Before my Advent Retreat ended in December 2019 God led me to examine a colloquy between Him and the prophet Jeremiah. It proved to be an enriching experience.
He complained to God, for example, about God’s seeming failure to bring about justice in Judah. He asked Him why the wicked prospered while the land was desolate and the poor suffered. He was initially a reluctant prophet and was taking strain. God answered:
“So, Jeremiah, if you’re worn out in this footrace with men, what makes he think you can compete with horses? And if you can’t keep your wits during times of calm, what’s going to happen when troubles break loose like the Jordan in flood? (Jeremiah 12:5 – The Message)
Instead of God answering Jeremiah directly, He seemed to suggest that he was out of his league asking such questions. Such things were beyond his understanding. It reminded me of how God responded to the difficult questions Job asked God about his sufferings:
“Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man: I will question you, and you will answer me.” (Job 38:2-3).
Job was then subjected to a barrage of difficult questions about God’s character/nature which left him speechless. The awesomeness of God revealed to him left him humbled:
“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know …..
My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:3-6)
Did this mean it was wrong to ask God difficult questions or was Job also out of his league? Initially I felt discouraged to explore further.
It seemed, however, that if I wanted to get answers to what Richard Rohr describes as the big five human issues (love, death, suffering, God and infinity) I would have to step-up.
The Holy Spirit encouraged me with the thought that God was not belittling the efforts of Jeremiah and Job to come to grips with such issues but, rather, challenging them to aspire to a supernatural approach to such issues. Jesus challenged his disciples in similar ways. He said that one of the roles of the Holy Spirit is to guide us into all truth.
Richard Rohr puts it differently. He says that we have (naturally) “utterly inadequate software” to deal with the said “big five human issues”. He stated in Breathing Underwater:
“A different thinking cap is required otherwise you will see things as you are rather than as they are.”
Jeremiah rose to the challenge by faithfully speaking God’s truth to the powers in place i.e. they had forsaken God (“the spring of living water”) and dug their own cisterns (“broken cisterns that could not hold water”). This would lead to their ultimate demise and exile in Babylon. Such was the opposition he faced, however, that it was humanly impossible to achieve his mission. It was only as God empowered him that he was able “to compete with horses”. God promised him:
”I’m making you as impregnable as a castle, immovable as a steel post, solid as a concrete block wall. You’re a one-man defence system against this culture, against Judah’s kings and princes, against the priests and local leaders.” (Jeremiah 1:6-8, 18 – The Message).
This does not mean Jeremiah did not suffer – he survived several attempts by his detractors to take his life – but he remained faithful to his God-ordained mission. His warnings of impending judgment upon his people (unless they turned from their wicked ways) did not prevent the destruction of Jerusalem, but this was part of His restorative justice – an outcome that would have been beyond human understanding when it happened.
The sufferings of God’s people during this disaster are expressed in the book of Lamentations but, strangely, in the midst of this seeming tragedy, are the words:
“God’s loyal love couldn’t have run out, his merciful love couldn’t have dried up. They’re created every morning. How great your faithfulness!” (Lamentations 3:22-23 – The Message)
To the natural mind this is counterintuitive. We need a supernatural lens to begin to understand this. How could God’s terrible judgment on his people be reconciled with His mercy? This definitely qualifies as being part of Rohr’s big five human issues for which we (naturally) have totally inadequate software to understand.
I nevertheless decided to be brave and attempt to conduct a colloquy with God, not just about the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC, but generally about suffering in the world.
Lord, I’m confused.
How do you reconcile being an omnipotent God of love with all the suffering that has taken place in the world and still takes place?
That’s a big question.
That’s as far as I got.
After giving it my best shot, I had to admit I was out of my depth when it came to this question. Perhaps a modern Jewish prophet of the 60’s (Bob Dylan) was right when, after asking several pertinent questions about human suffering he sang, “The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind.”
Perhaps I was asking the wrong question or perhaps I was trying to understand something that is beyond human understanding. King Solomon was given the gift of wisdom, yet he wrote, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). Perhaps my seeking answers to this question was at odds with my faith. After all, the Apostle Paul wrote:
“For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12 KJV)
The question I asked led me to a mystery, but I was still determined to explore it with the help of mystics such as Richard Rohr and Thomas Merton.
In “Breathing Under Water”, Rohr shows how the gospel principles in the Twelve Steps (initially used by Alcoholics Anonymous) can free anyone from addiction, not just dependence on alcohol. He borrowed the title of this book from the poem by Carol Bieleck in which she used the rising sea as a metaphor of us not being able to, “stop the drowning waters of our addictive culture from rising, but we must at least see our reality for what it is, seek to properly detach from it, and build a coral castle and learn to breathe under water.”
The first step of an addict is to recognize his powerlessness over his addiction and the second step is to believe that only a Power greater than himself can restore him to sanity. Rohr basically believes that Jesus and the Twelve Steps are saying the same thing but with different vocabulary:
“We suffer to get well. We surrender to win. We die to live. We give it away to keep it.”
