This week has been an unusual week of experiencing God through pain, anxiety, fear, and more pain, and it is not over yet. It began “normally” (for us) with an out-patient medical procedure for my wife to correct an atrial flutter, after which we were allowed to bring her home. The next morning, however, found us headed back to the same hospital in downtown Atlanta , a two hour drive in rush hour traffic (because this particular hospital has all of her previous medical history on file, which is important for securing continuity of care), because she woke up complaining of severe pain in her neck, upper back and sternum. Nearly twelve hours after our arrival (and only four hours in an actual hospital room on the fourth floor in Cardiology and Telemetry) I managed to leave her side long enough to see to our dogs, gather a few necessary items, dress for work, and then return to her side so I catch a little nap, before heading off to work. (If any of this sounds familiar, as if it’s a repeat of earlier visits to the hospital, you’re correct. In fact similar circumstances interrupted our wedding day.) My dearest has a longstanding “relationship” with this hospital system stemming from a host of chronic conditions that have framed her life, most of which leave her in more or less constant pain of one type or another. A pain I have only lately become aware of.
Now, I cannot imagine the pains that my ever-blushing Saralyn goes through on a daily basis. What little I do know about, the little that I am invited to experience -even second-hand- through nights of weeping, excruciating waits in Emergency Departments (mostly at Emory), watching nurses attempt to draw blood from, or begin IVs in veins that have seen far too many invasions of their integrity already, each tortured jab of needle- is enough to bring tears to my eyes and my heart. Every time i find myself at some point begging the Lord to alleviate her pain by even the smallest amount by passing her burden to me, and yet i know how impossible and even inappropriate such a request is. And yet I ask anyway (one day the Lord may just grab the my request, and I will truly see what suffering love is) But I know I would take her pain gladly, for I love her.
She cries when she can no longer hold the pain in, or when too many medical personnel are crowding around her , and so many times I cannot even reach over to wipe away the tears. Yet, even through the pains, known and unknown, she still reaches for Jesus. And that is miracle enough. Healing in this life is secondary, because in the ways that really matter she is on her way to fulness of healing. And for that I can only say Baruch HaShem! Praise God!
I am sure that knowing what I am writing here makes her uncomfortable, but for us it is a witness to the power of Messiah working in us. what she really goes through was brought forcefully home to me today (June 16th) the nature and purpose of those tears, by the visit of the on-call chaplain, Larhondra Little (blessings upon her), when Saralyn was in tears from all the strangers crowding her room. She stood and prayed over us and for us, (or did she sit and pray over us?) And her prayer brought tears to my eyes. In the best Herotodian tradition, this is the sense of her prayer:
God surrounds us in our suffering so that He may catch every tear that falls. In the midst of our pain He is there, suffering beside us, standing before us to steady us. Think not that God is ignoring you when pain and suffering overwhelm you, when you feel you are beyond your breaking point and relief is nowhere in sight, that He doesn’t hear you. Jesus hears you, but He may not speak because He too is crying in pain, crying to the Father as He did on the Cross. He is there inside every cut, every tear, every scrape, every puncture, every ache, every sharp pain and internal twisting, every scream of agony, at every chronic pain-filled moment of every unreasonable illness; He beholds them all and does not hide His face from them.
Moreover, Jesus is there behind us, stretching His Hands out over us to catch all our tears as they fall. He collects them more, stores them against the day when He can return them to us as the glittering gems in the crowns we cast before Him in worship. He stands next to us and bleeds as we bleed, hurts as we burt, cries as we cry, screams as we cry and in all other ways participates fully in our pain, tasting the very dregs of our suffering as He once did for us on Gethsemane, so that we may participate through our suffering with His (though we suffer through sin, and He suffered to remove sin) so that we may likewise participate in His joy, and receive that double portion of joy laid up for every portion of shame, sorrow, and suffering (Isa. 61:7). So Jesus stand up in your daughter when she cries, whimpers, and daily calls out in her pain and strengthen her in her pain. Stand in her that she may stand upon You.
Chaplain Little’s comforting words also provides response enough for me to those who use the existence of suffering to attack and/or belittle belief in God and believers in God.
One of the loudest, and most vocally registered complaints and accusations against God, against His goodness, or against His existence is just this, the presence and continued existence of ‘unwarranted suffering’ in the world. (in fact there’s an entire ebook, yahoo group, and Web course on “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?”) This is known in (classical) theology and in the philosophy of religion as theodicy, the problem of evil, and much ink has been spilled over it, for it is in fact one of the intractable problems of mankind, which is why we collectively take such umbrage when a man or woman comes forward claiming to have “the” Answer to evil.
There is, of course, no final humam answer to the problem of the origin and cause of pain and evil, but that doesn’t keep us from trying to find one that agrees with our
modern sensibilities. In the twentieth century such literary (and possibly theological) lights as Dorothy Sayers in her book The Mind of the Maker, C.S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed (and even addressed the subject in Mere Christianity) take up the problem, but even they accept that theirs is but a provisional answer. Admittedly it is difficult to see loved ones suffering from injury or illness and then turn around and proclaim faith in a loving God. But it’s not our job as believers to isolate evil and analyze suffering, but to accept it as part of the human condition, embrace it, and transform (not overcome) it through relationship. This though, is in opposition to how the world sees, understands, and relates to suffering of any kind. For what the believer can take as transformative nature of suffering in mind , body, or spirit, the world can only see as pointless, unnecessary, and without meaning.
It is not a problem that admits of easy or easily graspable answers, answers agreeable to our intellect, and sense of fair-play; no clear-cut methodologies exist that we can use to make sense of evil and suffering. Answering it involves looking at the nature and purpose of Creation, the Creator-creature relationship, free will and determinism, and probably a host of other relationships that non-believers (agnostic, skeptics, atheists, non-theists) don’t accept,
and anyway would make this post unconscionablely long. To speak of God in this sense is to talk of spaghetti, not waffles (to lift an analogy about female-male thinking by Bill and Pam Farrell). It is a fact of human existence. Evil -whether physical and natural, metaphysical, or moral- is conceived of theologically as a privation, the absence or lack of perfection or some goodness in something which exists (to go all Thomistic). Evil is inherently possible in any thing just because it has limits. Illness with its consequent suffering is a “natural evil” because we are beings with limits, and what is Creation if not the self-limiting of God for the sake of “others”? Having limits means we have the capacity to change from one thing to another, and sometimes that change is for thecwirse, not the better. Scripture itself does not seek to explain why God allows evil and suffering, instead it describes suffering as the result of a collective turning from God by Creation in disobedience.
Do I think that Saralyn -or anyone who suffers pain, illness, or death at the hands of others- was disobedient to God and this is why her body betrays her so? Absolutely not, if for no other reason than her medical issues long predate any choices of her own, and I have no need to speculate on counter-factuals. Is it possible that her suffering is because of choices made by her parents knowingly or unknowingly? Again, I see no need to speculate, because it will not change anything. The Disciples of Jesus asked Him of a man who was blind who had sinned to bring this situation about, the man or his parents, and Jesus refused to play the blame game (John 9:1-7).
I think Job will have the last word here “though He slay me yet will I trust Him (13:15) … I know that my Redeemer lives (19:25)”