Monday, 6 September 2010

Another Post On Suffering

At the risk of repeating myself (I've gone over similar lines here) allow me to bang a drum I like to reprise every now and again. And allow me to do it again in a couple of posts' time. Thanks.

Unfortunately for any small group or Bible study I may grace with my presence, I am that irritating token person who always points out the unresolvable, willfully invisible elephant in the passage, just when we all thought we were agreeing pleasantly and coming to the same comfortable conclusions as usual.

On one such occasion the study was on Matthew 7 and I pointed out 2 uncomfortable realities, one of which I will now unpack.

I pointed out that when our Father gives out his gifts, he doesn't do so equally. He gives much blessing to some, and little blessing to others. To some he gives much suffering, to others much less.

One person's response was this; "This is true, but when I've spoken to people who have suffered, their experience of Jesus has been all the sweeter."

I gave a silent reply because of my hideous combination of a wildly emotional histrionic drama queen trapped inside the body of a painfully self-conscious, cringingly English woman. One who knew she had already rocked the boat too many times that evening to add an embarrassing, tearful rebuke (plus, well, my period was due, so the whole thing would have been monstrously amplified and very un-Bible-study-ish).

What I wanted to say was this:

How many suffering people have you actually spoken to in real life? Because what you're saying actually sounds like what you imagine suffering people to say while you are trying to square this difficult circle in your head. Yes, there are wonderful Christian examples like Brother Yun, who are able to count their suffering as a blessing but dare I say it, he is an exceptional man - a true hero of the faith. How many ordinary people with everyday ordinary unequal sufferings have you actually had an authentic conversation with?

Let me give you an example. My own sufferings are very, very small compared to a lot of people. Nevertheless as many readers know, my testimony is mostly not exactly jolly. I was asked for it by someone on the board of a well-known evangelical conference, only to have it returned to me with this feedback - "Thanks for your story. Do you think you could add a sentence or two just mentioning how God made up for what you've sacrificed in other ways?".

My answer was that no, I was not going to bolt on a contrived happy ending. My story is my story and actually, God has not 'made up for it'. There isn't an automatic equilibrium in my life - or anyone else's - which means that bad stuff is always weighed up somewhere with good so it all comes out equal and fair in the end.

Life is not fair people!

Life is not equal!

Even, *gasp* for Christians!

It may well be that my friend had spoken to a lot of suffering Christians and that they gave in to the pressure to give a happy ending and added an experience that was not really felt. Going back to the previous example of Habakkuk in my last rant about this (see the link at the start), sometimes, there really are NO FIGS! Sometimes we don't get peaches to make up for the lack of figs! The right Christian response, as in this passage, is to trust God anyway. To trust that there will be figs and peaches overflowing when we die, yes, but that in this life, some get crops of figs, some get none.

Sometimes that lack of figs creates a 'Heavenly Man' type of Christian. Sometimes it creates an OddBabble type of Christian who is far less heroic in response to her far, far, far lesser sufferings, who actually has a pretty impoverished faith in response, which actually a lot of the time is holding on by a thread, and a lot of the time, the One holding on to the thread is not her.

I am not wishing for fewer Heavenly Men, or for less joy in suffering or for less discipline in blessing-counting. God knows these are all things I desperately need to learn from in my life. I know that part of my response here comes from a gross lack of godliness and I'm not boasting in that.

All I wish for is a bit of honesty and authenticity. Sometimes (often, in my experience) the best response to someone's suffering is not to look for the silver lining, or to make one up when there isn't one, but actually just to weep and grieve with them while they are in their cloud and give them the balm of acknowledging that being in a black cloud just feels shit right now.