Without going into detail, it would be fair to say that these past few years have seen some tough moments for us as a family. I shared some of this story with a good friend who happened to be in town visiting a few weeks back. We are childhood friends and shared a a similar Christian upbringing, but after attending the same Christian university we both found ourselves wrestling with our faith. He made the choice to walk away from the Christian faith he grew up with while I ended up (eventually) being pushed further towards it. Our friendship however thankfully has persisted, and is perhaps even stronger for, even considering the fact that we really only talk at most a couple times a year.
Given the geographical distance to our relationship we have developed a knack for picking up exactly where we left off the last time we connected. These are always the best kind of friendships. It affords us the ability to dig deep without wasting a lot of time with unnecessary pleasantries or surface banter. In truth we don’t often discuss religion, however, when I shared our story it caused him to ask a rather revealing question about faith, one that was obviously very important to him on his own journey as well.
How do you reconcile that experience with your faith in God?
Of course this is not the first time I have encountered this question. In truth I find myself asking it often, even on my best days. But what surprised me was just how unprepared I was to answer it coming from the mind of someone else. This caused me to walk away from our conversation feeling unsettled, needed to seriously consider revisiting the question again for myself.
A Co-Existing Relationship Or An Irreconcilable Contradiction
I think the reason I felt unprepared to answer this question is that I don’t necessarily recognize my faith to be at odds with the idea there is suffering in this world. That is not to say I don’t wrestle with the questions suffering evokes, but I have learned to be okay with the idea that these questions can co-exist with the confessional nature of my faith.
What left me unsettled though was the fact that my friend posed this question to me in the way that he did. This told me, considering our shared upbringing and education, that I didn’t always believe this co-existing relationship was possible. Looking back on my life I think this feeling is most likely right, which means that my faith is something that has evolved over time. For me is a good thing. In fact, the willingness to learn and to evolve, which is never an easy thing, has strengthened my faith rather than weakened it. But the fact that my faith has changed meant that my ability to make sense of my friends question in the context of my life required me to figure out why it changed.
The Lutherans and the Liturgy
The time I spent working in the Lutheran Church in my 30’s stands out for me as having a significant impact on my understanding of the relationship between suffering and faith. Every Church has a liturgy. Not every Church recognizes this liturgy for what it is. For me, the first time I had walked through the doors of a Lutheran Church was when they gave me a job as a Youth Pastor. This was also my first encounter with something I recognized as liturgical, a Church that practiced a liturgy that was visibly and audibly connected to a long standing faith tradition. The opportunity to learn the liturgy in this environment helped me to rediscover the power of the Christian narrative in a new light.
Liturgy in its most basic sense evokes an expression of both service and work, two words that provide some context for the original Greek. We participate in the “work” that God is doing in our midst by being called to praise, confession, prayer, Word and communion, the components that make up this liturgy. And it is this communion with God and one another the pulls the liturgy in this direction, becoming the means by which we are then equipped to “serve” God by being in “service” to the world around us.
So back to the question at hand. How do I reconcile the idea of suffering with my faith? I think my first response might be that not unlike the liturgy, it is a process, one in which the way I see God in the midst of my experience is rarely the same as the God I encounter in my confession. Which is why I feel the need to keep returning to this liturgy week after week. I need to be reminded every day of who God is in the midst of a world that doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense.
Service is sacrificial language bound together by humility, submission and grace, something that permeates the direction of the Liturgy and holds it together. Service is a willingness to subvert our own need for control by submitting our needs and our sins to God and in turn allowing God to move us towards attending to the needs of others. And the truth of this process is that it leads us is into the midst of not only our own suffering, but the suffering of Christ and ultimately the suffering of others. And suffering, captured in the light of service, is something that remains very much outside of our control. And so this becomes a willingness to enter into service to one another’s suffering in a way that is not dependent on the condition of our own lives or our ability to control the way we believe things should be. Rather it teaches us to depend on God’s ability to use our lives regardless of where we find ourselves and despite what we feel we might have to offer.
Learning To Breathe
A recent viewing of the film Breathe, starring Andrew Garfield and the rather wonderful Claire Foy also helped me on my journey toward considering my friends question. The film tells the true story of Robin Cavendish whom, after contracting polio ends up confined to a bed and a breathing machine and given mere months to live. Through the inspiration of his wife, the reality of his new born son, the help of an inventor, and the support of friends, Robin finds the will not only to keep on living, but to transform the idea of what it means to live with such suffering. Cavendish inserts himself back into public life against what society, in this day and age, had deemed all odds.
