Monday, May 03, 2010

Allow for Space in the Music - Arends

My most recent Christianity Today column is about the way we respond to the suffering of others and ourselves.  It's one of those topics I wish I could have had about 3000 words to write about, but here's what I managed in 800.  I'd love it if you let me know how it hits you.

Allow for Space in the Music
Acknowledging the mystery of pain.
From the April issue from Christianity Today


Eighteen months ago, my mother was diagnosed with colon cancer, and my father's rare neurological disease took a hairpin turn for the worse. Their busy lives dissolved into months of treatments, complications, and worst-case scenarios.

Caring for them has been my first real experience with prolonged suffering. I had no clue about the malaise that can spawn from the union of chronic pain and diminished hope. My parents have been heroic. But they have also groped for the meaning of their pain and its remedy, and have found neither.

Through it all I have tried to offer comfort, and I've watched others do the same. Sometimes our words have been balms. Sometimes they have been hand grenades.

I recently asked friends online what words and actions had been the least helpful in trying times, and I got a passionate and prolific response. I recognized many of the platitudes listed as things that had come out of my mouth.

Many responses fell into a category I call "Invalidation of the Present Pain." With a bombastic mix of well-meaning fervor and unconscious impatience, we attempt to rush our wounded friend to closure. Classics include "It will all work out in the end," "Time heals all wounds," and glib recitations of Romans 8:28.

Many of those responses are wonderfully true. But so is Jesus' observation that it's those who mourn who are comforted (Matt. 5:4). He knew better than anyone the Happy Ending that awaits us, yet he was deeply respectful of the pain of our present condition. John 11:35 tells us that when Jesus' friend died, he wept; the Greek word refers to a passionate outpouring of grief. So perhaps it is more Christlike to feel pain rather than to try to expedite it.

Other replies revealed what I call "Formula Thinking," an assumption that a uniform explanation can be applied to all suffering. We believe affliction is either discipline from God or an attack from Satan, and that the right degree of repentance—or faith—will turn things around.

The idea that God blesses the good and punishes the bad, and that circumstances line up accordingly, is antithetical to the stories of New Testament believers. (It was also the error of Job's well-meaning friends.) It provides the illusion that we can control outcomes. When people are in pain, we reflexively look for something to blame, so we can avoid that variable and keep out of harm's way. Tragically, our judgments are often salt in our friends' wounds.

Still other responses fell into what I call the "Forced Meaning" reactions. "God has a reason for everything," we claim, and then we try to ram horrible tragedies into redemptive molds—suggesting that cancer, rape, and earthquakes are wake-up calls, strange expressions of grace in God's epic story. But does the Haitian mother holding her child's mangled body really have a chance of finding comfort in this platitude? Is it true?

Scripture reveals a sovereign God actively working in human events, but it also speaks clearly of free will and its consequences. I cannot begin to fathom the tension between the two. But I do believe that most of our suffering is the result of brokenness, and that God is more interested in reconciling all things to himself than in blowing them apart. Yes, God brings good out of tragedy (it's one of his specialties), but that doesn't mean he necessarily engineered the horrors.

After the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami, theologian David Bentley Hart responded eloquently to the Forced Meaning bias, saying that Christians shouldn't "console ourselves with vacuous cant about the mysterious course taken by God's goodness in this world, or … assure others that some ultimate meaning or purpose resides in so much misery. Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue his creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred."

So what can we say in times of trouble? I asked my friends what responses had helped them the most, and their replies reminded me of a piece of advice attributed to Miles Davis: "Think of a note and don't play it." As a musician, I understand—allow for space in the music, don't always rush in, and listen. As a friend and a daughter, I'm starting to get it, too. Sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is think of a truth and embody it rather than say it. When we long to tell a hurting friend that she's not alone, we can simply sit with her as a tangible reminder that she isn't. When we want to reassure a struggling family that God cares for them, a well-timed casserole can demonstrate that very fact. Only when we acknowledge the present pain—and the mysteries that likely shroud its cause—do we earn the right to affirm God's goodness in the midst of it.

And only when we mourn—for ourselves, for each other, and for a world groaning for redemption—can we be comforted … and be a comfort.

6 comments:

Dolores Ayotte said...

Carolyn,
I am so sorry to hear about your parents' suffering.

I find that it is very difficult to truly understand another person's suffering unless you have wlaked in their shoes. Those who suffer usually want to spare their loved ones any kind of pain.

Nobody understands suffering or the point of it except God, Himself. You are so right when you say some people think suffering and sinfulness go hand in hand. This kind of thinking makes people try to find a reason or blame themselves for their grief.

It is not easy to be positive when facing pain. I remember a story about a person in the hospital who was in great pain. To bring her some peace and comfort, a nun/sister told her God must love her very much to have her suffer so much. She answered, "In that case, I wish He would love me less".

God never inflicks pain or wants people to suffer. He is as heart sick as we are about the pain in this world. He is there to guide us and help us get through our ordeals and shares in every way what we are feeling.

Take care and I will keep your parents in my prayers.

Marcia said...

Wonderful post, Carolyn. Prayed for your parents this morning. Marcia

violet said...

Good words to read this day, when attending the funeral of a cousin after her long bout with cancer is on my agenda.

Peter Black said...

Carolyn, you bring a helpful and necessary balance to this area; and no doubt your recent experience with your parents' health challenges has helped inform your view.
You touch on - hmm, maybe you nail as with a hammer - the tendency for us to judge, or even attribute God's judgment onto, other people's unfortunate situations; something the Scripture cautions us against, as you rightly show.
May our Father's hand of mercy bring healing into your parent's lives.

Carolyn Arends said...

Dolores, Marcia, Violet and Peter -- thanks so much for your insightful comments on the peace and especially for your compassion and prayers for my parents. Much appreciated!

Brian C. Austin said...

A beautiful piece, Carolyn, eloquent, but simply stated. We want so badly to know the reason "Why?" God often doesn't tell us -- and somehow I think in eternity the "why's?" aren't going to be very important.

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