Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Suffering and the Remaking of God


We do not engage with God as he is.  Instead, all of us, from the theologians of many books to the occasional church attender, all of us approach God through our self-generated idea of who God is.  Most of these constructs are subconscious, most have accompanied us all our lives.  These theories, these constructs, these projections shield us from who God really is, from reality as it is. 


We are constantly adjusting this construct, this god, to help us make sense of our current predicaments.  Our constructs are pillars of the narrative we tell ourselves about ourselves and our situations, and they form the presuppositions behind how we present ourselves to others.  We build our concepts, our assumptions about God from what we’ve heard from others, from picking and choosing from the Bible what is meaningful to us, from how we interpret what our experience tells us.  Often this is a process of decades.  God becomes becomes increasingly hidden behind a carefully constructed comfort, always on our side, never against us.  Our faith is one of positive declarations.  God, or our version of God, is declaimed as the answer to every problem.  And after carefully laying one religious card against the other, laboriously building what in reality is merely a house of cards - this faith of ours - we close our eyes and hope desperately that God will keep his promises, by which we mean hope that God won’t let bad things happen to me.  (I realize I may just be talking about me here).

One galaxy among billions.

But as Francis Schaeffer stated a generation ago, Your god is too small.  God is not shaped or constrained by our fears.  God uses a palette that ranges from galaxy clusters to quarks and leptons, and beyond, as these are just what we are currently aware of.  The earth is such a very little thing, a nothing in the scheme of the universe.  And of all the billions of people currently alive, and of the billions of other individuals who sleep in the dust of death, what is my life, what are my thoughts, what are my doings for good or for evil, in light of all the rest?  God is beyond our ability to conceive, much less describe.  Every metaphor we might use is insufficient and self referential.  At best they can but point.  We scribble like mad men on the walls of our sin-bound asylum cells, literally not knowing what we are talking about.

Crying Girl - Iraq War.  Windows of Suffering #23

All too often it takes suffering to upend our comfortable constructs of God, to prove our confident words and theological bluster to be so much chaff driven by the winter wind, leaving us sputtering and grasping the empty air for balance as we confront both the truth about ourselves and the reality of the living God, the Holy Trinity, revealed in the narratives and stories and letters we call the Bible.  The Bible is just one story after another where this sort of thing happens.  How we have managed to go from the Scriptures to the sanitized safe deities of our self-consumed imaginations is beyond me.


Suffering is painful not just because of our loss of health or loved ones or property or career, but because our constructs, our gods, are revealed as insufficient, as false.  And inasmuch as they prevented us from engaging with the true and living God, such constructs are in fact idols.  Suffering is disorienting because it demonstrates that the world is not as we wanted or pretended it to be, nor is God as we wanted or needed him to be.  God, the true and living God, is not concerned for our comfort, but rather for our salvation.  God makes no magical declaration from heaven that we are saved, rather he plunges into the mire of our lives and relationships and rebellions and ignorances and engages us with himself.  This is terrifying.  This he calls salvation.  And given the profundity of our blindness, our ignorance, our pride, our preference for lies, salvation will often mean suffering, as one by one we are disabused of our worldly ways of thinking and coping and relating.  This is what the Bible routinely refers to as repentance.


(Shockingly, the only way to measure where we are in terms of our pilgrimage is not in terms of our faith, or of our pious declarations, or our church attendance, or theological convictions.  Rather Jesus says that the tree is known by its fruit.  How we treat our neighbor is the indicator of whether we are bound for the New Jerusalem or headed towards the hell of eternal self consumption. I find this sobering.)


Suffering jars us loose from our shallow, inadequate, wrong thinking about God.  Some people foolishly blame (the one and true) God when their paltry constructs prove themselves the cardboard cut-out gods in a thunderstorm they are.  The thunderstorm is actually God’s mercy, if we can but have eyes to see and the courage to acknowledge our inadequate god-making and the humility to walk towards the one greater than [Solomon, the Queen of the South, Jonah the prophet, the Temple, our DIY deities...] that is calling us by name to himself even in the midst of the suffering.

At present I cannot make sense of my own suffering. A confusing amount of it is, of course, self-inflicted.  But it has been such that I’ve been forced to abandon the easy constructs, the easy theology, the easy Christianity of my past.  The deluge has been too great.  Like the typhoon in Tacloban.  None of them, these flimsy houses of my faith, could stand.  I pass judgment on nobody – how could I, enduring as I am the emptying of my life?  Instead, I recognize my own fault, my own meanness, my own inadequacy, my own sin at every point, in every relationship, in every work and word.  

Victim of Typhoon Haiyan surveying what's left of his life.

But it is at this very point, in my sin, and the sin of others, and in the suffering it has caused, that God reveals himself, not just as the God of galaxies and leptons, but as the God of the Jewish teenager Mary.  God, the living and true God, stands not above the world, thundering imprecations at the world from the safe distance of his heaven. God does not remodel.  He makes all things new. But to do so God comes to me, to all of us.  Not the made-up me, not the self-sufficient me, not the me of a thousand excuses.  But he comes to me the broken, undone sinner.  He comes to find the one who is lost.  A baby is conceived in Mary’s womb, the incarnation of God the Son into this world, my world, our world.  God beyond words, God beyond worlds, becomes God with us, God for us, God finding us.

Good Shepherd icon, 3rd century, Roman Catacombs

I do not know how this is going to end.  I do not know how much more I will lose.  But in the midst of this suffering, having abandoned the lesser gods of my fragile, comfortable, inadequate faith, I find myself in the hands of the living and true God.  It’s the most dangerous place I have ever been.  And the most safe.