In an old Pontius Puddle cartoon, one character says, “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why he doesn’t do something about war, famine, disease, injustice, and pollution.”
“Why don’t you just ask him?”the other replies.
The first character answers, “I’m afraid he might ask me the same question.”
We have been asking in some depth what God does when we suffer. The more pressing question may be what we should be doing. How should we act in the face of our own adversities and those of others? Focusing exclusively on God’s response makes for escapism and irresponsibility. If our faith is to make us strong, compassionate, and resourceful, it is important that we consider how Christians are called to act in the face of adversity. In this chapter, we will look at the leading basic prescriptions for responding to suffering and then consider how a Trinitarian view of God can balance, enrich, and diversify our ways of responding.
The attitude that all tribulations are to be borne with fatalistic acquiescence can be an insidious doctrine. It can malign God, condone injustice, obstruct progress in alleviating suffering, and foster irresponsible passivity and. Such servility is grounded in the false premise that God sends suffering either as punishment or for some other purpose.
On the other hand, there is suffering we cannot escape and cannot overcome. That is the time to pray the first petition of Reinhold Niebuhr’s”Serenity Prayer.” “God grant me the grace to accept those things I cannot change.” When we accept suffering, we are accepting that for now this suffering is part of life, and we must take the bitter with the sweet, that life is, as the Buddha said, “10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows” woven inseparably together.
There are two distinctions between Christian acceptance and fatalistic submission. Christians accept suffering only for now. Our long-run hope makes acceptance a matter of patience rather than despair.[i] Second, we accept only that we cannot change the situation, not that the situation cannot be changed. Although God is not dominating the world, God is involved in it; and we set no limits on what wonders God may be able to achieve. We do not expect miracles, but we hope for them.
We have done much and can do more to overcome various forms of suffering. That is all good. When we face evil that can be overcome, it is time to pray, “God grant me the courage to change what should be changed.” The Millennium Development Goals for eradicating severe poverty throughout the world are a prime example.
But our success in overcoming so many of our ancient ills has given us the grandiose illusion that we can overcome all suffering with the right mix of spirituality and technology. We are tempted to believe life should be pain free, and when we find that it isn’t, we think something is dreadfully amiss. Douglas John Hall calls this “the incapacity to suffer.”[ii] Stoicism is the practice of subjectively disengaging from painful situations in order to avoid suffering. Theologians call this assumption that suffering is avoidable and must always be avoided apathy.”[iii] By “apathy,” we don’t what is normally understood by the word. We don’t mean not caring. We draw on the literal meaning of the word “non-suffering.” Post-Christian society is unwilling to suffer, is committed to avoiding pain at all costs. Dorothee Soelle writes:
One wonders what will become of a society in which
certain forms of suffering are avoided gratuitously,
In keeping with middle-class ideals . . . a society in which:
a marriage that is perceived as unbearable quickly and
smoothly ends in divorce; after divorce no scars remain;
relationships between generations are dissolved as
quickly as possible, without a struggle, without a trace;
periods of mourning are “sensibly” short; with haste
the handicapped and sick are removed from the house
and the dead from the mind . . . From suffering nothing
is learned and nothing is to be learned.
Such blindness is possible in a society in which
a banal optimism prevails, in which it is self-evident
that suffering doesn’t occur. . . In the equilibrium of the
suffering-free state the life curve flattens out completely
so that even joy and happiness can no longer be experienced
We pay a high price for the denial of suffering. We deny life along with it. I once read a poem by a young woman writing about her pain over a failed attempt at love. She described meditating with the person she wanted but could not have, and she called her desire and her hurt “only thoughts.” Sometimes we have to do such things to manage our pain, but ultimately such a practice reduces our whole life to “only thoughts.” Even the label “only thoughts” is only a thought. Life is given us to be lived, not trivialized, reduced to something less than it is. Our pain is pain. Our joy is joy.
Real life is a combination of joys and sorrows. They are linked, dependent on each other like light and dark. If we anesthetize ourselves to the sorrows, we sacrifice the joys as well. Moreover, even when we are able to keep our heads and hearts above the waters of sorrow, others will not be so fortunate. If we are unwilling to suffer, then we must keep aloof from their experience. We must leave them to suffer alone.
