Suffering: When Making Sense Makes No Sense
But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence. (CS Lewis, A Grief Observed)
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Invited out of Egypt with the hope of a land flowing with milk and honey, the Israelites took the bait. You might call the wilderness the switch.
In his book Dominion and Dynasty, Dempster (2003) writes, “As soon as the journey from Sinai to the land of promise commences, the people move from disaster to disaster, or, in the telling place names given to the first few stops along the way, from ‘Fiery Blaze’ (Num. 11:3) to ‘Graveyard’ (Num. 11:34).” Perhaps you’ve experienced life as a movement from “disaster to disaster” too. Maybe you’ve known that the bait-and-switch madness when a moment filled with hope careens toward disappointment, with nothing at all you can do. I suspect that you are familiar, at least to some degree, with the wilderness terrain that the Israelites walked.
And then some dense person comes along and says, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”
Making sense of suffering makes no sense, at least most of the time. In fact, trying to make sense of suffering usually trivializes it, and de-humanizes the person who is going through the pain. Think of it this way: if God really wanted us to feel better, He’d send us a Hallmark card rather than places called “Graveyard” and “Fiery Blaze.” It makes little sense rationally, but God actually invites down into the wilderness, further into suffering, down into the fire. And the most human response Scripture gives us is not a pep talk, but an invitation to grab a hold of God and cry out to Him with all of the anger, confusion, sadness, and despair we know.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
C.S. Lewis, the great literary critic, Oxford don, and author of the Narnia series knew this all-too-well. In a better time of his life, he penned The Problem of Pain, addressing pain as a problem to be solved. And then pain kissed him on the lips. In his devastation, his old rationale made no sense. In fact, it only made him more mad. In the pain, he could have said that God felt a million miles away. But his description is even more dark: He goes to God and God slams a door in his face, bolting and double bolting it from the inside. And then God goes silent, not a million miles away but right on the other side of the door.
The premier literary theologian of the 20th century who gave us Lucy and a Lion gives us the description of our worst nightmare – an absent and cruel God. But for those who know pain, everything else makes little sense except for this. God does feel calloused and cruel in our wilderness. And we feel utterly helpless.
Or do we? You see, gimmick-driven American Christianity has given us a wealth of resources to not feel so helpless. American Christianity hates helplessness. It’s un-American. We are a nation of progress, a victor in war, a crusader for all that is good and humane in the world, right? Americans are winners. Think about it. Somehow we feel a great injustice has been committed when our athletes don’t win their Olympic race. We recoil when a more honest politician dares to name American sins and express disappointment in country. We rage when we discover Americans grade lower in standardized tests or health care. We win. We can’t lose.
Except in God’s economy. In God’s economy, a spiritual journey takes us headlong into suffering. Even the rich, as we’ve seen with Michael Jackson, can’t spend enough to avoid the fire. Our logic fails us in this. God’s logic, on the other hand, places a Cross at the center of Scripture. Christian preachers and authors and apologists want to explain away suffering, or minimize it, or treat it as less than it is. But God doesn’t only send us into it. He goes in Himself. “Fiery blaze” and “Graveyard” were stops along Israel’s way to the Promised Land. And they were stops for Jesus, too.
To be sure, we’ll need to elaborate on these things in the next posts, as we continue to navigate through the New Exodus way. But for now, it’s more appropriate to simply feel the heaviness of this reality, without answers and perhaps without much to say.
A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence.
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What is your immediate reaction to this post? Rather than figuring out what is right or wrong about what I wrote, how do you feel?
Can you think of places in Scripture where others felt as you are feeling right now?
Is God big enough to confront with our deepest confusion and despair?