I find it extremely ironic that the Church, which claims to be the embodiment the lamb that was slain, has such a difficult time ministering to those who are suffering. When tragedy strikes us, many congregants, deacons, and even some ministers are unsure how to respond. This uncertainty has lead our church culture to be become inundated with pat answers and shallow explanations.
Why is this?
Suffering has the uncanny ability to bring us to the very edge of knowledge. Death comes, disease attacks, disaster strikes, and we find ourselves standing on the precipice staring into the chasm that stands between what we believed and what we experienced.
My wife Bekah and I found ourselves on the brink staring into the darkness when our son, Silas, was stillborn. We believe in an all-loving, caring God who doesn’t let even a sparrow fall to the ground without God’s knowledge, but we experienced the loss of the most innocent life imaginable. That love and care we had staked our life on seemed cold and distant.
What didn’t help were the well-intentioned people who tried to comfort us with words that only deepened the abyss.
It’s all part of God’s plan.
Really? If God’s plan includes killing unborn babies do I really want part of it?
God was just protecting him from some future pain.
How is that so? If God causes stillbirth to prevent future suffering, God must have missed a few chances. Look at all the suffering in our world. Was God sleeping?
God wants to teach you something.*
God’s lessons to adults include the death of children?
God won’t allow more than you can handle.
Really? The depression and panic attacks tell a different story.
While I’m aware that the people who say such hurtful things are trying to help, at some point we must declare that misguided, hurtful words are not helpful. Even though they are well-intentioned they must be stopped. The church at large must reclaim its ability to suffer well. We must relearn what it means to lament. Theologian Miroslav Volf said:
Complaining to God (Jesus) and arguing with God (Job) in suffering can be ways of loving God.
— Miroslav Volf (@MiroslavVolf) November 12, 2013
Can we recover this tradition of crying out to God with hard questions?
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Psalm 13:1).
It is all the same; that is why I say,
‘He destroys both the blameless and the wicked.’
When a scourge brings sudden death,
he mocks the despair of the innocent.
When a land falls into the hands of the wicked,
he blindfolds its judges.
If it is not he, then who is it? (Job 9:22-24).
My God my God why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1 and Matt 27:46).
Most of these questions would be unwelcome in many Bible studies, but it’s for that very reason we must emphasize them all the more. The biblical tradition is rich with examples of faithful people questioning God in their pain. This practice isn’t seen as unfaithful. Instead it is often treated as one of the only ways to respond well to suffering.
When we cry out, we are calling to account the fact that what God wants for us and what we are experiencing are worlds apart, and we begin to seek ways to close that gap between our beliefs and our reality.
It’s like Job who, after innocently suffering, chooses solidarity with other innocent sufferers.** Interestingly, when God finally speaks, God doesn’t reprimand Job for his harsh words and biting critique, but instead says that only Job has spoken well of God. His friends, the ones who tried to explain away Job’s pain, are in trouble. God says, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has…. My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly.”
So perhaps, during this Lenten season, one thing we can all give up is our tendency to try to explain away pain and suffering and instead begin to simply suffer with those who are in pain. Allow them to cry out to God the words of lament that our forebears gave us. In so doing we’ll be reminded that we don’t have all the answers, and maybe one of the things we need to repent of most, is pretending as if we do.
*To be honest I didn’t hear this one, but I know it to be all too common.
** See Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job: God-talk and the suffering of the innocent.