The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying

One of the weaknesses of our human nature appears to be that we are attracted to easy answers. We want reality to be simple. We want a universe where good deeds are clearly and quickly rewarded, and bad deeds are promptly and obviously punished. We want a life in which the way forward is always clear, and where there’s always a simple solution to every difficulty. We want a world where morality is always reassuringly black and white. We want to be able to avoid the terrifying feeling that we are tiny, helpless beings set in the midst of a dangerous world that seems callously indifferent to our existence.

But the truth is that the world is not simple. The real world, the world we actually live in, is a place where good people die of cancer at a young age, leaving families who spend years processing the pain of their loss. It’s a world where children are kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers or sex slaves. It’s a world where people brought up by good parents in good homes find themselves saddled with mental illnesses that make their lives a constant struggle. It’s a world where a tiny little virus that very few people saw coming can end the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and disrupt the lives of millions more.

One of Eugene Peterson’s most brilliant books for pastors is called ‘Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work’ (the ‘five smooth stones’ title is an allusion to the story of David and Goliath, where David takes his sling and selects ‘five smooth stones’ from the brook to kill the giant). In it, Peterson looks at five lesser-known Old Testament books and explores their relevance for the pastoral task. They are the books of ‘Song of Songs’, ‘Ruth’, ‘Lamentations’, ‘Ecclesiastes’. and ‘Esther’. Possibly my favourite chapter is the one on Ecclesiastes; he calls it ‘The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying’.

Yes, nay-saying can be a pastoral task. The quest for easy answers does real damage to people’s souls and people’s relationships, and it can be a legitimate pastoral task to point this out to people. Kate Bowler, grappling with a diagnosis of terminal cancer while in her thirties, writes about this in her brilliant book ‘Everything Happens for a Reason’ and Other Lies I’ve Loved. ‘Everything happens for reason’ is a cliche people use to protect themselves from the feeling that their lives are spiralling out of control. Well-meaning people think they are bringing comfort to others when they use it, but in fact, they rarely are. When you’re on the receiving end of that particular pat answer, it feels as if your pain is being trivialized or dismissed. The person who tells me “Everything happens for a reason” is not taking my suffering seriously. They find it too hard to just listen to what I have to say, without trying to give me solutions to my problem.

If your prayer life is shaped by the psalms, you know that reality is far from simple. The writers of the psalms love the image of God as ‘a rock of refuge in times of trouble’. In other words, when it seems as if life is a deadly quicksand, they have discovered that the presence of God can be a solid rock, a secure place to stand. But at the same time, they are well aware that God often seems to be absent, or asleep. They complain about how long he’s taking to show up and change things. They ask what they’ve done to deserve what they’re getting. They agonize over the prosperity of the wicked and the sufferings of the innocent.

It seems to me that to live as an adult in this world is to acknowledge both these truths: ‘Life is hard and complex’ and ‘God is my rock’. This has certainly been my experience in the present pandemic. On the one hand, in the past few weeks I’ve experienced the physical symptoms of stress in ways more severe than ever before. On the other hand, I can’t remember a period in my life when I’ve been more aware of the presence of God, especially in our shared times of Morning Prayer and Night Prayer on Facebook Live.

So yes, I believe in the ‘pastoral work of nay-saying’, and in the next few weeks I want to do a bit of nay-saying on this blog. I want to look at some of these easy answers, these ‘lies we’ve loved’, to use Kate Bowler’s phrase, and explore why, in the long run, they really aren’t very helpful. I haven’t yet decided which of these pat answers to consider first. Will it be ‘everything happens for a reason?’ Or ‘God is in control’? Or ‘God won’t send you more than you can cope with?’ Or ‘God is good, all the time’? Or ‘now I am happy all the day?’ I’m not sure yet. Stay tuned!

