September 18, 2014

Miguel Ruiz: God Has a “Wonderful Plan” for Your Death

vggoodsamaritan

The Good Samaritan (after Delacroix), Van Gogh

God Has a “Wonderful Plan” for Your Death
by Miguel Ruiz

If I hear this one more time, I swear I’m gonna snap. “God has a plan.” Wonderful. And I almost thought that, maybe for just a moment, there was a lapse in omnipotence. Of course He has everything under control! That’s the problem: I’m hurting right now, and He’s sitting on His hands. I don’t like His plan right now, and reminding me that what’s going on in my life was, at the very least, passively allowed by the cosmic micromanager, that don’t cheer me up. Oh, but his plan is “not to do me harm,” eh? You’re not listening. I just said that I’m hurting right now. Somebody or something is doing me harm, so make up your mind: Is this a part of God’s plan, or did He delegate it to somebody else?

God is the one who crushes us. The problems in your life, right now, are His lovely little “gifts,” and anybody who thinks 1 Corinthians 10:13 means we can handle them all hasn’t spent enough time at the end of their rope. Broken bones, the Psalmist says, trembling loins and searing pain. “I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping.” …but don’t worry, I can do all things, right?

“God works all things for good.” It’s nice to consider that at the end of the trial there could be some positive outcomes. But you don’t know that. Sometimes things don’t get better. Sometimes we stay sick. Sometimes we don’t overcome our addictions, emotional issues, or relational problems. Sometimes we walk through loss of loved ones, divorce, or an endless dark night of the soul. Sometimes our life is brutally and violently taken from us. Any good coming from this is most certainly of precious little benefit or comfort to me.

I appreciate you trying. I can feel your good intentions trying to cheer me up. It’s just that what you’re saying has the exact opposite effect. Even if I knew for a fact that things would have a pleasant resolution (we never can), it brings me little relief to think that right now, in the middle of my suffering, God seems absent. How long, oh Lord?

Jesus knew what it was to suffer. He also knew God’s plan. Would you walk up to Him as He is being crucified and offer the same sentiment? “Don’t worry, it’s just three days, you’ll be back and it’ll all be better.” Somehow, I just don’t think that makes the pain of Calvary any less significant. Jesus knew He was rising again. He still felt forsaken. By God. He cried out in anguish. “Hang in there, Jesus!” Uh-huh.

Ultimately, God’s “wonderful plan” is for you to die. Every single person. That and taxes are inevitable, but one is promised you by God Himself, along with trials. Comforting, ain’t it?

“Oh, but then there’s heaven, and every tear will be dried from your eyes!” Ah, yes. The celestial white picket fence. But cancer still hurts. Betrayal still stings. Hard things remain yet before us, and God does not offer us a way around them or an escape from them. We must endure.

Let’s be honest about what that looks like. There may be seven levels of hell before the promised paradise. That hope is easily lost amidst the throes of agony, especially when we begin to wonder why a God who promises such eternal bliss can’t just skip to the happy ending.

…and don’t tell me about the character God is supposedly building in me, James. I didn’t sign up for this terminal self-improvement program. That is a back-handed insult, implying that if I were more godly and spiritual already, God wouldn’t have to put me through this in order to make me grow up. You might as well say with Eliphaz, “Remember: who that was innocent ever perished? Or where were the upright cut off?” (The correct answer: Jesus.)

You see, when pointing a person who is suffering to God’s “plan,” you are appealing to His sovereignty for good news at a time when it seems most responsible for bad news. This is what Lutherans call a “theology of glory.” God is good, God is all powerful, cling to this and know that His benevolence will win out in the end. However, pointing to God’s sovereignty as a source of comfort places His goodness on trial. He allowed this into my life. The world is cursed by Him because of sin.

A theology of glory almost always, inevitably, comes down to something YOU can do to help improve your situation. “God’s got a plan” nearly always segues into, “…and you just need to…” Pray more. Believe more strongly. Learn to accept it. Focus on others. Be more satisfied with God. I propose that we do not have as much influence over our life as we often like to think. Sometimes a solution may come from our own striving and the assistance of others, as with cases of addiction. But when the cure is beyond the reach of human effort, were only hurting people to point them there, because now their ongoing pain is also a consequence of their failure. Let’s add some guilt to the equation, shall we?

What then can we say? How do we comfort the broken? I suggest that the encouragement Christians give be something that can only come from Christian faith. I’m talking about the “theology of the cross.”

Martin Luther, in the Heidleburg Disputation, said: “He deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God seen through suffering and the cross.” A potentially benevolent Almighty is simply not a Christian encouragement. A Muslim could say that. It is Christ-less, it is cross-less.

When the troubles of life threaten to undo us, Christians can cling with hope to the cross of Christ. Here, and here alone, we see who God truly is for us. And this sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, God-forsaken man is Emmanuel: God with us.

Pieta (after Delacroix), Van Gogh

Pieta (after Delacroix), Van Gogh

That is the Christian comfort. In your agony, Jesus suffers with you. When we cry, He shares our tears. When we bleed, He shares our scars. When our life is spent, He says “you are safe in my death.” Though we are healed by His wounds, it is not a completely vicarious healing: we are united to Him in His death, and share with Him in His suffering. God is not twiddling His thumbs while we writhe, waiting for the perfect time to enact His maneuver. He is by your side, walking with you through fire.

Luther goes on to say, “A theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. A theologian of the cross calls the things what it actually is.” Suffering is bad. It is not a means to some higher end, as if whatever didn’t kill you would make you stronger. It will kill you, eventually. We are not called to carry our cross like little spiritual stoics. Sometimes trusting God will include some very dark emotions. We are called to walk with Christ through the valley of the shadow of death, that He might be our light and our life. Let us look to Him in our trials; not to the Father’s power and foresight, which judges the world through the curse, but to the Son, whose promise and presence is the one true balm for every woe. In the cross of Christ we see not a God of “the plan” pulling the strings of the universe, but a God of compassion, who delights in showing mercy.

