trying times, suffering, God & me

broken worldI awoke this morning, a spiritual in my heart, on my tongue: “I’ve been ‘buked an’ I’ve been scorned.” The song continues with this warning, “Dere is trouble all over dis world”, and ends with this witness of faith, “Ain’t gwine to lay my ‘ligion down!”

“I’ve been ‘buked” was my response to the “trouble all over dis world” (which may not be greater or worse than in any other era, but given our age’s instant, global dissemination of news, I, perforce, know more). As I continued to sing, “ain’t gwine lay my ‘ligion down” became a prayer.

Trying times test my faith (perhaps that of others who believe) in God’s existence and, trusting that, God’s benevolence. Maybe for all, trying times test our confidence in ourselves; our capacity to reason, choose a course of action, and pursue what we purpose.

A trying time is whatever one says it is. It needn’t be big – Ebola, Ferguson, Missouri, Flood Wall Street, ISIS, Syria, or Ukraine. One thing I’ve learned. It does little good to compare one’s experience as less or more valid than any other. Another thing. All trying times involve suffering.

We all suffer. (Unless, if possible, we retreat from life, enter no relationships, have no thoughts or feelings, dreams or expectations.) Suffering, the grand equalizer, exposes as fraudulent our fondest, privately rehearsed imaginings of our immunity from trouble.

As suffering, whether physical, psychological, social, spiritual, befalls all, one of life’s determined, desperate quests is to discern its meaning.

In one view, suffering reminds us that we are not omnipotent, ever, but always creaturely, finite. Yet it is too short a step to say that our inherent impotence points to, proves the existence of a supreme power. To use suffering to make a case for God is tantamount, to paraphrase the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to having God “smuggled into (our lives at) some last secret (vulnerable) place.” Too vain a trick, I think, for God. Even the story of Job, boldly wrestling with the ancient riddle of the relation between suffering and God, remains silent in the face of that mystery, offering no conclusive answer other than the inscrutability of divine sovereignty.

In a recent conversation, a friend shared the news of her father’s imminent death. I expressed sympathy. Her tear-choked voice calmed as she, I believe, with earnest acceptance, uttered those age-old words, “It’s all God’s will.” I had no immediate reply. At the core of the notion of suffering as God’s will I perceive capricious divine power expressed at human expense. Not my kind of God.

Another facet of the idea that suffering exposes our weakness, thus revealing God’s omnipotence is to look not at God, but at us. We are to embrace, entering fully the experience of suffering so to discover transformative possibilities. I don’t doubt the integrity or sincerity of those who have suffered who speak of valuable lessons learned. But such wisdom is the fruit of reflection, thus not something one often grasps in the midst of the moment. That moment, at least for me, produces more weeping and cursing than insight, which, if at all, comes later.

Nevertheless, from my experience and that of others I know, I do believe that suffering, yes, capable of making us bitter and callous, can sharpen our sensitivity to another’s pain. Our human capacity to remember our suffering can deepen our compassion that we may do more than weep and curse, but also be with others in their depths of distress. Yet, when in that place with another, I often stand with Job shouting at the inscrutable God, “Where are you? Why won’t you do something?”

In asking these questions, given the historical sweep of human experience, something may be awry with this idea (cleverly labeled by a dear friend) of a “Mighty Mouse God” who, in the time of suffering speedily shows up, singing, “Here I come to save the day!” God, I reckon, must not be “on (at least, my) call”, dutifully standing by ready to intervene to make things right.

Perhaps God (the author and creator of life, indeed, who is life – the totality of all that I know as real, all that I know is real, including suffering) is less the perfect being over me to protect me and more one in process of becoming, just as I am, therefore truly the one with me.

Here I find the power of the Christian story’s cross, which makes sense of the nonsense of suffering. It’s not that Jesus suffered any more than any other or suffered for me. Rather his experience of suffering was, is, and (given all that we know of the world and ourselves), will be damnably repeatable. The cross, therefore, aligns with human experience.

Even more, the cross is a symbol of solidarity, of being joined by God in this life’s suffering. Not solidarity that suffers with another, for an instant stepping into the pain, then stepping out, but that embraces, enters, climbs up on the cross of reality’s suffering, lives and breathes and bleeds alongside another to change the reality.

Suffering. We all suffer. Its meaning, I think, is not found in its repeatability, but rather in a compassion that yields a solidarity that compels me, as one who suffers, to stand with another fellow sufferer to change a nightmare of what is into a dream of what may be.

If this, in any sense, is religion, then I ain’t ever gwine lay my ‘ligion down.

2 thoughts on “trying times, suffering, God & me

  1. Paul,

    In all that you shared, in all of the words, the one word that stood out most for me is Solidarity. It is a word that means much to me, and I’ve always tried to stand with and support others.

    I had never thought of the cross in terms of solidarity, BUT it makes sooooo much sense. AND it it’s comforting too. And in this world today, there’s so much suffering and heartbreak so we NEED comfort wherever we can find it, I’ve always looked to the cross I wear as comfort, and realized that fact fully a few weeks ago when I thought I lost it. Now, after reading your blog, I can also feel that when I and others suffer, the cross can be a reminder that I “live and breathe and bleeds alongside another to change the reality” Needed this today. Thanks


  2. I am comforted, Loretta, that I could share a comforting – or as an old mentor used to say to me, “an enabling word” – message. Yes, I know for you the meaning and value of the cross that you wear and what it symbolizes, signifies, hence, I feel deeply your embrace of the word “solidarity.” May we and all alway stand with others in need and allow, indeed, ask others to stand with us when in need.


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