Dear Donagh,
To me all that has gone on and is going on in history is God's fault not humanity’s. God created us, He knew we'd go wrong and therefore it would have to be put it right through suffering and pain. Personally I'm appalled at what Jesus suffered to save us, I don't think it necessary. What was the whole point of all this blood sacrifice? It was designed by God so He wants us to suffer to show his power maybe…?
How can God hold us responsible when we as imperfect creatures cannot even help ourselves and when we ask God's help we get lashings and lashings of suffering…. it leaves me feeling a cold, emotionless God who is almost playing chess with us....

Dear Michael,

I'm one with you in recoiling in horror from the “cold, emotionless God who is playing chess with us.”  I bet my life on it that there is no such God.  Such a God would be a nightmare, bearing no resemblance to the Father of Jesus Christ.  The Christian proclamation is that “God is love.”  So emphatic is John about this that he adds: “Whoever does not love does not know God” (1 John 4.8).  A God who inspired only fear could not be the Father that Jesus spoke of.  Just think of the parable of the Prodigal Son.  In that parable Jesus was trying to picture God for us.  God is the affectionate father who runs out to meet his erring son and embraces him, welcoming him home.  The son has a speech prepared: "I no longer deserve to be called your son, etc." (Luke 15); but the father won’t allow him to finish.  "Quick!" he said, "bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet…." There are telling details in this story: the ring signified rank - he was to be no second-class citizen - and the sandals signified that he was not a servant but a son of the family. 

So where does the horror-God come from?  He comes from the lurid imaginations of people who have not spent enough time reading the gospels.  In a bookshop last year I saw a reprint of the old catechism that was knocked into us long ago in school.  Someone must have thought it would do us all a lot of good to read that material again.  I read the first chapter – which was about God.  I could scarcely believe my eyes when I saw that it never mentioned that God loved us – much less that “God is love.”  It said God created us, saw all our most secret thoughts and actions, judged us, rewarded us for good behaviour and punished us for bad behaviour.  It made no mention of love.  We’re far from perfect today, but I think we pay more attention to the gospels than we did in the past. 

If you banish that cold chess-playing God from your mind you will find that the other things you mention gain some clarity.  A chess player is not a ‘father’ to the pieces; the pieces are just things that are moved around the board, or brushed off it, at will.  And of course they have no will of their own; they are completely passive.  But we are God's children, not his chess pieces.  The metaphor is from family life, not from a game.  If the father of a family forced his will on his children to the point where they had no will of their own, he would be a disastrous father.  His job, instead, is to show them how to do things, to surround them with reassurance, and to stay with them and help them to learn when they make mistakes.  Through these experiences they learn slowly and often painfully to take responsibility for their own lives. 

No father or mother (unless they are twisted human beings) enjoys seeing their children suffer.  But there never was a father or mother who could protect their child completely from suffering.  To live is to suffer.  In order to have an adult understanding of suffering, we have to put the word ‘punishment’ out of our minds.  The association of these two words goes back to childhood – children being punished in school, or getting a clip on the ear at home.  But in a Christian context a basic meaning of the word ‘suffer’ (since the 13th century), is ‘to allow’.  The insight here is that we are to allow life to touch us, to reach us, to change us.  If we insulate ourselves from it we never learn anything or develop any skill.  Imagine someone who never suffered anything.  They would have no muscular development, no emotional or mental vigour; they would be just a blob on the floor.  Suffering is part of life, and it is not necessarily a horrible part of it: see how eagerly people train for football matches or boxing matches…. I saw a video of one of the Klitschko brothers training: he was running through snow that reached his knees, while carrying a tree-trunk on his shoulders.  And he loved it! 

Of course there is horrible suffering too.  No need to describe that.  War, aggression of every kind, torture, terrorism…. God doesn’t inflict these on us; we inflict them on one another and on ourselves.  We can't blame God for the horrors that we perpetrate.  We have freewill, and we usually know what is right.  To blame God for our crimes is the same as blaming someone else for the wrong I do. 

Take care, Michael,

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