Some months after my son-in-law, Rob Susil, died, a longtime friend asked me, in a gentle but point-blank way, “Are you still fighting God?” The only honest response was, “Yes.” At which my friend said, simply, “You’re not going to win, you know . . .”
I think back on that exchange now, during the Lent following the fifth anniversary of Rob’s death, because Lent is the “acceptable time” (2 Cor 6:2) to ponder the mystery of suffering and death, and what it teaches us about God’s ways, our ways, and the incalculable difference between the two.
Even after a half-decade, the death of Dr. Robert Susil makes no sense by any human calculus. He was a young man in terrific physical shape at the beginning of the very prime of life. He was a thoroughly converted disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ, and a devoted husband and father. He was also a brilliant scientist and compassionate healer, one of the country’s foremost young cancer doctors, who died of cancer after having won the esteem of his colleagues at the highest altitudes of American medicine; as one of his older Johns Hopkins colleagues said to me, at Rob’s wake, “We just lost our next Nobel Prize.” If that was true, I kept asking myself, why did God take him years before he had the chance to make what I’m sure would have been a historic pro-life speech while accepting one of the world’s most prestigious awards? I’d probably have been watching on CNN-Purgatory, but still . . . why?
My friend’s nudge about fighting God prompted me to dig into the Book of Job. It’s strange that the Lectionary doesn’t make more use of Job during Lent, for surely this masterpiece of world literature is the apex of the Old Testament’s reflection on the unfathomable mysteries of evil and suffering and their relationship to God. And in Job, I began to find, if not answers to Rob’s death that made rational sense, then at least an answer that made sense in light of biblical faith.
Job, I came to see, is the model of what an Italian biblical scholar has called “the believer who loves the true God in himself and for himself, without ulterior motives”—and does so precisely along the dark path of suffering. It is Job, sitting amidst misery, who rejects his friends’ calculating, facile suggestions about why bad things happen to good people. It is Job who, in the end, refuses to cram the divine will and purpose onto the procrustean bed of human wisdom. It is Job who, finally, lets God be God—and who, by admitting that he is not the artisan of his own existence, makes a deeper act of faith in the God whose divine “logic” in beyond anything human minds can grasp.
Robert Charles Susil, I came to understand, was another of those righteous men who loved the true God “in himself and for himself,” making no bargains in the process. And if he could approach the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ that way, how could I do less? So while I do not pretend to have gained any further insight, these past five years, into the divine “logic” of Rob’s life and death, sharing his Passover gave me, ultimately, the gift of knowing that I cannot fight the God in whom I profess faith each Sunday without rendering that profession of faith false—although it took me a while to accept the gift.
Lent—the Christian walk to Jerusalem with the Lord who meets his destiny there in complete submission to the Father’s will—is an annual reminder that God is God and we aren’t. When Jesus tells Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:11), he is not making an abstract point in political philosophy; he is making an act of faith in the design of salvation the Father has devised.
The grace to bring ourselves to embrace that design, however “illogical” it may seem, is one special grace of the Forty Days.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.