I understand that for many, a pat on the back and a reminder that God is bigger than their problems is all the encouragement they need to soldier on. But if these problems don’t then go away soon, the silent sovereignty of God looms over them like a threat. It is not in His power (glory) that God comes to save us: It is His weakness (the cross) – where He identifies with our frailty and mortality – that is our salvation, strength, and comfort. We cannot truly see the goodness of God and His love for us apart from the cross, and our hope must not be set on any pretense of positive payoff in this life. Christ does not promise us the instant resolution answers we so often seek; rather, by His death He has won for all believers forgiveness, life, and salvation; a peace that the world cannot give or understand. May these be ever with us as we plod through this vale of tears.

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

- John 16:33

Comments

  1. Best church sign I have ever seen: “It’s not always a wonderful life – summer sermon series.”

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      Nice; a sign like that would tempt me to show up. But the pastor had better not choose that point to wuss out and fallback to platitudes.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      That’s great. And I would like to think a pastor with the guts to put that on their sign would have the guts to preach the Truth, not just some watered down half-truth.

  2. Beautiful, Miguel. Amen.

  3. Christians can take great comfort in knowing that it has already happened.

    Our death, that is.

    He put us to death in Baptism (Romans 6)…as if to say, “Well…now that that is finished, we can get on with the business at hand…which is to live. And I will work my will in you…against your will…to make of you what I will.”

    You probably won’t hear that in too many churches this Sunday.

    But it is the truth for us who are Baptized.

    • Seriously? Platitudes? I am very much alive. I don’t know whether there is a ‘me’ now in Christ and a ‘me’ as some fleshly sinner, or if there is just me–double minded–loving God and loving myself. All I can say is that I am very much alive. I am the same I’ve always been and I am different. Mental assent to a statement by someone else concerning God does little good as I consider the conflict I live in daily.

      • A phrase often used to describe this is “Simul justus et peccator,” that we are simultaneously saint and sinner. The paradoxical struggle of Christian discipleship is believing that, through baptism, we have been crucified with Christ and are made alive in Him, even though the sinful nature still clings to us like a zombie.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Seriously? Platitudes?

        But they’re GODLY and SPIRITUAL and CHRISTIAN platitudes. Complete with a SCRIPTURE zip code.

        You’ve seen this guy comment before; you expected anything different?

      • So…we may not like what Steve Martin said or how he said it.

        But he is pointing to a truth taught and proclaimed by the Apostle. And a truth that the Apostle applied more than once to the problem of suffering and pain. Suffering and pain, by the way, being a subject with which this Apostle had an intimate and ongoing acquaintance. And yet…continued to fall back on facts like the one Steve points out.

        So…what if what Steve says here is right?

        And what if (as much as it may grate to hear it) what if there actually IS some measure of comfort in it if we are willing to hear it?

        Not all sayings are easy. Not even those intended for our comfort.

        • It’s not a question of whether or not Steve’s exegesis is correct. (I think it is.) The problem here is whether or not the emotions and circumstances of the person we want to convey it to will allow what is said to be heard. What theology nerds like us don’t get is that sometimes, it is much more helpful (and Christlike) to just sit in silence with the sufferer, than to read them the proper list of verses.

          • Regarding the sitting in silence — that is truth.

            Even so — many of the commentors seem to be adamant that there is NO comfort, anywhere. All that you might say to the sufferer is only “platitude.” Any attempt to point us to what is ostensibly our hope, under any time, any place near to the point of pain is seen as insensitive and a sort of bullying.

            I have myself been on the receiving end of the most clumsy hamfisted attempts at comforting in affliction.

            And I agree that the cross offers us no promises that suffering will pass us by. In fact, the cross states that we should embrace the suffering that is given to us. Isn’t this what “participating in the cross” means?

            So then if the cross is the only hope that our apparently meaningless suffering can have any meaning, is there anyplace where we CAN bring our True Hope into a conversation without becoming a bully?

          • Rick Ro. says:

            Yes. And even Jesus asked, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” which seemed to have a response of silence.

        • Dave the issue with Steve’s comments, for me, isn’t what he says. It’s the haughtiness in which it is sometimes said. Not real edifying. More to beat people over the head with and let them know their church sucks.

    • Dana Ames says:

      I agree with all but this: “…and I will work my will in you against your will…”

      I don’t believe this is possible. It may be that we are giving God permission to work without a sense of that cooperation rising to our consciousness. But he will not override our cooperation; that is not love, or the humility of the cross. Yes, he enables our cooperation, but I’m not going to say I know how, or boil it down to some kind of “grace” that is not He Himself working in me.

      Dana

  4. Call that Psalm 151.
    The cross is the great equalizer. I would have difficulty continuing in faith without it because of just what you said. The union of our suffering with Christ’s is what makes this whole affair palatable. The cross provides the answer for me when I wonder if God cares about human suffering. That’s true. On the other hand, I don’t have any sufficient answer yet for why the cross at all. Granted, the cross mollified and brought meaning in the context of all this horror if it is assumed that the horror of life is a given. The next question is this: Why design this thing with the need for all this suffering to begin with? The cross more than satisfies if we assume suffering is unavoidable in the creation plan but what compelled God to create a plan imbued with horror to begin with? You could say He didn’t, that we subjected the creation to pain through sin but you know the cards were stacked against us when the apple was put on the tree in the middle of the Garden and just in case we missed it he put the highest, most fiendish master of deception in there to converse with us on the subject. Doesn’t sound like a sure fire path to bliss and unity. Now the real kicker in case we wish to argue that none of this was meant to be but happened because we screwed it up; Jesus is the lamb slain from “before” the foundation of the world. That would imply that nothing was waiting for us in terms of passing or not passing the test in the Garden. His crucifixion was, it seems, plan A. If that is the case, what does it tell me about the nature of things? I will say that I do not, not for a nanosecond, approach this with the thought that there could have been a better plan. There is certainly an inclination to do that in light of severe suffering and to quip, “If I had God’s power I never would have created this screwed up world.” That’s just wishful fantasy and avoidance though. It is what it is and life will be addressed on its own terms or not at all. Anyway, that’s the question I’ve been working on and exploring any number of heretical possibilities surrounding it. I find it helpful to start near the lunatic fringe with such pressing questions as this and find my way to the center. Most assuredly, pat answers will not do.

    • There are some weeks when the world news has me in despair and asking just these sorts of questions. This is one of those weeks.

    • Danielle says:

      I can’t claim to have any answers – of the profound heretical, profound orthodox, or pat variety. None that I’d stake my life on, anyway. I can only say that you are not alone in asking them.