Apathy cuts us off first from our own experience, then from the experience of our fellow mortals. Since some forms of suffering are inherent in being human, apathy amounts to denial of our humanity and repression of our actual experience. Hall observes that when we repress our suffering, we wind up inflicting the unacknowledged pain on those near to us and that we disable ourselves from imaginatively entering into the suffering of others.[v]
Much of what goes by the name “spirituality” today, in Christian and non-Christian circles alike, amounts to a Stoic attempt to render oneself impermeable to pain. Meditation is often reduced to relaxation exercises to reduce stress. Contemplation is imagining a pleasant place and pretending one is there instead of in the emotionally mixed reality of one’s actual life. Prayer is an incantation to drive away our hardships; and faith is positive thinking. Expecting a miracle at least allows us to delay facing the reality at hand.
There is certainly a legitimate place in Christian practice for prayer and meditation that can open our hearts to solace and grace. However, in our current culture of apathy, there is grave danger of making a religion out of feel-good techniques. Such a religion is escapist and ultimately life-denying.
Albert Camus prescribed “metaphysical rebellion” as the most authentically human response to the futility of life.
Metaphysical rebellion is the movement by which man
protests against his condition and against the whole of
creation. . . The slave protests against . . . his state of
slavery; the metaphysical rebel protests against . . .
his state as a man.[vi]
We can easily generalize our experience of suffering, especially when it seems senseless, into a rebellion against the entire human condition. It is possible to respond to a single tragedy like Romeo shouting, “then I defy you stars.” We can shake our fists at the heavens, blame God, and stand over against God as rebels.
The problem with rebellion as it is usually practiced is that it is an ego-assertion. Augustine saw such ego-assertion as the very thing that distorts our love and makes a mess of our lives . Put bluntly, “it’s all about me.” If God were the Cosmic Patriarch, rebellion would be heroic, Promethean. But we have already dismissed that image of God as infantile and false. Does that negate Camus’ philosophy of revolt? No. Camus was not prescribing an infantile revolt against an infantile God image. He was too intelligent, too sophisticated, and too serious a philosopher for that. He was, however, quite clear that rebellion sets one over against reality itself. The price we pay for such a stance is that rebellion cuts one off from life and from others.
Camus tried to overcome the narcissism of rebellion by insisting that authentic rebellion must always be asserted in solidarity with humankind. The problem is the basis on which we build solidarity. Solidarity is a matter of identification. Rebels establish solidarity by identifying with each other because they are suffering the same injustice. They identify with their shared suffering. This identification with our tragedy is precisely the pathological stuckness that makes for a suffocating spiritual prison.[vii] Identification with old afflictions shuts down the dynamic flow of life, cuts us off from new experience. To form a false community based on such a shared identity only sets this pathology in concrete. Identification based on common affliction is an entirely different dynamic from compassion. Compassion for fellow sufferers motivates us to help each other to move on, to overcome. Identification, however, makes stuckness in sorrow a mark of group loyalty.
When taken to Camus’ grand scale, we would identify with each other based on the general futility and meaninglessness of human life. Christians, however, insist that life is not ultimately futile or meaningless. Rather, the meaning is mysterious and is found in God. The journey into God is the journey toward meaning. Embracing futility is to abandon the journey before it is well begun.
D. TRINITARIAN RESPONSE
The Christian response to suffering starts with our faith in God, specifically in the Triune God who is engaging our suffering as we have been describing. We respond to suffering with God and as God responds. God, as the foundation of Reality, is not escapist. God is intimately aware of reality, including its painful aspects. [viii] Liberation theologian Jon Sobrino defines spirituality as “a fundamental willingness to face what is real” – including the realities of pain and injustice.[ix] There is no room for escapism or naive optimism in the Christian response.
My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet and far off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing
It finds an echo in my soul
How can I keep from singing? . . .
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that refuge clinging
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing? . . .
Robert Lowry, “How Can I Keep From Singing?”
While we face head on the harsh realities of life and death, we set them in the transcendent context of eternity, the essence of which is God’ infinite peace. We believe with Paul that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glories that are to be revealed. That does not mean we dismiss the sufferings of today or fail to take them seriously. But we do place them in a larger context of hope.
This means we are able to grieve the more fully because we know that grief is not the end. It will not swallow us. Life will swallow up death. We fully experience our own pain, but we don’t succumb to it, because we hope for redemption. We can also care for others without taking on their despair. In fact, our serenity, born of faith and hope, can lift others up from their despair. We can be non-anxious because of our trust that God will redeem.
