Proper 7b • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”
There is an old saying that two things are certain: death and taxes. To that wry and cynical observation I think it would be safe to add pain and suffering. The reality is that all of us enter the world through the painful reality of childbirth — a stressful and difficult thing for mother and child alike. As the wise man Solomon said, “When I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; and my first sound was a cry, as is true of all.” And at the end of life, many if not most of us will suffer some pain and discomfort, and all of us will suffer the mortality of the flesh, the flesh that fails us in the end.
Down through the centuries many different religions and philosophies have tried to address these painful realities, and offer explanations to the timeless questions, “Why do people suffer pain?” and “What should people do in the face of this reality?”
The Greeks blamed it all on Pandora: she was the first woman, and she received a jar from the gods that she couldn’t resist opening — and when she did out came all the plagues and suffering that would afflict the world. A number of different philosophers offered solutions to this woe: from the hedonists who simply sought to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, to the stoics who counseled bearing with it all as part of the human condition, in the knowledge that true virtue would render misfortune irrelevant.
The Buddhists counseled that pain and suffering were an inevitable part of existing as a conscious being; or rather a not-fully-conscious being, suffering as most beings do under the illusion of separation from the world — and the solution is to come to full enlightened consciousness and see through that illusion to the point where the knife stabbing your body is no different from your body. (Good luck with that.)
Our tradition, of course, laid all of these problems at the bare feet of Eve and Adam, and their choice to engage in the first consciousness-raising workshop. Taking the fruit of the tree of knowledge gave them knowledge all right, but it cost them their innocence.
Our Jewish forbears offered a number of answers to this dilemma of pain and suffering. One of them, inspired by the book of Deuteronomy, recorded the sad stories of the unfaithful kings of Israel and Judah, and took the encouraging view that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, and that suffering is a result of wrong-doing.
Others, such as the author of the book of Job, took a more mature view of things, recognizing that bad things do happen to good people, and that suffering is not necessarily a sign that one has erred or strayed from God’s ways, because even the righteous suffer. The important thing, the book of Job reminds us, is that God is with us in this suffering, present at the heart of reality — the only reality there is.
The answer to human suffering provided in the book of Job is very close to that provided by the first Christians — who also knew suffering and pain first hand, even as they knew that they were living in pursuit of righteousness. Look at that litany of pain that Saint Paul recounts to the Corinthians, and note how in each painful circumstance there is still the affirmation of the power and the presence of God. Though there are afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights and hunger — there are also purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness, love, truth and most importantly the power of God.
So it is that the Christian is defended but not anesthetized. There is pain and suffering for those who believe, but there is also hope for deliverance, and the presence of Christ with you. As Christians we pass through the pain in the knowledge that God is with us, bearing us up, holding our hand.
So it is that the Christian may be treated as an imposter even while being true to Jesus; as unknown to the world and yet well known to God; as punished, yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet rejoicing; as poor and having nothing, yet rich with the treasure of the Spirit; as dying — yet behold we are alive.
This is the same message Jesus delivers to his disciples in that boat on a stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. Through the storm and the night, he is there with them, but they lack the courage to trust in his sleeping presence — they even think he doesn’t care! Doesn’t care? This is Jesus we are talking about here; and when we, too, clamor in our own anguish, rocking our boat in anxiety and suffering, his words to us are the same as to those suffering and fearful disciples: Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
Jesus does not offer us a pain-killer, a panacea — a cure-all or a quick fix to what ails us — the religion of Jesus is most definitely not what Marx called it, “the opiate of the people.” Jesus offers us not a pain killer, but a life-giver; he offers us himself as the savior of the world, the healer of all the harms ever done on this good earth, even in the knowledge that sometimes healing hurts.
He does not offer us a stoical grin-and-bear it, keep a stiff-upper-lip kind of virtue — but he offers us his tears at the grave of Lazarus his friend, to remind us that he shares our grief at our losses. He does not counsel us to see pain as an illusion or suffering as a merely philosophical distinction — but he sweats drops as heavy as blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he sheds his own real blood on the cross. He does this not to take away or end our pain, but to share it, to join with us in it. Jesus is joined to us in every grief we suffer, every pain that mortal flesh inherits from the fall of Adam and Eve on to the present day, and on until the last day when he comes again finally to wipe away all tears from our eyes, and remove the shroud of death that is cast over the nations.
For Jesus even joins us in that painful sense of abandonment, that horrible moment of feeling all alone and forsaken — his cry from the cross itself, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” echoes the cry of the disciples’ there in the boat that stormy night, “Do you not care that we are perishing.” Jesus joins us even in that pain of desolation — a sure and certain sign that he is with us through it all.
Through the storm and the night, our precious Lord takes us by the hand. He does not make our suffering go away, but he joins us in it — all of it, like a good parent holding the hand of a suffering child, feeling the pain almost more than the child does. Jesus is with us in that boat on the stormy sea, and when sorrows like sea-billows roll, he has taught us what to say, those words not of escape from pain but of the knowledge of his presence with us in our pain. He has taught us what words to say. Will you sing those words with me? It is well with my soul it is well, it is well with my soul.+