      But if there is any answer in Christianity, I think you are right that the crux of it is here:

      “The union of our suffering with Christ’s is what makes this whole affair palatable. The cross provides the answer for me when I wonder if God cares about human suffering.”

    • Fred Flintstone says:

      “The next question is this: Why design this thing with the need for all this suffering to begin with? ”

      There is no answer to your next question – see the end of Job.

      At the risk of providing a pat answer, my rationalization of it is that in spite of our ability to understand both general and special revelations and the ability to apply logic to it all, I just don’t have the smarts or perspective or whatever it is to understand or handle it. Thus the need for faith and trust.

  5. Christiane says:

    ” Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or to remove it. He came to fill it with His Presence.”
    (J. Claude)

  6. That’s why I love the Psalms so much. There, we don’t have the platitudes. We suffer, and God is with us in our suffering. It’s OK to cry out like C.S. Lewis did in “A Grief Observed.”

    Psalm 13 gives the brutal truth of it:

    Psalm 13

    Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB)
    Psalm 13
    A Plea for Deliverance
    For the choir director. A Davidic psalm.

    1 Lord, how long will You forget me?
    Forever?
    How long will You hide Your face from me?
    2 How long will I store up anxious concerns within me,
    agony in my mind every day?
    How long will my enemy dominate me?

    3 Consider me and answer, Lord my God.
    Restore brightness to my eyes;
    otherwise, I will sleep in death.
    4 My enemy will say, “I have triumphed over him,”
    and my foes will rejoice because I am shaken.

    5 But I have trusted in Your faithful love;
    my heart will rejoice in Your deliverance.
    6 I will sing to the Lord
    because He has treated me generously.

  7. I don’t remember the exact quote, but Dorothy Sayer once said something along the lines of “We do not have a God Who explains why we suffer; but we do have a God who had the guts to take a dose of His own medicine.”

    And now I also remember a note from the book of Job in the NIV Student Bible – “one must never debate thelogy in a cancer ward.” IOW, abstract discussions of God’s plans, His sovereignty, etc., are for the classroom, NOT for those who are currently walking in the shadow of death.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      I like and very much agree with the Dorothy Sayers quote. I use that notion all the time when sharing with classes whenever I lead them.

  8. Robert F says:

    This is good stuff, Miguel. I need to hear this from the pulpit (though I don’t), and I need to remember it for myself, and for others. God saves us from inside the world of suffering, death and emptiness that his cross embodies; the fulcrum he uses to leverage us out of the hell of our own death is Jesus on the cross. Jesus on his cross is the firm ground on which God stands and pulls us out, by pulling us through, his death and ours.

  9. MelissatheRagamuffin says:

    Whenever I’ve gone through dark times and people started with the religious platitudes, I’ve reminded them that Job’s comforters did a great job until they opened their mouths. It frequently shuts them up.

    • Christiane Smith says:

      Your comment reminds me of my Jewish friend who lost her husband to cancer and ‘sat shiva’ after his death. Visitors came to mourn with her, and sat silently, having brought food they prepared and placed on her table and in her refrigerator . . . they, for the most part, were silent companions ‘with her’ at that time, and she was comforted by their presence.

      We often sell ‘silence’ short. We most certainly sell being ‘with others’ in their pain short. We don’t seem to understand that there exists a pain for which there are ‘no words’ and our silence in the presence of the bereaved acknowledges the depth of their pain. ‘Comfort’ is a strange word, bringing ‘together with’ and ‘strength’ into the same meaning of consolation. The less ‘said’ sometimes the better when words get in the way of presence and the peace of silent stillness.

  10. Adam Tauno Williams says:

    “Suffering is bad. It is not a means to some higher end, as if whatever didn’t kill you would make you stronger. It will kill you, eventually.”

    +1,000. Suffering is bad. I appreciate that his sentence, nowhere following “Suffering is bad”, contains a “but”. There is no “but” in the darkness.

    “buts” infuriate me. “but he’ll always live on in your heart”. #### you! Now you are additionally burdened with having to deal civilly with this doe eyed creature whose 13lbs of gray matter should be able to inform her how callous and stupid her statement is.

    If your word of comfort contains a “but”, keep your words to yourself.

    • MelissatheRagamuffin says:

      I told some well intentioned (I think) woman to get the 1@$@#% away from me at my grandfather’s funeral for doing exactly that. Buzzing around like a gnat telling us all how my grandfather was no longer suffering and he would always be in our hearts.

  11. The world is already drowning in its efforts at life; it does not need lifeguards who swim to it carrying the barbells of their own moral and spiritual efforts.

    Capon, Parables of Grace, chapt. 9

    • Robert F says:

      And yet, how much the poorer would the world be morally and spiritually if Ghandi hadn’t made his efforts?

  12. Miguel – thank you so much. This was exactly what I needed to be reminded of this day- the theology of the cross – “…in the cross of Christ, we see not a God of “the plan,” pulling the strings of the universe, but a God of compassion…” My religious background has me so trained to look at every emotion, event, instance as Gods intervention in “the plan” that I don’t know how to think or pray. My 4+decades have been full of the pain of hardship of family and friends- depression, divorce traumas, abuse, mental illness. The past 2 decades of a more personal nature with the previous but then also our daughter diagnosed with muscular dystrophy- she is now 19. Some days every attempt , every single thing seems overwhelming and impossible and I cannot stand one more person telling me “all things work together for His good”. Or the many other truths that I just don’t “feel.” Well meaning but always having to do with this so called “plan.” We are currently trying to get Our girl and ourselves to Scotland for a year as she has been awarded a place in St. Andrews Masters program. So how do parents of a fully disabled young woman get one year Visas to go with and care for her? This would SEEM to be part of God,s “plan” but … Aside from going to DC and sitting in the Embassy, it seems impossible (long story – tried everything). Doesn’t caring for the least, little and lost come first on the “the plan?”

    So my question to you all is what does prayer look like here? In a world that is being ripped apart by war in Iraq, more sexual abuse scandal in the church, etc… This all seems petty and trivial. I can only pray as above and not ask That God show me “his will” in every detail or I will go insane. But I guess we ask to believe that He is the God of compassion and that sharing in the fellowship of His sufferings is enough?