Our hope has its eyes set on the Serene Center. Christians, at our best, remember eternity. We remember that God’s love is the only thing that lasts. With that faith, we cling to our hope even in the midst of tears. Christian faith calls us to live into hope, not despair. We are not naive. We operate under no illusions. But we hold fast to the knowledge that God is always present working in all situations, luring them toward peace, justice, and healing. We hope for miracle and wonder to happen right now. When it happens, we praise God. When it doesn’t, we set our hope in eternity.
Our own experience of suffering is not diminished but it is transformed by the compassion of the Son. There is the danger of becoming absorbed in our individual grief, loneliness, or despair. But, Christ shares our experience to give us another way. We can let our suffering become a point of connection. That is the spirituality of the Cross. The Way of the Cross does not try to render us impermeable to pain. Rather, it makes pain a part of our process of salvation.
The way of the Cross doesn’t invite suffering. We don’t have to do that. It comes uninvited. But we don’t run from it. We use our hardships as the raw material of compassion. The world suffers. People around us are sick, imprisoned, lonely, poor, and afraid. People around the world face famine, war, epidemics, and political oppression. The Way of the Cross doesn’t imagine all that away. It connects our individual pain with the suffering of the world. It makes of suffering a Communion, the body of Christ, broken and shared to make us all one.
Jesus’ way isn’t to cling masochistically to our pain as if it made us special. It doesn’t. We all have our fair share of sorrow. Jesus’ way is to let our pain be a point of connection to each other so we actually don’t think so much about ourselves. We don’t fret over whether we are as happy as we deserve to be. When we walk through our sorrow boldly and compassionately, like Jesus and with Jesus, instead trying to find a by-pass around it, that’s when the miracle happens. We lose our life to find it.
Our response to the suffering of others is to see that it is just as important as our own. We share the experience, and in our compassion we do whatever is in our power to alleviate other people’s pain. We devote whatever spiritual gifts we have received to the service of others. To us, every suffering person we see is Jesus on the Cross. When we live as Christ lived among us, even in the midst of our own hardships and those of others, there is a stream of grace flowing, the grace of compassion which is at once human and divine. Nicholas Wolterstorff writes:
Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping,
be wounded by humanity’s wounds, be in agony over humanity’s
agony. But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.[x]
We become like the God we worship. We join our God in mission to the world. So in our response to the world’s pain in which we participate, our response is the same as God’s. Douglas John Hall says of God’s response:
. . . (T)he magnitude of the suffering that we actually see about us
in the world should not be! . . . Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov himself
is not more sensitive to the wrongness of all this than is the God of Sinai
and Golgotha. Like Jesus regarding Jerusalem from a little distance, our
Scriptures bear witness to a god who weeps over the tragedies of earth
– even over our little losses. (Matt. 10: 30, par.) This God will not rest
until the wrong of suffering has been righted – until death itself is defeated. (Rev. 21: 4).[xi]
Paul said, “I want to share in the sufferings of Christ . . . .” He was talking about Communion, not as a ritual but as a way of life. We are the Body of Christ that is broken at the altar. Our lives are his blood poured out. In suffering, we are made one with each other and one with God. But Christian compassion is different from Camus’ solidarity in rebellion because we have more in common than our shared suffering. We understand each other to be beloved children of God. We see each other and ourselves as infinitely valuable and precious. We share not just common affliction, but common hope. Wolterstorff says,
We are one in suffering . . . . God is love. That is why he suffers.
To love our suffering world is to suffer. . . . So suffering is down
at the center of things, deep down where the meaning is. For Love
is the meaning. And Love suffers. The tears of God are the meaning
of history . . . . We’re in it together, God and we, together in the history
of our world.[xii]
3. Redeeming, Empowering Action
Thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit, we do not have to rely on our own inner resources alone to be resilient when things go wrong. The Spirit raises us up, restores our life, and gives us strength. In facing our own hardships, God does more than suffer with us. God gives us the power to survive and flourish and to live in the Spirit. The Spirit draws us outside ourselves into concern for others.
