Questions vs Answers, Part 3
…and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen. Exodus 33:21-22
The last two weeks I have considered how adopting quick and simple answers to deep questions not only can mislead people but can also stunt their spiritual development. Last week I discussed a common and overly simplistic answer about the nature of God, that God is love. Another commonly used saying about the nature of God, particularly in the face of suffering, is this: God never gives us more than we can handle. It may sound holy and true, and it might be on some level, but try to convince a parent whose child is going through chemotherapy, or a person whose partner has advanced dementia, or a person in withdrawal from drug addiction. Saying such a thing in the midst of suffering is not only unhelpful but also can be hurtful and implies that things will get easier and/or return to normal soon, a guarantee none of us can honestly make.
The first fallacy is the implication that God gives us the hard things in our lives. Yes, life is hard sometimes. Very hard. Impossibly hard. Is life hard because God is making it so? I do not believe so. Perhaps the reason life is hard sometimes is simply that life is hard sometimes. Not everything has an explanation. To imply that God causes hardship for a reason, even if it were true, is more likely to turn the suffering person away from God than it is to comfort them. This is doubly hurtful because turning away from God or wondering if God is punishing them adds even more stress.
The second fallacy is that we can always handle whatever life throws at us. At any given moment, life’s circumstances can overwhelm the resources at hand. Just as hurricanes overwhelm levees and lightening overwhelms power grids and traffic overwhelms highways, so can we be overwhelmed – emotionally and physically. It is not so much that we handle suffering as that we endure it. Handling something implies a sense of control, and control is generally absent from suffering. When life is hard it does not call for being handled as much as being persevered. How can we best hunker down and get through this?
The truth is that our ability to handle whatever life throws at us can only be speculated about in retrospect, if at all. Like Moses in the cleft of the mountain, we can only see God once God has passed by. Yes, we made it through that, whatever hellish experience that may have been. We did not, however, feel we were handling anything at the time. We were enduring. We were holding on for dear life. Things were being done to us that were unbearable and out of our control, but what choice was there other to endure it? After the fact, we may be able to see how God’s hand was at work throughout the ordeal – and we may not. Only by faith do we believe God is at work in our suffering.
It is only in hindsight, if at all, that we may see that pathways to new life were being created in our suffering. Even so, many people have a very human tendency to feel the need to share words of wisdom with the suffering. I was 14 when my dad died suddenly. I was the oldest of four children. Well-meaning church folks shared their wisdom with me: I guess you’re the man of the house now; and God must’ve really needed your dad in heaven; and of course, God never gives us more than we can handle. I didn’t know what to do with any of that. I still don’t. These were good people who were searching for words of comfort and healing in the face of an unspeakable tragedy that was beyond words. In their defense, they didn’t know what else to do. They were pained by their helplessness, too. In retrospect, we probably didn’t need for them to say anything, except perhaps I’m so sorry. We needed friends and family to stand with us so we would not suffer alone. Thankfully, many did. We also needed people to roll up their sleeves and help fill some of the gaps left by an absent father with a young family. Thankfully, many did.
In cases of suffering, answers seldom come in words. They come in action inspired by witnesses to the suffering. They come in community. They come from God in the persons of those willing to stand in solidarity with the suffering.
This is the 34th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.