When I was in our local nursing home/rehab facility recently, recuperating from a hip replacement and hoping to get all the feeling back into my left foot (still working on that), I had a hard enough time sleeping that I would leave the TV on in the room overnight … it helped, although I can’t say why. This explains how it happened that one morning I woke up to a smiling preacher and his wife encouraging me about having a prosperous 2017. Followed by another smiling preacher encouraging me to lift my present illness whatever it was up to God and say “praise, praise” and have confidence that God was going to take care of it.
This had the paradoxical effect of triggering such a deep discouragement about the state of contemporary popular religion that by the time I went to Occupational Therapy the OT asked me if I was all right.
I had such a hard time articulating the problem I finally just had to put it aside … until this morning, when the basic theological disconnect hit me pretty hard.
My problem isn’t that the God in whom I believe can’t do miracles – I accept the reality of unpredictably rare events. It isn’t that God doesn’t underwrite hope and confidence – I have a hard time accepting that a message that quenches hope has anything to do with the gospel. It isn’t that I think God doesn’t love us or want us to be happy; I trust that, ultimately.
But … today of all days, this seems so clear: God has a different perspective on suffering. It isn’t always something to avoid or get out of. God has a different perspective on having a “good day,” and it doesn’t always look like what we’d label successful or prosperous, or even minimally pleasant.
Based on the statement of the crucifixion, God practices solidarity with humanity – to the point of sharing the suffering of a humanity oppressed by injustice, violence, sin, and death, all the way to the point of no return. The process of overcoming evil with good sometimes – maybe most of the time – takes the route through evil’s winning more than one round. Things that matter, ultimately – like courage, compassion, faithfulness, love – won’t always feel like sunshine, lollipops and rainbows.
So I can’t square the idea of allegiance to a Savior who was willing to suffer for the world with the idea that my own escape from the experience of suffering is the most I would hope for in life; I can’t square the idea of communion in the Body of Christ – “broken for you” – with the idea that my highest personal aspiration is to skip over the taking and breaking and get straight to the blessing and giving. I can’t square the words of the prayer after communion, “send us out to be bread for the world,” with a prayer not to sacrifice any personal comfort in that sending.
Not that I enjoy suffering, or think it makes sense to seek it out gratuitously; I certainly don’t think we ought to allow it to go unrelieved among our neighbors, and I take my pain meds. But I have the sense that we (followers of Christ) are supposed to go our way and follow our callings without much regard to the possibility or probability of suffering, relying on a different cost-benefit calculus.
And if that were not enough, there is George Eliot, a quotation from God alone knows where (well, probably some English majors, too), taped to my bulletin board for God alone knows how long now: “Surely it is not true blessedness to be free from sorrow while there is sorrow and sin in the world; sorrow is then part of love, and love does not seek to throw it off.”