“…the grieving are not always fully restored, and there are times when the blind are not healed, yet the listening, participative, empathetic Christ is ever present in our suffering.”
God Understands Our Suffering
Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts states that, whilst it’s difficult to understand why people suffer, we should derive comfort from the fact that we serve a God who understands our suffering
Dressed in a military vest, a heavily-armed young man walked into Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, on 14 December 2012 and opened fire, shattering the quiet of this southern New England town, leaving the nation reeling at the number of young lives lost. Within minutes, 26 people were dead: 20 children and six adults.
Earlier this year, stunned Norwegians attempted to come to terms with the most pernicious manifestation of evil since World War 2. Anders Behring Breivik took a public ferry to Utoya Island, galvanised political elite campers and, for some 90 minutes, coolly and methodically shot 92 young people, hunting down those who fled. Both these incidents display the random and arbitrary nature of suffering. It has no favourites, leaving its victims baffled at its voracity.
Whether it is financial difficulty, a loveless marriage, loneliness, bereavement, unemployment, homelessness or poverty, suffering can be overwhelming, and the strategies adopted to address it limited. Calling for just prayer can sometimes be an excuse for burying heads in the sand, whilst developing a theology of suffering without neglecting the discipline of prayer can prove helpful for suffering persons. The Hebrew community and Christ included both these two elements when dealing with the ambivalent nature of suffering.
Beginning with the Hebrew community, for all of their privileges, history and rich tradition, they were not immune from suffering. The finest Hebrew minds were transported to Babylon to strengthen the Babylonian economy. Brick by brick the Hebrew slaves, away from the luxuries of their homeland, worked day and night.
Admittedly, their suffering was self-imposed, but suffering is suffering, pain is pain – self-imposed or not. To assist this context, it is important to remember that the pre- and post-exile narratives were put together as an attempt not only to make theological sense of the history of oppressed people, but to articulate the response of God in the face of oppression and suffering. How God responds to human suffering is an immense question. As for the Hebrews, there were times when they felt completely abandoned by God; yet there were times when they believed that, despite their enslavement, the Temple remained a concrete symbol and reminder of the intimate presence and love of their God. Their perspective of God fluctuated, which is an understandable response to suffering. This is to be human. To believe that God loves you on Sunday, yet the same God is apparently absent on the Monday, is to be true to our humanity when face to face with circumstances that we are unable to manage.
Here is the question: how do African and Caribbean Christians tend to respond to suffering? Often citing Paul’s writings in Roman 8:28, we say to ourselves and others, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.” I must say, I do sometimes find this traditional Christian view on suffering problematic. It is indeed right to locate suffering within the providence of God; after all, He is God. But to imply, as I think the text does, that all suffering is God-willed, ordered within the divine purposes of God, and that He wills – even predestines – all suffering, is not easy for me to grasp. For, does it not suggest to the disabled person desiring to walk; the single person desperate for marriage; the childless couple yearning for children; families living in poverty; persons young and old fading away because of cancer or some other malignant illness, that God has willed their suffering and approves it?
In developing a theology of suffering, therefore, I have learnt to value how Christ deals with His own suffering and that of others. In becoming flesh, Christ fully participates in His humanity and that of others.
Christ’s famous words, ‘May this cup pass Me by,’ is a clear and direct acknowledgement of the intense experiences that engulfed Him, as the reality of the cross and its implications loomed large. The Romans would frequently ensure that a crucifixion lasted for days. Christ, the colonised Jew, would have heard the screams of the dying, as their bodies and wills were crushed by the solders. Such horrific pictures of torture will have informed and largely defined the life of Christ as one who learned how to weep with those who weep, and suffer with those who suffer.
To fully enter into the pain of another is the highest expression of empathy. Even though I am not able to quote Romans 8:26 with absolute confidence to family friends who recently lost their five-year-old child, I can say, where appropriate, that the Word who become flesh knows exactly how they feel and remains ever-present in their grief.
It is with regret that the grieving are not always fully restored, and there are times when the blind are not healed, yet the listening, participative, empathetic Christ is ever present in our suffering, which is the testimony of Job and others before and after him. As a famous liberation theologian used to say, “In our suffering, God is there!”
Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts is the Racial Justice Coordinator for the Baptist Union of Great Britain