It was all there in her eyes, together with hundreds of questions only a little girl like her could ask. It was forever stopped in time, as she glanced at the camera on her very last walk. Buchenwald, Dachau, Auschwitz. It was all there. Sinister images of brick buildings and barb wires. Faces without expression. People consumed by disease, hunger, fear and hopelessness. Bodies amassed in common graves, in large gas chambers, incinerated or blown apart by grenades. It was all there, as if in that brief instant the camera wanted to capture the essence of what is known as the Holocaust.
There is no good way to describe the systematic slaughter of 11 million people: Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, Soviets, Christian priests and ministers, German undesirables and political opponents to the Nazi regime. Perhaps nothing could ever communicate better than those eyes the horrors of the Holocaust and of other atrocities of World War II.
Such ghastly images, forever frozen in time for us, have become the symbol of human suffering. Still today they haunt us with the stark reality of a recent past when the whole world seemed to be drawn into a madly destructive frenzy. In the years between 1933 and 1945, in addition to the 11 million people slaughtered in the concentration camps, many more lost their lives: 16.7 million military people, 29 million between Soviet and Chinese civilians, an uncounted number of European civilians, and more. We cannot even begin to fully grasp the staggering number of those who were wounded, lamed and who have continued to suffer for the rest of their lives.
Many have attempted to explain and interpret such horrors, but the issues involved are so great that in most cases we find it too difficult to accept them for what they are. Our belief systems are challenged to the core, so we choose to ignore, to deny or simply stop believing in anything at all. As the reality of such horrors shatters every preconceived notion and every class by which we could attempt to comfortably explain away such evils, a question keeps haunting us: “Where was God?”
Perhaps the greatest paradigm that is shattered by such suffering is our own spirituality and religion. We live our religion and value our spirituality for what it does to us, for the benefits we derive from it in the here and now. We seek to define God by our own classes and models, shrinking Him to fit our human definitions. We see Him as the great dispenser of everything we desire, as the supreme supplier of our needs. As long as things go the way we expect, we praise him and faithfully attend to our religious rites and routines. Then, tragedy strikes and we are not delivered. Atrocities occur and God does not stop them. All of a sudden, God seems to fail us and is placed on trial in our hearts. We demand His reasons for failing us, His justification for acting in a way we don’t understand, but find none because somehow we don’t seem to accept the fact that He may have His own agenda, very different from ours. The truth is — whether we like it or not — that if suffering challenges our view of God it is because it was meant to. As Oswald Chambers wrote, “Unless we can look at the darkest, blackest fact in the face without damaging God’s character, we do not yet know Him.”
God’s answers are available. They are written in history, all around us in the present, and are laid out in the future, but cannot be seen through the glasses of individualism, materialism or self-centeredness. If we really wish to understand, then we must resist the tendency to make ourselves right at all costs by blaming someone else, and be willing to look at the problem from His perspective, rather than our own.
In our self-righteousness, we are tempted to point the accusing finger toward God, but if we look at history in an objective way, we see that it bears indisputable witness of our own guilt. We are the ones who decided to hide from God, to separate ourselves from Him, to follow the ways of sin and of suffering, and to inflict such horrendous pain on one another. We are the ones who should stand trial, not God! Can we stop for a moment and see from God’s perspective what we have done to our world — a world that was created sinless and without suffering? But if the amount and the gravity of the sin and suffering we have brought to this world testifies to the depravity of our fallen nature, it also points out the awesomeness of God’s amazing grace. Although He has not yet taken away the sting of pain, sorrow and death, He has nevertheless given us the reassurance that this present condition is only temporary. Far from keeping Himself detached and aloof, in his mercy God has shared our suffering in a very personal manner. He has taken upon Himself the consequences of our rebellion and sin, and has made it possible for us to still partake of His glorious plan. When we experience the revulsion of our own suffering, how can we remain untouched by the fact that God deliberately chose to experience our pain in its fullest and most degrading reality, and that He did it for our sake? Never has He asked a single human being to endure more than He Himself was willing to experience for us.
If helplessness overwhelms us in our personal and collective tragedies, it is because we need to realize how amazing and truly majestic God’s plan for us is, and how desperately we need Him. When all is well we become complacent in our own ways, but it is in our pain that God’s voice is loudest. As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” If the fleeting pleasures of life allow us to imagine a better world, suffering reminds us that we are not there yet. Our longing for a better order of things is not unique. The entire creation longs with us, eagerly awaiting the manifestation of the children of God in the glory He has reserved for us. Whatever pleasure, joy or happiness we may experience today, just like pain, is only temporary. Even the greatest miracles were temporary, but they pointed to something infinitely greater yet to come.
The glory of what God has in store for us is so awesome that even the Scriptures can only hint to it, unveiling eternity and infinity as the backdrop in which we need to frame it. But it is in our pain that such glory is best understood. If we could sum up all the human suffering from all ages, all the heartbreaks and disappointments, all the pain we experience in our lifetime, all the horrors of the concentration camps, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of Rwanda and Bosnia, then and only then we can begin to understand the awesome meaning of God’s solemn promise that “the suffering of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” When all is done, God will finally release the whole creation from its groaning and suffering along with us. When the children of God are finally manifested in the freedom of God’s given glory, then He will make all things new: a new earth and new heavens. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; for the first things are passed away,” and “will no longer be remembered or come to mind.”
What is happening here and now, what is at stake in our human experience is truly of cosmic proportions. It is so majestic that the entire creation will be literally transformed. What He asks of us now is that we trust Him, that we appreciate the great and little miracles of this life, which provide us with a small reminder of better times to come, and that we read our suffering as a reminder that home is not here yet. What He offers us is not for the here an now. It could never be, for our present life is too limited for a glory and a joy that only eternity and infinity can contain.