In my late 20s, I began manifesting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I had been attacked twice at knifepoint as a child and was able to keep the memories pretty well tucked into my unconscious, but at a certain point my unconscious won. As I began sifting through the memories and the pain, I also began experiencing tremendous anger toward God. How could he ever let something like that happen to me?
‘God, where were you?’
Many people have confronted this same dilemma. We call it the problem of evil. How can an all-loving, completely good God allow evil to happen to his children? The response that I had heard repeatedly was, unfortunately, only a portion of St. Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of the problem of evil: God permits evil in order to bring good out of it. I had always accepted this answer, until I had to confront the reality of evil head-on in my own life. And so, I admitted to my spiritual director that I could not agree with that explanation because of my own experience.
His response: If you can’t accept that, what can you accept?
That wasn’t what I expected to hear, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed to hear. I started a journey that included many hours of prayer, tears and questioning to figure out a response that satisfied me. I asked God (many times), “Where were you when I was being attacked?” The answer came in a Scripture passage: “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) My problem was that I was looking for God in the actual event; and God could not possibly be there. Now I knew where God wasn’t, so I stopped looking there.
I began identifying more and more with Jesus since I experienced some of what he went through — being attacked, left completely alone, and helpless before the aggression of others. I rewrote one of the Songs of the Suffering Servant found in the book of Isaiah with the pronoun “she” — “like a lamb led to the slaughter-house, like a sheep dumb before its shearers she never opened her mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). So closely did I identify with this passage, which is a prophecy of Christ’s Passion.
Eventually, this extended search for meaning brought me to a new understanding of the gift of free will. Someone else had abused that gift when they attacked me. That’s what hurt the most — why didn’t God stop that person from hurting me? I began to realize that when God gives a gift, He never takes it away, even if it means that we choose to abuse that gift to harm others. He didn’t even stop the people who killed his own Son. God chose to experience the ultimate, painful, crushing consequences of the gift of free will that He had given to us.
Then it occurred to me that if I really believed that with the Sacrament of Baptism God truly lives within me in a mysterious but real way, then God must also experience everything that I experience. There was something in me that desperately wanted another person to know exactly what I had gone through so that I wouldn’t be alone with the evil and terror that I had experienced and continued experiencing in countless ways. There is someone who experienced what I experienced — not only in Jesus’ violent suffering and death 2,000 years ago but up close and personal with me through the divine life living within me. This is the answer that I found I could live with — that in giving us the gift of freedom God also participates in the consequences of that gift.
Comfort in Scripture
Through this long, arduous and tremendously painful journey, my relationship with God took a huge leap forward. My life became the foundation of my relationship with God; I became prayer rather than saying prayers. It was inside my own story that I sought for a Father, and there that I found my Father. I discovered that I could express myself and the way I truly felt: anger, pain, grief, doubt, you name it.
Many times I found the exact same things being expressed in the Psalms:
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish?
My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief. (Psalm 22:1-2)
I felt so comforted knowing that others have been down the same road with God, have asked similar questions. Other parts of Scripture, especially the book of Isaiah, provided me with reassuring messages about God’s love that I desperately needed in the darkness and the pain that I often touched during that time:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through waters, I will be with you;
through rivers, you will not be swept away.
When you walk through fire,
you shall not be burned …
Because you are precious in my eyes,
and honored, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43: 1-2, 4)
Every question that I asked received an answer in some form — either through something I read in Scripture, a personal insight, or a lived experience. By engaging in this dialogue with God, I was able to discover how God was actually intimately involved in what had happened to me. I learned that God’s gifts and promises are truly trustworthy. And the promise that sustains me is that God is always with me. God says over and over again in Scripture (some 350+ times), “Do not be afraid, I am with you.” Nowhere in the Bible did God promise to take away suffering — but God did promise to be with us through it all.
This post was originally published on July 9, 2012.