Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Human suffering

I've been studying the books of Job and 1 Peter because of a women's retreat this past weekend where I had to give some Bible studies on the topic of suffering. The question of why human beings suffer in this life is something every major religion has to deal with, because if God is truly benevolent, then to allow suffering would seem to call his benevolence into question.

The remote cause, according to the Bible, is the sin of Adam. Through Adam's sin this once-utopian world became corrupted and broken, and all the laws of stable, sane existence got thrown into awry, like the delicate inner-mechanisms of an expensive watch getting flooded with sea water. For those who inhabit such a world, redemption, atonement and the coming of the heavenly kingdom are the only permanent answers to our present sorrows. Those of us who believe in the world to come are to live our present lives with a kind of patience, optimism, self-sacrifice and love for others that can only characterize those who are invested in a future hope. Another way to put it is that we follow in the example of Jesus himself, whose atoning death has paved the way for this very hope.

The thing about suffering, though, is that when you are going through it, your soul craves so much more than theological articulations about remote causes. Understanding the ancient sin of Adam is not much comfort to me when I'm in pain. And although, like Job, I understand that "the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away," and I can bow with creaturely acceptance to the mysterious workings of One who is wiser and greater than me, the greatness of God is more crushing than comforting during times of perplexity and loss. This was Job's complaint:

For He bruises me with a tempest,
And multiplies my wounds without cause.
He will not allow me to get my breath,
But saturates me with bitterness.
If is is a matter of power,
Behold, He is the strong one!
And if it is a matter of justice,
Who can summon Him? (9:17-19)

Job says that the problem with God is that, as God, he can be of no comfort to us. Since he is the Almighty, when you have a quarrel with him you have no recourse, because he will always be in the right. For all his wisdom God, being God, simply cannot understand what it is like to suffer as a human creature. He would have to become human to truly understand what it's like.

So that's exactly what he did. I think God knows that we don't really want neat theological answers to questions about suffering when we are going through it. I think he knows that the best answer he could give us is not to thunder words down from heaven, but to come down and walk upon this earth, in Job's shoes as it were. And so after he was abandoned by his closest friends, tortured all night by a band of thugs, sentenced to death like a vile criminal, and forced to spend the last feeble hours of his life hanging on public display, like some kind of captured, half-dead animal strung up as a prize, God found out what human suffering was all about. He even knew the anguish of feeling abandoned by God. "My God . . . why have you forsaken me?" God experienced what it was like to feel abandoned by God.

So many of us who have sought to walk by faith have felt abandoned in our sufferings. Yet now God can say he's been down that road too. I believe it is his answer to our questions about why we suffer, not addressing our intellect but the craving of our souls. Because in his compassion for us, he understands that words are not enough.