The Issue of Suffering
Most troubles are merely tiny moths nibbling at the fabric of our souls. But then there are the monsters of cosmic dimension that rip it to shreds: the death of a friend’s teen-aged daughter from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. Or another friend’s only son, a passenger in a car accident, who left behind his young wife and three year old daughter. How does this new widow explain to her child that daddy really isn’t going to come home again, despite her tiny certainty that, “of course he’ll be home, mommy.”
A Nightmare Come True
One cold January morning my wife Ruth was still half asleep when I rolled out of bed, thinking that I should go check on Derrick, our four-month-old foster son. I picked him up, and he flopped limply. He wasn’t breathing!
I began yelling , “Something’s wrong with Derrick.” Ruth immediately took him in her arms and began CPR.
I quickly called 911. “My baby’s not breathing!” After I hung up, I called our social workers and let them know what was up. Within five minutes, the paramedics were coming through the door. Ultimately, it was to no avail. Derrick was dead.
It is hard for me to remember all the details: they jumble together in my head. I remember feeling powerless, but knowing that I had things to do: I had our three daughters to take care of. I explained to them what was going on as best I could. The oldest was barely four.
Our social workers told us that our three children would probably be removed from our house, at least until the investigation of Derrick’s death was over. It was a long day of confusion and grief, trying to pack bags for our children, trying to explain how they would have to go away for awhile, trying to hold them and caress them and comfort them and ourselves as much as we could while we waited. I felt empty and completely alone.
Then at three that afternoon, we got a phone call. The girls would not be removed from our house after all. One of our social worker had talked to her supervisor and convinced him to let our girls stay with us.
I remember a house full of people from our church that night. I remember telling everyone who asked that we didn’t expect any magic words to make everything suddenly seem okay. That they were with us was all we needed just then.
But all evening, I kept wondering where God was—not in the sense of “why did this happen?” or “why didn’t he stop this from happening?” My question was simply, why do I feel like I’m alone? Why can’t I feel God’s presence? How long will I be miserable?
At last, everyone had to leave. Our children were asleep. In the dark beneath layers of blankets, in a heated waterbed I shivered uncontrollably, cold as ice and unable to get warm. Sleep was intermittent and incomplete. I don’t remember dreaming. Every time I rose toward consciousness, I hoped that I was waking from a nightmare and that Derrick wasn’t really dead. After an eternity, morning blundered in. We had to face another day without him.
About a week later we got the results of the autopsy: SIDS. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome meant that it had not been our fault. There was nothing we could have done, nothing that we did or didn’t do. The social workers were relieved; it confirmed their faith in us, and ratified their decision to leave our children in our home.
With the autopsy report in, Derrick’s body could be released to the mortician. His biological family quickly had Derrick cremated and the funeral was scheduled for that same week. Our pastor conducted the memorial service. We expressed our condolences to Derrick’s family.
A pleasant enough July afternoon. Just before five, the doorbell rang. A young man dressed in a white shirt smiled, dropped some papers in my hands, and informed me that “I have a bit of paperwork for you.”
I looked down at what was in my hands, but I already knew what it was. Together with the County of Los Angeles, we were facing a 31 million dollar wrongful death lawsuit.
I remember a couple of incidents. Once, shortly after Derrick had died, within a day or two, I had to go to the grocery to get some milk. As I waited to check out, I noticed all the people going about their normal affairs. I wondered if any of them were suffering as much as I was. As the clerk rang up my order, he asked me, “and how are you tonight?” I briefly thought about replying, “My baby died yesterday, but otherwise, no problem.” But of course I simply answered, “fine.” He took my money and I left.
Newly sued, I went to the same grocery store and had similar thoughts all over again. Of course, I just answered “fine” this time, too. The lawsuit was served against us on a Monday, or maybe a Tuesday—I really can’t remember now. But I do remember the prayer meeting that we attended right after: we laid the “paperwork” on the pulpit and together with the rest of the congregation we offered up our prayers.
