I’ll admit, I’m cheating today. In the midst of my prayer posting last week, one of the pastors at my church (United Church of Christ) sent around this email. I thought it resonant, though it may be a little too “religious” for some (me included, though I still go to church regularly and find a lot of comfort in the community there). That said, I think it explains well why I was able to find and appreciate this church in the month after losing Anderson.
Where is God in the Midst of Suffering? An evotional by Leah Fowler, January 6, 2015
A new Christian recently asked me, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” This question had been on her mind for quite some time and was perhaps her main question of faith. One well-meaning person steered her toward the Book of Job, which in its courtroom drama buildup, theological speculation back and forth with peers, poetic monologues by God and confusing restoration of Job’s riches gave an unsatisfactory response to this new Christian. I fumbled on my bookshelf, trying to find Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People but then realized I had given that one out long ago. So I write this response today for her, and I hope it is worth sharing with the church too.
I first tell her to forget the clichés. “Everything happens for a reason.” “God’s plan is greater than our understanding.” These may help some people feel better, but they also put God in the hot seat, making our divine creator some kind of moralistic chess player, moving us around like pawns through trials and suffering just to teach us a lesson. Also damaging-as Job points out-are some theologies that are present in our own scripture. The Deuteronomical contract-“See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, I declare to you today that you shall perish” (Deuteronomy 30:15-18a) leads you to believe that blessings follow virtue. But while this may be true on many levels, it does not explain why some people get cancer, or lose their newborn babies, or why an entire village can be wiped out due to Ebola. No one earns these sufferings because of sin. Also damaging can be the glorification of our suffering: Jesus took up his cross, and so must you-as if suffering itself is salvific. I see this happen when we valorize the poor, particularly in other countries, for being so happy, as if their poverty purifies them. Sure, those of us experiencing affluence are certainly prone to spiritual blindness due to our wealth. And while the experience of poverty isn’t sinful, the existence of poverty in a world with so many resources certainly is. Let’s not make poverty prettier than it is.
So where are we left? We are left with a God that enters into our suffering and joins us with it. A God who knows-in the person of Jesus-what it means to be betrayed, to experience loneliness, to be tortured and even to die. This is a God who can hold us and cry with us when we suffer.
We are left with a God who promises that death does not have the last word. When I look back on my darkest and most frightening experiences, I can now see where God was at work in the shadows, sowing the seeds for new life-small resurrections I would not see until later.
God is also in our dissatisfaction when we suffer: the conviction that there must be more to this than that. Our dissonance between our lived experience in suffering and what we believe God intends for us is an act of hope. Like the protests that indignantly declare, “Black Lives Matter!” there is a bold articulation of how the world should be over and against how it is.
God is with us in many ways, especially when we are able reach out to receive God’s embrace in someone else: the one who passes the peace at church; the person we mentor who goes through the same suffering, years from now when our sufferings are but a blip on the screen; maybe even in the person who says one of those stupid clichés about suffering, but also brings us a casserole.