Session 6: Trying to understand
In this session, we will look at whether there are any explanations for suffering that work and how to handle it if there aren’t.
Listen to ‘If I ruled the world’ (Use YouTube or download here)
A prayer to say together:
it’s you who rules the world
yet we can’t believe the suffering in it is what you want.
Help us to go on trusting that you know what you’re doing
and to find meaning, even in the pain.
May our dreams for a better world
inspire us to keep going when life is tough
and the knowledge that you are with us in our struggles
give us hope.
Each person should take about a minute to give their name and to tell the group their earliest memory.
The theologian and Methodist Minister Frances Young has a son, Arthur, who has profound learning and physical disabilities. He is totally dependent for all his everyday functions, such as feeding, washing, dressing and mobility. Here she describes how this affected her relationship with God.
My experience was of an internal blank where God should have been. I had no hope for the future. Despair was lodged deep down inside, even if for the most part I got on with life and joked and played with the kids, and lectured in theology, and researched and wrote, passed for a Christian and went to church. Occasionally I would wrestle with meaningless prayer to a blank wall …
For years I found holding onto faith profoundly difficult. God seemed absent. But then one day, as I got up from a chair to go and do some household chore, I suddenly heard a voice, as it were: ‘It makes no difference to me whether you believe in me or not!’ It was meaningful at all kinds of levels: for one thing, I was absolved of responsibility for deciding about God, for God no longer depended on me for existence – God just ‘is’, independent of what I thought or felt …
The need to let go of pre–occupations and anxieties, to journey into the unknown, to accept the utter transcendence and incomprehensibility of God, allowed me a renewal of faith, and soon afterwards a sense of vocation in which Arthur became a central part of my ministry. Overall, my journey has involved a profound shifting away from … the anguished questioning of a Job, to a sense that through the wilderness of coping with Arthur I have had privileged access to a deeper sense of meaning and value – indeed, the deepest truths of Christian theology. It is in the desert that you grow, pruned and purged so that the fruits of the Spirit can germinate when the rains come.
Some possibilities for discussion:
Is there anything in this account that rings bells with you?
Frances Young’s deep despair was hidden behind an outward normality. Do you hide how you are really feeling?
Frances Young ‘passed’ for a Christian. Do you sometimes have a sense of ‘going through the motions’ in relation to church going, prayer or other religious practices?
Frances Young’s attitude changed profoundly when the pressure she felt to believe was removed. Do you feel under pressure to believe? If so, where’s it coming from?
The question why:
Someone reads from John 9:1-5
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world’.
Either listen to the author read his reflection here or invite a group member to read it out.
In the 60s musical of the same name, Pickwick is mistaken for an election candidate. The song we heard at the beginning – ‘If I ruled the world’ – is his response to a request for his manifesto. The kind of world it portrays is the kind we’d all like – a world of sunshine and smiles. Why is it not like that?
This was the question in the disciples’ minds when they tackled Jesus on the causes of a man’s blindness. It was probably an even more sensitive issue for the man’s parents. It was they who had had to provide the extra care their child needed and it can be in the day-to-day process of caring that the question becomes most acute.
In this passage Jesus immediately rejects one answer to the question of why there’s suffering. Suffering is not a judgement or a punishment. It’s a very deeply embedded instinct to link pain and punishment (interestingly the words have the same Latin root – poena) but the man was not blind, Jesus insisted, because of anyone’s sin. Feeling guilty about it is not an appropriate way of reacting to suffering.
A more helpful reaction is based on the idea that though suffering can be terrible, good can come out of it. Frances Young implies in the passages of her writings we looked at just now that her experience of parenting and being with Arthur has helped her grow. She said, ‘It is in the desert that you grow, pruned and purged so that the fruits of the Spirit can germinate when the rains come.’ Many people bear witness to the fact that their suffering has strengthened them … but do such positive effects justify the terrible pain and the devastating trauma some people suffer?
The biblical book that is most relevant to the question of suffering is Job. His friends come up with all sorts of explanations as to why he lost his family, his livelihood and his health. In the end though, Job simply accepts that he can’t understand it. God asserts the power with which he created the whole world and reminds Job of his limited place within it, ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ ‘I have uttered what I did not understand,’ replies Job, ‘things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.’ His response is echoed by Frances Young when she says that she learned ‘to accept the utter transcendence and incomprehensibility of God’. In the end, there is no answer to the problem that human minds can fathom. For some this makes it impossible for them to believe. But others are content to accept the limitations of our understanding and to go on trusting.
