Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Earlier this week someone asked me how to address the issue of suffering when chatting with atheists. I was a guest on Catholic Answers Live, and a caller explained that he had been trying to reach out to an atheist acquaintance who was particularly troubled by the issue of suffering. Whenever the subject of faith would come up, his atheist friend would cite atrocities like rape or murder or child abuse, and he would ask, "Where is your God when people suffer?"
I have spent a lot of time trying to find a good way to answer that question. Certainly when we have hours of time to discuss the subject, or hundreds of pages to analyze it in a book, we can at least begin to convey the depth of the Church's wisdom on this issue. There are still no easy answers, but, given the space to explain it properly, we can at least establish that a) the Church does not avoid this issue, and in fact embraces it, and b) there are good answers out there that can help one gain peace about this question, even if we're not meant to understand it fully in this life.
But what do you do when you don't have time to convey ten volumes worth of philosophy and theology into a single conversation? What about when you encounter someone who is in pain, and seeking answers, but you don't have more than a few moments to explain the Christian answer to suffering? Very often, these are instances when words aren't going to cut it. And in those cases, I think that the best answer is simply to offer an image, a visual that addresses this age-old question better than a library full of books ever could:
When we rail against God for human pain, too often we're picturing a distant God, looking down with disinterest from his throne upon the clouds. But to see the crucifix is to see the God who allows suffering, but does not exempt himself from it. To ponder the crucifix is to ponder the fact that that man, naked in bleeding on the cross, is the incarnate form of the One who created all the galaxies. To gaze at a crucifix is to learn the story of the creatures who introduced misery into their world through their own disobedience; and then to hear the tale of their Creator who did not abandon them to wallow in the mess they had made for themselves, but jumped down into it with them, who used his own pain to transform suffering into a love-generating act, and opened the door for them to be reunited with him in an eternity of peace.
And so when we are asked "Where is your God when people suffer?" and we can't seem to find the right words, the crucifix provides its own, wordless response: He is right here, suffering with us.