A few months ago I was really wrestling with the topic of suffering. It wasn’t so much a theological or scholarly question, but a deep, guttural “Where are you, God?” This is something I wrote at the time but was too afraid to share, fearing that people would think I had weak faith, especially for someone on staff at a church. But that is fear of man talking, and as Paul said, if I was still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ. So if this is you today and you’re wondering if you even want to cry out to God in your pain, I pray this might help.
Right now I’m sitting here heartsick about the diagnoses of two friends that I’m not ready to say goodbye to. I’m thinking about other friends and colleagues who are preparing to say goodbye to family members way too early, in one case, two beautiful children. I’m remembering Sierra Shield’s family who doesn’t even know where she is or what happened to her (a woman who attended my sister’s college who left LaGuardia airport and was never seen again). Wives and children I know who were recently left by husbands and fathers. A friend and pastor wrongly arrested because of the color of his skin. A friend attacked by a sexual predator. “God, why won’t you do something???”
I’ve been a Christian almost my whole life and I still find myself asking this. I’m sick of pretending that I don’t have doubts and stoically spewing Romans 8:28 (or having it recited to me) instead of wrestling with God and feeling the hurt. And while so much about suffering will never make sense this side of heaven, I feel like Peter when Jesus asked him if he will leave him in John 6:67. Right before Jesus asked this, a number of his disciples had deserted him because what he was saying was too hard to handle. In response, Peter basically said, Lord, where else would I go? Not because everything made sense to him or was easy to swallow, but because to Peter, Jesus was the only option.
Sometimes I really don’t want to believe in God when I think about suffering. But then there goes the hope that suffering will mean something and that I’ll ever see my loved ones again. Random, meaningless suffering that ends in nothingness is not comforting. And if all I get is a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger lesson”, forget it. I want to hug my loved ones again. I want restoration.
Sometimes just being spiritual and believing in the “Universe” sounds pretty good. If I pray and someone isn’t healed or kept safe, it might be easier to be disappointed in a vague “force” than in a God with a name and a history that calls me his beloved daughter. If you love me that much, why won’t you do something? But when it comes down to it, a vague God can only guarantee a vague hope after death, and that is not comforting either. I don’t want the uncertainty of “the other side” or Hallmark card sentimentality. I also don’t want to pour out my heart to a force. I want to pour out my heart to a God who understands me intimately, knows when I cry, and hurts with me. So there goes that choice.
What about another God? One who doesn’t promise to be so personally involved? A God of rules, maybe. Neat and clean. “Do this? Get blessed. Do that, get zapped”. That’s appealing because again, it doesn’t hurt as much when you feel let down. And it takes a lot of the guesswork out of suffering. We get what we deserve because we’re awful. End of story. But I don’t want to pour my heart out to a set of rules. So there goes that.
So what about a Zen version of God? It’s not a list of rules. And God is close. So close that he is me and I’m God and you’re God and we’re all God. That is my most tempting choice; the most comforting for me on the surface. But after a while, it also gets very scary. If I’m God and you’re God, then who is really in control? Who keeps evil from fully winning? How do I raise my own self after I die?
Then that leaves Jesus. Because he is the only God that came to suffer for us so that we would someday no longer suffer.
He’s the only one who died and beat it. Unless God has a name, a history, is all-powerful, and has understood suffering, death, and loss too, I’m not interested.
I don’t know why God heals some and not others or spares some people from violence and not others. Sometimes I really struggle with that. Sometimes all I know is that I’m left with Jesus. I’m looking around me and like Peter, where else would I go? But in those moments, I’m putting my money on the empty tomb, not the “other side”; on the God who was intimately acquainted with suffering so that one day, He would be able wipe away all our tears.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed. –Isaiah 53:3-5