How Can He Watch? Mental Illness and the Problem of Pain 

I’ve been reflecting on the problem of pain, recently. It’s a question I return to time and again because there is no satisfactory answer. Theodicy just about makes sense. I can nearly reconcile the all powerful and all loving God who sees more than we can ever imagine weaving a more beautiful tapestry with our darkness and His light.  I’ve spent much of my working life thinking and reflecting on the problem of pain and evil. It’s formed parts of dissertations and essays, blog posts and articles. Academically speaking, I get it. 

And yet:

Greater than academic theories of theodicy which argue an all-powerful and yet self-limiting God; an idea that the pain is part of our soul-making journey heavenwards. Greater than the pain which permeates every pore and Greater than the questions which shake the firmest foundation of faith. 

Greater than the most robust academic argument is the person of Jesus. It is the picture of a weeping and broken Jesus that allows me to trust in an invisible God in the face of life’s pain. When I can feel the blankness steal over my gaze and the lump lodge itself in my throat - it is not the academic that comforts; but the truth of God made flesh who was scarred and slaughtered for our sake. It is the tears of Jesus as he weeps for his friend which enable me to trust when my understanding has reached its human limit. 

My trust in God must be greater than my understanding because there are still so many questions and so much I cannot comprehend. Whilst part of me knows that I will never be able to understand until we’ve reached heaven - I still cannot help but wonder:

How can God watch?

It is this thought which buzzes in my brain like an incarcerated wasp - how can He watch the agony of the starving, the acts of cruelty, the needless deaths and lives ravaged by mental illness?

Nicholas Wolterstorff voices beautifully some of this questioning in his memoir “Lament for a Son”:

“How is faith to endure, O God, when you allow all this scraping and tearing on us? You have allowed rivers of blood to flow, mountains of suffering to pile up, sobs to become humanity's song--all without lifting a finger that we could see. You have allowed bonds of love beyond number to be painfully snapped. If you have not abandoned us, explain yourself.”

All too often it seems, humanity’s song is a sob, a wrenching cry that asks “Why?” in the face of loss. 

And yet.

In the questions and the crying and the regrets; there is something more. Something which cannot be adequately explained and something which would surely not satisfy logic. 

Wolterstorff continues;

“We strain to hear. But instead of hearing an answer we catch sight of God himself scraped and torn. Through our tears we see the tears of God.” 

The tears of God are illustrated in CS Lewis’ “Magicians Nephew” as Aslan’s fall in the face of Digory’s grief. 

They are the tears cried by Jesus when he is confronted with the death of his friend and his own private agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

I cannot find an answer which satisfies my desire to know how God can watch the pain. 

I cannot rationalise the suffering - but I can see the tears. 

And I have to believe that it is enough. It is enough to know that God cannot bear to watch our pain; but He does watch and He weeps with us; arms open wide with nail-scarred hands. 

I do not know how God can watch. 

I can know that God does care enough to watch, and to weep. 

This article first featured as part of ThinkTwice's #WednesdayWords


Rachael Newham, 08/05/2015
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