We all want to find meaning behind suffering. The pain of loss is too sharp; the sting too deep to ignore. It is human nature to try to find a reason for pain. And so we assemble monstrous puzzles out of a few pieces that don’t fit. Trying to explain the death of a child, the accident that took away a girl’s legs, the war that robbed a lifetime of saving and building – no explanation quite answers the haunting question: why?
Assigning blame for suffering is the oldest pseudo-spiritual game in the book. Man sins, man dies. Woman sins, she is shamed and rejected. Simple math. Simple formula. One plus one equals pain. It sounds right, just like so many other tidy, clean and simple opinions shared as gospel on social media. But reality and truth are never so tidy, so clean, or so simple as to be ratcheted down clean in one vulgar tweet. In real life, one plus one – sin for suffering in perfectly measured, equal parts – never, ever, adds up.
And so we find Pilate’s bloodshed and Siloam’s collapse, car accidents and cancer, neatly boxed and stored away by outsiders as justice done; mop up the blood and mark down the score, sinners zero and comeuppance one. But to the parents of the tower-crushed and the children of the politically-sacrificed, such weak explanations bring only more pain.
Without the image on the box, the puzzle never really comes together. And even if you are blessed enough to say you once caught a glimpse of the big picture, it is impossible to reconstruct with the mere handful of pieces we have from this ten-thousand-piece puzzle.
When the dots between our sinfulness and our suffering don’t quite connect, it is tremendously liberating to hear Jesus’ perspective on suffering: we are all broken. Therefore we all perpetuate suffering, and we all experience suffering.
It is as simple as that.
The only thing that will ease the effect of sin and suffering is to react with mercy: to react with kindness for violence, peace for war, and love for hatred. If traffic is caused by compounding overreactions to the braking in front of us, it can only be stopped by compounding merciful reactions.
And I think this is what Jesus means when He provides His wonderful, seemingly tone-deaf answer to our pitchy complaints about suffering. He speaks one irritating, liberating word: “repent.” Which means to turn around; take a different path; seek a better destination.
In other words, if you want the traffic to stop, take another road – a higher one. If you want the world to simmer down, turn down the heat right where you are. If you want to experience some peace this side of glory, give up blaming others and take responsibility for your own actions.
Joy will never be restored unto those who seek it in the wrong place. Asking “why me?” will not yield the fruit of joy, it will only prolong the dead season, when there is no leaf on the tree, no evidence of life.
Where then, is joy restored? The sin-suffering psalmist David reveals it in Psalm 51, “Restore unto me the joy … of thy salvation.”
For David and Jesus, the only lasting relief we will find – the only joy worth restoring – is the joy that comes from God. His salvation. His pardon. His forgiveness. His love.
And remarkably, the doorway to everlasting joy is repentance. I say “remarkably” because nobody in our culture would say anything like that. They would be mocked and insulted, perhaps even crucified for even suggesting such a thing – “repent” – to someone who is in pain.
But Jesus is not a play-acting doctor, He is the Great Physician. And He knows that truth, like medicine, is sometimes bitter to the taste. Until you get serious about cancer and treat it with toxic chemotherapy, it will grow and twist its thorns into your flesh. In the same way, until we all get serious about our contribution to suffering in the world and turn from our wicked ways, suffering will continue to spread.
Is it really so foolish to suggest that nobody’s perfect, and that our imperfections are what lead to an imperfect world? Is Jesus a madman for suggesting that our only hope to escape from perishing is to withdraw from the world’s game of blaming others, and to change what we can – taking responsibility for ourselves?
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game”? I’ve heard a variation which states: “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose: it’s how you place the blame.” And many people live by this axiom. We are obsessed with placing blame, and loath to take responsibility for our own part in suffering. If my Cheerios are too Cheerioval, I’m writing a letter to the manufacturer. If I cut someone off in traffic, its because they were driving too slow, not because I was driving too fast.
Fingering the culprit for suffering and pain is a hopeless pursuit. Always dissatisfying; always leaving us starved – aching, and more ravenously hungry than when we started.
Asking “why” and “who’s to blame” is the most awful joy faker of them all. Like picking a scab or scratching an infected itch, it brings only more pain streaking on the heels of fleeting relief.
We don’t need to point the finger when we’re trapped in traffic – because we’re all to blame; at the same time suffering the brake lights of those in front of us and and perpetuating them on those behind us. No single car in traffic experiences a fair and just share of delay. The suffering is disproportionate; sin swarms like traffic, and nobody gets out alive. I brake too early, you overreact, and boom, ninety-nine hundred commuters are at each other’s throats.
This, of course, is the peril of living in community. If each of us lived on our own island, the one-to-one sin to suffering ratio might apply. But as long as I have even one neighbor, we are connected – and everything you do affects me; and everything I do affects you.
This is one of the reasons why Jesus emphasized mercy and forgiveness. In 1914 in the Canadian House of Parliament a member named Mr. Graham argued: “If in this present age we were to go back to the old time of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ there would be very few hon. gentlemen in this House who would not, metaphorically speaking, be blind and toothless.”
Graham was right. A culture built on vengeance and retaliation is a culture doomed to consume itself. For who isn’t guilty on some level of doing harm to a neighbor?
In the 1980s film “Wargames”, a military supercomputer is inadvertently given access to initiate a nuclear war. Before it is able to destroy humanity, a teenager saves the day by challenging the computer to a game of tic-tac-toe (Remember, this is Hollywood). The computer keeps playing tic-tac-toe against itself until it finally comes to the conclusion: “Strange game. The only winning move is not to play.” The world is saved, and Matthew Broderick goes on to become Ferris Bueller.
But the computer was right. Sometimes the only way to win the game is not to play. The way to ease suffering is not to participate in sin. The way to avoid the pain of unanswerable “whys” is to sit out the blame game altogether.
Restore unto me the Joy
In the coming weeks, we are going to embark on a journey to rediscover the fruit of the spirit known as joy. I say “rediscover” because joy is something we all discovered once as children, but have long since misplaced.
In Paige’s Wednesday evening Bible Study on suffering, I was struck by the scriptural reality that suffering and joy are intertwined. Listen to these few examples of joy and suffering found together:
“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” (James 1.2)
“Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance” (Romans 5.3)
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Colossians 1.24)
And there are many more which we will explore together this summer. For now, however, let this truth stop us in our tracks: suffering is not where joy ends, but where it begins.
Joy sees past the rubble of Pilate’s savage injustice, and Siloam’s fallen tower, and every other fine machine in pieces on the ground.
Joy is waiting for you on the other side of the ruins. But it is also waiting for you among the ruins. Joy comes from knowing that God awaits us at the end of our journey, but joy comes on just as strong when we realize that God is in the rubble with us. In that sense, repentance is merely an opening of blind eyes to the spiritual truth of God’s presence and love.
It does not matter if your suffering is the result of your own sin, the sins of others, or what the insurance companies call an “act of God” – the “why” of our suffering is only partly knowable. The answers we can muster to explain suffering are always going to be inadequate and incomplete. One plus one will never add up in the ledgers the world keeps.
But there is hope, however. Joy can be restored, if, as Jesus said, we repent and turn to God, and find once again the joy of His salvation. Looking to God (instead of looking at the rubble of fallen towers and the graves of the fallen) may not explain everything, but it will overcome anything.
“Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 15.13)