Things were busy for the first few weeks. We faxed things back and forth, signed documents, answered phone calls. Then we went on living our lives, struggling, waiting for the next interrogatory or deposition to hit. Until on an ordinary day in March, two years later, it simply came to an end.
My phone rang. I picked it up, and my attorney informed me that the lawsuit against us had been dismissed. It was over. I thanked him profusely, feeling an enormous burden fall off my back, larger than I had comprehended till that very moment. When I hung up, I was weeping uncontrollably. I called my wife, then others who had prayed with us through the long ordeal. I found myself crying unexpectedly at odd moments for several weeks following.
Of course, all our troubles did not end just because the lawsuit did. Derrick was still dead. That very night, when Ruth and I went out to celebrate the end of the lawsuit at a local burger place, our five year old van’s transmission died. We suddenly faced a one thousand, eight hundred dollar bill for fixing it—money we didn’t have. But after having a lawsuit tossed out, I managed to think to myself, “you know, if God took care of a thirty-one million dollar problem, perhaps, just perhaps, he can take care of an 1800 dollar one.”
So how do we live in a world where this sort of stuff happens? Is there some key to life, some playbook we can get, some list we can follow, some formula we can memorize that will get us through this world in one piece, with ourselves and our families living long, productive and prosperous lives?
Jacob’s life had not been an easy one. He and his mother had conspired together to defraud both his father and his fraternal twin brother. When he had to leave home out of fear that his swindled brother might actually kill him, he went to live with Laban, his mother’s brother who made him work seven years for Rachel, his true love. But Laban switched Rachel with her older sister on the wedding night and when all was said and done, poor Jacob wound up with three extra wives. After years of infertility, Rachel finally gave birth to Joseph and then died giving birth to Benjamin.
Jacob’s obvious favoritism to Joseph, the first-born son of the one woman out of the four that he had actually loved, did not endear Joseph to his other ten brothers. The fraternal resentment grew to such an extreme that the ten brothers determined to murder Joseph. But at the last minute, rather than kill him, they realized they could be rid of him and make some money at the same time. They sold Joseph to a passing group of traders. Then they took the fancy clothes that Jacob had given Joseph, roughed them up a bit and dipped them in goat blood. They told their elderly father, “look what we found, do you suppose this means that poor Joseph has been torn to pieces by a lion or something?”
Decades passed. Famine came to Jacob’s world. So Jacob sent his ten oldest sons down to Egypt to buy food so that they wouldn’t starve to death.
When they arrived back home, they told Jacob their tale of woe about Simeon getting thrown in jail, about how harshly they were treated by the governor, and about his demand to meet Benjamin. To say the least, Jacob was not happy. The one true love of his life was dead. Joseph, his favorite, the oldest son of his beloved, had been dead for twenty-five years. And now Simeon had been taken from him. Worse, that monster in Egypt was demanding Benjamin, the last link he had to his beloved! Beside himself with grief, his reaction appears in Genesis 42:36: “You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!”
From his perspective, from the perspective of his sons standing around him, Jacob’s complaint was reasonable and self-evidently true. And yet, he couldn’t be more wrong! There are things that Jacob didn’t know. Facts that Jacob couldn’t know. Joseph was not only not dead, he was second in command in Egypt, the most powerful and most wealthy nation on the planet at that time. The reality of Jacob’s existence is opposite of what he is certain of. Everything is actually wonderful. His favorite son is alive, prosperous, and powerful. Poor Jacob simply doesn’t know this yet. His perception, his perspective of reality, is simply incorrect.
We, the readers of the biblical tale, can do nothing to adjust Jacob’s perspective or to alleviate his suffering. God didn’t immediately do anything about it either. It’ll be another year before Jacob learns the truth of what his life is really like, in contrast to his perception of it. For twenty-five years he has mourned for someone who was not dead. He bemoans his impotence and poverty, though his family is powerful and prosperous.
