By Frederick W. Schmidt
“This is a blessing in disguise.”
“God must really trust you.”
“God doesn’t give us more than we can bear.”
“God has a plan, your disease is a part of it, and God has a plan for you.”
Why do we share this happy horse-hockey with one another when we suffer? There are a variety of reasons.
Some of it sounds biblical. Some of us believe it -- or we did until our lives came unglued. Some of us want other people to believe it, because the sooner they feel better we will feel better. Others of us want people to believe it because if they do, then when we need comfort we might be able to believe it too. And some of us feel we need to believe it, because if we don’t, then God will punish us for being less than faithful.
There are so many difficulties with this kind of “wisdom” that it would take a book -- or a library -- to deal with all of it. And that is not where I want to focus, but briefly here are a few of the problems:
One, this kind of wisdom isn’t actually biblical. Scripture talks about God being present to us in the middle of crises and about God working in and through our lives in spite of the suffering that we experience. But nowhere does scripture deny real loss or assert that we can hope for a trouble-free life this side of the grave. I love the way Jewish interpreters read the opening chapters of Genesis. Effectively what they say is: “This isn’t a story of how things went wrong. This is a story about how things always are.” Far too often we seem to imply that if something bad has happened to you, it is because you did something bad; things would be perfect if you were perfect. That’s not what scripture says.
A second problem with the wisdom outlined above is that it fails to acknowledge the very real losses people experience. It is cruel to explain away the suffering of others in order to silence the racket in our own souls. You cannot find healing without naming the injury you have suffered or the losses that you have endured; and telling people that their struggles are “blessings in disguise” forecloses on their healing.
Third -- and worse yet -- this kind of wisdom leaves us with a God that no one can or should love. As one writer noted decades ago, when we describe God as one who tests the limits of our endurance, torments us, steals things from us, and then expects us to be happy about it (or else), we are describing God in the same terms we use to describe the criminally insane. If God is immoral or emotionally disturbed, it’s time to move to another universe.
But I don’t want to focus on the endless churchy debates about this kind of wisdom and ask a spiritual question instead: “Why do we think our souls need this kind of cold comfort?”
Here is what I am hearing and I will look forward to hearing what you think:
- Suffering takes us to the limits of our capacity for faith. When things are going well, it is not hard to believe in God or to trust that things will change. But when we face irrevocable change and loss, then life takes us to new limits. God doesn’t send suffering our way, but it does strip us of all the other resources we have used to cope with life’s smaller complexities.
- When we find ourselves at life’s edge, our impulse is to scramble back to a place where we can trust God with ease. The first line of defense is to make the loss itself go away. That is why people will resort to horse-hockey wisdom, even at the expense of portraying God as a fiend.
- The problem, of course, is that true healing requires acknowledging our losses. When we try to explain away our own loss or the loss of others, we foreclose on that process.
- The fundamental spiritual challenge is to find a way to trust God, even if we are not delivered. It is there that we finally confront our own mortality and our dependence upon God.
My spiritual director is a breast cancer survivor and has been a diabetic almost the whole of her adult life. In the last three years she has had a broken hip, heart surgery, a collapsed lung, a second heart surgery to correct the complications from her first surgery, a broken collarbone, and hip replacement surgery. Now she has been told that the pain she suffers from the replacement joint will be something she endures the rest of her life. Her pain is real. The limitations she faces are undeniable. God is not punishing her or blessing her. But God is with her in her suffering and she will tell you that.
Life is not about what we do or do not have. It is a journey into intimacy with God. Suffering, loss, and death are things that cannot be fixed or explained away. They are also a part of the experience that challenges all of the other definitions of life that we understandably cherish. Happy horse-hockey, even in its churchy form, simply slows our pilgrimage.