FAST Blast: Derek Redmond’s Olympic heartbreak and the problem of suffering

In a previous FAST Blast, I revisited the extraordinary Olympic story of Derek Redmond. Let’s re-revisit this real-life tale…

Redmond’s experience bears an amazing resemblance to the message of the Christian faith. Many see his poignant Olympic moment as a living parable of compassion and redemption in the wake of broken dreams.

Yet there’s a counterpoint that can be expressed in the following questions: Does Redmond’s remarkable story point to the existence of a caring God — or the reality of a capricious deity? Or does the story perhaps show God isn’t there at all?

In other words, what does a world full of suffering say about the existence of a loving God? Can God’s existence be reconciled with so-called meaningless suffering? If not, does the reality of suffering dismiss God from the worldview conversation like a bouncer at a nightclub?

Let’s examine these counterpoint questions — but first, a refresher: Due to an injury, British sprinter Derek Redmond was unable to compete in the 400-meter dash at the 1988 Olympics. After rehabbing, he ran at the ’92 Games and reached the semifinals, except during his semi he pulled a hamstring — and felt the familiar heartache of watching his Olympic dream die again. But Redmond decided to finish. As he hobbled around the track, a man descended from the stands, placed his arm around Derek’s shoulders, and helped him complete his 400-meter odyssey.

The man was Derek’s Dad.

One perspective on this scene: What a moving picture of a father’s compassion for his son, a la the parable of the prodigal.

Another perspective: Wait, why would a loving God allow his son to become injured? Isn’t God great enough to prevent such needless pain?

I confess, these questions register with me. They can be compelling … and so can investment experts who are actually con men (think: Bernie Madoff).

Madoff orchestrated what has been called the largest Ponzi scheme ever, a reported $50 billion fraud. A former official with the NASDAQ Stock Market, Madoff was a trusted member of the investment industry for decades.

Just before FBI agents arrested him in December 2008, Madoff told them: “It’s all just one big lie.”

As we contemplate these age-old questions about God and suffering, Madoff’s confession illuminates a key issue, which can be phrased as a further question: What’s the truth about where we humans can best invest our lives and time and resources and trust?

And who’s telling the truth about what the best investment is?

(True, that isn’t one further question, but two — what can I say, I majored in English, not math. OK, perhaps that isn’t the optimal joke in view of Madoff’s financial-math fraud — and if you say the joke isn’t especially funny? Well, what can I say…)

Perhaps it appears I’ve gone far afield of Derek Redmond’s story, but since all life is intertwined, I see a connection.

Two decades ago I saw a breathtaking resonance between the Redmonds’ father-son redemption on the Olympic stage and the love of God as expressed in the incarnation.

The counterpoint to that proclamation says: Not so fast. If God is truly loving, why do human beings suffer? Yes, a heroic rescue is heartwarming — but couldn’t a powerful and caring God have prevented the pain that made the rescue necessary?

This counterpoint reflects, naturally, the classic “problem of suffering.” Contemplating the problem cuts to the heart of the human condition and can result in honest reflection about life and faith.

Yet in the context of Redmond’s injury and Madoff’s deception, is the counterpoint — at its worst — a counterfeit?

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The God depicted in Scripture is, safe to say, no stranger to suffering. At this season of the church year we cannot escape this gut-wrenching reality: The Good Friday cross is the only steppingstone to Easter. That’s the paradoxical heart of the New Testament gospel.

So while we ask the old question — why does God subject humans to suffering? — let’s not miss its companion questions: Why does God suffer? Why does God subject Himself to suffering?

In a word, it appears the answer is: LOVE.

God suffers so much because He loves so much — and desires our love so much (see: the greatest commandment). When He chose to create humans in His image, we could choose to either love God or leave Him — with the latter causing Him heartache and anger and anguish.

To God, apparently the risk is worth the reward.

More than one Michael Kelly Blanchard song dovetails with this human-and-divine-suffering topic. For now, let’s consider “The Broken God”:

Didn’t see you there. Didn’t know You were weeping too.
I think of tears as a human wound.
Though, of course, You care. You have shown you were human too.
They say you cried at Lazarus’ tomb.

I was unaware how it is with a broken God.
I thought of you as above my pain.
Lost in my despair, so it is with a broken heart.
I never dreamed You could feel the same.

Some say you’re not there, just a myth for a lazy life.
An artifact from an ancient scroll.
But I have known you near in the gift of a weary sigh.
Lord for the lost and the lonesome soul.

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The psalmist says, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted.”

Why?

I believe it’s because, more than anyone else in the universe, God knows what it’s like to be brokenhearted.

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P.S. Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying a pulled hamstring is in the same ballpark — or even the same hemisphere — as the suffering endured during the Holocaust, or under apartheid, or on 9/11. Rather, Redmond’s injury serves as a metaphor from the world of sports for the suffering we experience in the world at large.

Information and reporting from various media outlets were used in this article.

