Suffering: When Making Sense Makes No Sense

But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find? A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence.  (CS Lewis, A Grief Observed)

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Invited out of Egypt with the hope of a land flowing with milk and honey, the Israelites took the bait.  You might call the wilderness the switch.

In his book Dominion and Dynasty, Dempster (2003) writes, “As soon as the journey from Sinai to the land of promise commences, the people move from disaster to disaster, or, in the telling place names given to the first few stops along the way, from ‘Fiery Blaze’ (Num. 11:3) to ‘Graveyard’ (Num. 11:34).”  Perhaps you’ve experienced life as a movement from “disaster to disaster” too.  Maybe you’ve known that the bait-and-switch madness when a moment filled with hope careens toward disappointment, with nothing at all you can do.  I suspect that you are familiar, at least to some degree, with the wilderness terrain that the Israelites walked.

And then some dense person comes along and says, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade!”

Making sense of suffering makes no sense, at least most of the time.  In fact, trying to make sense of suffering usually trivializes it, and de-humanizes the person who is going through the pain.  Think of it this way:  if God really wanted us to feel better, He’d send us a Hallmark card rather than places called “Graveyard” and “Fiery Blaze.”  It makes little sense rationally, but God actually invites down into the wilderness, further into suffering, down into the fire.  And the most human response Scripture gives us is not a pep talk, but an invitation to grab a hold of God and cry out to Him with all of the anger, confusion, sadness, and despair we know.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

C.S. Lewis, the great literary critic, Oxford don, and author of the Narnia series knew this all-too-well.  In a better time of his life, he penned The Problem of Pain, addressing pain as a problem to be solved.  And then pain kissed him on the lips.  In his devastation, his old rationale made no sense.  In fact, it only made him more mad.  In the pain, he could have said that God felt a million miles away.  But his description is even more dark:  He goes to God and God slams a door in his face, bolting and double bolting it from the inside.  And then God goes silent, not a million miles away but right on the other side of the door.

The premier literary theologian of the 20th century who gave us Lucy and a Lion gives us the description of our worst nightmare – an absent and cruel God.  But for those who know pain, everything else makes little sense except for this.  God does feel calloused and cruel in our wilderness.  And we feel utterly helpless.

Or do we?  You see, gimmick-driven American Christianity has given us a wealth of resources to not feel so helpless. American Christianity hates helplessness.  It’s un-American.  We are a nation of progress, a victor in war, a crusader for all that is good and humane in the world, right?  Americans are winners.  Think about it.  Somehow we feel a great injustice has been committed when our athletes don’t win their Olympic race.  We recoil when a more honest politician dares to name American sins and express disappointment in country.  We rage when we discover Americans grade lower in standardized tests or health care.  We win.  We can’t lose.

Rouault Head of ChristExcept in God’s economy.  In God’s economy, a spiritual journey takes us headlong into suffering.  Even the rich, as we’ve seen with Michael Jackson, can’t spend enough to avoid the fire.  Our logic fails us in this.  God’s logic, on the other hand, places a Cross at the center of Scripture.  Christian preachers and authors and apologists want to explain away suffering, or minimize it, or treat it as less than it is.  But God doesn’t only send us into it.  He goes in Himself.  “Fiery blaze” and “Graveyard” were stops along Israel’s way to the Promised Land.  And they were stops for Jesus, too.

To be sure, we’ll need to elaborate on these things in the next posts, as we continue to navigate through the New Exodus way.  But for now, it’s more appropriate to simply feel the heaviness of this reality, without answers and perhaps without much to say.

A door slammed in your face and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that silence.

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What is your immediate reaction to this post?  Rather than figuring out what is right or wrong about what I wrote, how do you feel?

Can you think of places in Scripture where others felt as you are feeling right now?

Is God big enough to confront with our deepest confusion and despair?

3 comments

  1. There is something hauntingly awful about the thought of a silent god on the other side of a closed door. As we sit, groveling, perhaps whimpering on the one side, he stands back silently staring at the other. Andrew Peterson, a folk artist if you are unfamiliar with him, wrote a song entitled “The Silence of God”. It destroys me every time I listen to it because I’ve been there. I’ve lain on the floor outside that door wondering, why? Peterson writes, “and if a man has got to listen to the voices of the mob who are reeling in the throws of all the happiness they’ve got, when they tell all their troubles have been nailed up to that cross… Well what about the times when even followers get lost, ’cause we all get lost sometimes…”. The song then goes silent. That pause seems to hang in the air for an insurmountable amount of time. All your fears have been called out on the table and you are left there, splayed open, waiting for the first healing sutcher.

    He then comes back in with, “there’s a statue of Jesus on a monestary knoll in the hills of Kentucky, all quiet and cold. He’s kneeling in the garden silent as a stone while all his friends are sleeping, and he’s weeping all alone. And the man of such sorrows, he never forgot the sorrow that is carried in the hearts that he bought. So when the questions dissolve into the silence of God the aching may remain, but the breaking does not. The aching may remain but the breaking does not, in the holy, lonesome echo of he silence of God.”

    I tear up even as I write this. How many times have I felt that aching? How many times, due to my own sin, the sin of others, or simply to the fu… broken world we live in, have I sat in he dark and wondered if the wilderness would ever end. Did God bring me out here to die? Does ge care that I have nothing to eat or drink? Doesn’t he hear me pounding on the door begging to be let in. Firey blaze and Graveyard are, I think, fairly common pitstops on our journies of faith. What does the author of Hebrews write? Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as at Meribah and Massah. We’re still on that awful wilderness march. Waiting. Hoping. Praying for our Sabbath rest.

  2. There is not one person who can not relate to feeling left out in the cold. At some level all mankind knows instinctively that there is a God however it is the presumed silence that leads so many to turn their backs on Him and seek the more audible voices that bombard our ears. As a counseling student I hope that when my clients bang their fists upon the door of heaven and hear only the echo of their attempts to rouse God ringing in their ears that I will be able to sit with them in their anguish and reflect the love of God when it seems so distant.

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