The God Who Suffers with Us (a sermon for Good Friday)

The Jewish writer Elie Wiesel has written a powerful book called Night, in which he tells the story of his childhood experiences in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz, Buna and Buchenwald. He was not quite sixteen in the spring of 1944 when the Gestapo arrived to deport all Jews from his little town in Rumania. On arrival at Auschwitz, the men and women were segregated and Elie never saw his mother or sister again. In the book, he describes in harrowing detail the sufferings of the inmates at the camp. Perhaps the most awful experience of all was when the guards first tortured and then hanged a young boy. Just before the hanging Elie heard someone behind him whisper “Where is God? Where is he?” Thousands of prisoners were forced to watch the hanging (it took the boy half an hour to die). Then they were compelled to march past, looking the dead boy full in the face. Behind him Elie heard the same voice asking “Where is God now?”

It was experiences like these that led a group of learned Jews in Buchenwald to put God on trial for neglecting his chosen people. Witnesses were produced for both the prosecution and defence, but the case for the prosecution was overwhelming. The judges were rabbis. They found the accused guilty, and they solemnly condemned him.

Seventy years later these questions about God and suffering have not gone away. Today many people in the world live in enormous suffering.

Some of this suffering is inflicted by human beings on each other. The most recent example, of course, is the savage brutality of the ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria; we’ve all seen the stories of merciless killings and beheadings, torture and rape and all sorts of atrocities. But this is just the latest case of our inhumanity to each other; the last thirty years have given us many more. All too often, the response has been more violence: people killed by the so-called ‘armies of freedom’ in bombings and military campaigns intended to stop people being killed by tyrants and dictators. But at the end of the day, people are just as dead.

Some suffering we inflict on ourselves. For instance, those who choose to drive too fast endanger their own lives – and, unfortunately, the lives of others as well. Those who abuse alcohol and other drugs cause themselves all kinds of suffering.

But there is a huge pool of human suffering which seems to be completely outside our control. We think of the earthquakes and other natural disasters in recent years, and the millions of lives that have been devastated. We think of the deaths each year from cancer and other deadly diseases. We think of children born with conditions like cystic fibrosis, condemned to short lives full of pain and suffering. And we’ve only skimmed the surface of the enormous ocean of suffering in the world today.

To thinking Christians, this fact of human suffering is the most difficult challenge to the truth of the Christian faith. You’ve heard the question many times, I’m sure: ‘If there is a loving God, then why are these things allowed to happen?’ Some of the most talented thinkers and writers in Christian history have struggled with this question, including in our own day C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey.

I’m not going to attempt to give a comprehensive Christian view on this subject, but I do want to point out to you today that the story of Good Friday is very relevant to this question. On Good Friday, as the Apostles’ Creed says, Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’. And if, as Christians believe, God has come among us as one of us in Jesus, then this changes our view of how God relates to us in our suffering.

Let’s explore that thought for a few minutes. Some religious traditions have a strong doctrine of a god who is totally removed from the sufferings of the world. On this view, God is devoid of emotion and untouched by pain and grief. Some of the Greek philosophers took this view. Their reasoning was that if we can make God sad, then in fact we can control God, and this can’t be true. And it has to be said that some people today take great comfort in this idea that God is far above all the dirt and pain of the world, unaffected by it in the light and peace of heaven.

Other religious traditions have seen suffering as a punishment sent by God because of human sin. The idea might be that suffering in general is a punishment for the sinfulness of humanity as a whole. Or it might be that particular cases of suffering are seen as punishments against specific individuals because of their sins. This idea is very common today. You still hear people say, “What have I done to deserve this?” The assumption behind that question is that bad things are sent to us by God as a punishment for our sins.

Some people have abandoned faith in God altogether. They cannot believe in a God who stays safely in heaven and refuses to do anything about all this suffering. This view is sometimes called ‘Protest atheism’.

But the Christian faith has a different angle on this. As I mentioned, it flows from our belief in the Incarnation – the idea that in Jesus, God has become a human being and lived and died as one of us. If this is true, then God is not far removed from the sufferings of the world. In fact, God has firsthand experience of suffering.

Let’s think for a moment of the many and varied sufferings Jesus experienced in his lifetime. There was doubt from the beginning about who his real father was, and sometimes this fact was thrown at him as an insult by his enemies. As an infant he was the target of Herod’s death squads and had to run to Egypt as a refugee with his family. He grew up in a working class family and no doubt experienced the same economic pressures we all go through. He seems to have lost his earthly father, Joseph, at a very young age, and so he was no stranger to the pain of bereavement. He was misunderstood by his family, who even accused him of being out of his mind. He went through hunger, thirst, tiredness, and homelessness. He was betrayed by a friend, subjected to a mock trial, stripped, flogged and nailed to a cross where he died one of the cruelest deaths human beings have ever devised.

