“Where The Hell is God?” – A Review

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It is difficult for me to decide whether the pain, suffering and death that I see today is merely my perspective as an older person whose life (and those of some of my family and friends) seem to be winding down…or…. whether there really is a lot of gloom and doom in our world in 2018.

This gloom and doom includes a long list of examples that weaken my spirit, eg) the threat of nuclear war, global warming, millions of refugees, and the politics of fear, violence, racism etc. spread by the current American president. Gloom and doom is too big a topic for my limited mind and definitely not the purpose of igNation reflections. However, how people cope with pain, suffering and death is a topic that has interested Christians since the time of Jesus. Apparently the Church has no dogma on this topic.

In 2010 Fr. Richard Leonard, an Australian Jesuit wrote a very small book (76 pages) titled “Where the Hell is God?” Rooted in a 1998 tragic automobile accident which left his sister Tracey a quadriplegic, Fr. Leonard states that the purpose of his book is “…not meant as an academic treatise on the theology of suffering, but as a heartfelt invitation to the person who has known suffering in life-that is to say, everyone.”

Fr. Leonard’s book was a breath of fresh air on a topic that we all will have to face. His book inspired me to reflect on pain and suffering and what comes after our death.

After graduating from nursing, Tracey travelled to Calcutta to work amongst the dying in Mother Theresa’s hospital. Tracey returned to Australia and while nursing Aboriginals, she suffered the accident that caused her to become a quadriplegic. Tracey was cared for until her death in 2017 by her mother Joan (herself a single mother whose husband died of a heart attack when Joan was 32.)

Through a number of computer programs Tracey was able to produce a book about her accident and health experiences, “The Full Catastrophe”. But her Jesuit brother’s book opens up new interpretations of the more universal themes of pain, suffering and death

Good friends offered Fr. Leonard well intentioned, traditional but uncomforting advice about his sister’s suffering. Since much of their advice did not draw him closer to God, Fr. Leonard wrote the book “Where the Hell is God?”. In the preface he hopes that his book “…may change the way you look at your life.”

He is convinced that God “…wants us to have an intelligent discussion about the complexities of where and how the divine presence fits into our fragile and human world.” Leonard claims “…better theology can take frightening theology’s place when it makes sense.” His small book then discusses what he labels the “seven steps to spiritual sanity”.

  1. God is a god of love who gives us life. God does not directly send pain, suffering and disease. God does not punish us.
  2. God loves us deeply but did not make us puppets. Instead, God gave us the gift of free will. Using the analogy of loving parents who give their teen age children “roots and wings”, Leonard states that God does not send us accidents to teach us things, though we can learn from our choices.
  3. God does not will earthquakes, hurricanes and other such natural disasters. Leonard insists “The dialogue between science and faith should also have an impact on the way we pray.” Are we humans good stewards of God’s creation? Do we pray for the wisdom to find ways in both our personal life and the policies of our governments to minimize global warming?
  4. God’s will is more interested in the big picture than the small. Our death is not the end but the beginning, like Jesus, of our new life. And that is why Easter is the ultimate happiness, not Good Friday.Fr. Leonard says the ultimate question on Good Friday should not be how did Jesus die, but why was Jesus killed.
  5. Jesus was both human and God. Jesus did not just come “to die”. Because God created us and loves us, God used Jesus’ death to announce the end of death.
  6. Jesus taught us to pray the words “Thy kingdom come”, because God’s kingdom certainly is not here now. The purpose of prayer is to change us so that we can reflect God’s love and thereby change the world. We live in a world where pain, suffering and death are realities. But some of these problems we now create for ourselves and blame God.
  7. God does not kill us off..

Fr. Leonard seems to be very aware that his “seven steps to spiritual sanity” may be challenged. He raises concepts that are difficult to put into words.

Humoursly he writes “ Given that faith, hope and love mark out God’s will in the big picture, and that God and I have to work out the details together, then the task of discernment comes into its own. From my reading of St. Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises, his letters, and other writings, here are 12 contemporary spins on his timeless wisdom.” So for the next 6 pages Fr. Leonard provides advice on how the average person can attempt to discern God’s will.

Fr. Leonard’s little book is scripturally based, logical, well written, aimed at the average person and occasionally funny e.g.) Jesus “…was a full and true human being…His full and true divinity cannot obliterate his humanity or else he would be play-acting at being human. His divinity is seen in and through the uncompromisingly loving, just, and sacrificial way he lived within the bounds of his humanity.”

“The world continues to silence and sideline people who live out the Christian virtues and values now, just as Jesus was thought to be ultimately sidelined in his crucifixion. But God had the last word on the death of Jesus: Life.”

Perhaps Fr. Leonard’s new analysis will also provide the “comfort and joy” that the world longs for so deeply in the seasons of Advent and Christmas.     

 PS :   In keeping with Fr. Leonard’s initial aim of offering “ a heartfelt invitation to the person who has known suffering in life”, the core of his book “Where the Hell is God?” may also be found on You Tube in Leonard’s 1 hour and 10 minute retreat talk delivered on March 28, 2014. Similarly, readers will find a lengthy interview with Fr. Leonard about his book in the April 2013 issue of US Catholic Faith in Real Life.

Richard Grover is a retired history and religion teacher from St. Paul's High School in Winnipeg.

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2 Comments
  • Peter Bisson, SJ
    Posted at 02:21h, 21 December Reply

    Thank you very much Richard!

  • Vincent W. Catalano, Deacon, retired but active.
    Posted at 09:26h, 21 December Reply

    What a wonderful and uplifting dissertation especially to an eighty six year old bearing the aches and pains of the elderly. More pervasive is the constant flow of happenings in the world today which can be depressing if one does not embrace the lord.

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