When the Spirit raises us from the dust of despair, we become agents of the Spirit, channels of blessing, “instruments of God’s peace,” carrying grace to others. We respond to their need, not just by feeling what they feel, not just by hurting with them, but also by giving them hope. Sometimes hope is just an encouraging word, but more often it takes the form of concrete action, doing something of practical service. John said, “Let us love not in word or speech but in deed and in truth.”[xiii] Such is the life of love.
There is nothing sentimental about the spiritual life, the life of love. It is hard because, even right here and now in this broken world, we have been given the grace to love. But our love has not yet been given the power to achieve its purpose. Sometimes, by luck or grace, love actually prevails, but it is far from guaranteed to “conquer all.” In the face of divisions of race and religion, love often fails. We pour our love out like water over a rock. The world does not love itself enough to accept our love. And our failed attempts at love make us despair of the effort. Blaming the world for its failure to love or accept love is unfair and pointless. The truth is the world is broken and love does not fare well in it. Yet love persists. This experience of love seems futility is why we live by hope. Hugh Martin said of love and hope in Robert Browning’s poetry:
The pity and love which make men revolt against suffering
and evil were implanted in them by their Creator, who must
be at least as good as His creatures. The evil in the world
is there to be overcome, and it can be overcome. Love is
active in the world: and who put it there? One day love will
have the irresistible power it deserves to have.[xiv]
We live now in hope of that day. We love now in hope of that day.
E. THE SANDY HOOK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL MASSACRE
Over the years of writing this book, tragedies have compounded, each one forcing me back to the existential drawing board – seeing my text on the computer screen exposed as pitifully inadequate in the face of flesh and blood sorrow. There have been natural evils – 230,000 killed in the Haiti earthquake of 2010; 70,000 killed in the Sichuan quake of 2008; the Pakistan flood of 2012; the Japan earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2012. There have been human evils – atrocities in the Congo and Sudan; mass shootings at Virginia Tech, Ft. Hood, the Aurora Theater, the Sikh Temple, Tucson, and a one-room Amish school to name just a few.
As this book goes to press, we have just witnessed the mass murder of elementary school children and their teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Again the question, “Where was God?” Again many interpretations are drawn. Absurd things are said, like “this is God’s punishment for the absence of prayer in schools.”
This book has not prescribed a neat formula to which such a thing can be reduced. The tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary demonstrates that evil will not be reduced to any neat formula. But I will do my best to offer a glimpse into how the Trinitarian God responds and calls us to respond to horrific evils.
The closer we are to this loss, the more we need to access some firm foundation of hope.
My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet and far off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing . . . .
The bereaved need a God of Eternity to hold their grief. We all do. And they need people who embody that faith for them when it is natural they should find it hard to find hope in their own broken hearts.
If we love our children as much as is humanly possible, God loves them infinitely. If we suffer at their deaths, God suffers infinitely. The Cross happened again in Newtown, Connecticut. We meet God at that Cross, the God who will someday redeem and resurrect. The victims need a God who joins them, who goes all the way into the hell of death and grief with them. And they need people who embody God’s compassion, who, in Wolterstorff’s words, “Mourn humanity’s mourning, weep over humanity’s weeping, [are] wounded by humanity’s wounds . . . .” In the moment of loss, it is possible to find God precisely because in that moment we can find each other.
The friends and parents of the slain children and teachers will need more than hope and compassion to find their way into a future. They will need that mysterious infusion of strength and courage the Spirit offers. They will need the meaning-making process of spiritual growth and transformation -- an inner process manifesting outwardly in life for others. That meaning-making will take different forms for each person.
The public discourse in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre is a desperate scramble to make meaning out of senseless loss. People are proposing gun control, improved school security, expanded access to mental health, and other ways to improve society, mostly good enough ideas. But to me they all seem too small, too utilitarian. Tragedy of this magnitude calls for more than a technical fix to reduce the likelihood of it happening again. The best way to invest with meaning the wave of mass murders we have experienced in recent years would be to repent from social violence. Reasonable regulation of firearms would be the most obvious pragmatic way to back off from our compulsive habit of violence. But gun reform is a far, far cry from enough on the one hand, and extraordinarily hard to achieve on the other.
Our societal violence goes much deeper than legislation can reach. More than any other developed nation, we have embraced the meta-narrative the late Walter Wink called “the myth of redemptive violence.” The myth he describes is an ancient story line beginning with the Enuma Elish, the Sumerian creation myth. Marduk, one of several Sumerian gods, becomes king of the gods because of his combat skills. He slays the sea monster Tiamat and creates the heavens form her body. The import of the Enuma Elish, as Wink reads it, is that meaning, value, and heroism lie in killing the enemy. Wink offered the gospel of Jesus Christ as the counter-narrative of “redemptive love.”
