Suffering – the Now and the Then.

Questions and Answers
Then Job replied to the Lord:
‘I know that you can do all things;
no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
You asked, “Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?”
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.
‘You said, “Listen now, and I will speak;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.”
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.’ Job 42:1-6

The final encounter between God and Job reveals what might be an uncomfortable truth to us: sometimes the only answer which is available to our deep and real questions is God himself. Job and his counsellors have argued backwards and forwards about the meaning of suffering, about how the world is ordered and what God’s role in that is. God’s response to all of this, to the question of theodicy, is a revelation of himself in power and glory – a revelation of God as the almighty creator and sustainer of all things.
Sometimes there is no other answer.

The recent Covid-19 pandemic and related lockdown in many countries has caused many to ask questions, to seek to know what it is that God is doing and saying. This is a natural response, and one which God does not condemn; the book of Job seems to make this clear. The truth is, of course, that God may be doing and saying many things simultaneously through Covid-19, and one of those things can be difficult for us to recognise or accept.
Sometimes there is no immediate answer.

In a recent article, N. T. Wright argues that our desire for an answer to situations such as Covid-19 has more to do with a Rationalist attitude than a biblical one, “Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations”. In the UK at least, we have seen this desire played out on our television screens every day at the Downing Street briefing. Politicians and scientists have been quizzed by the public and journalists all demanding clear, direct answers to questions. For many of us looking on, the problem has been that there are no certain answers to many of the questions that are raised. Of course, our political culture demands that politicians give definitive answers; our societal culture demands that scientists have definitive answers. It is unacceptable for them to simply say, “we do not know”, even when that is the only honest answer that can be given. As Christians, we are not immune to the culture within which we live, and as evangelical Christians we have been deceived into thinking that we need to have an answer to everything. For us to pretend that there is an easy, simple, explicable answer to every issue, situation, or problem which may arise in our lives – or in the lives of others – is to deceive ourselves. It is also unbiblical.
Sometimes there is no easy answer.

Embracing Lament
How deserted lies the city,
    once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
    who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
    has now become a slave.

The opening verse of Lamentations seemed very apt when we were in the middle of lockdown and the streets were empty, when the sense of loss which most of us felt was very real. While we cannot apply the national aspect of Judah and Jerusalem at that time directly to the Covid-19 pandemic, we can recognise the sense of emptiness and desolation that is presented here.
Many, if not all of us, have experienced some kind of loss. This may be through close family members dying during the pandemic, jobs which have disappeared and may never return, the impossibility of seeing grandchildren and other loved ones, not being able to gather on a Sunday for our times of worship and fellowship, or simply the inability to have ‘normal’ social interaction with friends. For all their benefits, Zoom, FaceTime and Skype are not quite the same as ‘real’ conversations over a cup of coffee.
This situation can leave us wanting to know why these things happen, or craving some sort of empathy and comfort, or waiting impatiently for a solution and for it all to come to an end. The biblical literary form of lament, though, shows us that sometimes living with the sense of loss, with the emptiness, with suffering even, is an experience that God recognises. More than this, it is an experience which God knows himself.
It is significant that the Bible has one whole book dedicated to lament. It is also significant that in the collection of songs that form the heart of worship in the Bible, the most common of the psalms is that of lament. For those of us who have been humanly privileged to have been born white and in the West, the language of lament has not been one which we have used often – or perhaps often felt the need for. The fact that for a large proportion of christians in the West, life is generally reasonably comfortable, seems to have led to our losing our ability to deal with suffering biblically. In other words, our theology of suffering is poor.
It is here that the biblical language of lament comes to our rescue. One of the psalms of lament is Psalm 22; it is well known to us, not least because Jesus quotes it on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This cry of Jesus on the cross is real, it is not a sham. God, in the crucified Jesus cries out for an answer – and no answer comes. If we fail to take this cry in all its horror and desolation, then we will forget what it meant for Jesus to be – as the old translation puts it – a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. God is a God who experiences sorrow and grief, who therefore can understand and know our pains and sorrows. The incarnation – among other things – teaches us that God suffers along with humanity.
The incarnation also teaches us that the answer to pain and to suffering is – as Job found out – God himself. For us, privileged to live beyond Golgotha, the person of Jesus, God incarnate, is where our answers have to lie.
In the midst of all types of suffering, we know a God who is not uninterested, distant, unconcerned. He is ‘God with us’, Immanuel. He is the immanent one. Perhaps it is at least in part this reality which meant that God gave us a language of lament, a language to ask the difficult questions, to cry out to him in our time of loss and suffering. To ask, ‘why?’ and ‘how long?’ is not a sign of weakness or of doubt. It is to embrace the language that God has given us to express the realities of the human condition.
It is in the person of Jesus, the one who is the suffering servant, that we can begin to see and experience where hope lies in suffering.
Many questions have been asked during the pandemic. “How long until the schools fully re-open?” “How long until I can buy that all-important new pair of jeans?” “How long before I can visit my grandchildren?” Each of these questions recognises that there are aspects to life which have been changed by the lockdown, and that a loss has been felt. But these questions, and others like them, imply that when certain conditions have been met, and certain actions are possible, when people can be met and hugged, when we can meet together as God’s people again, things will be back to normal; then we can go back to getting on with our lives. This is a poor hope. Indeed it is a wrong hope.
In his poem East Coker, T. S. Eliot writes,
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

Much of what is articulated about the ending of the lockdown is hope for the wrong things. It is little more than a desire for a return to the status quo ante – a hope which, in biblical terms, is no hope at all. We have fallen into the trap that Eliot mentions. Better not to hope than hope for the wrong thing.
So, in some ways, Eliot is right. However, in other important ways, he is wrong, and fundamentally wrong. There is hope.
Here again, the literary form of lament can be our guide and our helper. It is extremely rare for a psalm of lament to end on a note of hopelessness. In some ways, the book of Lamentations does this, as does Psalm 88, but in general, they follow the pattern that Psalm 22 does – the psalm we referred to earlier.
In the midst of desolation – of abandonment by God – the psalmist encounters the Holy One, who is seated on the throne. This encounter does not change the reality of the psalmist’s situation, he immediately goes on to say, “I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.” It does, though, change the overall context of his suffering. It is a suffering which in some ways will find an answer – when is not yet made clear – in the revelation of who God is in his holiness, and in his sovereignty.
As the psalm continues, the writer comes to understand that God “has not despised or scorned the suffering of his afflicted one.” The situation has not changed, but the faithful writer’s understanding, his perspective, has. This leads to the end of the psalm, where hope comes into play, and it is an eschatological hope. The psalmist, having encountered God, the source of all hope, can now look to a future where,
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord.
All the families of the nations will bow down before him.

This is the true hope we must have in times of suffering. It is not a hope that the suffering will pass – though we should work tirelessly to reduce and remove the suffering of others. It is, instead to recognise that the mission of God, Jesus’ mission, will not be complete until the vision of the psalmist becomes a reality.
This must be our hope. Not a cure for Covid-19 – though that would be nice. Not the possibility of foreign holidays, though they may be welcome. Our hope must be in the completion of the mission of God, that the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord.
Our hope must be the vision of Revelation when worship resounds eternally around the throne of God, worship that comes from “every nation, tribe, people, and language”. Until that time, the cry of the people of God must be “how long?”
How long until the good news has been proclaimed to all the poor?
How long before all the brokenhearted are unbound?
How long before all the captives have been proclaimed free?
How long before the prisoners are released from darkness?
How long until the blind see?

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