Suffering in the face of a God who looks like Jesus
Most pastors know that the time immediately following a service can be a black hole for anything resembling deep conversation. This is probably appropriate, on some levels.
A busy foyer full of people and conversation is not exactly the best time or place for existential crises or deep queries into the meaning of life. It’s a time and a place for cheerful banter and connection with friends and talk of weather and sports.
Or, less cheerily, it’s a time and a place for the shuffling of feet and awkward attempts to say something polite about the sermon or to itemize one’s ailments and medical appointments for the week ahead or to complain about this or that.
Either way, it’s a place for the ordinary chatter that is part of the glue that holds together any human community.
Occasionally, though, someone departs from the script. After a recent Sunday service, I stood in the glorious sunshine talking with someone about how things were going with a loved one who had recently been relocated to a care facility that could better help with their dementia.
The conversation was proceeding along familiar contours—there was talk about the facility, about how this person was adapting, about this or that new restriction, about this or that glimmer of hope. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, a statement:
You know, sometimes I wonder how something like dementia could ever play a part in God’s plan for a human life.
It wasn’t a big dramatic bombshell or anything. It wasn’t a gauntlet thrown down to see if the “expert” could produce a serviceable answer. Nothing like that. It was expressed almost as a passing thought—as if this person was just thinking out loud and I happened to be within earshot.
Amidst all the cheer and chatter there we stood, pondering this question of question, this mystery of mysteries. All I could say is, “Yeah, I wonder the same thing…” I wonder it a lot.
Human suffering and God
The problem of how human suffering fits into a view of the world that has at its centre a loving God who intends good for his creation is, of course, a very old one. But for long stretches of life, it’s a question that can comfortably remain in abstraction-land.
We can tell ourselves that our beliefs about God and the world are big enough and broad enough to accommodate pain that seems only to waste and steal. We can come up with theological articulations of how it all works and why things might be this way and what it all might mean.
We can even rehearse these things in the context of the real suffering of those we love (although, if we’re wise, we should probably do this less often than we’re inclined to). But at some point each one of us reaches a point in life where this question of questions, this mystery of mysteries, migrates from “abstraction land” into the uncomfortable terrain of our land, our lives.
Can my view of God and the world accommodate the steady, wasting decline of a once intellectually vibrant and physically active person to the point where they become literally a shell of what they once were?
Or the disintegration of a marriage? The agonizing wrenching apart of something that we believed would always and only belong together?
Or the inexplicable rage and hurtful behaviour of a child that we have tried to pour nothing but love and goodness into?
Or the loss of employment and agonized questions about meaning and identity that often follow?
Or the death of spouse? A sibling? A child? A friend?
Well, there really are far too many awful examples to choose from, aren’t there?
Whatever the case may be in this or that particular life, now it’s no longer a question to answer or a puzzle to solve. Now it’s a full-blown existential crisis. Now it’s a wound that threatens the very coherence of our conception of God, the world, and our very selves.
Is there room in our faith for suffering?
The question the person in the foyer was asking was, in a sense, nothing less than, Is their room in our faith for awful stuff that seems not only to serve no redemptive purpose but to be incapable of ever doing so? Is there room for pain that seems a pure waste and nothing else? Can such things fit?
As always, the question behind the question is, 'what kind of God is our hope placed in?' Many of us would eagerly say, 'The God revealed in Jesus Christ, of course! We’re Christians, aren’t we?!'
And yet, I think if we scratch beneath the surface of our professed convictions, many of us could probably more accurately be said to have pinned our hopes to the god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.
In his book Soul Searching, Christian Smith describes the god many of us believe in, whether we admit it or not (I think we could quite easily substitute “U.S. teenagers” for “Western Christians” in this quote):
For most U.S. teenagers, religion is something to personally believe in that makes one feel good and resolves one’s problems. For most, it is not an entire way of life or a disciplined practice that makes hard demands of or changes people… For many U.S. teenagers, God is treated as something like a cosmic therapist or counselor, a ready and competent helper who responds in times of trouble but who does not particularly ask for devotion or obedience.
Among MTD’s many deficiencies—in addition to those stated above—is the near-complete absence of a theological vocabulary or conceptual grid for articulating, understanding, and coping with pain.
If God exists only to spare me from trouble or to provide me with a formula for getting through life with as little suffering as possible, then when pain inevitably comes, my faith will be destroyed.
If God’s primary role is to bless me, console me, protect me, satisfy me, explain things for me, justify me (a lot of “me’s” in there, you’ll notice), then, aside from the fact that God would seem to have been doing a pretty poor job of universe-maintenance for a very long time, our faith becomes a wispy strand of a thing that blows away at the first hint of trouble.
If God’s job is to make me feel good and explain stuff and I inspect my lived experience to find that I don’t feel very good or understand all the stuff I would like to, I guess there must not be a God.
Suffering in the face of a God who looks like Jesus
But if we really do believe in and long for, chase after, and cast our lot with the God revealed most clearly in Jesus Christ, then it seems to me that we do have theological vocabulary and a conceptual grid within which to locate even the most crushing pain that seems to serve no earthly purpose whatsoever.
At the cross we don’t find a god we necessarily want. We certainly don’t find a god that meets our all of requirements in precisely the way we might want.
We find a God who has borne in his own body the weight of the pain of the world and who has invited us to follow him through suffering to the other side.
The cross is all that a Christian could ever point to when it comes to horrible things like people wasting away with dementia. Not glibly, of course. Not presumptuously or carelessly. Not even, if we’re wise, too quickly. But eventually, it is to the cross that we must point and say, with hands over our mouths, if we must, 'There is pain that I cannot explain, but the cross will not let me believe that it is finally wasted.'
The cross is where we encounter a God who does not promise that the world won’t hurt us, but that there is a story yet to be told about all the hurt.
A God who promises that even the deepest wounds can be healed, that ugliness can yet yield beauty, that evil can be redeemed for good, and that death is destined to be swallowed up by life.
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