The basis for that trust is to be found in Jesus’ reply to the question in the reading. What he says doesn’t explain the man’s blindness but it puts it into the context of Jesus’ own suffering. ‘The night is coming’, says Jesus. He’s looking ahead to his experience of darkness, when he will enter into the depths of human suffering and pain. He sees this as doing ‘the work of him who sent me’ and it leads to the resurrection, a powerful culmination of that work of God’s. There is no reason for the blind man’s suffering but there might be a purpose, a value in it, if, like his own suffering, it becomes a means by which ‘the work of God is displayed’.
There is no answer to the question ‘Why?’. When I think about my wife’s constant pain, about the many gifts she has which are going to waste because of it, I feel angry. It seems so unfair and meaningless. Yet it’s only one of millions of similar situations. I blame God yet I’m also convinced he loves us so I just have to live with that dilemma.
But what does comfort me is the knowledge that Christ promises to support us. I would echo the words of a carer who has helped me with this book. ‘When things are really bad’, she wrote, ‘and there feels nothing more I can do, I pray and pass the care of (the one she cares for) onto God – and I’ve found that very helpful.’ God may have created a world in which suffering exists and is randomly distributed but, through Jesus, he also came and shared in it. He knows firsthand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of injustice and pain. I find it helps to know that when I seek God’s support during hard times, the one I’m calling upon has himself experienced suffering. It’s usually the case, isn’t it, that there’s a deeper authenticity in the support offered by someone we know has been there. Because Jesus shared our suffering, he also understands it.
We won’t easily get our minds round the philosophical and theological issues raised by the suffering of the one we care for – or by our own suffering. We can only try and salvage something creative from it and hope that somehow its meaning reveals itself in the experience of it.
Some possibilities for discussion:
If you ‘ruled the world’ would suffering be part of it?
How has your experience of suffering changed you?
Does it help to be told that Christ shares in our suffering? Do you think it’s true?
John Keats’ theory of ‘Negative Capability’ was his response to aspects of life he couldn’t understand. Writing in one of his letters about what makes a great poet, Keats suggested it was the ability to be ‘in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason’. Unlike his fellow Romantic poets, Coleridge and Wordsworth, he didn’t want always to be seeking explanation and certainty but felt instead that we should ‘open our leaves like a flower and be passive and receptive’. His view was that ‘the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates every other consideration’.
Some possibilities for discussion:
Job, Frances Young and Keats all seem to recommend an attitude of openness towards creation. How could you put yourself and/or the person you care for into closer touch with the natural world? Why not try out any ideas you come up with during the coming days.
Are you comfortable living with ‘uncertainties’?
Share any experiences you’ve had of finding beauty in the way someone suffering or disabled responds to it?
Preparing for the next session
In the next session, we shall be exploring a way of thinking about anger suggested by the ‘Human Givens’ theory. If you want to prepare for that, take a look here. There’s also information at http://www.hgi.org.uk/archive/anger.htm and on the page (called ‘What are the Human Givens?’) that you are directed to at the bottom of that article.
Now is the time for anyone in the group to mention anything going on in their lives that they are finding difficult. When there has been time for everyone who wishes to speak, a silence follows, during which each quietly prays for the members of the group who have just spoken. Anyone who wishes to say a prayer out loud can also do so.
Leader: ‘The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made’
as we pray for each other, you meet us in our need.
Grant us the resources we need for our caring
and surround us with your love.
‘Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 4:6-7).
Now go round the group in turn and each person mention the name of someone they are caring for. Follow each mention by a long enough silence for that person to be prayed for silently by the group before the next person speaks. Then all pray together:
you promise to sustain all whose lives are hard.
Grant those for whom we care your strength and your peace.
May God bless us all till we meet again.
To take away
In Mister God this is Anna, the author describes conversations with six-year-old Anna.
‘Questions are in boxes,’ said Anna, ‘the answers only fit the size of the box.’
‘That’s difficult; go on a bit.’
‘The questions get to the edge and then stop. It’s like a prison.’
‘I expect we’re all in some sort of prison.’
She shook her head. ‘No, Mister God wouldn’t do that.’
‘I suppose not. What’s the answer then?’
‘Let Mister God be. He lets us be.’
‘No. We put Mister God into little boxes.’
‘Surely we don’t do that?’
‘Yes, all the time. Because we don’t really love him. We got to let Mister God be free. That’s what love is.’