"Where is God in all this suffering?" — Nicodemus

That's the $64,000 question, isn't it? Paul's answer comes in three parts, so let's break the question into three parts.

1. Where was God in all this suffering? This is an old question, and a holy one: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" The world's evils often look like proof of God's nonexistence. Many philosophers have claimed that a world of suffering cannot be a world in which a good and powerful God is present.

But Christians answer: "God was in Christ -- reconciling the world to himself" (2 Cor. 5:19). When Jesus sees the suffering of innocents, whether in New York City or Kabul or Palestine or Israel, he remembers what it was like to suffer himself. How can we say suffering is a divine dereliction of duty if God experienced that dereliction personally, on our behalf? We don't know yet what it is to die unjustly. Jesus does. If it grieves us to see our world suffer, imagine how much more it grieves God.

But there was a point to Jesus' unjust suffering. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Whether we are (relatively) innocent or (relatively) guilty, God identifies with us in the death of Jesus. And that means that in our victimization and despite our guilt, we can identify with God's vindication of Jesus at the tomb. "If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17).

2. Where will be God in all this suffering? But what about the 5,000 who died on September 11, or the many who will doubtless suffer and die across the world as events take their course? Where will God be among the mourning families and friends of September's dead, and among this winter's starving Afghan refugees?

Christians answer: "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" (2 Cor. 5:15). God came through for Jesus, raising him after the world had rejected him. We can't promise that every sufferer's story will end happily. But we can promise that the story that ended happily on the first Easter is a story told for the sake of all who, in their suffering, will call on Jesus' name (Rom. 10:13).

This is why Christians can endure suffering -- not because we are stoics who take whatever comes, but because we cry out for God to save us. "Here we groan, and long to put on our heavenly dwelling for while we are still in this tent, we sigh with anxiety that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life" (2 Cor. 5:2-5). We know God didn't answer Jesus right away, so we don't despair when God doesn't answer us right away either. For "we have a building with God eternal in the heavens" (2 Cor. 5:1).

3. Where is God in all this suffering? But people are suffering now. Is it enough to point back to the resurrection and forward to the second coming?

Christians answer: "The old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciling" (2 Cor. 5:17-18). Salvation is not just in the past and the future, because God has given his people work to do today, and a Holy Spirit in which to do it (2 Cor. 5:5). "Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2). God's answer to the world's suffering is not hidden away in Bibles and theologies. It is displayed in our ministries and missions and actions of love to each other, to New Yorkers, to Afghans, to the whole world. "We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us" (2 Cor. 5:20).

"Where is God in all this suffering?" The cross is God's answer. The second coming is God's answer. The Church is God's answer. Are you?

"Nicodemus" columnists promise honest answers to your honest questions. Send your questions to nicodemus@westmont.edu. Your identity will be kept confidential.