How the Archbishop Got It Wrong: Humane Confidence vs. Destructive Doubt

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When calamity brings horrific death and suffering, as in Beslan, Russia, we do not honor the dead or the dignity of human beings by making doubt the measure of their worth. But the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, seems to think otherwise. His interview on the BBC was sensitive and caring, but its ending was disheartening. He said that the Beslan catastrophe caused his faith to tremble. That is good. We should tremble indeed in a world so ripe for judgment, where we know our own sins keenly. But he went further and said something that should dismay us when we consider his rank and influence as a leader of Christ’s people. “When you see the depth of energy that people can put into such evil, then . . . there is a flicker, there is a doubt. It would be inhuman, I think, not to react in that way.”

I find that statement, coming from the shepherd of millions of Anglicans, to be incredible. Perhaps it was a slip. If so, I am happy that this article does not apply to the Archbishop. But it is likely that for many, it would be no slip. Many would indeed say what the Archbishop implied: To be humane in the face of great suffering one must at least have a flicker of doubt toward God! This statement is symptomatic not of deep compassion, but of deep confusion—or worse, unbelief. Against this fragile vision of God’s goodness and power, may there rise from millions of Christ’s people a sad and sorrowing, “Not so, Reverend Williams! Not so.”

It does not belittle people or make light of their pain when we hold fast to God’s power and goodness while we hold out our hand to the suffering in help and prayer. I would venture to say that the most compassionate and merciful saints in history have sacrificed themselves for the suffering, precisely because their faith in God’s sovereign goodness was unshakable. They would have found the Archbishop’s final comment unintelligible.

Nor do we learn such counsel from Jesus. Never, never did he doubt the goodness or power of his Father while confronting the worst evils in the universe. And this did not make him “inhuman.” It made him perfectly human. His combination of compassion for people and confidence in God is the call on our lives for how to respond to suffering. It is unthinkable that Jesus would make doubt in his Father the test of compassion for suffering Russians.

Never did he teach us, or even hint, that we should doubt the reality of God’s goodness and power when facing unspeakable evil. When people confronted him with the slaughter of the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices, he spoke very differently from the Archbishop: “He answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’” (Luke 13:2-3).

For those who are saturated and shaped by all the words and ways of Jesus, not only does horrific evil today not bring doubt of God, it does not even bring surprise. Jesus labored to help us be ready for the worst of evils, even Islamic terrorists. He taught us that there would be “terrors” (an amazingly relevant word for what “terrorists” cause—Luke 21:11). He said that there would be terrible famines and plagues. Betrayal would become common and even parents would hand over children, “and some of you they will put to death” (Luke 21:16). People will be “fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world” (Luke 21:28). And, perhaps most relevant of all in this day of religious terrorism, Jesus said, “The hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 16:2).

But in spite of all this evil and suffering, Jesus did not even remotely suggest that we should have a flicker of doubt toward the goodness and sovereignty of God, or that somehow it would be less humane to hold fast to God with unshakable hope and undoubting faith. Rather Jesus did the opposite. He strove to help us maintain faith in the face of horrifying evil: “When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:31). This is not the suggestion of doubt, but the certainty of hope. Again he says that when you see these unspeakable evils happening around you, you should “raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:38). This is not a time for weakening faith, but unwavering hope.

The gift that followers of Christ bring to the suffering world is not the empathy of doubt, but the power of hope. We do not join the world in their anger at God or their questioning of his existence or justice or mercy. The very thing that survivors of suffering need most is hope in God through Jesus Christ. This will not be given by those who make its uncertainty the measure of our compassion. It is unbiblical and unmerciful to say that what suffering people need most must be doubted in order to prove our love for them.