There is a moment in the film when Cavendish has first been hospitalized and received his dire diagnosis where a priest comes to visit him at his bedside. The Priest is moving from bed to bed blessing the souls of the sick and the dying, and when he gets to Cavendish he goes on to suggest to him that it is in our suffering that we can see God’s plan for our lives more clearly. He then leans over Cavendish’s bed ridden body so that he can offer him God’s blessing, at which point Cavendish spits directly into the priest’s face. It is a singular moment in the film, but it is a moment I can’t help but feel the real life Cavendish’s son, who produced this film, inserted with intention. It feels necessary and important for setting the film up to tell the rest of the story in an honest way, an important mountain to climb and a pertinent question to address in the face of his impending (and desired) death. As if to hear Cavendish say, here is my suffering, there is the idea of God, and so let’s not waste our time chasing after foolish notions that cannot be brought together.
And although the scene is only a moment, it does manage to linger just long enough for the sentiment to emerge that, if this idea of God is true then this “God must be playing a joke on us”, as a fellow terminally ill resident suggests to Cavendish in the aftermath of watching the Priest run out the door. A bit later during Cavendish’s eventual trip to Spain, a trip intended to give a figurative finger to death’s supposed upper hand, a Spanish resident also follows up this sentiment up by adding, “God plays a joke… so then we might as well throw a party”.
Which brings me back to my conversation with my friend. Breathe is a film about one mans decision to face his suffering head on and give it meaning. But for my friend, as it also seemed to be for Cavendish, suffering without meaning is what caused God (or the idea of God) to become irreconcilable.
Which brings me to an important realization as I work through my friends question for myself. The message of Breathe is that we need meaning in this life in order to live in this life. So the real question becomes, where do we find this meaning. For John and his Gospel, this meaning flows out of the work that God is doing in the midst of the suffering, a work that is made visible by our own call towards the service of God and others.
The Gospel of John
If, as I mentioned above, “work” is an important part of our liturgy, work also becomes an important theme in John’s Gospel as he continues with his testimony of the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.
In my previous blog on the Gospel of John I reflected on the fact that in his first chapter John establishes the single most important theme in his Gospel, the idea that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness, as weighed by the witness of history itself, has not overcome it (1:7-8). And it is because of this witness that we can believe (trust or hope) in the work that Jesus is doing “as” the light of the world (1:7). This presupposes a strong correlation between the work that Jesus is doing in the world and our ability to believe, a relationship that John’s Gospel is deeply interested in exploring through demonstrating the way in which he sees the witness of Jesus taking shape in the lives of his original audience.
As John begins his “testimony” (1:19) we see this pattern emerge where nearly every person who encounters Jesus first encounters Him through the witness of someone else, beginning with the priests and the Levites whom are sent by the Jews to find out who Jesus really is and then to bring this information back to them. Upon encountering Jesus, we see the priests and Levites insist,
“We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself? Who are you?” (1:22)
There is this need for the Jews in this story to have an answer for who Jesus is, and yet they remain distant from the , filtered through the testimony of others in a way that they can’t quite make sense of for themselves standing at arms length.
This need for an answer, for a way to reconcile our experience of this world with our faith in a God whom seems unconcerned with our suffering, remaining distant and allusive from our struggle, is also reflected in my friends question. We need to find meaning in our suffering, something the story of Breathe so eloquently reveals, and yet it is the idea that we seem to suffer without meaning that is the very thing that appears to keep God at a distance.
This is the darkness.
But John insists that the light still shines. For as allusive as Jesus seems to be in the midst of our struggle, in the midst of the darkness, perspective, He is in truth, walking in their midst, the one “crying out in the wilderness” (1:23), a phrase that not only resonates with the voice of the prophets and the Israelite story, but one that also resonates with the voice that brought this world into existence.
