Where's God When It Hurts?
This question has probably created more atheists than any other question. Worse, the seething anger that sometimes lies behind it has probably created more insane people than any other. And justly so. While faith in God doesn't logically stand or fall just on this matter, it hinges on it more than any other so far as our experience of the life of faith is concerned.
If that offends some of you, well, tough. True, we have no right at all to expect or demand a suffering-free state of false bliss that would leave each and all of us as bored dilettants living a sterile and stupid life. That is, if you can call something 'life' which has no challenges, no repentances, no learning, no growing, all of which only come through trial, error, taking part, success, pain, loss, and hurt. (We can safely ignore the many fools who think that way.) But does there have to be the kind of suffering that some people go through? Of apparently unquenchable pain, immeasurable loss, utter hopelessness, total abandonment? Suffering that will end in a slow death, like lung cancer? The very fact that there is such human suffering gives good cause to doubt not only the value of the whole human race, but also the existence of any God that can be said to care in the slightest for what's been created, any God who has power over all things, any God who is anything other than a horrible brute who finds sadistic whimsical joy in squeezing every last drop of anguish out of those who've been created. It would seem to rule out anything even vaguely resembling the God that Christians speak of -- and rule in a God who deserves our utter hatred not our worship.
Except for one thing ........
.... except that God knows this is true, and set out to do something about it. Not by overriding the freedom God had put into nature and into creatures, especially the human ones. Not by working instant repairs on the universe so that all is blissfully well (that would be a jerk-God, a more powerful version of the fools I wrote off earlier), or by pulling a string here or there from a distance. But by choosing to fully take part in what is happening. The choice: soiled ancient diapers, skinned childhood knees, and dirtied adult feet. God felt what acceptance and rejection and pain are like at a human level. God walked among people in the same way they walk among each other, talk to them at their level, with their sufferings small and large, face to face, person to person. God taught them in their language, with sound waves instead of spiritual whispers, from within their specific tradition, from within the world they knew, a world teeming with truth smothered in their own lies. But even more : God had to face the ultimate in human rejection -- to be publicly executed for having spoken and lived the truth. That's something not even God wanted to go through, but the whole point of it all was to go through things that no one wants to go through, if that's what it takes to complete the task at hand, for real. (In fact, that's what 'for real' is all about.)
Every Christmas, Christians celebrate (or are supposed to celebrate) this choice. Every Good Friday, Christians mourn (or are supposed to mourn) how far it had to go. Every Easter, Christians revel in the empty tomb, the risen and present Lord of all, whose love meant that death could not be -- must not be -- the final answer.
Jesus was that choice. Jesus is the divine answer to creation's struggles. Jesus is the answer Christians have for the problem of human suffering. Jesus knows. Jesus cares. And Jesus suffers alongside each one who suffers, ever more so as it increases. Why suffer? It's a mystery. You'll never know the reason why, or even if there is a reason. Thanks to Jesus, the reply of God is no mystery, or at least, no more mysterious than love itself.
What Does the Word 'Suffering' Mean?
Definition: To suffer [< Old French sufrir < Latin sufferre (to bear, undergo, carry the burden of, bearing the ordeal of), < sub- (under, beneath, holding up from below) + ferre (to carry)]
verb: to feel pain, undergo a harsh penalty (esp. death or torture), to endure pain (esp. if endured willingly). Verb with object: to be subjected to s.th., to endure s.th.; (rare) to put up with, tolerate unhappily.
Synonyms for 'suffering': affliction, distress, torture, adversity, ordeal, throe(s) (rare), hardship, misery, misfortune, thole (obs.), grief, anguish, dolor (rare), passion (used rarely in the sense of 'suffering'), torment, pain, hurt, agony, woe.
But He's Not Here Anymore ...
Yet Jesus is not the Christian's answer to suffering by Himself. A phrase that the New Testament used for describing the fellowship of Christ's followers is "the Body of Christ". There are many angles to this, angles which are marital, medical, and so on. But let's use a biological angle, one that the apostle Paul used: Jesus is the head of the Body. That, of course, means that Jesus is not the arms, legs, hands, and such. That is what the believers are. As Paul saw it, they are a unit, a whole, just as a human body is a whole, yet each believer is an identifiable part with a function in the overall Body.
