I’ve been thinking about suffering a lot these days. There’s nothing drastic going on with me at the moment [thankfully!]. It’s just a deeper awareness of the chronic condition of life. The truth is life is good–and life is hard. In the overlap of this world and the next, there is joy and suffering, the birth of the savior and the slaughter of innocents. There are answers and questions, miracles and silence. Bad things happen to good people, bad things happen to innocent people. And if God is all good and all powerful, why does He allow this?
So this week I picked up a book that has been in the tall stack beside my bed for several months, God on Mute: Engaging the Silence of Unanswered Prayer. Peter Grieg wrote it after his wife was found to have a brain tumor the size of an orange and he discovered that “Life no longer felt safe. In fact, it felt dangerous. How do you relax once you discover that [awful things can happen unexpectedly]? Slowly it was dawning on me that, in my early thirties, I would never again feel immune or immortal or invincible–which is to say that I would never again feel young.”
Grieg is drawn back to the gospels, and sees that Jesus understands what it’s like to face the silence of God in unanswered prayer. In the garden of Gethsemane He asked the Father to take away the cup of suffering. On the cross He asked why He had been abandoned. And then He died. To His followers this was the biggest unanswered prayer of all time. Somehow they had missed the warning label: caution, obeying God has been known to lead to pain, suffering, and death. You may find yourself in darkness, silence, and cold, needing to upgrade from a faith of easy answers to a faith of questions.
To talk about this feels a little disloyal. As Grieg puts it, we want to brush our disappointment with God “under the carpet because we don’t want to discourage anyone at church or be a bad commercial for God. But God doesn’t get insecure about His performance, and He never asks us to cover up for Him.” God is steadily at work drawing new life into His kingdom and doesn’t need spin-meisters to make Him look better.
This week I also read Isaiah 53 which gives a description of the Messiah that any decent image consultant would airbrush, to make it less pitiful and discouraging:
He was despised and rejected, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces He was despised, and we held Him in low esteem.
It doesn’t sound very promising, does it? A Messiah who suffers? Who knows pain and rejection? How can He save us if He can’t save Himself?
Isaiah goes on to say: Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.
Carried our sorrows. That was a comforting thought to me. I didn’t feel so isolated and alone any more. And as I reflected on the sadness that comes with suffering, I decided to write down all the sorrowful things around me. Then I pictured myself giving them to Jesus, to carry for me. And I found that the burden of my sadness was lifted away.
On one level though, giving my sorrows to Jesus doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t answer my question about why God allows suffering. It doesn’t change the harsh reality of the world around me. It doesn’t even make the sorrow disappear, it only changes the location from my heart to Jesus’. But still, knowing that Jesus takes on my grief and sadness gives me hope in a darker time.
That’s the promise of this Advent season. We keep waiting, believing that the sadness is not the way it ends. We hold to the hope that God will hear us and come to our rescue, that He will save us from certain destruction, that though we walk in darkness now, someday we will see a great light. And the anguished question, “why have You forsaken me?” will echo back to us, carried in the cry of a baby called Emmanuel, God with us.
For He has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and He has not hidden His face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to Him.