BBC Radio 2 September 5th 2007

Well Terry, this morning I’d like to consider a religious question… According to author Rabbi Harold Kushner, it’s actually the only religious questions there is. His book, ‘Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?’ begins like this: ‘There is only one religious question: why innocent people suffer?’ All other theological questions, he says, are interesting, but ultimately irrelevant.

Every now and then an event occurs that forces us to ask ourselves such a question. A natural catastrophe, an international outrage or, on a more personal level, an aggressive terminal illness. So many bad things happen in our world, it might sometimes seem that maintaining any belief in God is a futile and forlorn exercise.

But tragedies, whether of natural or human origin, occur because they can occur. Suffering is as much a part of life as joy and it’s not reasonable or even fair to expect God to intervene and prevent the catastrophes caused by accidents of nature or the cruelty of human beings. The world, whether it be tectonic plates or tiny cells in our bodies, behave according to certain rules and God can’t change those rules.

But what God can – and I believe does – do is give us the chance to develop ways of coping with those rules. We instinctively know when something cruel has occurred and we rage and protest at the horror and the cruelty of it. We see the devastation that natural catastrophes can wreak and we feel moved to offer our help and support. We strive to cure deadly diseases and, when we cannot, we find ways of easing the pain of those who suffer. And we cope – perhaps with bravery and tenacity like Jane Tomlinson who fought with such determination against her cancer, perhaps with the silent dignity with which so much untold pain and grief is borne by so many.

Because God also gives us resources that we can draw on to find consolation for ourselves and offer comfort to others. And from that same source, we also discover courage and strength to cope with what sometimes seem insurmountable tragedies. God does not cause this suffering any more than God can prevent it. But God gives us – or perhaps even is – that spirit within us that enables us to resist, recover from and eventually overcome the bad things that happen in our lives and move ourselves and humankind forwards.