I was nurtured in a Christian tradition that encouraged the daily practice of what was called a “quiet time.” This involved sitting down — preferably early in the morning — reading some of the Bible, reflecting on it, and praying.
All good things, all good things.
For me, the experience of “the quiet time” was wrapped in conflict and confusion for some simple reasons.
You were supposed to get spiritual inspiration from whatever it was you were reading.
And because I was a devotee of those One Year Bibles — where you read a section of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, a selection from either Psalms or Proverbs, and a section of the New Testament every day, so that every year you read through the whole Bible — it was really quite often a stretch to find something spiritual and ‘inspirational,’ especially when I had no idea what I was reading or why, for that matter, it was even in the Bible. Such as the Song of Songs. Or the slaughter of the Canaanites. Or those interminable lists of who does what and who carries what and what seemingly arbitrary thing renders a person unclean for however long a period of time.
Don’t read me wrong: I think there was something of value in all of that.
Even today, when I read the Bible, there is a lot I don’t understand and that doesn’t seem particularly edifying or inspirational or whatever. But it seems valuable to wrestle with what is actually in there, even if the result is less “quiet time” and more, well, disquiet time. The Bible is an ancient text, a demanding text. It is not so easily condensed into uniformly palatable, reassuring thoughts to make your day happier.
And the parts I did understand seemed even scarier than the parts I didn’t understand.
Such as all that stuff about suffering, and what suffering means and doesn’t mean, and how maybe we are supposed to rejoice in affliction and weakness and pain. Or is it that the human condition is plagued by all those things BECAUSE some people in a garden ate fruit they were supposed to leave alone? Was I really supposed to rejoice in all the wonderful spiritual lessons I was supposed to learn from pain and suffering?
Yesterday was the 16th anniversary of a serious spine surgery I had as a teenager. And my back still hurts.
I couldn’t even have conceived of the degree to which human beings can suffer pain until I experienced the kind of pain that has you wondering if you can bear to inhale and exhale yet again; the kind of pain that the maximum dosages of morphine can’t touch. And yes. I thought a lot about Jesus suffering and dying, and what that meant, and how it had always been explained to me. And I was disquieted.
Suffering is awful. So how could the Bible so often suggest that it is somehow redemptive?
I am disquieted by this — and also disquieted by any attempts to minimize or prettify the concept. People who know more than I do seem to think we can safely put suffering in the “unequivocally bad” category, and that doesn’t feel quite right, YET…yet. I am not ready to write off the disquieting idea that maybe, just maybe, the Bible is right, and suffering — even the most meaningless kind of suffering — has some kind of redemptive purpose.
That’s the subject of my essay in the new book, Disquiet Time.
It’s a book of rants and reflections from people across the spectrum: the skeptical, the faithful, and a few scoundrels. Mine is on womb trouble — that is, what on earth is all that pain and suffering in childbirth all about? But there are so many more beautifully written, honest essays in this volume, and to me it is a wonderful example of a too-often-neglected but venerable tradition: arguing with God.
(Don’t be afraid. Job did it too.)
You can order the book wherever you get your books. And if you aren’t going to buy it, please consider asking your library to buy it!