were meaningless or hopeless indefinitely? I am certain I would not be able to describe every adversity or pain or sorrow in my own life as favorable, but the hard mystery is that neither would I call every episode—even the hardest episodes—simply meaningless or cruel. As hard as it may be for me to comment on Job’s suffering as an outsider, as an insider into my own pain, I think I can say that quite often there is far more percolating. “God searches the sources of the rivers,” said Job, “and brings hidden things to light.” In the end, astoundingly, it seems not only the accuser knew that Job’s faith was grounded in more than God’s blessing, but Job knew it also.
Of course, countless voices (including at times my own) still inquire as to the reason for human suffering, often turning in anger toward the very God they refuse to believe in because of this suffering. “Is this the truth at the heart of life?” asks Templeton, rejecting the immoral God he rails at. Like Julia before a man whose cancer seemed to illustrate the disease of guilt and fear, shame and sin, I agree there are no easy answers to the problem of suffering and evil. I think Job would agree as well. But I wonder if there is not something real to find even in the ashes, perhaps even the scent of transcendence within our own smoldering cries and longings. It was Job himself who cried to God with great longing in the midst of his pain: “If only there were someone to mediate between us, to lay his hand on us both.”(4)
Looking at the cross centuries later, it would seem that this request, this good door has been thrown wide open. The Christian religion is unique in its proclamation that God does not just leave the suffering to us. Neither does God leave us alone to suffer. Christ’s lays one hand on our anguished souls and reaches the other to the heavens, lifting us to the hope of recreation. The cross is the quintessential expression of meaning in and amidst unjust, cruel suffering—and at that, Christ went willingly. Speaking bluntly of what this means to a life looking for solid, if difficult, answers, journalist and former agnostic Malcolm Muggeridge writes:
“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful… [and] I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, has been through affliction and not through happiness, whether pursued or attained…This of course is what the cross signifies. And it is the cross, more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.”(5)
Like Julia we may find the problem of suffering and injustice at times wholly unanswerable. But to those longing for forgiveness, those needing something solid to hold in the grief and darkness of non-answers, there is one in flesh and blood stretched out before us.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) ER, “Atonement,” Season 14, Episode 13, originally aired January 17, 2008.
(2) Charles Templeton, Farewell to God: My Reasons for Rejecting the Christian Faith (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1996), 78.
(3) Ibid., 82.
(4) Job 9:33.
(5) Malcolm Muggeridge, A Twentieth Century Testimony (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988), 18-19.