Jesus has been walking with us throughout history. This is the light that the darkness has not overcome. Which means we can also believe that the darkness will not overcome it in our present tense. As the brief recollection of the storm in chapter 6 reminds us, it is when the darkness persists, both literally and figuratively, and when the storm rages that we can also find glimpses of Jesus and an opportunity to invite Him into the boat with us. And a significant part of this storm passage, one that we must not overlook, is the persistent rowing of the disciples in the perceived absence of Jesus. They want to do work themselves, and yet for all the strength they show in rowing in this passage, they find themselves stuck without Jesus. It is the work of God then, in bridging the distance between our struggle and His love and grace, that welcomes Jesus into the boat in the midst of our darkness. This is what it means to believe.
And for John, to believe, this activity of hoping and trusting in the work that God is doing in getting into the boat and taking control of the oars, is to see God in the pattern of Jesus’ own witness. And not only to see, but to see the “greater things” (1:50) that God will continue to do to shine a light into the darkness.
To say this again (because it is worth saying again), if most of the people in these opening pages of John’s Gospel discover Jesus through the witness of someone else, John uses this to awaken us to the truth that it is in the witness of Jesus that we come to see God. And what John seems to covet is this idea of bridging the gap, of coming to see God in the person of Jesus with our own eyes, of welcoming Him personally into our boat, our lives. And the “greater things” that Jesus is referencing is coming to believe (hope and trust in) with our own eyes the work that God is going to do in Jesus, the work of Resurrection (2:18-22; 1:51; 5:25), the giving of life in the midst of suffering, the shining of the light that will one day break through the darkness for good.
The Work of God
So what is the work of God?
The work of God is the person and ministry of Jesus, the Word that John testifies of in the opening moments of His Gospel.
And what is the work the Father is doing through Jesus?
He is making Himself visible, moving us from seeing Him at a distance towards an up close and personal relationship with the one through whom all things are made, the one who is walking in our midst.
This is the sentiment we find in chapter 4 as the Samaritan witnesses finally declare, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is indeed the Saviour of the world.” They believe, and this belief is the work of God in bringing them into this relationship so that they can know who God is personally.
The Gospel of God’s Work Continues
This sentiment allows John’s Gospel to become a growing exposition of God’s “work” in this world as we move from chapter 4 into chapter 5, the beginning of a 5 chapter arc (chapters 5-10) known by scholars as the “festival cycle”. And it is in this arc that we see opposition to Jesus’ ministry set against the idea that God is still working, a work He has been up to since the beginning of time, a work in which we are called to reap “that for which (we) did not labor” (4:38), to reap the work of the One, as John puts it in chapter 1, who has gone before us to be a light in the darkness.
As we enter chapter 5 we encounter a story of a healing, and then we are abruptly pushed into the presence of this growing opposition as we read “now, that day was the Sabbath”.
The Sabbath reference here is equated with the law to which Jesus, as a Jew, would have been obligated to follow. Context is important of course, and for Jewish readers this phrase would have uncovered an important debate in the Midrash (Jewish commentary or exposition), noting an important piece of the puzzle when it came to deciphering ones moral responsibility or obligation to the law. It is true that one does not work on the Sabbath, yes, but if, for example, one is sick (as this invalid at the pool was), the obligation to care for this person (also under Jewish law) should take precedence over the Sabbath as law.
The issue of the Sabbath comes up a lot in the Gospels and in Jewish tradition, and this noting of this piece of the puzzle is what lies behind Jesus’ response in Mark when He says “the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”. In other words, to make sense of this moral obligation, for Jesus we must begin with the truth that the Sabbath is about God’s work in us, not about whether we do or do not work on the Sabbath. Is it possible for them to work on the Sabbath and still be in relationship to God’s law? Yes, if that work is the work of God. And as Jesus informs us in John, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” And the work God is doing is a healing work, a light giving work, a work that informs the Sabbath for our benefit rather than being defined by it.
Framing and Reframing the Question of God’s Work
John frames work in chapter 4 around the idea of the Sabbath in chapter 5 in order to reframe the questions surrounding God’s work in the world in chapter 6 in a more definitive fashion, a point in which we once again arrive at an important and familiar question, one that sits well alongside my friends question as well.
Following a call to enter into the work of God in the passage that begins in 6:22, the crowd asks,
“What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”
To which Jesus responds, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” 6:29
Which awakens me to a couple of important points:
1. Jesus juxtaposes their question against His answer by switching the order of the question, emphasizing that belief is the work of God not our own. It’s a way of repeating their question back to them and setting it into proper perspective.