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > So my question to you all is what does prayer look like here? In a world that is
      > being ripped apart by war in Iraq, more sexual abuse scandal in the church,
      > etc… This all seems petty and trivial. I can only pray as above and not ask
      > That God show me “his will” in every detail or I will go insane.

      I understand this perspective; but since you asked, I think it is at least partially mistaken. The world is, in fact, NOT being ripped apart by war and scandal. There has always been war and scandal tearing at the world, at civilization, at the rule of law, at the church, at faith, at hope…. and yet all these things have endured; perhaps they have waxed and waned, yet they find a way back, over and over and over again. There is still fidelity, and charity, and modesty, and humility, and chastity, and compassion, and faith, and friendship, and neighborliness, and innocence, and beauty, and hospitality, and forgiveness, and love. The darkness is dark, there is no pussy footing around that. However, the darkness has not eclipsed the light. We may pray within the darkness, but it always towards the light, or at least in memory of the light at those times when it has forsaken us.

      Here at journeys end I lay, in darkness buried deep.
      Beyond all towers strong and high, beyond all friendships reach.
      But above this shadow rides the sun, and those same stars forever dwell.
      So I will not say this day is done, nor bid those stars farewell. – Tolkien

      For me, in darkness, ‘the prayer’ is often little more than a gritting of the teeth, hoisting my pack, and marching forward. I’ll return to eloquence and high-minded theology again – when I find the morning. And while I am in despair I will not give over the world to it; I refuse, I will demand of myself to remember the beautiful things I love, and I will refuse.

      • Thank you Adam. You are right, the darkness has not eclipsed the light – thank you for that reminder. And thank you for Tolkien. My daughter, who just graduated from St. Johns College, wrote her senior essay asking “what is greatness?” comparing Frodo and Aragorn and then Jesus and concluding that suffering = greatness.

        Your last paragraph is beautiful and I will pray for the ability to “grit my teeth” and see the light in the midst of darkness.

      • Robert F says:

        Beautiful thoughts and words, Adam. Yes, the world has always had travail. Humankind has always been on the edge of death in some way or other. A billion invisible little acts of goodness mushroom through all the darkness of humanity and the world, holding things together and holding out until the next morning.

        Sometimes, though, there are no teeth to grit; sometimes, the teeth have been broken.

        • Adam Tauno Williams says:

          >Sometimes, though, there are no teeth to grit; sometimes, the teeth have been broken.

          True that, failure is inevitable. That doesn’t mean it will be today.

    • Lynn said

      That God show me “his will” in every detail or I will go insane.

      There’s a Baptist TV preacher who often says God wants to show you his will, and if you ask, God will move heaven and earth to reveal it to you.

      I have to call that out as being B.S. There have been a few issues in my life I prayed and prayed about and asked for God’s will but never got an answer.

      Then you have the Christians who scold you to stop praying about God’s will when he tells you in the Bible. Er no, God does not spell out every last situation in the Bible, like if you should marry, to whom you should marry, how do you find that person, what career should you go into, etc and so forth.

      • And P.S. to Lynn.
        I am so sorry for all the hardships you and your family have undergone

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Er no, God does not spell out every last situation in the Bible, like if you should marry, to whom you should marry, how do you find that person, what career should you go into, etc and so forth.

        But it’s very convenient to try to do it that way. That way if things go south it’s God’s fault, not yours. “Ich habe nur meine Befehle ausgefert.”

        Related to the predestination type’s “Not My Fault! God Willed it!”

        Here’s the appeal of that: I suffer from analysis paralysis (what JFKerry spun as “nuance” during the 2004 elections), especially when (as is often nowadays) “It’s YOUR Responsibility! Everything Depends On YOU And YOU Alone!” (“And guess WHO gets blamed if ANYTHING goes wrong!”) When you’re in full-honk Analysis Paralysis (“but on the other other hand… but on the other other other hand… but on the other other other other hand… but on the other other other other other hand…”), you long for someone or something to tell you EXACTLY what to do , EXACTLY what to think — just to make the thrashing stop.

    • You ask a very important question, but I do not presume to have the best answer. I can give you a few thoughts, though. Starting with the end: Is believing in his compassion and sharing in his sufferings enough? Jesus is enough. In the end, he is all that matters, and he is our only comfort. Whether in feast or famine, walking with him and learning to trust in him is the road of Christian discipleship. One phrase I mentioned may be relevant here: His promise and presence is the one true balm for every woe. I stand by this, and I take it to the bank myself. Here’s the catch: where are his promise and presence found? Full disclosure: I was using an “ecumenical codeword” for word (where his promise is) and sacrament (where his presence is). These two things do not make our problems go away, but in them, as means of grace, we can draw the comfort we need to carry on in faith even when our strength is failing. Sometimes that looks like continuing to fail, yet continuing to believe nonetheless. But do not look to the strength of your own faith. Look to the object of your faith, and know that when you are weak, Jesus is not letting go of you. Ever.

      What does prayer look like? Prayer is an exercise of faith, a tool for learning to trust God more deeply. It is so much more than a mundane “conversation with God” like we’d have with another human. We don’t hear back in audible words, and when we expect the wrong things, it often feels like our prayers are bouncing off the ceiling. Prayer is an invaluable boon to times of trial, but I do not presume to understand fully how it works or what to expect from it. I do know that the prayers of Christ (the Lord’s prayer and the Psalms) are the most effective tools for getting us started. Spend time with those, and let those words form your desires and help you express your longings to the Lord. I believe that over time these nourish us in faith in ways that are beyond what we can understand. Also, check out Luther’s small catechism on the Lord’s prayer. Here he shows us how these words embody the Christian hope and teach us what to expect from prayer. http://bookofconcord.org/smallcatechism.php#lordsprayer

      May you find mercy as you toil down the road less traveled.

  13. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    “Oh, but then there’s heaven, and every tear will be dried from your eyes!” Ah, yes. The celestial white picket fence.

    “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,
    You’ll get Pie in the Sky when you Die…”
    – “The Preacher and the Slave”, old Wobbly march song

    • HUG said,

      “In the Sweet Bye and Bye,
      You’ll get Pie in the Sky when you Die…”

      Yep, this drives me nuts too.

