Posts Tagged ‘human suffering’

PSALM 104:1-9, 24, 35c

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
    Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honor and majesty,
    wrapped in light as with a garment.
You stretch out the heavens like a tent,
    you set the beams of your chambers on the waters,
you make the clouds your chariot,
    you ride on the wings of the wind,
you make the winds your messengers,
    fire and flame your ministers.

You set the earth on its foundations,
    so that it shall never be shaken.
You cover it with the deep as with a garment;
    the waters stood above the mountains.
At your rebuke they flee;
    at the sound of your thunder they take to flight.
They rose up to the mountains, ran down to the valleys
    to the place that you appointed for them.
You set a boundary that they may not pass,
    so that they might not again cover the earth.

24 Lord, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.

35 Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord!

When the divine voice answered out of the whirlwind of Job’s suffering experience, it was not in defense of God’s justice or in prosecution of Job’s sin that it spoke. Instead it lifted Job’s attention to the larger context of his experience where far-off supernovas explode and seed new planetary systems, unpredictable weather patterns devastate entire regions with flood or drought,  hungry lions chase down gazelles, and this moment dies to give way to the next.

What would existence be if suffering in its countless varieties were completely eliminated? There could be no life, for life of one thing requires the death of another for its metabolism of energy. There could be no growth, for growth necessitates the termination of one phase for the next to begin. And since to exist is to survive in time, gradually reaching maturity but then winding down to extinction, time itself would have to be removed – leaving what?

Admittedly it’s not a remedy to the vexing problem of human suffering, but a widened view on the universe can be remarkably effective in helping us cope with our own burden of existence. Once the aperture of your perspective has opened up to take in the countless marvels of creation, it almost always happens that wonder, awe, and gratitude awaken in your heart. In wisdom God has made them all. Praise the Lord!

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JOHN 17:6-19

“I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. 10 All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. 11 And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. 12 While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 15 I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one. 16 They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17 Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18 As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19 And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

Here we confront again the questions of theodicy. The term comes from two Greek words, theos (god) and diké (justice), and names the moral struggle in religiously thoughtful human beings over the relationship between the goodness of God and the injustice of human suffering and evil.

Where’s the benevolence of God, we must ask, in bringing Judas into being as a condemned man from the very beginning? As “the one destined to be lost,” was Judas without freedom to choose otherwise? Did God circumvent the betrayer’s free-will in something of a manual override, canceling out the very capacity that made him most human? If so, then how could Judas be held accountable for his actions? Is it just for God to damn a person who had no real choice in what he did? Finally, is such a God worthy of our worship?

No doubt, we are interrogating early Christian theology with questions that were not as critical and pressing then as they have become for us now. The old answer to Job’s protest against the suffering of human innocence – “Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his? (Job 40:9) – amounted to a suppression of the human cry for justice. In the ancient world it was not below God to do whatever he wished, however diabolical and inhumane it may be. Once the world discovered that “God is love,” the questions of theodicy have exercised the faithful.

One wonders if our condemnation of Judas has amounted to a betrayal of our own humanity.

PSALM 34:1-10, 22

I will bless the Lord at all times;
    his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify the Lord with me,
    and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
    and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to him, and be radiant;
    so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
    and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
    around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
    happy are those who take refuge in him.
O fear the Lord, you his holy ones,
    for those who fear him have no want.
10 The young lions suffer want and hunger,
    but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

22 The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
    none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

There is a strong current in the Bible, vocally represented in the traditions that promoted the idea of Yahweh as not only supreme among the gods but as the only god there is (monotheism), which regards everything that happens as directly caused or allowed by the divine will. When things go well for us, this doctrine poses no problem at all. But when adversity comes and bereavement leaves us reeling in its wake, the connection between God and our experience is much harder to discern – and much easier to doubt.

We can use the familiar Western “centers of consciousness” as a way of analyzing this conundrum, picturing God as like us in possessing a mind (knowledge), a heart (passion), and a will (action). When it comes to human suffering, then, perhaps God

  1. knows about it, but doesn’t really care and refuses to help.
  2. doesn’t know about it, and would care if the information was provided (suggesting the importance of prayer).
  3. doesn’t know, and wouldn’t care even if He did.
  4. does know and certainly cares, but is afflicting or allowing the suffering so that something else can be realized (such as humility, repentance, patience, fortitude, or wisdom in the sufferer).

As you can see, the first three explanations make God into something “less than God” in the classical sense of an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful authority over human affairs. The deities of other mythologies might demonstrate less-than-perfect qualities, but the unqualified monotheism of the Bible (Judaism and Christianity) and Quran (Islam) has traditionally forced believers to look for God’s hand (active/passive will) in our suffering and loss.

Another response might be to suggest that God names a mystery we cannot understand. Perhaps there isn’t a supreme being calling the shots or letting things slide. Maybe suffering is just part of the burden of existence – neither a punishment for sin or a strategy for our salvation. Sometimes it follows fairly predictably on our own poor choices, as the immediate or delayed consequence of what we are doing to ourselves, each other, and to our planet. Often, however, it defies explanation (even a theological one) and the best we can do is meet suffering with a grounded presence, mindfulness, and grace.

PSALM 31:9-16

9 Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
    my eye wastes away from grief,
    my soul and body also.
10 For my life is spent with sorrow,
    and my years with sighing;
my strength fails because of my misery,
    and my bones waste away.

11 I am the scorn of all my adversaries,
    a horror to my neighbors,
an object of dread to my acquaintances;
    those who see me in the street flee from me.
12 I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
    I have become like a broken vessel.
13 For I hear the whispering of many—
    terror all around!—
as they scheme together against me,
    as they plot to take my life.

14 But I trust in you, O Lord;
    I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hand;
    deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
16 Let your face shine upon your servant;
    save me in your steadfast love.

Along the course of spiritual development a neophyte becomes a “true believer,” where the questions of faith are gradually resolved and replaced with the answers of doctrine. The searching question of God gives way to orthodox theories about God. An open and curious mind gradually closes down on certainties.

When you are taught that God loves you, watches out for you, and will intervene on your behalf in times of trouble, the naive expectation is that God will come through. But what happens when he doesn’t? Is it that God doesn’t see your suffering? Is he watching but just doesn’t care? Could it be that God is aware of your suffering and desperately wants to help you, but is limited in his power to do so? Such are the new questions that stretch and threaten the definitions of orthodoxy.

One way of “saving God” – or saving your concept of God – is to take responsibility for his silence or absence. Perhaps you don’t deserve God’s help. Maybe you’ve done something to disqualify yourself from divine favor. What if God is punishing you with this ordeal, for a sin you have conveniently forgotten? Or it might be that your faith is not what it needs to be and God is actually subjecting you to this pain or loss in order to make you stronger.

And so on.

But the evolutionary arc leading from neophyte to true believer doesn’t end there, without a significant amount of what might be called spiritual frustration where the soul’s journey to fulfillment is stymied and cut short of its intended goal. Beyond the “true believer” stance of religious commitment and doctrinal certainty is the mystical experience. In that place, on the other side of truth as it were, there is no theological possessive such as might prompt the soul to say, “You are my God.”

In the experience of divine presence, this moment is enough. There is nothing else.