Jesus is no longer physically here. His role as head is signaled to the Body through the Spirit, the nerve impulses that cause the Body to work. Jesus can no longer hold the hand of the sufferer, wrap His arms around them, and give the comfort of a physical embrace. He can no longer move His legs to where the sufferers are, so that He can physically address them face to face, look them in the eyes, grasp hold of their needs, render through sound waves the needed words of comfort or challenge, lay hands to bring physical healing. But Christ does have the Body of Christ in the physical world -- that is, the believers, as a whole, in subgroups and organizations, as a people, and as persons.
If you want to see a key part of God's answer to suffering, look into a mirror. If what you're looking at isn't much of an answer to anyone's torment, then pray that the Spirit's signals start directing you.
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Celebration and Suffering
There's something odd about seeing someone celebrate over a miracle. On several occasions, I've stumbled upon some people celebrating for whatever reason, and snickered, 'what's happened to them that's worth partying over?' That, of course, is just being grumpy; it seems to come easier with age. But there is a more serious kind of strange feeling over celebrating, a strange feeling that is more relevant to spiritual concerns. Lewis Smedes put the problem this way, when seeing the fuss that was made over miracle healings at his college :
"It was a feeling I could not shake -- not a scholar's argument, more like a mood or maybe an intuition, but in any case a stubborn, uneasy feeling about the fittingness, even the decency, of celebrating far and wide the miraculous healing of a relatively few ailments within a world endemically infected by enormous, intractable, unalleviated suffering. It felt to me like proclaiming that God is alive and well in the world because you survived an airplane crash in which everyone else perished. And proclaiming your personal joy to those who mourned their dead." (*Reformed Journal*, Feb 1989, p.14)
Smedes wasn't trying to be a spoil-sport or a party-pooper by bringing this up. He was trying to remind us that while there are some things to celebrate, our celebration is, at its most, only partial. Distress intrudes on our joy. What kind of suffering? The kinds that we don't want to have.
- loss of jobs
- loss of a loved one
- loss of one's ability to do things
- injustice and oppression by governments, armies, economies, or social structures
- racism and sexism
- the effects of natural disasters
- new or renewed illness.
Smedes went on to remind us of some things which we must remember, if not as we celebrate, at least after we do. (You may or may not agree with this, but Smedes sets up the basic context so well that it merits your full consideration.)
(1) Ministries of healing are not the main Christian answer to suffering. At their very best, they eliminate a particular suffering of a particular person. They do not remove all human suffering from life, and there are still many others in the same misery that was just healed. However they're brought about, healings can be signs "that God is alive, that Christ is Lord, and that suffering is not the last word about human existence" (p.19). But let's not overstate their importance.
(2) Healing from within suffering is as wonderful as healing from it. God gives inner strength that compensates for loss, and gives the sufferer the resourcefulness to live faithfully and effectively.
(3) The amazing amount of health in this broken world is a greater sign and wonder than an occasional healing from illness. We're so fragile, yet we live, and most of us most of the time live fairly healthfully. We celebrate the healings we get, but what about the healings which, by the grace of God, we don't need, or the miseries that aren't there?
(4) Pray for power encounters between Christ and the devil in the matrix of devilish political systems. As Smedes put it, "Evil empires! Or good empires that bunglers mismanage! Or run-of-the-mill empires that knaves make worse! .... Name your system, and the devil will be there." (p.20) : "I find it strange that governments and societies find it so easy to do things to make the poor poorer and to rob the disadvantaged of what little possibilities they might have. And the churches too often sit still for the creation of such suffering."
Then, Smedes asks for a two-fold change in our way of thinking and doing. The first shift, the same change that churches such as the Vineyard and the COGIC ask for, is to see the world as a battleground of spirits. The second is a shift away from viewing goodness in life as an entitlement and toward living life as a servant and disciple of Christ. Smedes writes, "If I make the first shift, I am more open to the power of the Spirit to act in response to peoples' suffering. If I make the second shift, I am more open to the power of the Spirit to give me courage to will to suffer when suffering can be redemptive to those who suffer." (p.20)
I think Smedes' final observation hits upon what I see as a sore spot with many of the churches that most boast about healings: all too many Christians "expect and celebrate God's triumph over our suffering while we show little readiness to suffer for and with the people whose suffering never gets healed." (p.21). He's right. Jesus' example is that of putting others first, not ourselves or those we think of as being like us. Jesus spoke endlessly about serving and being a servant, of being a neighbor to others like the Samaritan who cared, of loving others, and most importantly those we find hard to love, with the intensity and single-mindedness with which we love ourselves. Then, He died as a suffering servant, to clear our way to the Kingdom so that even death could not stop us.