The Quest for the Abundant Life
Many of us Christians are searching for answers to our problems, convinced that there must be some secret that will transform our lives—and that once found, our kids will behave and do well in school, we’ll be able to pay all our bills on time, we’ll get out of debt, and our wives or husbands will become gorgeous. Our cars will stop breaking down and never be more than three years old, our sleep will be sweet, and our health problems will be a thing of the past. We will eat whatever they want and never grow fat, and exercise will be a pleasure. Not only that, but we will suddenly have a theologian’s understanding of God and the Bible.
Millions of us spend both money and time in the hunt for the abundant life, convinced that a seminar, book, prayer, or incantation is the key we’ve been missing. So we carefully follows the items on the latest list, and a few days go by or a few weeks, and we change our lives, throw out the things that the book says would hinder the coming of the abundant life, and add the things that will bring it: a regimen begins, a checking off of boxes, of prayers said, Bible passages read and memorized, ideas gotten into the skull. Thus, the days pass, the weeks, and sometimes the months or even a few years.
But, despite all that effort, all that activity, all that following of the rules—life remains more or less the same. The car needs tires, and the check book is empty. The boy decides he wants an earring and we look in the mirror and we have some more wrinkles and the hair isn’t quite as shiny as it used to be and the color seems to be fading and then the doctor tells us that we need to lose weight, and the pain in our knee won’t go away, and we get the flu. The abundant life remains forever just over the next hill. But we convince ourselves that maybe tomorrow, we’ll see the light. So we continue following the latest rules and we try to put on the face, convinced that if we can only get good enough everything will be fine.
Yet, late at night, when we stare at the ceiling, we know that lust in our hearts, and our anger at wayward drivers, and the stack of past due notices, and that mysterious ache in our back, and that stranger in bed next to us that doesn’t at all resemble the lover of our sweaty dreams, will all still be there in the morning. And inside, we feel like a rat in a maze, pushing levers and getting pellets and wondering: if this is all there is, then why are we not happy, why do we not see satisfaction, where is that wonderful life we’ve been promised?
We Already Have It
So much of what happens to us seems to make no sense at all. It comes upon us without rhyme, reason, or warning. The disciples of Jesus confronted a blind man one day—a man blind since the day he was born. They asked a simple question: “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” And what was Jesus’ response? “Neither.” It was for the glory of God, he told them. (John 9:2-3)
At the beginning of the book of Job, Satan asks “Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan believes that Job is good because that’s how to get God’s blessing. Job’s friends have the same theology. In essence, they ask Job, “If good doesn’t come to the good and bad doesn’t come to the bad, then what is the point of being good?” But Job responds by presenting the obvious, yet radical notion that being good or bad doesn’t matter. God treats everyone the same. Job’s friend Eliphaz is horrified and comments: “But you even undermine piety and hinder devotion to God.” (Job 15:4)
Job is right: prosperity is not the reason for worshipping God. Satan’s assumption, the assumption of Job’s friends, the assumptions of many Christians and non Christians alike, despite all the evidence in the Bible and in life to the contrary, is that if we can just find the magic spell, if we keep God happy by being good enough, then God will have to prosper us and keep us from harm. Certainly it is better to be wise and good rather than stupid and evil. But making good choices rather than bad ones is no guarantee of prosperity.
The author of Ecclesiastes warns:
I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so men are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them. (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)
So does that mean that we can do everything right, be a good person, follow all the directions and disaster can still strike?
On any given morning a whole lot of people will get up and eat their breakfasts. Some will kiss their spouses and head off to work. Some will beat their spouses. Some will beat their kids. There will be people who get up, take a deep breath, shower and then go out and murder someone, or have an affair, or embezzle money, or lie. On any given morning there are those who have been up all night drinking and using drugs and having unprotected sex with people they aren’t married to. Some people will be laughing, some people will be crying. Some people will be doing what they are supposed to do and some will not. Some are good Christians. Some are bad Christians. Some are not Christians at all.
But three thousand people out of the six billion on planet Earth one bright September morning went to work like they always did, but they never came home again. Terrorists chose to fly airplanes into their workplaces that particular day. Were they greater sinners than all the other people on the planet?