He entitled the Postscript of this inspiring book, “Only a Suffering God Can Save.” In this he explores the question I asked at the start of my failed colloquy:
“If God is somehow in the suffering, participating as a suffering object too, in full solidarity with the world that He or She created, then I can make some possible and initial sense of God and this creation. Then I stop complaining long enough to sit stunned and awakened by the very possibility. At least if we are participating in something together, and human suffering has some kind of direction or cosmic meaning I can forgive such a God for leaving us in what seems like such desperate straits, and maybe I can even find love and trust for such a God.”
I experienced this as an encouraging start to addressing my doubts.
The key for Rohr is to meet the One Christians call “a crucified God”:
“Many of the happiest and most peaceful people I know love a God who walks with crucified people, and thus reveals and “redeems” their plight as his own. For them, Jesus is not observing human suffering from a distance but is somehow in human suffering with us and for us.”
Rohr then asks questions to which I relate:
“Would any of us even learn to love at all if it was not demanded of us, taken from us, and called forth by human tears and earthly tragedy? Is suffering necessary to teach us how to love and care for one another? I really believe that it is – by observation!”
He states further that the Twelve Step Programme discovered that, “only people who have suffered in some way can save one another. Deep communion and dear compassion is formed much more by shared pain than by shared pleasure.”
We are presently seeing this in the way people are responding to the coronavirus crisis and one another in it. This makes me feel more hopeful about our future together.
He observes that those who have endured suffering and come through it, “can name ‘healing’ correctly, they are the ones who know what they have been saved from, and who develop the patience and humility to ask the right questions of God and of themselves. Only the survivors know the full terror of the passage, the arms that held them through it all, and the power of the obstacles that were overcome. ”
Writing about this is not just an academic exercise for me but something I have experienced more than once in my life. Not only am I grateful to God for His amazing grace in delivering me, but I have seen the fruit of the Spirit such as patience and kindness developing in me through the crises.
“The suffering creatures of this world have a Being who does not judge or condemn them, or in any way stand aloof from their plight, but a Being who hangs with them and flows through them, and even toward them in their despair. How utterly different from the greedy and bloodthirsty gods of most of world history! What else could save the world? What else would the human heart love and desire? And further, this God wants to love and be loved rather than be served (John 15:15). How wonderful is that? It turns the history of religion on its head….
Suffering opens the channel through which all of Life flows and by which creation breathes, and I still do not know why. Yet it is somehow beautiful, even if it is a sad and tragic beauty. ”
This is not a logical answer to the question I asked God. Some suffering still seems pointless and God’s seeming passivity remains a mystery. I cannot, however, deny, from my own experience, the transfiguring power of suffering. I cannot put it better than Karl Barth who said:
“Thus our tribulation, without ceasing to be tribulation, is transformed. We suffer as we suffered before, but our suffering is no longer a passive perplexity but is transformed into a pain which is creative, fruitful, full of power and promise. The road which was impassable has been made known to us in the crucified and risen Lord.”
In grappling with this issue, I have benefitted greatly from the meditations of Esther de Waal in her book Lost in Wonder, particularly her reflections on the Psalms which she states:
“… allow us to lament, to cry out in pain and anguish. But they also effect a transformation. As we pray or sing, or shout them, the psalms use the strong language which does not try to pretend that we are nice. So we can groan, complain bitterly, tell God how unfair his actions are, indulge in bitter grief and reveal all our mental hurts and despair. All the sadnesses that wash over us, and all the feelings are here expressed without any apology and pretence. Even the saying of hateful things out loud is a way of acknowledging them, and turning them over to God. If we know we are being listened to by this God then we are at least standing in a place where God’s healing can also begin.”
She quotes Thomas Merton in his book on the psalms, Bread in the Wilderness:
“At the very moment of distress and anguish as we enter into the action of the psalm we allow ourselves to be absorbed in the spiritual agony of the Psalmist and of the One he represented, and allowed their sorrows to be swallowed up in the sorrows of this mysterious Personage and then they found themselves swept away on the strong tide of this hope, into the very depths of God.”
De Waal comments:
“So a transformation is effected, a transformation which is more than a mere catharsis, as fear is turned into fortitude, and anguish somehow becomes joy without ceasing to be anguish, and we triumph over suffering not be escaping it but by completely accepting it.”
She quotes again from Merton:
“There is no victory in evasion.”
“It is not an answer to pain and suffering. There is no answer. But we walk alongside Christ and believe and hope that we too shall come through this as he himself did.”
I can personally attest to the blessings I have received from meditating on the psalms during times of great anguish and stress in my life. I have been greatly assisted in this process by a book by Eugene Peterson entitled, “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” also published under the title, “The Journey”. I have also benefitted greatly from his commentary on Jeremiah entitled, “Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at its Best”.
Trying to find an answer to the question I asked of God is no longer on my agenda – I’m just trying to enjoy the run.
28 March 2020