      I forgot to mention it in my post at the bottom of this page, but I am sooooo, so tired of Christians who tell me to suck it up and get over whatever pain or un-fulfilled dreams I have in this earthly life, that I should only care about “eternity.”

      These types of Christians suggest or come right out and say in sermons, books, or blogs that if you keep striving after some dream or goal in this life, it’s been made into an idol (they claim), or, you’re not thinking about Jesus enough (or insert some other problem they have here), so you should just drop it and only think about Heaven, Jesus, and Spiritual Things.

      They think you should stop chasing your dream and just sit about under a tree reading the Bible and thinking how swell Jesus is. I don’t want happiness in only the afterlife, I want some happiness in the here and now too.

      BTW, as to the Christians who tell you to give up on your dreams and goals… doesn’t Jesus teach the opposite? Aren’t there passages where Jesus tells you to KEEP PRAYING for what you want, don’t give up or give in?

      And wasn’t there an example in the Old Testament, like the guy who wrestled with God all night until God blessed him?

      If we have examples in the Bible of tenacity being encouraged, why do so many Christians teach a Give Up And Quit And Throw In The Towel Theology?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        I forgot to mention it in my post at the bottom of this page, but I am sooooo, so tired of Christians who tell me to suck it up and get over whatever pain or un-fulfilled dreams I have in this earthly life, that I should only care about “eternity.”

        Completely forgetting that they’re living in linear time right now.

        These types of Christians suggest or come right out and say in sermons, books, or blogs that if you keep striving after some dream or goal in this life, it’s been made into an idol (they claim), or, you’re not thinking about Jesus enough (or insert some other problem they have here), so you should just drop it and only think about Heaven, Jesus, and Spiritual Things.

        They’re Gnostic Pneumatics, so Spiritual(TM) they have ceased to be physical. Or human. Advanced to the Next Level, just like Heaven’s Gate.

        Like the Trekkie joke tag line, They’ve “Evolved Beyond All That”.

  14. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    A theology of glory almost always, inevitably, comes down to something YOU can do to help improve your situation. “God’s got a plan” nearly always segues into, “…and you just need to…” Pray more. Believe more strongly. Learn to accept it. Focus on others. Be more satisfied with God.

    Don’t forget
    “Study more SCRIPTURE.”
    “Spend Fifteen Minutes Alone With The LOORD Every Morning.”
    “You Must Have Some Secret SIN In Your Life (Unlike MEEEEEEEE).”
    (spiritual sigh) “If You Just Have Enough FAITH…”

    • Rick Ro. says:

      Study more scripture. Spend fifteen minutes alone with The Lord. Secret sin. Have enough faith…

      Wait a sec. HUG, you mean…those AREN’T to be believed!?!?!?!?! ;)

    • HUG said,

      Don’t forget
      “Study more SCRIPTURE.”
      “Spend Fifteen Minutes Alone With The LOORD Every Morning.”
      “You Must Have Some Secret SIN In Your Life (Unlike MEEEEEEEE).”
      (spiritual sigh) “If You Just Have Enough FAITH…”

      Yeah, that crud comes up a lot, in churches and in the many, many hours of Christian TV I watch.

      The “be alone with the Lord for X minutes at the start of your day” is a big one, a common cliche.

      I’m not a morning person. I’m lucky if I can shower and tie my shoe laces. If you think I’m Bible reading and praying first thing when I get up, forget you.

      I actually got some of these from a well-meaning uncle a few weeks ago, when I spoke to him about some of the problems I was having. This specific uncle of mine used to work as a preacher. He informed me that if I want God to spend more time with me, I have to spend more time with God, and I was also encouraged to read my Bible more often.

      He meant well, but really, I just needed someone to say to me at that time, “Kid, I’m sorry you’re having a tough time. I’m there for you if you need anything. I will pray for you.”

      Anyway. There’s a Baptist TV preacher who has this odd picadillo of advising his congregation and TV viewing audience to literally pray while on their knees. He seems to think you are more sincere, holy, and reverential if you pray while on your knees. He brings this up on about every third show.

      Praying on my knees, which I’ve tried a time or two, gives me rug burn and make my knobby knee joints ache. I find it terribly distracting, too, and I can’t pray for too long before my knees and lower back start to hurt.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Yeah, that crud comes up a lot, in churches and in the many, many hours of Christian TV I watch.

        All direct quotes, Daisy.

        The “Fifteen minutes alone with The LOORD every morning” came from a guy associated with THE most extreme on-campus Christian group at Cal Poly Pomona circa 1978 — one of those Spiritual Giants who NEVER experienced ANYTHING negative at all. My fantasy for ten years afterwards was to come upon him when HE’d finally found himself in a situation “Five Fast Praise-the-LOORDs” couldn’t get him out of instantly and recite all the Spiritual Advice he unloaded on me right back onto him.

        Anyway. There’s a Baptist TV preacher who has this odd picadillo of advising his congregation and TV viewing audience to literally pray while on their knees. He seems to think you are more sincere, holy, and reverential if you pray while on your knees. He brings this up on about every third show.

        I feel for you there. In my church, kneeling is part of the liturgical responses and my knees keep reminding me of my age. Looks like we’re not Spiritual enough….

    • Lol, HUG, I knew you’d fill in the examples I was forgetting!

  15. We should outlaw testimonies that tell of God’s divine intervention in suffering, as if that is the norm. It creates expectations for God to act that way in every situation. Theology of the cross stories don’t get told or published very often.
    growing up as an Evangelical, I never understood why Jesus would heal someone and then tell them not to tell anyone–that is the opposite of what Evangelicals teach and do–we tell everything! Now I think that is a good example to follow–we should keep our mouths shut more often and keep our encounters with God to ponder in our own hearts.

    • EZK said,

      We should outlaw testimonies that tell of God’s divine intervention in suffering, as if that is the norm. It creates expectations for God to act that way in every situation. Theology of the cross stories don’t get told or published very often.

      I agree with this a billion times over! I wrote about it farther below in a post I did.

      I’ve watched a lot of Christian TV over the years, since I don’t go to a local church. In most of these shows, they frequently feature some Christian who had a problem with (it’s usually either physical health or finances), but two minutes after they prayed, they got a miraculous healing.

      I had clinical depression for over two decades. I was not instantly healed of it. I sometimes wondered if God was even listening to my prayers, because it felt like he was not.

