Rev Dr Paul Smith, a minister within Stantonbury Ecumenical Partnership, has written this deeply personal piece about the loss of his first wife Fiona to a virus. Thank you for sharing this with us Paul. We are very grateful.
SUFFERING AND GOD’S LOVE by The Rev Dr Paul A. Smith. March 2020.
As an ordained minister part of my role is to pronounce the blessing upon the congregation at the end of the service. I admit to having difficulty with the word “Almighty”, as in “the blessing of God Almighty be with you.” Why? Because that word gives me problems when I come to think and speak of God and what God is like. The problem of suffering is one of society’s biggest questions. It was long before the coronavirus pandemic hit the world, but it is even more so now. The question is not so much about suffering itself, but about God’s relationship to suffering. It often gets asked in this way, “If God is supposed to be good (or almighty) how can he allow suffering?” Actually, its an age-old question with which thinkers about God and the ultimate questions have wrestled down the ages. The technical or anorak word for it is “theodicy”.
But what brought me to find this word “almighty” sticking in my throat every time the service book requires me to pronounce the blessing? These days of deadly viral pandemic have unexpectedly brought back the time when a virus took the life of my first wife, Fiona. Even though it was 25 years ago, and I have long since been blessed with another marriage and a large adoptive family, it has come back to haunt me. Grief is a bit like that – just when you think you’ve dealt with it – it finds a new way to squeeze into your consciousness. It’s no longer raw, for me it has mellowed into wisdom and compassion, but it still reminds me of those early painful months and years. Fiona was ill for just under a week. Our son was 8 months old and I’d lost my father two years before to a blood disease. One day she fainted. We got her to hospital. The medics couldn’t diagnose why her pulse and heart-rate were slowing down in ways they couldn’t stop. They lost the battle to save her on the third Friday in July, just 4 days short of our 8th wedding anniversary. She was 31. I was flattened. I feared that the same virus would strike my little son and even me down. Fortunately, an understanding doctor reassured me it wasn’t contagious in that way. Post-mortem they had diagnosed myocarditis – a virus which kills the heart muscle. She didn’t stand a chance. It’s a rare killer, but it happens.
I had a great deal of support in the early days. Family and friends helped with the baby. A child-minder had him every morning once I returned to work. Then I met Jeanette, herself a young widow, and she accepted both my son and I into her and her family’s life. We were married at Christ the Cornerstone. I went to see a counsellor regularly. Gradually I worked my way through the stages of grief. I was helped to see that my unexpected numbness about the conventional words in funeral services was really my way of being angry with God for what had happened. (You’re not supposed to get angry with God, right?) Some people expected me to give up being a vicar because of what had happened. But I found I really wanted to carry on, despite my struggles. Once I’d worked through my initial strong reactions to grief, I had to work out where that left my beliefs. I had to reassess. One of the things I had to work out was the problem of suffering. If the God who I worked for was in charge of life, what did I make of him (my “boss”) taking away my wife? Some Christians talk of God’s plans for our lives. Could God really have planned to deprive me of my young wife, the work we were beginning to do together for the church, and her developing skill of calligraphy which she both created and taught? (A memorial window to her which carries some of her work is in the cloisters at Cornerstone.)
I realised that I was faced with a choice: ditch God completely (and therefore my “career”) or reassess my beliefs about God. I realised that the people who expected me to stop being a vicar thought that there was only one choice: ditch God if he doesn’t fit into your ideas of how God should behave.
There is another choice, however. Ditch the original beliefs you had about God and reassess. One of the most helpful books I read in my wrestling was by the Jewish Rabbi Harold Kushner. When bad things happen to good people. I began to understand that a naïve idea of God makes him responsible for every detail of what happens in our lives – like allowing suffering to happen to us or others. Some even say things they think are helpful such as: “God is testing you” or “He must have wanted her” or even worse, “God is punishing you!” (Yes, someone actually wrote that to me!) These are the responses of Job’s comforters. (That’s the most helpful book in the Bible I found, by the way.) The trouble with all those arguments is what they imply about God. In the end he turns out to be vindictive, uncaring, harsh. No wonder that kind of God gets ditched frequently! The problem with all those sorts of approaches is that they are based on the idea that God allows or makes suffering happen on purpose. People who are sure of their faith, just as much as people who are sure that they don’t have faith, are inflexible in their opinion of God. I learnt that a living faith is more flexible and thoughtful than that.
What if our opinion could change rather than God? Harry Kushner’s writing helped me to begin to see suffering and God in a different way. Suffering (which includes the existence of viruses) just does happen. (There’s a rude proverb about that which I quite like!) Yes, a virus took away my young wife. Yes, the coronavirus, just like other deadly viruses and diseases exist. Yes, they cause untold suffering. But the way the universe works includes a certain amount of randomness, a randomness in which ugly things like viruses exist just as much as amazing things like supernovas, or the wonderful and complex form of life which is a human being. In religious terms – that’s the way God runs creation. I began to believe that God doesn’t target individuals for suffering. In fact, the cross of Christ demonstrates a God who enters the world of suffering and identifies with the pain that living in this universe brings.
Rabbi Kushner suggests that questions such as “Why did this happen to me?” or “What did I do to deserve this?” are dead-end questions. They only lead to despair. The pain we might go through may well lead us to lash out with such reactions – all of which are understandable. But if we are to find any sense of life and hope, if we are to not allow suffering to defeat us, then we need to ask forward-looking questions such as, “Now that this has happened to me, what can I do?” It’s what Rabbi Kushner calls “allowing the future to redeem our tragedies”. As a Christian, it’s what I call Resurrection. I am grateful that I was helped by so many kindnesses (including being helped in my thinking about suffering) to begin to ask the forward-looking, hopeful and faith-filled questions. I guess that’s why I’m still a vicar so many years later. We carry the scars of our suffering for the rest of our lives – and maybe my mental scar is the problem with the word “Almighty” which I can’t shake off. But the cross and resurrection remind me that the scars of Christ’s wounds point to his self-sacrificial and compassionate love for the world. They are signs of hope for me, which help me to keep faith with God and continue to love – including the love I have for those I see no longer.