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Posts Tagged ‘Suffering’

Healing Haiti

Another catastrophic disaster hits a part of our world.  It is something that we never get used to witnessing via newspapers, news magazines, television news cycles, or internet pictures and videos.  The suffering is overwhelming.  The feeling of uselessness from our living room chairs suffocating.  Some of us pray.  Some of us give to our charities of choice hoping that our dollar will go where it is needed most.  All of us wonder, why?

There is a human propensity to try and make sense of our world; especially when struck with natural disasters.  In some ways, we deal better with blatant human evil that reeks suffering and destruction.  The “why” is answered for us.  We see the results of twisted evil human nature every day.  We recognize evil in one another.  When it spills over into our lives, we at least have some semblance of a reason for our suffering; there are mean, evil, wicked people in the world that cause pain and suffering.  However, what reason do we have when it is impersonal “Mother Nature”?

Natural disasters catch us in a web of meaninglessness like Victor Hugo’s fly in the spider web of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  There is no one to blame.  It is just how nature works.  It is “the circle of life” at work in our world.  Death and birth continue on in an unfeeling, meaningless cycle.  There is no rhyme or reason.  Whether tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, disease or cancer, nature takes its course in all our lives.  Even if we live our lives without succumbing to disease or accident, we will end our days in a “natural” death.  We are the products of natural courses at work in the world.  We are also subject to the work of natural courses in our world.

In our modern, scientific age we like to arrogantly think that we can control or predict nature.  And, while our ability at prediction has gotten better, we are constantly and painfully reminded that nature is full of surprises for us.  We are far from reaching the limits of human knowledge.  We are constantly discovering what we do not know.  After all, that is part of the mystery of human science and discovery:  We do not know what we do not know!

Nevertheless, there are still those who like to attempt to negate the mystery of creation by offering a “cause and effect” answer for every event.  The recent example of Pat Robertson’s explanation for the disaster in Haiti is a great (or perhaps, better, tragic) example of this pernicious human trait.  He claims the mythical legend of Haitians making a pact with the devil to be free from French rule is the cause of Haiti’s troubled history as well as present disaster.  Not surprisingly, his comments have created an uproar.  Unfortunately, he has had a history of “foot in the mouth” disease.  His reason for the tragedy of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and New Orleans destruction from Hurricane Katrina’s?  American abortions.

All such attempts at explain or come up with a “cause” for disasters in the world will always be controversial.  It may very well be an effort in futility as well.  When biblical Job suffered the loss of everything through one disaster after another, his well-meaning friends attempted to come up with a reason or cause.  It was the very same one that Pat Robertson uses.  It is the result of sin.  While personal sin has its consequences, it is not always the case.  In fact, God brags about Job’s righteousness.  In the end, Job’s friends get a rebuke from the Creator for their lame attempt to explain what God was trying to do in the world and in Job’s life.

While Job’s friends wanted to find some personal sin for the cause of Job’s sufferings, Job wanted to blame God.  He assumed that he deserved God’s total and complete protection from every trouble.  He attempts an in-your-face chest bump with God.  God puts Job in his place simply by pointing out that the Creator does not need the advice of his creation on how the universe should run.  The courses of nature were established by God without Job and his “wisdom”.  In the face of God’s creation and grandeur, Job does the wise thing.  He shuts up.  Oh, that our modern day commentators and wisemen of God’s ways would do the same thing!

In Jesus’ day, there were two tragedies that captured the attention and heart of the country.  First, apparently, an evil ruler brutalized and massacred some people in Galilee (Luke 13:1 – 5).  Second, a tower in Siloam fell down and killed some people in a tragic accident.  One was a tragedy by human evil.  The other was a tragedy of meaningless accident.  Jesus exposed the futile human attempt to explain these events by blaming human sinful conditions by asking, “Do you think they [the ones who suffered and died in these events] were sinners more than anyone else?”  Jesus’ answer is in the emphatic.  “Absolutely not!”

Jesus offers us no explanation for these disasters.  He seems to be content to let the mystery of the “why” to rest upon his listeners and us.  Instead, he does offer a universal explanation for humans everywhere and in every age.  “Unless you repent, you too will perish.”  Huh?  At first his answer – or explanation – comes across very cryptic.

Jesus does offer us a parable.  He tells of an owner of a fig tree who finds it not bearing fruit.  He wishes to cut it down but at the intervention of his arborist decides to give it another chance.  This story, like a laser beam, is aimed at Israel.  However, it speaks to us all too.  God delights in showing mercy.  He is not put off by “giving more time” to those who are due judgment.  Jesus’ point to his listeners is that we are all due judgment!  Therefore, we all had better discern our spiritual condition and turn to God.  Jesus uses the tragic stories of his day to point out that the sudden demise of these people should remind us all of our frail condition and existence.  It should remind us all to look to our own spiritual conditions instead of looking to point fingers and blame such events on someone’s sin.

