Don’t get me wrong—it has plenty to say on the subject. It tells us that suffering builds character, turns us to God, and even brings redemption. But ultimately Scripture presents no philosophical formula explaining why we suffer.
Even the book of Job, a veritable suffering saga, is silent on the topic. Job’s friends offer their beleaguered buddy various explanations, but they’re all wrong. And when God finally shows up, it’s not to answer questions.
This can be frustrating, especially for those of us drawn to life’s big questions. We want to know why. Yet for people in the throes of suffering, the Bible offers something much different than an answer—it offers a Person.
The Bible tells us we’re not alone, no matter how deep our suffering. The writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as our High Priest who can “empathize with our weaknesses” (4:15). This is crucial. Identifying with someone’s pain requires that you have at least some experience of their suffering. The very word compassion comes from the Latin compassio, which literally means “to suffer with.” Only one willing to suffer truly has compassion.
On his 39th birthday, poet Christian Wiman was diagnosed with an incurable form of blood cancer. He wrote frankly about the agonizing effects of his illness and the treatments.
I have had bones die and bowels fail; joints lock in my face and arms and legs, so that I could not eat, could not walk . . . I have passed through pain I could never have imagined, pain that seemed to incinerate all my thoughts of God and to leave me sitting there in the ashes, alone.
When the diagnosis came, Wiman was a rising star in the literary world and editor of Poetry, the world’s most prestigious poetry publication. Though Wiman confessed his Christian faith had “evaporated in the blast of modernism and secularism to which I was exposed in college,” the diagnosis started a journey that ultimately led him back to God. It wasn’t a particular doctrine that drew him back to the faith. Even the resurrection, he admits, is a struggle for him to accept. But Wiman found a friend in the suffering Messiah.
I am a Christian because of that moment on the cross when Jesus, drinking the very dregs of human bitterness, cries out, My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me. . . . The point is that God is with us, not beyond us, in suffering. I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ’s passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolute solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion. I’m not suggesting that ministering angels are going to come down and comfort you as you die. I’m suggesting that Christ’s suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering.
In the face of brutal, isolating pain we don’t really want answers. We want a person. At such times there is simply no substitute for the presence of Christ.
* This post was excerpted from Yawning at Tigers: You Can’t Tame God, So Stop Trying
photo credit: unpolarized via photopin cc
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