There is much suffering in the world at large. There is also much suffering here, in New Zealand. There is visible suffering and invisible suffering. There is the visible suffering of untimely death, of diseases that ravage the body and mind, of injuries that go deep. There is the invisible suffering of mental ill-health, the trauma of sexual, mental, and physical assault, of bullying, of depriving a child of any love.
Part of suffering is the reality of loss. What was is gone, and might or will never come again. There is grief – which sometimes can manifest as depression. There is pain. Some of which can be put into words, and some of which there are no words for.
One of the things the Bible can offer is a guidebook to surviving suffering. The Swedish word for ‘survive’ is literally ‘to survive the winter’. And Jews and Christians have experienced many winters.
Rabbi Harold Kushner's son Aaron was born with progeria, a rare and incurable disease that causes rapid aging. When Aaron was three, the doctors explained to the Kushners that Aaron would never grow much beyond three feet in height, would look like a little old man while he was still a child, and would die in his early teens. At the age of 14 Aaron died – of old age. Aaron’s illness and death forced Kushner to reconsider his view of God as an all-powerful force who controls everything with a master plan that humans simply don’t understand. The book When Bad Things Happen to Good People was Kushner’s response, emerging with what was hailed as a new understanding of God but what was really ancient wisdom.
The writer of the Book of Job knew of that wisdom. On the one hand the Book of Job is a critique of the theological assertion that blessings – like health and wealth – are indicators of God’s approval of the healthy and wealthy; and the opposite – disease and poverty – are indicators of God’s displeasure. This theological assertion, which sounds horribly simplistic, still has currency in popular culture where the physically “beautiful” and materially wealthy are uncritically considered to be role models. The Book of Job is a reminder that much suffering is not the fault of those so afflicted. So, “judge not”.
On the other hand the Book of Job reveals insights into a personal journey of suffering. Job’s friends continue to relate to him, but also parrot the conventional wisdom of blame. Eventually for Job the winter comes to an end. Was this Job’s doing? Was this God’s doing? I suspect Job would say ‘No’ to both questions. But Job is also grateful that he has survived.
The title of Kushner’s book is often misquoted as "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People." Kushner says he doesn’t know why any more than the rest of us. Sometimes people make bad decisions. There's no question that our choices have consequences – sometimes severe consequences. But “laws of nature and simple bad luck could also be the culprits,” he says. There aren't always reasons why bad things happen.
In another Kushner book, The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm, the rabbi notes that “in times of trouble, God does not explain, God comforts.” This Shepherd God [guiding to the pasture and water] in the first part of the psalm does a metaphorical identity change in the second part of the psalm to Hostess God [laying a table and anointing with oil]. Neither the Shepherd nor the Hostess talks in the psalm. The psalm hinges on verse 4 where God accompanies the suffering one through the valley of the shadow of death.
In the days of the psalmists the Jews had no understanding of hell. However, they did speak of a place of the dead called Sheol. Yet Psalm 139 proclaims that even there one cannot escape God [“If I make my bed in Sheol, behold Thou art there.”] Such spiritual convictions have bolstered the Jewish people through thousands of years of collective and individual suffering.
There is no winter where God cannot be present, though God may be in a form, or word, or action quite different from what we expect. Like God can be a tear; or a kind smile.
Psalm 23 is I suspect a retrospective psalm. By that I mean, if Job penned it he would have penned it after the winter of his suffering. It is a psalm of thanksgiving. In the midst of the winter I’m not sure whether Job would have experienced or could have articulated God as guiding and comforting. Sometimes it just takes all you have to endure.
There is an old Sufi story about the importance of words to those who are suffering:
A group of frogs were travelling through the woods, and two of them fell into a deep pit. All the other frogs gathered around the pit. When they saw how deep the pit was, they told the unfortunate frogs they would never get out. The two frogs ignored the comments and tried to jump up out of the pit.