Red and White Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009

Fire and Ice Rose, Bush House Gardens, Salem, Oregon, 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Haiti’s suffering should be a reminder for us all.  We all have our own “pact with the devil”.  If Haiti’s suffering is the result of such a pact then we are all under the same judgment and deserve the same, no less.  Likewise, we are all at the mercy of the natural forces at work in God’s creation – floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, disease and cancer.  These strike the righteous and the unrighteous.  There were many believers in Jesus who died in the earthquake and many who continue to suffer today.  Are we more righteous than they because we were not there and did not experience it?  I think not.

Instead of wondering why, it is perhaps more constructive to take a personal spiritual inventory and ask ourselves, “If something like that were to befall upon me today, am I spiritually ready to go into eternity and meet God?”  This would help us far more than sitting in the seat of self-righteousness and pronouncing judgment upon the sin in the lives of others.  It only makes us as useless as Job’s comforters and deserving of similar rebukes from God and the suffering Jobs.

Instead of looking for a cause for such suffering, it is perhaps more constructive to approach these situations with the same attitude that Jesus did on similar occasions.  When faced with overwhelming human suffering around him, Jesus did not attempt to explain the reason for human suffering.  He, instead, looked for ways in which God could be glorified in such circumstances.  This was the case of a man blind from birth (John 9:1 – 5).  The disciples, so like us today, wanted to know the cause or reason for this person’s suffering.  “Rabbi.  Who sinned?  This man or his parents so that he was born blind?”  Jesus’ astonishing answer is that it was not because of sin.  Instead, “This happened so that the work of God could be displayed in his life…we must do the work of him who sent me.”  Could it be the same with Haiti?

Perhaps the best response to Haiti is not looking for reasons or causes.  Perhaps the best response is, instead, to ask, “How can we do the work of God in this situation?”  On this side of eternity, we might not know all the answers and reasons.  However, we do know that God has a work he wants to do.  Perhaps the best response to such tragedies is to seek to do God’s work of healing and restoration.  In the end, God is not going to quiz us with, “Did you come up with a plausible explanation of why this happened to them?”  Instead, he’s going to want to know, “How did you do my work in the midst of such sufferingDid you bring healing to Haiti?”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Have you ever experienced a period of time where nothing goes right for you? We all probably have at some point, or will.  I have had a rash of bad circumstances.  My car breaks down and it’s not a minor fix.  Then my computer crashes and it is not a minor fix either.  It takes a couple of overhauls to finally get my computer running right.

My car?  Let’s not talk about that. One of my friends at church told me that he and his buddies knew what to get to help me out.  A mountain bike and a note pad!  Health problems.  Relationship problems.  Child raising problems.  Broken cars and broken computers.  Did I mention an appliance to repair or replace?

When this happens, do you ask, “Why?” I do!  I want to stop it and fix it to get out of the pain as soon as possible.  I want to find the cause for the effects I’m suffering.

Unfortunately, there are no simple answers to that simple question. Sometimes its just life.  Life can be harsh.  People I don’t know, circumstances I cannot foresee or control, can change my life forever.  I can only draw strength from God and others and move on.

At other times, I have to honestly look myself in the mirror and say, “It’s your own fault.” Whether lack of experience, wisdom, or just plain stupidity, I sometimes cause my own greatest pain.  I can only learn from them and go on.

Purple Flowers on Mountain Hike, Full Color, July 2003

Purple Flowers on Mountain Hike, Full Color, July 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Frequently, I hear people blaming God for their troubles. They think he is paying them back.   They are left wondering what “sin” it was this time that angered God.  As a result of this faulty faith, many live with an unhealthy fear and loathing of God.

I also see many people today loaded down with shame and guilt. Our society seems to thrive on it.  Some individuals relationship with God are based upon a constant sense of shame and guilt.  They think God is always waiting to strike them if they don’t get it right.  They picture him as the great umpire in heaving waiting to call strikes against us – and ultimately to call us, “Out!”

Yes, sometimes we do suffer the consequences of our own sinful actions. But that is not God hammering us.  It is reaping what we sowed.  Just like the laws of physics, there are laws of the human spirit, laws of human relationships, and laws of behavior.  We all violate them at our own risk.

For a reason beyond my understanding, he mostly chooses to not shield us from the effects of our own sinful behavior or sin-filled effects raging in the world.  Instead, he walks us through them and gives us strength in the midst of our troubles.

I do not know about you, but I would much rather have an escape route. However, life does not work that way.  And God chooses not to accommodate me with an escape.  Instead, he promises his presence and power in the middle of it all.   Frankly, I will take that rather than self-reliance or nothing at all.

Many of our insurance policies make allowances for “An Act of God.” Do you see bad circumstances as an act of God?  When bad things fall upon you are you apt to look to heaven and ask, “What did I do?”  You are in good company.  Most people do.  However, that is not how God works with us.

The good news proclaimed in Jesus the Messiah and Savior is that he did not come to condemn the world but to save the world. The world is already under judgment and condemned.  He did not come to add to it.  He came to remove people out from underneath the heavy load of fear, guilt, and shame.

So, when trouble strikes, it’s not an act of God. In our own doing, or just because we live in an imperfect world, things happen to us.  When they do happen, even at our own doing, we no longer need to look for guilt and shame from God but for help and power to overcome.  After all, he is on our side now.