      As I wrote below, my mother had cancer and other health problems for three plus decades, and in spite of all her prayer, she died.

      She told me she stopped watching Christian TV because she found it depressing because she could not understand why God was so quickly answering other people’s prayer requests for healing (or whatever issue they had), but she was still sick.

      I sometimes still watch Christian shows, but if they launch into, “and I was instantly healed” or “God sent me a check for five million dollars the next day,” sort of testimony, I turn the channel for five minutes and flip back to avoid those stories.

      I think Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” is one of the worst offenders in this.

      In all the years I’ve watched that show, I’ve seen only one or two testimonies where the person was not healed at all, or not instantly. The rest of the testimonies on The 700 Club always feature someone who was healed five seconds after they prayed about it.

      I’ve noticed on “700 Club,” “Praise the Lord,” and other shows, when the hosts pray for healing and help for people in the viewing audience, it’s almost always over health issues, followed by money problems.

      Many, many Christians have mental health problems, such as clinical depression or anxiety, but I rarely hear Christians pray about those types of problems.

      The 700 Club financial “solutions” – I have to turn the channel for those, because it’s ALWAYS the same story:

      Some guy (or lady) owns a business, but they lose clients, so they are running low on money. However, they come across Pat Robertson on TV talking about tithing and the “Law of Reciprocity,” so they start sending Robertson’s CBN “X” amount of dollars every month, and then, they say, they got tons of new customers and are now multi millionaires, and they owe it all to Pat Robertson. :roll:

      • I made a formatting error in my post above. I did not mean to put the entire last paragraph in bold.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      We should outlaw testimonies that tell of God’s divine intervention in suffering, as if that is the norm. It creates expectations for God to act that way in every situation.

      JMJ/Christian Monist blogged a lot on that subject. Along with over-exaggeration of “New Creature in Christ” and stories of the dark side of both. When Christian Monist burned out on the mission field BAD and returned to the States, that sort of Testimony brought him right to the edge of suicide.

  16. Rick Ro. says:

    I love the “Wonderful Plan” being equated with death. That is indeed how this life will end for all of us. I’m gonna use that, Miguel!!!

    Curiously, if scripture is to be believed, His intention was that we would never die (pre-fall condition, right?). And Jesus’ death and resurrection brings His intended condition for us (eternal life) back to a reality. Sometimes it’s really, really difficult to get my mind there when living in the muck and pain of this world.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      There’s a joke motivational poster out there with the caption “God Loves You And Has A Wonderful Plan For Your Life.”

      The picture above that caption shows Christians being torn apart by lions in the Arena.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says:

      > if scripture is to be believed, His intention was that we would never die (pre-fall

      It is going off topic, but I do not believe it says specifically this in Scripture. I assumed it did for a long time – but going to try to find it,… it isn’t there.

      • Ditto to Adams observation.

        I apologize for being full of Capon today–I’m reading Genesis the Movie, but again…

        “…with the advent of the vegetable creation we see for the first time the ecology of good and evil, of life and death. Understandably, this may strike you as far-fetched. For a very long time, biblical interpreters have imagined that good and evil are implacable enemies, and that death (at least human death) came into the world only as a punishment for sin. (Despite my enthusiasm for Augustine, there’s no doubt in my mind that he was as responsible for such views as anybody.)

        But right on the face of this third day—with its invention of plants bearing seeds—something more complex is being said. The “evil” of the seeds’ corruption and the new life that comes out of their deaths point to God as the party responsible for the introduction of death into a world which has not yet fallen. As I’ve said many times already, death has been the engine of the world’s life from the beginning. It’s never been absent from the creation God loves. And thus when the Beginning himself appears as the Incarnate Word in the death and resurrection of Jesus, he’s just reiterating the same old story he’s told from the start. Every death in the world has always been a sacrament, a real presence, of the rising from the dead that the Word has had in mind all along.

        So death as it appears here is not a curse but a blessing. True enough, we human beings may see it as a robbery of life, a fatal abolition of our being. But that’s only because we rejected God’s hands-off management of the ecology of life and death at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Refusing to see our mortality as a boon, we decided to use our own hands-on mismanagement and fight it as an enemy. I’m not saying, of course, that we’re meant to rush to our deaths at the first opportunity. (By Bod’s Design, no living creature with its wits about it does that.) Still, by God’s eternal Purpose, every living creature does die sooner or later—and its death becomes an instrument of life for other creatures.

        Genesis the Movie, pg. 90-91, Robert Capon

        • Robert F says:

          Tom, to me the core problem has never seemed to be death, or even suffering, but violence, and the alienation and estrangement between human and human, between creature and creature, that violence, employing death and suffering, introduces.

        • Tom. NEVER apologize for being too full of Capon. :P You may recognize a brief quip or two I shamelessly stole from him as well.

    • I don’t think death is so bad. I would NOT want to live for 500 or 800 years, like the guys in the Old Testament did.

      I’ve had a bit over 40 now and have seen and done enough. I’m ready to go. I’ve been ready since my 20s, actually.

      Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone
      - John Mellencamp, in Jack and Diane

      • Rick Ro. says:

        There is some truth to this. I see ads for “learn how to live to be 100″ and think, “What, so that I can have my butt wiped by someone who isn’t related to me and bump into furniture at night and not be able to read books anymore because I’m blind and not even know who my daughter is anymore?” No, thanks.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Like the Greek myth about a mortal who was granted immortality by the gods. They just didn’t stop him from aging….

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        It’d take me 500 years to do all the things I’ve wanted to do in my life.

        And anyway, someone calculated that even if we were physically immortal and unaging (“Elvish Immortality”), the average lifespan would be 500-800 years anyway, just due to the average rate of fatal accidents.

      • I suppose that in some ways, the curse “you shall surely die” is an act of mercy in a world into which evil has been introduced through sin.

  17. Rick Ro. says:

    I wrote this earlier this year. Enjoy, or not…

    =====================

    Jeremiah 29:11
    (Rick Rosenkranz, 2014)

    ‘For I know the plans that I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope.’

    I’ve seen blue sky turn dark in minutes,
    clouds black as coal, heard the sirens,
    but I’ve yet to see a swirling vortex
    pick up a fleeing ’67 Chevy,
    father and daughter inside,
    and throw it like a toy.

