Saturday, April 15, 2017

Christianity and the Question of God's Presence in the Midst of Hardships and Heartache

Writer and Christian ethicist Peter Wehner recently had a thoughtful op-ed published in The New York Times entitled "After Great Pain, Where Is God?"

Given my current training in interfaith chaplaincy, along with my overall interest in deeper questions to do with the human condition, I find Wehner's essay to be both insightful and helpful. And with today being Holy Saturday, that strange and empty state of suspension between death and resurrection, it seems a particularly appropriate time to highlight this essay and share an excerpt from it.

Years ago I had lunch with a pastor and asked him about his impressions of A Grief Observed [by C. S. Lewis]. His attitude bordered on disdain. He felt that Lewis allowed doubt to creep in when his faith should have sustained him.

My response was the opposite. Perhaps because my own faith journey has at times been characterized by questions and uncertainty, I found the fact that the 20th-century’s greatest Christian apologist would give voice to his doubts reassuring. And Lewis was hardly alone in expressing doubts. Jesus himself, crucified and near death, gave voice to the question many people overwhelmed by pain ask: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus’ question, like ours, was not answered in the moment. Even he was forced to confront doubt. But his agonized uncertainty was not evidence of faithlessness; it was a sign of his humanity. Like Job, we have to admit to the limitations of human knowledge when it comes to making sense of suffering. “From the biblical evidence,” the Christian author Philip Yancey has written, “I must conclude that any hard-and-fast answers to the ‘Why?’ questions are, quite simply, out of reach.” So, too, is any assurance that the causes of our suffering, the thorns in our flesh, will be removed. So what, then, does Christianity have to offer in the midst of hardships and heartache?

The answer, I think, is consolation, including the consolation that comes from being part of a Christian community – people who walk alongside us as we journey through grief, offering not pieties but tenderness and grace, encouragement and empathy, and when necessary, practical help. (One can obviously find terrifically supportive friends outside of a Christian community. My point is simply that a healthy Christian community should be characterized by extravagant love, compassion and self-giving.)

For many other Christians, there is immense consolation in believing in what the Apostle Peter describes as an eternal inheritance. “In all this you greatly rejoice,” he writes, “though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials.” It is a core Christian doctrine that what is seen is temporary and what is unseen is eternal, and that what is eternal is more important than what is temporal.

But even so great an assurance as eternal life, at the wrong time and in the wrong hands, can come across as uncaring. It’s not that people of faith, when they are suffering, deny the heavenly hope; it’s that in being reminded of this hope they don’t want their grief minimized or the grieving process overlooked. All things may eventually be made new again, but in this life even wounds that heal leave scars.

There is also, for me at least, consolation in the conviction that we are part of an unfolding drama with a purpose. At any particular moment in time I may not have a clue as to what that precise purpose is, but I believe, as a matter of faith, that the story has an author, that difficult chapters need not be defining chapters and that even the broken areas of our lives can be redeemed.

To read Peter Wehner's commentary in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Discerning and Embodying Sacred Presence in Times of Violence and Strife
Questioning God's Benevolence in the Face of Tragedy
Prayer and the Experience of God in an Ever-Unfolding Universe
Within the Mystery, a Strange and Empty State of Suspension
"Even in This Darkness"
"We Will Come Together in Our Pain"
Called to the Field of Compassion
Colin Covert on Biutiful: "A Work of Extraordinary Vitality"
Quote of the Day – June 20, 2014
Prayer of the Week – February 16, 2015
Prayer: Both a Consolation and a Demand
Interfaith Chaplaincy: Meeting People Where They're At
Be Just in My Heart
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All

Image: Michael Belk.

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