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Poor Job. The biblical person who suffered ever increasing tragedy until nothing was left to him but a bitter wife has come down to us as an example of human suffering and the questions that go along with it.  He lost his wealth, his children and their families, all he owned, and was plagued with disease.  As he sat in an heap of ashes allowing dogs to lick his wounds, his wife’s only counsel was to “curse God and die“.  Obviously, according to her, Job must have done something to bring down the wrath of the Almighty.

When Job’s friends hear about his plight, they mount a support group to be with Job and offer him comfort. Unfortunately, they, too, offer words that are more damning than helpful.  Their miserable efforts at help and comfort end up bringing more suffering to Job instead of relief.  In the end, Job wishes they had never come to “help”.  He would like all of them to just go back home.

We still use Job’s friends as an example for us today. Whenever people offer comfort that ends up being no real comfort at all we call these individuals “Job’s comforters”.  Instead of bringing relief, they bring only more emotional turmoil and suffering along with a sense of guilt that whatever happened was somehow the sufferers’ fault.

Broken Sand Dollar on the Beach, Gleneden Beach, Oregon

Broken Sand Dollar on the Beach, Gleneden Beach, Oregon ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

I have been to too many funerals and memorial services where well-meaning individuals have turned out to be a “Job’s comforter”. Their badly derived words of wisdom and attempts at comfort only bring greater sorrow and despair.  I cannot number the times that I have wished someone would just shut their mouth.  In fact, I have come to believe that the best thing that can be said by family and friends and well-wishers at a funeral, memorial, or graveside service is nothing!  Simply being present is a gift enough.

I have shuddered as I have heard people say:

  • “God must have needed him/her in heaven more than we did.” – to parents after the death of a child
  • “Good thing you are still young and can have more kids.” – to a young couple whose baby died of SIDS
  • “Now you have even more reason to cherish the children you still have at home.” – to a grieving mom
  • “It just wasn’t meant to be.” – to a mom whose baby died shortly after child birth!
  • “Remember, God will never give you more than you can handle.”
  • “You just keep a stiff upper lip.  You’ll be okay.” – to a grieving widow
  • “God must have a lesson for you and your family in all of this.” – after a tragic accidental death
  • “God must have known that he/she wouldn’t have been healthy.”
  • “God must have known that he/she would have trouble later and needed to go to heaven now.”
  • “Try and be strong for the other children.” – to a young teen grieving over the death of his father.
  • “He/She is in a better place.” – to a young husband whose wife died of cancer.
  • “It will get better/easier with time.” – to a grieving widow.
  • “God must have needed another angel in heaven.” – to grieving parents over the death of a young daughter
  • “You are so strong.  I know you can handle this.”
  • “I know how you feel.”
  • “Be grateful for the time you had with him/her.”
  • “At least he/she is not suffering any more.”
  • “You know that he/she would not have wanted you to feel so sad this way.”
  • “Time heals all wounds.  You will be over this someday.”
  • “Things will be back to normal before you know it.”
  • “Maybe we should have prayed more, then God would have healed him/her.”
  • “Remember, ‘all things work together for good’.”
  • “Try not to cry so much.  It upsets the kids.”

This is about the time I would like to throw out all of Job’s comforters! It seems to be a human propensity to feel the need to say something unfitting in times of mourning.  Unfortunately, the best that most can come up with is some cheesy spiritual platitude, misplaced Scriptural reference, or miserable attempt to instruct the one grieving.  This is not the time to compare tragedies, instruct in the stages of grieving, or offer spiritual counsel.  It is a time to share in the grieving – to “mourn with those who mourn“.

Mourning with those who mourn is best done by simply being present with the one grieving. This does not require words!  It can involve a loving touch on the arm or shoulder.  It may even involve a tender hug.  For the grieving person, just knowing that there are friends and family present and that they are not alone in their grieving is relief enough.

If words must be used, short statements that identify with the grief of the one mourning is the most appropriate:

  • “I am so sorry for your loss.”
  • “I do not know what to say right now except that I love you and hurt for you.”
  • “My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
  • “I sure am going to miss him/her.  I remember when he/she…” – it is okay to share short memories or impressions of the deceased if it is appropriate.
  • “I just want to be here for you right now.”
  • “My heart aches for your loss.”
  • “I cannot imagine what you are going through right now, but I want you to know I am here for you.”
  • “It is okay to cry and grieve.  He/she was loved so much and will be missed.”
  • “You do not need to say anything right now if you do not want to.  I just want to be with you.”

This does not just apply to the time immediate following a death or tragic loss. It also applies months, even years, later when the fresh wound of grief is opened by a memory.  Such a person’s loss is never fully healed.  The pain of it will always be present.  To avoid becoming a Job’s comforter, one must help the one mourning identify the pain and grieve the loss.  Rather than prolonging grieving, as some may suspect, it actually helps the person heal.  Rather than attempting to suppress the emotions associated with the pain, they are embraced as a part of living.

Rather than become a Job’s comforter, the challenge is to become a true friend who “mourns with those who mourn”. If everyone became better at that perhaps all of Job’s comforters would be thrown out or at least drowned out by the love and kind words of those who are present to comfort those who mourn.

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