In my early 20s, I worked as a chaplain intern at the Detroit children’s hospital. I chose to be trained in that setting because I love kids. I hadn’t thought much about what it would be like to witness the suffering of children with cancer or severe epilepsy or other chronic illnesses. Nor did I have any idea how to relate to parents of these children. I often felt lost and overwhelmed, attempting to meet these families in their helplessness and exhaustion, their gritty strength and tender hope, their grief and rage, their irreverent gallows humor. The children’s hospital was a Level 1 trauma center. Which meant that inevitably, one day, during my three months there, an ambulance pulled into the ER bearing a little one who had died. I will never forget the way the parents’ bodies crumpled to the floor when they heard the news. And I will never forget how excruciating it was to be with them in this moment of pain.
The topic I drew out of the grab bag for this morning’s sermon is: “Explore the suffering of innocents, and God’s role (or non-role) in the suffering of the world.” The scripture I chose from Isaiah probably best articulates my own theology of suffering. Using metaphors of flood and fire, the prophet Isaiah declares the inevitability of suffering “when” (not “if”) “you pass through the waters, I will be with you.” Though this passage does not claim that God can prevent suffering, it does promise that God’s presence, God’s accompaniment, makes a difference in our suffering. I will be with you . . . and the rivers will not overwhelm you. The fire will not burn you. The flames will not consume you. In times of pain, sickness and death, oppression and injustice, God holds us in love, assures us of dignity, and acts as our partner in preserving the essence of who we are. This passage is powerfully intimate. God speaks directly to the people: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine. God addresses them collectively as “Jacob” and “Israel,” so their personal belonging to God cannot be separated from their identity as people who belong to a community. They experience intimacy with the divine and relief from suffering in and through their care for each other and for the common good.
There are many other scripture passages about suffering that I did not choose to have read this morning. Some of them echo views that are prevalent in our culture—those who are good are rewarded with good fortune; suffering is a punishment; those who suffer are getting what they deserve. Or suffering makes us stronger and better. I think there is some truth in these statements. Clearly there are consequences for bad choices and up to a point we can learn and grow through suffering. However, we must approach each of these lines of reasoning carefully and give them limits; otherwise we will find ourselves left with absurd and offensive conclusions.
In the intense months of chaplaincy training as well as throughout my years of parish ministry I have learned that a lived, rather than academic, theology, a theology we can actually live with, tends to be messy and inconclusive, continually evolving. It is quite understandable that we often cling to unhelpful theologies because they bring us some measure of comfort and allow us to make it through the day. The truth is, however, when suffering intrudes personally and vividly into our lives, we often find that words and ideas are inadequate to meet us in that place. In the face of suffering, we sometimes need to reject the God we thought we believed in and go looking for a new sort of God. And silence can be a theology all its own, carrying many meanings—emptiness and absence or presence and attention; freedom, mystery, or wonder. Story is also an important vehicle for lived theology, and a very biblical one at that. Delving into our summer practice of storytelling at First Church, we discovered this Hannah Arendt quote: “Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”
Our family just returned from vacation in British Columbia—Vancouver, Victoria, and a remote part of Vancouver Island. It was wonderful to be far away from the daily stresses of life, to find renewal and inspiration in the endless blue-green waters of the Pacific, the vast forests of ancient firs, cedars and spruces, the interesting and welcoming people we met along the way. And yet there’s simply no escape from the heavy feelings and deep questions that come with being alive in this time. We are caught in a web of suffering. Some of it we are responsible for. Some of it is far beyond our control. All of it affects us and connects us. We just marked the hottest days on earth, ever. Even as our family enjoyed cool refreshing ocean breezes, we heard news of more bad air quality here. The coastal rainforest is in severe drought, just like the desert country I visited last spring. No campfires were allowed anywhere during our ten nights of camping for fear they would spark more wildfires. So . . . I enjoyed our trip immensely. And, at the same time, I felt distressed about our choice to get on an airplane that whisked us across the country, given the exorbitant carbon cost of flying. In my own most intense moments of climate anxiety, I wonder, how can any of us proceed as if there is normalcy and stability to life on earth when there is so much suffering, both in our present and in the future toward which we are heading?
I find that the book of Job is a good place to go with our unanswerable questions. In this parable, God allows “Satan” to torment Job. Satan takes away everything—Job’s land and livestock, his family, and his health. Satan, in Hebrew thought, is not the evil one; Satan is the one who tests. The losses Job endures are a test to see if he will remain faithful to God even when the supposed rewards of faithfulness are gone. Job’s friends at first support him, but as his suffering wears on, they criticize him, then desert him. They assume that Job must have done something wrong, that there must be some justification for this treatment from the universe. They can’t accept that suffering is random, or meaningless, that any bad thing can happen to any of us at any time. Throughout his ordeal, Job questions, complains, and cries out to God. Eventually he curses his own birth and asks to die. God finally answers Job at the very end, out of the whirlwind. God’s stormy diatribe goes on for chapters, enumerating the mysteries of life and arguing that no one but God can understand how it all works and why there is suffering.
Perhaps God does understand suffering better than we do, but I think we have to give up assuming that God has the power to control events. Rabbi Harold Kushner puts it simply and starkly in his well-known book,When Bad Things Happen to Good People: “Forced to choose between a good God who is not totally powerful, or a powerful God who is not totally good, the author of the Book of Job chooses to believe in God’s goodness.” I do not believe in a God who causes things to happen, good or bad. I believe that chance is real and often there is no satisfying answer to the question “why?” And human choices, sometimes evil, sometimes simply unwise, are a primary cause of suffering too.
The New Testament passages I chose for this morning illustrate how Jesus carries on the wisdom of his ancestors, how he embodies the God who accompanies us in suffering. There are of course many accounts of Jesus healing the sick, embracing the marginalized, and comforting the despairing. These stories, along with the beatitudes—or blessings for the poor, those who mourn, the hungry and persecuted—show that addressing suffering was a central priority for Jesus. In Jewish tradition, blessings exist for every part of daily life. They are an invitation to be mindful, to be awake to God’s presence. So I think Jesus was making an argument that the gift of divine companionship is available to everyone, especially those whom others exclude or reject.
The words of 2 Corinthians mirror the thesis of the prophet Isaiah. “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair” Suffering is always with us and so is God. The idea that we carry the death of Jesus in our bodies is a shorthand way of talking about the fact that God accompanies us in suffering. God does not stand above or apart from our struggle to survive and overcome suffering. This is God’s struggle too. Similarly, the idea that the life of Jesus is made visible in our bodies is a way of talking about the healing, wholeness, and new possibilities that arise in our partnership with God and with each other.
I will leave you with some words of the Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama. This is his poem, “Narrative Theology #1”:
And I said to him: /Are there answers to all of this? / And he said: / The answer is in a story and the story is being told. / And I said: / But there is so much pain. / And she answered, plainly: / Pain will happen. / Then I said: / Will I ever find meaning?/ And they said: / You will find meaning / where you give meaning. / The answer is in a story / and the story isn’t finished.
Thanks be to God, for God’s faithfulness to God’s promise, now and forever, “I will be with you.” Amen.