This death on the Cross was the height of God’s identification with us in our suffering. Crucifixion was a terrible form of death. The fact that the sufferer was suspended by the arms would force the rib cage open and make it very difficult to breathe; in fact, the only way to do so would be to push oneself up on the nail through one’s feet, and it is easy to imagine the unspeakable agony this would cause. Eventually the sufferer would be too weak to do this, and then death would come, not so much from loss of blood as from asphyxiation.

But not only was there the physical pain, excruciating as it was. It went further than that. Like us, Jesus also experienced a sense of the absence of his heavenly Father in his sufferings. As far as we can tell from the gospels, Jesus had never felt this before, but on the Cross we hear him crying out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So even in our sense of abandonment by God we are not alone; Jesus has tasted that experience too.

No, the suffering of Jesus on the Cross does not explain human suffering. But it does reveal God as willing and able to allow himself to be subjected to all the pain and suffering that his creation experiences. And this knowledge that God has firsthand experience of human suffering can be an incredible comfort to us.

Some of you may have read Joni Eareckson’s books telling of the work God has done in her life since the day in 1967 when she broke her neck in a diving accident at the age of seventeen. She has been a quadriplegic ever since. For the first few months she was in the depths of despair and was often tempted to abandon her faith or even to attempt suicide. But she was not even able to kill herself, because she was immobilised in a Stryker frame with no control over any of her bodily functions. Then one day it occurred to her that Jesus knew exactly how she felt. After all, when he was nailed to the Cross he also lived in constant pain and lost the ability to move. This realisation was a turning point in her attitude toward what had happened to her.

Many years ago I came across a little story called The Long Silence. In this story, at the end of time billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.

“Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?” snapped an angry young woman. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a concentration camp. “We endured terror, beatings, torture and death!” In another group a black boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no other crime but being black”. In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. “Why should I suffer?” she murmured. “It wasn’t my fault”.

Far across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that people had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he or she had suffered the most. A Jew, a black, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man! “Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges. Let him be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At the last, let him see what it means to be horribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it”.

As each leader announced their portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. But when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.

The writer to the Hebrews says ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Hebrews 4:15-16).

We began with the story of a dreadful hanging in a concentration camp, and the question of an anonymous spectator, “Where is God now?” But I didn’t finish the story. Elie Wiesel recounts how, when he heard that question, he heard a voice within him answering “Where is he? Here he is – he is hanging here on this gallows”. And when we ourselves suffer, it is the weakness and scars of Jesus that strengthen us, because they tell us of a God who suffers with us.

In his book The Cross of Christ, John Stott says,

I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross’. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing around his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark over human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. The cross of Christ is God’s only self-justification in such a world as ours.

I wonder if you know this poem by Edward Shillito? He was a pastor in England during the First World War, and he was haunted by the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers returning to England with shattered bodies and, in many cases, severely traumatized minds. But he found comfort in the thought that the risen Jesus was still able to show his disciples the scars of his crucifixion. It inspired him to write his poem ‘Jesus of the Scars’. Here it is:

If we have never sought, we seek thee now;
Thine eyes burn though the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-marks on thy brow,
We must have thee, O Jesus of the scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by thy scars we know thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of thine;
We know today what wounds are, have no fear;
Show us thy scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

Note: I received a more than usual amount of help with this sermon from John Stott’s excellent book The Cross of Christ.

Quote for the Day

C.S. Lewis in the introduction to his book The Problem of Pain:

‘I must add, too, that the only purpose of the book is to solve the intellectual problem raised by suffering; for the far higher task of teaching fortitude and patience I was never fool enough to suppose myself qualified, nor have I anything to offer my readers except my conviction that when pain is to be borne, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.’

Actually, Mr. Lewis, I think you might have something to teach us after all…