February 4th, 2018
Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God”? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youth will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:27-31
That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” Mark 1:32-37
Does God see me?
As many of you know I serve on the faculty of Wycliffe College, one of the theological colleges associated with U of T.
A couple of weeks ago I was asked to be part of a panel discussing the question “Where is God in suffering?” I was astonished when about 200 mostly undergraduate students showed up to listen in on the discussion.
I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. Suffering is close to the heart of the human experience and when people suffer they very often ask ‘Where is God? Does God see me?”
In my own life I asked this question when my father was hit by a massive stroke that the docs told us would very likely take his life. He quickly developed pneumonia and despite excellent medical care his body wasn’t fighting the infection. It took him over a week to die and it was a horrid week.
I asked God “Why a whole heart-wrenching week of suffering God?” “Where are you God – do you see us here?”
My father was someone who had given his whole life to serving God. First, as a chaplain in WW2 where he witnessed unimaginable suffering. After the war, serving for 15 years as priest to a leper colony in northwest India. And finally serving as a parish priest and establishing both the Ottawa Distress Centre and the Diocesan Counselling Centre. His whole life had been devoted to alleviating suffering.
Now he lay in a hospital bed gasping for breath, unable to speak or move …. And I felt like God was nowhere to be found.
“Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’?
Isaiah asks a question that we all know the answer to.
People say this when they’re suffering and God seems absent, or perhaps worse, simply disinterested in their pain. Perhaps it happens:
- When someone they love is being destroyed by an addiction
- When they see their life’s work unravelling due to some unforeseen circumstance
- When they get the word that they’re losing their eyesight, their faculties, or their independence
- When they’re gripped by pain, either physical or mental
Does God see what’s going on?
To ask such a question is not strange or rare. It’s as common as bread and butter. And it was equally true in OT times.
Scholars tell us that the last part of the book of Isaiah addresses the Israelites during what would be one of their great periods of suffering as a people. The unthinkable had happened. They had been conquered by their enemies and carried off as slaves.
They had thought God would protect them. They had their temple. They had their finely crafted religious practices. They were the covenanted people of God.
But God hadn’t protected them.
The temple had been destroyed, all their leaders carried off into exile, and all their most precious religious items desecrated.
Someone else was calling the shots now. Their world had been rocked.
No wonder they thought their way was hidden from the Lord …. And that their right was disregarded by God.
Our gospel reading too lets us know that six centuries later people were still searching for answers in the face of suffering.
Jesus had walked out into the early morning Galilean countryside to pray. The night before he had been swamped with people suffering every manner of physical and mental illness. The text says “The whole city was gathered around the door” of the house where he was staying.
And who can blame them? If I’d been there I would have had a number of people in tow too …. People I know right now who are going through very real suffering.
Word had spread quickly about this man, Jesus of Nazareth, who had extraordinary power to heal. The first sick people arrived at dusk and it no doubt went on long into the night.
Maybe that’s why everyone was surprised that Jesus was up so early. “In the morning, while it was still dark he got up and went out to a deserted place and there he prayed.”
Once they had eventually found him the disciples said to Jesus “Everyone is searching for you.”
People searching for answers, searching for relief.
It seems to define the human condition, doesn’t it?
But the human condition is not just about searching, it is also about finding; finding God even (and maybe especially) in the midst of suffering.
While there is plenty we don’t understand about the presence of evil and suffering in our world, the Scriptures teach at least three things about God and suffering.
- Firstly, they tell us that God sees our suffering, by virtue of who He is.
“The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.” Even when it feels like we’re all alone in our misery, God is there. There is nowhere He isn’t. There is nothing He doesn’t see.
We see this in the life of Jesus. Jesus saw people that everyone else ignored, judged or dismissed as a hopeless cause. 10 lepers living on the edge of a village, a blind man by the side of the road, a beggar crippled from birth, a woman about to be stoned for adultery. Jesus saw them all and he sees you in your suffering too..
- Secondly, the Scriptures tell us that God is present and active in alleviating
”He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. . . . He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds. . . . the Lord lifts up the downtrodden.”
We see this too in the life of Jesus. He changed people. Healing people of physical, mental and spiritual ailments. Blind people became able to see, paralyzed people became able to walk, dead people awoke. But Jesus also changed people in some other ways: corrupt people became honest & fearful people became courageous.
And when Jesus sent his disciples out he sent them to proclaim peace and to heal. In other words as the Church we are called to join in God’s alleviation of suffering. Down through the ages we have seen the church at its best when it does this: William Wilberforce rousing people in the UK to end slavery, Florence Nightingale teaching people to care for the sick, Martin Luther King Jr. inspiring people to stand for the equality of all races. The establishment of hospitals, soup kitchens, orphanages.. . . all inspired by the conviction that God is for the alleviation of suffering.
- Finally, the Scriptures tell us that God himself willingly embraced human suffering.
We’re nearly at the end of the season of Epiphany when we celebrate the coming of the Light of Christ into the darkness of the human condition. We will soon enter Lent, when we will head toward the most powerful embracing of human suffering: experiencing betrayal, abandonment, torture, and death at the hands of his own creation.
Christianity stands alone in this; telling of God embracing the depths of human suffering; the most powerful demonstration of his love for humanity.
I don’t know that in this life we’ll ever have all the answers we seek about suffering. I can only say that as a parish priest I’ve known plenty of people who like myself came to peace with it through what may seem like a strange thing …. Trust.
In my father’s case I don’t really know for sure why he had to suffer that final week of his life. But I do know that there were some extraordinary gifts given to us during that week:
- some very important reconciliation happened between my mother and father. In fact, I think they fell in love again during that week.
- my dad tarried long enough for all of his children and grandchildren to be able to see him and say goodbye.
- the nursing staff caring for my dad were profoundly moved by the many clergy colleagues, family, friends and previous parishioners who came to be with my father and pray for him during that last week.
Yes, the suffering was real . . . . but my father knew God saw him, was with him, and would lead him through the suffering and into his presence.
This was Isaiah’s message to the Israelites and it is still his message to us today.