© Bruce William Deckert 2013

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6 Responses to “FAST Blast: Derek Redmond’s Olympic heartbreak and the problem of suffering”

  1. Julian Alexander Says:

    Hi Bruce,

    I always enjoy reading your posts. They give me a different slant on things, because I am not much on sports – or on financial machinations. It convinces me that God communicates with all sorts of people in all sorts of ways. He is much more flexible than we are . 🙂

    A Happy Easter, and my fondest personal regards. JULIAN

    Like

    • bwdeckert Says:

      Hi Julian – glad you’re enjoying the blog, and thank you for the encouragement…

      And a belated Happy Easter to you!

      Best regards and peace,
      Bruce

      Like

  2. Nancy Lehman Says:

    Bruce,
    I LOVED the inclusion of the Michael Kelly Blanchard song.
    What a gift his writing is –
    a balm to my soul,
    like the Psalms.

    Adjusting to the death of my father,
    I found myself pondering his end-of-life, physical suffering.
    I didn’t so much question the “why” of God
    allowing it
    or preventing it.
    I just minded that it happened!
    Then one Sunday, within a song we sang at church,
    the reality of God watching His Son suffer and die,
    was brought home to me.
    It was something I would have known about in “my head” before,
    that was now an actual experience I could relate to.
    I realized in that moment,
    that if it was “good enough for God”
    – he endured it too –
    that I could just accept it.

    I don’t think we get to plan
    these moments of understanding and acceptance –
    there are still plenty of other things I yearn for answers to –
    But they happen…
    They are gifts.

    Like

  3. bwdeckert Says:

    Nancy, thank you for your encouragement and comments.

    It seems life is full of ongoing adjustments to the various deaths and griefs we encounter along the way – and, at the same time, there is delight and joy, of course. I suppose I won’t ever grasp the paradox.

    Thanks for sharing some of your ongoing journey related to your Dad’s passing. I appreciate hearing that poignant perspective.

    Peace, Bruce

    P.S. Amen re: MKB’s songs!

    Like

  4. Bill Gnade Says:

    Dear Bruce,

    An engaging piece. Thank you.

    I think part of the problem, though, is that we don’t know what suffering is; nor do we know its opposite. We are — as humans — rather daft in such matters. Let me explain.

    You mention Derek Redmond’s suffering: you equate his failure to win a race to a form of suffering. His hamstring injury was, to a degree, too unbearable a pain for his father to witness without intervening in some way. But the facts are rather plain: not everyone can be the winner. Besides Derek Redmond, there were other racers that day who also “suffered loss.” How could a loving God allow them to lose, too? Surely they also worked hard; surely their stories are worth telling.

    The fact is that none of this has to do with God’s power. Rather, and I think we’ve talked about this before, it has every thing to do with what He knows. As I’ve said before, if He is omniscient, He is constrained, if you will, by that knowledge; hence, He must intervene not according to what He has the power to do but the wisdom to do. When we ask “What is God doing to eradicate evil?”, the answer really must be the rather simple and humble, “He’s doing exactly what we see every day.” The suffering we see IS God intervening; in order for omniscience to undo a great wrong suffering must still occur. He’s reversing things. Even a surgeon’s scalpel teaches us this: We are healed by being injured even more.

    Besides, and here’s what I mean about confusing suffering and success, had Mr. Redmond won that race, such a victory may have been a curse rather than a blessing. Had he earned the gold, that honor may have destroyed not only his but countless other lives. It may have actually been a victory to tear his hamstring. Instead of the Tiger Woods/Nike absurdity that “Winning takes care of everything,” Mr. Redmond learned, perhaps, that he may have won by losing. Such, indeed, is a very Christian thing: The first SHALL be last.

    Do I dare suggest we ought not to aspire? Do I think we ought not to try to win a race? Of course not. I am simply saying that what may appear to be a curse may be a blessing; and what is deemed a curse, a hallowed gift. C.S. Lewis surely suggested this in “The Great Divorce”, but it can be more aptly expressed in this other sentence of his, perhaps the greatest of all his fine statements: “Every seat has the best view of something.”

    Indeed, every seat DOES has the best view of something.

    Peace to you, and thanks!

    Gnade

    Like

  5. bwdeckert Says:

    Bill,

    Thank you for your kind words and your thought-provoking response (thought-provoking, indeed, as befits a Gnade post).

    Part of the problem for me, vis a vis the problem of suffering — an ancillary problem that stems from the problem itself, apparently — is that I want suffering to end. In the Christian worldview, that isn’t part of the deal in this life. And regardless of one’s worldview, that appears unlikely anytime soon, period.

    Given this desire for suffering to end, when I encounter further suffering — whether mine or another’s — I experience a knee-jerk questioning that flies in the face of all the answers to the problem of suffering (such as there are in this life) that have helped me previously.

    The line from Don Henley’s song “The Heart of the Matter” comes to mind: “The more I know, the less I understand / All the things I thought I knew, I’m learning again.”

    I hope and pray God helps us keep learning what He knows we need to learn, as often as we need to learn it … unto salvation, as the apostle Paul put it.

    Thanks again for your comments — and peace also to you…

    Like

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