But for every movie, book, and TV program valorizing a Christ-figure, there are 100 valorizing a Marduk-figure. The catechism of American culture is a course in the myth of redemptive violence. So we live with fantasies of someday blowing away a villain. The myth of redemptive violence invests our human worth in our capacity to kill. So we, as a nation, invested our wealth in a nuclear arsenal that would destroy every living person on earth many times over. We incarcerate more people than any other developed nation. Unlike most modern democracies, we persist with the death penalty. From the video games we sell our children, to our sports, to our law enforcement, to our foreign policy, we embrace violence. In our pride and in our fear, we have made what Isaiah called “a covenant with death”—meaning we ground our safety and our self-esteem on our capacity to kill. Is it then any wonder that the canaries in this spiritual coalmine turn assault weapons on our people, killing federal judges, young adults at movie theaters, and first graders at their desks?
When I think of a transformation that would give some modicum of meaning to the blood shed by our children, nothing less than a societal conversion from a model of valor like Marduk to a model of valor like Jesus will do. The Sumerian creation myth says the universe is born in bloodshed; hence, the Savior Marduk comes with guns blazing. The Jewish creation myth says the universe is procreated by a parental God who says “It is good;” hence, the Savior Jesus comes in love, even sacrificial love.
So to draw the circle to a close, that is what this book has been about – the discovery of a better God, the kind of God manifest in a Jesus – not Marduk -- a God of serenity, compassion, and relational power to live for others.
We can practice a wise, compassionate, and courageous response to suffering if we keep our Trinitarian theology straight. Those who worship only the Serene Father (though these days they are more apt to call him “the Tao,” “Dharma,” “the One,” “non-duality,” “emptiness,” or some such impersonal abstraction) will be inclined to either submit to suffering or avoid it. Those who worship only the Compassionate Son will be inclined to indulge in suffering, both directly and vicariously, thinking such indulgence ennobles them and makes them Christ-like. Those who worship only the Spirit will believe all suffering can be eradicated if we can just work up enough faith and enthusiasm.
But a balanced faith in the Triune God balances our response to suffering. We have the wisdom to accept that some suffering is a given part of life for now, but that in eternity “all will be well.” Our relationship with the Serene Father enables us to be the “non-anxious presence” who helps others by hearing them with serenity and equanimity. Our relationship with the Son enables us to embrace our own suffering directly and to respond compassionately to the suffering of others. And in the power of the Spirit, we protest against unnecessary suffering and strive to alleviate it wherever we can. Balancing all three approaches takes wisdom, which we spend a lifetime cultivating. It is not easy, but Augustine taught that the Triune God is already reflected in the Trinitarian structure of our souls. So when we respond to suffering in a Trinitarian way, with Serene Wisdom, Vulnerable Compassion, and Life-giving Encouragement, our response is both effective and authentic.
[i] St. Paul said in Romans Chapter 8 that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing to the glory which will be revealed.” It is in that spirit of waiting that we accept suffering.
[ii]. Douglas John Hall at 41.
[iii]. Dorothee Soelle and Douglas John Hall both use the term “apathy” with this meaning.
[iv]. Dorothee Soelle, at 38-39.
[v]. Douglas John Hall, pp. 41-47.
[vi]. Albert Camus, The Rebel, trans. Anthony Bower (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956) p. 23.
[vii]. David Kelsey. pp. 55-59.
[viii]. Rowan Williams says God lives “with and within the potentially hurtful and destructive bounds of the world.” He also says, “the Spirit connects us to reality in a way that bridge[s] . . . the gulf between suffering and hope . . . confronting suffering without illusion but also without despair.” Rowan Williams, p. 124.
[ix]. Mark A. MacIntosh, Mystical Theology (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998) pp. 28-29.
[x]. Nicholas Wolterstorff, p. 86.
[xi].Douglas John Hall, at 74-75.
[xii]. Nicholas Wolterstorff, pp. 89-91.
[xiii]. 1 John 3: 17.
[xiv]. Hugh Marin, The Faith Of Robert Browning (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1963) p. 94.