When I was a chaplain, I had the privilege of having many conversations about existential concerns with people who were severely ill and/or dying. When I say “privilege,” I really mean it – it’s not some kind of faux humility. What I mean is that I learned so much about living from spending time with the dying. They were some of the best teachers of my life, though they never knew it.
I remember thinking at one point that there were basically three ways that people who believed in God responded and made sense of their own suffering. One person might respond all three ways in the course of a day; one person might only ever respond one way. But I remember that basically there were three responses:
1.) Denial of their own suffering. God doesn’t allow me to suffer because I believe in God and so therefore I am not really suffering right now. (Other variations: It’s not that bad. Other people have it worse. I’m going to get right up out of this hospital bed in a day or two and leave this behind me.)
2.) Despair. God has abandoned me, I’m not sure I even think there is a God anymore, if there is, wtf have I done to deserve this level of suffering? (Other variations: I deserve this. I brought it on myself. God is punishing me.)
3.) Acceptance. “Acceptance” is quite the right word for it, but it’s the best I can do right now. But basically the response of, “This sucks and is really not what I want for my life right now. I am suffering/in pain/really scared. But I am also still experiencing hope and gratitude.”
This third way, of course, always seemed to me to be the way I hoped I would respond someday. I can’t say I’ve ever really embodied it. I’m really good at #1 and #2 but know that I’d like to be the kind of person who responds like #3.
The scripture that jumped out at me today was from Psalm 31:
Blessed be the LORD! for he has shown me the wonders of his love in a besieged city.
I feel like I see response #3 in this little sentence here. There’s no denial of suffering – it’s a besieged city. Yet there’s also affirmation of wonders and love in the midst of that very real and present suffering. It’s not denial and it’s not despair. It’s something else.
I think about this a lot in regards to the crises unfolding in our world right now. The election in the UK was on my mind, and the many ways that climate change is stressing societies and harming the most vulnerable. And, of course, the way I see my own country descending farther and farther every day into something very ugly. I feel, in myself, the temptation to respond to all of it with #1 or #2 – to say either, “This too shall pass, it’s not as bad as the media makes it sound,” or “It’s even worse than the media makes it sound and everything is turning to sh*t.
But the challenge of faith, and the way I want and need to respond as a person of the crucifixion and resurrection is to look at it all, see the very real evil and despair and incredible injustice that is permeating the world, to allow my fear and anxiety and sorrow be turned into action on behalf of the suffering and oppressed, and to still be able to see wonders and love and hope and even joy in the midst of all of it.
Gonna work on that.