The other frogs kept telling them to stop, that they were as good as dead. Finally, one of the frogs took heed to what the other frogs were saying and simply gave up. He fell down and died.
The other frog continued to jump as hard as he could. Once again, the crowd of frogs yelled at him to stop the pain and suffering and just die. He jumped even harder and finally made it out. When he got out, the other frogs asked him, "Why did you continue jumping? Didn't you hear us?"
The frog explained to them that he was deaf. He thought they were encouraging him the entire time.
This story holds two lessons. Firstly the tongue can hold the power of life and death. An encouraging word to someone who is ‘down in the pit’ can lift them up and help them make it through the day. Secondly a destructive word to someone who is down can destroy them. So we need to be careful of what we say – speaking life to those who cross our path.
These lessons are about the power of words... it is sometimes hard to understand that an encouraging or discouraging word can go such a long way. And many of the words in the Bible are like this – words that aren’t worried so much about historical or theological accuracy but about encouragement.
The reading today, from John 10, was written in the 2nd century CE. It takes that image of God as a shepherd and applies it to Jesus. It also confuses the metaphor somewhat and has Jesus as the gate as well as the shepherd. The author is trying to encourage his audience to follow Jesus rather than other prophets and teachers. It is v.11 though where the author sets Jesus apart from his competition – for Jesus lays down his life for his sheep.
In other words, the author [let’s call him John], is saying to those in the Johannine Community who are suffering, not only is Jesus [God’s presence], there with you in your trials, but Jesus has suffered and died for you. John interprets the death of Jesus in a way to try to bring comfort regardless of any historical-critical understanding of why Jesus was actually killed by the Romans [the purpose of Jesus’ death was not to comfort his followers]. John is saying to the suffering ‘hang in there, our God/Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer’.
The first reading today was from the epistle of 1st Peter. This too is from the second century. It is not written by the Apostle Peter. Rather ‘Peter’ is a code word for Rome. Scholars suspect this was a letter written to the Jesus community in Rome in the midst of persecution. The author says [2:19-21], “it is to your credit if… you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
What this author is doing is interpreting Jesus’ suffering and death as way to give encouragement to these Roman Christians in the valley of their suffering. He’s not encouraging self-harm! He’s saying in effect ‘as Jesus suffered, you are suffering’ – yes, good people do suffer! – and ‘it wasn’t Jesus’ fault he suffered (he was blameless), so it’s not your fault you are suffering’.
In times of trial, like these two examples, Christians writers have built on or developed images of God to help people through – words of comfort and encouragement in a time when no words can really eradicate the suffering.
These thoughts from John and 1 Peter are also Christian insights into the notion of the suffering God. “That God,” as Robert McAfee Brown said, “is found in the midst of evil rather than at a safe distance from it; suffering the evil rather than inflicting it.”
This theology is also deeply Jewish. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel calls it “divine pathos” – deriving from the Greek, “pathos” means “suffering.” Combined with the prefix “sym” (meaning “with”) we have the notion of sympathy, “to suffer with.” The God of the Jews is understood to have suffered their ordeals with them, giving them strength and hope to endure.
When people suffer a death there are a number of ways they can seek theological comfort. Some tell me that they are looking forward to seeing their loved one again in heaven. I think that is a great hope, and I pray it will sustain them. I also know for some that belief might be only temporary, and I will try to be there to encourage their faith in other understandings if that belief dissolves. Sometimes children are told that their parent has died because God wants an angel. That too can be a very comforting thought, but also usually a temporary one.
As time goes on, and the journey through winter progresses, often it is little things like the presence of a friend, a kind thought, or a small gift, through which suffering is partially eased. It is the God of little things that touches us, and in that touching we might know some healing. We often come to realize that no one knows what happens after death, no one knows how the dead continue to shape our lives, and no one really knows the pain we each feel, but we trudge on – like walking through soft snow in a whiteout – trusting the winter will at some time end.