Bad things can happen without warning and without reason and it isn’t because God is mad at us or loves us less than those who didn’t suffer that day. When we’re driving down the freeway and traffic slows in front of us and we put on our brakes to stop, is it our fault when the person behind us doesn’t and plows into the back of our car? Of course not. We may drive carefully. That doesn’t make our neighbor drive carefully. Were we a worse sinner than the driver in the lane next to us who went on unscathed? How about that crack dealer who was beating up his girl friend a block away?
There is no secret to abundant life. We already have abundant life thanks to our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. No matter what our circumstances. Even if our baby is dead and we’re being sued. Even if Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more. In this day-to-day existence we are living somewhere past midnight, but before the dawn, on the wrong side of morning. As Christians we look to a coming city, a coming kingdom, and know on some level that we are pilgrims here, traveling toward the celestial home where we will dwell forever. But we are not there yet.
Our mistake comes in forgetting that this journey we call life is not the destination. It is only a tiny piece of the larger reality. Like Jacob, it is impossible for us to see beyond our circumstances. When, like him, we see only what’s around us, we grow discouraged and overwhelmed, because the journey has potholes, and sometimes we face robbers, and we are wearied by the walk, and the sun is hot, the wind is cold, the rain is wet, the snow gives us frostbite and the mountains seem too steep.
The only secret, if we care to call it a secret, is that we should believe that God hasn’t been lying to us, and that he really, truly does know what he is doing, even when everything is falling down around our ears. We are with him and he with us—and so shall we always be—no matter what’s spinning around our heads.
We are mistaken if we go on believing that the reason we are not happy and “fulfilled” is because there is something wrong with what we are doing. “If only we weren’t screwing up so badly in our lives… If only we could find the right seminar, teacher, preacher, seven step program, book, video, then we would have the answer we’ve been missing. We just need to know what we’re doing wrong, change it, and start doing it right, and then our lives will be wonderful. God is just waiting up there for us to find that secret. Once we do, he’ll unleash all the blessings that up till now he’s been prevented from sending our way because we’re, well, just too stupid to figure it out.”
Of course this is all nonsense. Few seem ever to consider that perhaps the treadmill that we are on is the actual problem, and that what we really need is simply to get off altogether. And what is that treadmill? The idea that there’s something we need to DO. The truth is, we are already prospering, just like Jacob was when he made his complaint. We just have to shift our perspective to ultimate reality. Peter writes that God’s “power has given us everything we need for life and godliness…” (2 Peter 1:3-4)
In the early church, all the leaders but John were killed for their faith. When John wrote the book of Revelation, as near as he could see, everything he’d spent his life on, everything that mattered to him, was wrecked. Everyone he loved and cared about was either dead or gone: his family was wiped out, Jerusalem was a smoldering ruin, the temple of God was destroyed. A very odd way, it seemed to him, for God to be treating his servants. Hebrews 11 ends by pointing out that many of the great people of faith never received what God had promised. From their perspective, everything did not work out. They suffered horribly and got nothing out of it. (Hebrews 11:35-39)
Does that mean that God doesn’t want us to be happy? Does that mean he wants to see us fail and to be forever miserable? Of course not. Paul writes, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11) How did Paul manage that? He simply remembered what loving God and loving people means in the context of his life.
Every so often we need to take a deep breath and really look around. Then we can catch a glimpse of the world and our lives through God’s eyes. We love him and he loves us. Through us, we love others. Therefore, we have joy and success, even in the midst of the gloom and apparent failure that surrounds us.
There is no secret to abundant living; we simply have it. Like Jacob, we need to discover what our situation really is—not just what a limited point of view tries to make us think it is. Life is hard. It can easily confuse us and throw us off balance. But we can remind ourselves that even if we are dizzy just now, the world is not really spinning out of control. We are God’s and he is ours. The kingdom is within us and we will be with him forever—even today, no matter what is happening.