    I’ve seen the shark in “Jaws” swallow
    a character named Quint whole,
    but have yet to see real blood in the water,
    a man torn in two.

    I saw the casket of my father-in-law,
    the sad faces of lives changed forever,
    but I didn’t look inside his motorcycle helmet,
    nor go see the wreckage of his Honda Gold Wing.

    And now I’ve seen the hairless head
    and pale, pale skin of my wife’s sister,
    heard the words, “I’m stopping treatment,”
    but I’ve yet to see the tiny murderous cells,
    the ones killing her plans for the future.

    I’ve heard Jeremiah’s words held up and preached
    as if they held some kind of magical power,
    but never will I understand them.
    Never.

    • Rick Ro, have you read Elie Wiesel’s book, Night?

      On page 32 in my little Bantam paperback he describes his first night in the concentration camp and what it did to him forever. Your last stanza reminds me of that.

      • Here it is. From Elie Weisel’s Night:

        Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

        Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

        Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

        • Christiane says:

          TED, you are quoting from the most heartbreaking book by Elie Weisel that I have ever read.
          CAVEAT: you may not wish to read this excerpt, its sadness is so very graphic. I read it during Lent.
          The excerpt that I cannot forget (it is imprinted on my mind), from Ch. 4

          “. . . To hang a young boy in front of thousands of spectators was no light matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was lividly pale, almost calm, biting his lips. The gallows threw its shadow over him. This time the Lagercapo refused to act as executioner. Three SS replaced him. The three victims mounted together onto the chairs. The three necks were placed at the same moment within the nooses. “Long live liberty!” cried the two adults. But the child was silent. “Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked. Total silence throughout the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. “Bare your heads!” yelled the head of the camp. His voice was raucous. We were weeping. “Cover your heads!” Then the march past began. The two adults were no longer alive. Their tongues hung swollen, blue-tinged. but the third rope was still moving; being so light, the child was still alive…For more than half an hour he stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed. Behind me, I heard the same man asking: “Where is God now?” And I heard a voice within me answer him: “Where is He? Here He is–He is hanging here on this gallows..” That night the soup tasted corpses. “

          • Yes. I remember the soup that tasted like corpses.

            I did a little googling and found that the original French in the verses I quoted echoes two things: Psalm 150, and also an essay by Emile Zola entitled “J’accuse” (I accuse). The English “Never” is “Jamais” in French, reflecting “j’accuse” and in this case Elie Wiesel accuses God for the atrocities. It’s an anti-Psalm.

      • Danielle says:

        Oh goodness, that book is like passing through a shadow.

        If I knew where my copy was, I’d go find the scene with the violin.

  18. Bill Metzger says:

    I now LIVE in the Theology of the Cross. It’s the ONLY message I deliver to the congregation, as well as to family and friends. In preaching, teaching, visiting, spiritual direction-it’s all Christ crucified. The Cross never looks “right”. It always looks, sounds and feels “wrong”. That’s why when people come to me in their suffering I always ask,”What is God up to here?” When they attempt to assign meaning to their suffering, I respond with “How do you know?” When you look at Jesus on the Cross on “Good” (are you kidding me?) Friday, how do you know what God was up to? Well, we are TOLD what He was doing-even though it looked, sounded and felt like complete failure, defeat, pain, loss, etc. God works exclusively through suffering and the Cross. God reveals Himself ONLY through sufering and the Cross. What a message! What comfort during our “worst” moments! My two cents!

  19. I believe that the United State Marines have a slogan regarding the wonderful plan that their superior officer has for their life. It goes something like “embrace the suck.”

    Sounds like cold comfort to some, but I suppose for those who have “been through it” it is just telling it like it is.

    • “Embrace the suck” is stoic machismo. It has a highly utilitarian function, but it serves as a motivational mantra, rather than giving eternal hope. When in doubt, however, speak the truth and shame the devil!

      • I’m a big believer in re-appropriating and re-contextualizing such things. Since I have a rather flexible and playful view of language, I can get away with that internally. I realize that for others who deal from a more stable and fixed view of the meaning of words, that might be more difficult.

        I hesitated before putting this up, realizing that it probably wouldn’t work for anyone but me because the original meaning is so ingrained in just the manner you state.

        Then I said, “what the heck.” and did it anyways. ;-)

        So…it seems to me a vivid shorthand for the holy words of the Apostle Peter — “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed”

        I admit that this may seem to trivialize something that is deeply and unbearably painful. I would NEVER say this to someone in the midst of their suffering (unless *perhaps* with a very few of my very closest friends with whom I have long history and a deep well of shared experience that has earned my the right and assures understanding).

        But I say to myself often, with Christ in mind.

        • Also, different people have different personalities, and different things work for them. I have six brothers, so if I am having a hard time, I fully expect to hear “embrace the suck.” In fact, sometimes “comfort” seems like an insult. “Suck it up, buttercup” is a way of expressing realization of one’s unenviable position while also communicating faith in the victim to persevere.

        • Robert F says:

          Agreed. For me, not for others, and a way of reminding myself to be courageous in the face of difficulties and suffering. Not too different from the angelic salutation, “Be not afraid.”

  20. Dana Ames says:

    Miguel, I appreciate what you’ve written, especially after +30 years of little to no theology of suffering in my time as an Evangelical that could sustain me through even the momentary, light afflictions that have come upon me. That lack, and the platitudes that flow therefrom, was more unbearable than the sufferings. I was pretty much left all alone to find Jesus on the cross.

    At one point along the way, I realized that in so many places in scripture, esp in St Paul, the subject of death is followed immediately by resurrection. It seems the two are inseparably linked… I think we can appropriately discuss that linkage without falling into triumphalism. If Christ had died, and that was it, then it would have been simply the senseless death of another good man.

    “God wants your death” is a pretty harsh way to state the truth about which you are writing. To me, it evokes the image of God at the controls of a giant crushing machine – doesn’t come anywhere near pointing my imagination to the cross. What helps me is to bring to my memory the humility of God as he is there on the cross, in total identification with humanity, and that he has changed and hallowed even death – though it is still the last enemy – since He Himself has passed through it.