What does all this mean? One thing I think is clear: we rejoice too narrowly. We rejoice for our own gain, our own health. But there are examples that point to another way: the songs of the Mothers' Unions in South Africa; the almost constant spiritual singing of the 1950s-60s civil rights movement in the United States; the way that the Bethel New Life folks in Chicago celebrate each small victory for their community. This is rejoicing that is born of other peoples' suffering, taking the signs of relief from suffering as signs that God is mighty busy here on earth, doing a fuller kind of healing.
I suspect that Smedes' strict Calvinist upbringing might have predisposed him to distrust celebration. I think that those personal healings should not just be acknowledged, not just be warmly received, but there really should be flat-out rejoicing. Cut loose, revel in it, praise the Lord 'til you drop! It's the right instinct. Just so long as when we end the immediate rejoicing, we get down to our Christian duty to remember what context the healings take place in -- a hurting, crying, brutal, unhealed world, a world that Christ loved and died to heal. And we then stop and pray that God shows us how to be of service in Jesus' work of bring wholeness where there is suffering.
God Suffers With Us
We aren't supposed to like suffering. We weren't created to suffer. We were created to have joy. (If we enjoyed it, it wouldn't be suffering, would it?) Yet we do suffer, from first heartbeat to last. This is the effect of being part of a broken, sinful world. It is part of being alive.
God doesn't have to suffer. God just does it, and is committed to it because of love. God suffers the way of a lover being wronged, the way of a father awaiting his lost son. The experience of what we experience when we suffer, first heartbeat to last. Even that last heartbeat, even in its lastness. But only once it has beat its last is it ready for a new beginning. We know this because that's how it was for Jesus.
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Is Suffering Good For Us?
If God suffers with us, and often has something in mind to come from it, ought we start to think that suffering is good? There have been some contemplative writers and teachers who thought so. We have to think seriously about what God can give us through hardship.
You can learn :
But if good things can come from suffering, doesn't that make it good?
The spiritual gains don't come from your ordeal, or even from the suffering itself. The gains come from the fact that God (and, like God, we ourselves) can take 'bad', 'horrible', and even 'evil' situations and make something good come from them. God enjoys doing that. It's this fact that gives you real reason to hope as you suffer. This 'good effect' doesn't change the nature or 'badness' of it; it is what it is. Torture and anguish are terrible to go through. A mountain of dung is no less filthy when there's a diamond in it.
The truth is, more often than not, the lessons aren't learned, the goodness doesn't come of it. Those who are broken may remain broken. Human suffering destroys and beats people down. The devil uses it to cause confusion, anger, delusion, or resignation. It usually leaves some sort of scar or damage. It is exceptionally cruel to speak glibly of 'spiritual gains', real and/or imagined, to those who live with extreme disabilities or are stuck in the poverty class or who lose a loved one. Not that they too can't find gain or hope or even happiness, because many of them really do. But only some, and definitely not most. For all of them, grief will remain a part of even the best times. Our duty is not to tell them to smile harder or to feed them false hopes, but to make it so that they can live amidst their grief and perhaps be led forward with their life. They need real hopes, and Christians are called on to help make real hopes take root.
The Holy Spirit does not stop life from having hardships. What the Spirit gives is resources so we can face it and make something positive come from it. The Spirit gives the direction and power to make these resources work. The Spirit gives hope, which itself creates perseverance. The Spirit gives wisdom to find the way past it, and to learn from it. And, the Spirit created a body of believers, with the gifts to support and strengthen. In a way, the gifts are geared toward suffering, because spiritual gifts are meant to be for the good of others. Who needs the benefits from those gifts more than those who suffer?
Spiritual gifts are from the Strongest One acting through the weak on behalf of the weakest.