2. What must we do? We believe. Once again, this is the purpose of God’s work.
3. And what is belief? It is seeing God in Jesus.
To which they naturally ask, if the point is to see you, what work do you perform (6:30)?
To which Jesus responds by saying that He is feeding his people (the image of the bread becomes important in John), and he is giving life (Resurrection) (6:33).
If we move back in this passage ever so slightly we discover that the reason the crowd came seeking Jesus is because they had already ate their fill of loaves (6:26). Jesus uses this to remind them that it was not the physical signs that caused them to believe, but the taste they got of Jesus Himself and the life that He came to bring on His terms. It is a contrast that is intended to remind us that to see God’s work we must give up control of our need for God to work in the way we think He should. God’s work is Jesus, not the absence or fulfillment of hunger, and to hunger for Jesus is the real point of His work. And if we move forward ever so slightly in the passage we see the motivation for this work that Jesus is doing, “that I should lose nothing of all he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.”
So back one final time to my friend’s question. How do I reconcile our suffering with my faith in God? I think it is significant that this passage begins with a story of one man’s healing in a crowd of many suffering invalids. There are multiple characters in this story that I might be able to relate to in different ways at different times. It could be the man receiving healing. It might be the many invalids surrounding this man who is healed. It might be the ones who are struggling with the question of who Jesus is in a world where so many still suffer.
The truth is, whoever I might relate to in this passage, a good practice to be in when we meditate on scripture, I think the most important point still remains the same- God is working even when I can’t always see it. God is still working even when I don’t always know it. And this might sound trite. It might sound cliche. But in a world full of suffering, in a crowd full of invalids who do not appear to see Jesus and who do not appear to be healed, I find myself taken aback by the thought that God still sees the life of this single individual. This, for me, is what allows me to enter into the insistence of Jesus in 6:51 that the bread (in the form of his flesh, in both His literal suffering and the figurative sense of His life giving spirit) He is giving is for the life of the “world”. Or the concern He has for losing “nothing” of all the life God has entrusted to him. Or that familiar phrasing of John 3:16 that declares that “whoever” believes, the belief that is the work of God and God alone, should be given life. Where Jesus singles out one man in chapter 5, here in Chapter 6 he sees the crowd, a crowd that eventually eat their “fill” and become seekers as Jesus uses the limited resources of a few to fee the multitude. And this curious phrase, “gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost” (6:12) seems to indicate to me this powerful picture of Christ intimately concerned still with the one even as he sees the multitude.
I don’t have all the answers and I don’t always feel confident in my faith, but like the ones who come to Jesus I have in the past ate my fill of loaves (6:26). Which is why I keep seeking even in the midst of my suffering. Which is why I have hope that God is still working. Which is why coming to this liturgy, the liturgy that leads me back to the communion table, is so important to me.
And The Light Still Shines
There is an important scene in Breathe where they have travelled to Spain, they find themselves stuck on the side of the road with only a breathing pump to keep Cavendish alive, and they are given the opportunity to sit in this moment and watch the sunset and the sunrise. It’s a moment that conjures up this sense that in each day lies the promise of another, that in the darkness the light still shines. And as Cavendish looks to find meaning in the midst of his suffering, this realization of a new day reminds him that any meaning he is able to find this life, in these moments, is a gift, not something he can create.
It is a scene that also reflects the narrative bookends of his own story, one in which his suffering causes him to lose sight of the light of the sun as he loses control of not only his body, but his life, confined to a room where the darkness is given space to consume him with sorrow. This is where he wants to die, where he becomes apathetic to the ones who can be a light to his world and who need him to be a light to theirs, the ones through which he will eventually find the meaning he needs in order to live again. It is an important realization that digs deep into the root of the growing question, exposed by the presence of this priest, about why this sort of suffering exists, and it rings out through his eventual efforts to give new life to those who need it in the world that surround him, the world in which, I believe, God has placed him.
This is the same realization I came to in my wrestling with God and the Gospels. The work of God in my life, the glimpses I am giving of Jesus in the people and places in which God has placed me, is where I find meaning that can’t be stripped away, no matter what suffering I may or may not face. And the truth that I mean something to God is what allows me to enter into this work as one who can choose to extend this meaning outwards. Because the world needs meaning in the midst of its suffering. It needs the light in the darkness. And where God’s story intersects with my own, I can confidently declare that the light persists, not because I have all the answers, but because I have tasted, and that is what keeps me seeking.