Between the rinse and repeat I am forever rehearsing conversations with friends, bosses, teachers, and celebrities that never take place. So, when I was asked to write a piece for Be Love about suffering, my initial ideas and questions found their form during my morning showers. However, I found it difficult to move the process much further.
When I think of children who are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse; when I think of the devastation caused to entire communities by natural disaster; I realise that there are issues rife with the kind of suffering that disturbs and befuddles simple explanations of, beliefs in, or prayers to, a supposedly all knowing, all powerful, and all loving God. Wings of libraries (for our younger readers, libraries are like internet without hyperlinks and cat memes) are filled with books; which in the face of incomprehensible suffering, attempt to justify the image of God contained in Scripture, Creed, and Liturgy. I was struggling to make it to dry land.
Though it was not my own concern, I was haunted by the judgment brought down upon Job’s friends for their attempts to analyse and rationalise Job’s suffering – when God shows up in that story, these theorising friends are unceremoniously scolded (Job 42:7). A reminder to all who discuss suffering: Job’s friends were doing great, right up until the point that they opened their mouths.
Therefore, knowing my limitations, rather than leave the shower, I am simply going to let you overhear some of my bathroom musings. I am considering two questions: Does God suffer with us? (and) Is God with us when we suffer? Actually I’m not even really considering thequestions outright, I’m only going to consider considering the questions. So, if you’re willing, move a little closer to the bathroom door and drop some eaves on my practice conversation about the following questions. This way, if the Almighty shows up in a hurricane, my defense will be that this was, after all, only a practice.
Step one: Lather.
Does God suffer with us?
I’ll forgo the Pantene and pick up a German shampoo, the Jürgen Moltmann, the perfect shampoo when looking to the cross. Any theology wishing to respond to the existential question of suffering should begin with the cross. For Moltmann, the cross is where a suffering God shares in the darkest element of our existence. Meaning God is not detached from the bloodshed of history. On the cross God suffers with all the innocent victims. He is identified with the underside of society, and becomes one with those who endure violation and violence. The cross is also the moment where Christ experiences His own Godforsakenness, and is left alone in suffering. The cry of dereliction “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46) shows Christ himself asking the question of desperation and despair posed by so many others.
So, as this Moltmann-y goodness lathers its way down to my roots, I feel we could venture to say that in the cross we see that the question does God suffer with us is both asked and answered (by God no less). The cross is the centre of the Christian faith; and because of that, the centre of our faith revolves around not only the suffering of God, but also the solidarity of God with those who suffer, and the identification of God with those who bear crosses in this world.
Step two: Rinse.
As I wash out the Moltmann I find that a host of questions still remain. Why, despite all this talk of solidarity, sharing, and identification, does suffering still seem so lonely? Why, in the midst of suffering, does God not ratchet up the revelation to comfort us (or at least provide us with some classic hurricane talking to Job infinitude/f itude perspective)? Why does some suffering persist without hope? Why are our answers to these questions so often “hallmarky”?
Step Three: Conditioner.
Is God with us when we suffer?
Shampoo leads to conditioner, preparation leads to practice, thought leads to action. Is there a dichotomy between the questions of the rinse and the promise echoed throughout Scripture that Christ is with us? Perhaps we need to revisit what we mean when we ask if God is “with” us.
The Spirit dwells within us and we are called to carry on Christ’s work. To be the hands and feet of God, bringing the kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven. In fact Christ says that we will do even greater things than He (John 14:12)! So God is within us. This means we don’t have to wait around to see if those suffering will experience God’s presence. We can make the presence of God present in situations of suffering. This means when we visit our suffering neighbour – we fulfil the promise that they will not be alone. When we reach out to support those suffering in our community, we embody the solidarity Christ demonstrated with all who suffer. When we care for those suffering around the world (through advocacy, giving, volunteering) – we bring God’s love into the midst of their suffering.
Thus the response to suffering is not eloquent answers, it is presence (James 2:14-26). It becomes less what we believe (or can articulate) about suffering, and more how our belief about God and suffering will shape and influence our response. James makes it clear; right belief without right action is fraught. Job’s friends are indeed the models – at least until they begin to speak – presence and solidarity, as exemplified by Christ on the cross, is the true divine response in the face of suffering. We need all three phases – we need to shampoo, considering the nature of God shaped by suffering; we need to allow the questions asked in midst of suffering to rinse away any apathetic theorising; and we need to condition ourselves into action; into practising compassion, in being with those who suffer as ambassadors of Christ in the world.