    Yes, we have been baptized into his death. That is real glory, and also a source of real comfort. And it doesn’t stop there. God’s ultimate goal is that we should live. We can live even “in the midst of death” – and I do think what you wrote conveys some of that. I agree with the vast majority of what you wrote, and sometimes things need to be stated as bluntly as you have here. Some of the interpretation of scripture around this issue that is floating around among some Christians is delusional. And Jesus did say that he came to give life… If Christ has not risen, we are of all people the most to be pitied…

    I think you would appreciate Fr John Behr’s book, “Becoming Human: Meditations on Christian Anthropology in Word and Image.” It is short, but packed with truth that has reverberated in me like a deep bell since I finished it a few weeks ago. I will be returning to it more than once.

    Dana

    • It seems the two are inseparably linked… I think we can appropriately discuss that linkage without falling into triumphalism.

      Absolutely! In fact, one without reference to the other is not a complete picture. The cross implies the resurrection, and the resurrection requires a cross. Perhaps triumphalism comes when we proclaim the resurrection without reference to the cross.

      If Christ had died, and that was it, then it would have been simply the senseless death of another good man.

      This is why the person of Christ is the other half of the gospel. If you look at the kerygma presented in Acts, you see these two common threads in every proclamation: 1. Jesus is the promised Messiah (the person of Christ) and he is risen from the dead (the work of Christ).

      it evokes the image of God at the controls of a giant crushing machine

      I believe he is. So does the Psalmist. So does Christ. Thankfully, that isn’t the totality of his being or work. But it absolutely must be reckoned with and not glossed over. The cross is a crushing machine. It is among the most brutal torture and execution devices ever invented. Jesus calls us each to follow him there, because paradoxically, the journey won’t end there for those who do. The cross is the picture of life. It is the tree of life of whose fruit the new Adam freely consumes. And yet this life looks to the world like a death of the worst kind. I believe we need to be bluntly confronted with this on a regular basis, else we drift into trying to paint the Christian faith as a much more rosy picture. The gory brutality of this image keeps us grounded in the reality of the ugliness of sin and the goodness of a God who does not protect himself from it. The cross and the resurrection are one. The cross and the incarnation are one. The cross and the ascension are one. He came to die. The resurrection vindicates his death and assures us all of our resurrection as well, but it was at the cross that Christ defeated sin, death, and the devil (is that a Christus Victor motif?).

      Dana, I always love your thoughts. I find you often reflect my sentiments from an eastern perspective. I’ll have to add that book to my Amazon wishlist, though honestly, I almost never read books anymore with my current workload. I think it is time for me to go back to Bishop Ware, I believe I’d get much more out of it with another go around. BTW, on my exit interview for my colloquy program, the chair of the theology department at one of the Concordias told me that Christus Victor is making a huge comeback in Lutheranism over the last century. We’ve also been shamelessly stealing from your liturgy for the last 50 years (ektenia, phos hilaron, musical settings of the Kyrie, etc…). We can’t both be wrong on those! :D

      • Dana Ames says:

        Jesus went to the cross voluntarily, and Jesus’ death was the will of all the Trinitarian Persons… That’s different than the Father operating a crushing machine. He will not break a bruised reed… There is no other God than the one made manifest in Jesus, the GodMan.
        https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2014/06/14/there-is-no-other-god-than-he-who-became-man-in-jesus/

        The Orthodox perspective on the cross avoids any penal/legal sense; Fr Stephen has some posts about that. For us, it’s Pascha (cross + resurrection together, with the R. a noodge higher) that is reflected in everything, not just the cross. Christ’s death on the cross was 1) complete identification with humanity, and with the thing every human has in common; 2) the display of God’s forgiveness for everything, including our putting God-in-the-flesh to death (since God is love, he forgives everyone everything – his hands weren’t somehow tied until Christ went to the cross); and 3) the means by which he entered death in order to defeat it, and by defeating it defeated sin and the satan. Substitution has a very nuanced place, but falling under Christus Victor, not standing alone. A short and very good book by Ware is “How are we Saved? The understanding of salvation in the Orthodox tradition.”

        Orthodoxy affirms good and God-centered aspects of life and worship wherever they are to be found :)

        I also look forward to reading your comments. I think we would have some good talks over our favorite beverages; with our Latin temperaments, they might get a little intense, but that wouldn’t bother me ;)

        D.

        • Robert F says:

          I agree with you, Dana, when you say that there is no hidden God behind Jesus. When we see Jesus, and what he did in his life, death and resurrection, we see the Father’s life, too, and we see the character of God. There is no frightening surprise waiting in the wings. This is what Barth taught, too. We can pray to the Father and the Spirit as assuredly as to Jesus because there is no disagreement of character between the persons of the Trinity. Jesus reveals the Father, and the Spirit.

  21. Danielle says:

    Miguel, this is a keeper. Thank you. I keep trying to quote portions of it, but there are too many of them.

    I know it sounds morose, but it’s so important (not to mention a sheer relief) just say that pain is pain, and that evil is evil. Everyone is going to die, usually in dreadful and ignominious ways. Can we please just say this and mean it? Yes, it’s a terrible thought. Yes, it’s a problem for theism. Yes, it presents questions we can’t answer. But the solution isn’t to begin to admit that suffering is real, then to snatch back the admission 5 seconds later – this dodges the question and only leaves us all alone in the dark. “Terrible things happen, but it all fits a higher purpose.” That’s just a fancy way of saying, “This thing you are experiencing isn’t really terrible – it just feels like it.” The implications of this assertion are dreadful on at least three levels:

    1- It implies that your suffering isn’t fully legitimate. You experiences pain, but this is the product of misunderstanding, or maladjustment, or insufficient perspective: nothing bad is “really” happening to you. (Guess what, you are now alienated from yourself.)

    2 – It implies that I, a person who has faith in the ultimate goodness of God’s plan, am holding back from acknowledging and identifying with your suffering. So, don’t expect too much comfort from me: I’ve got a secret key that gets me out this morass. Why aren’t you using yours? (Guess what, you are now alienated from me!)

    3-It implies that God wants this “bad” (but ultimately good) thing to happen to you. This is all to God’s glory; it’s a minor matter compared to some other Very Big Goal God has in mind for the cosmos. Creation is headed toward some larger, beautiful terminus under a guiding hand, but your experience has nothing to do with this story: to the contrary, it is proof of the true extent of your alienation. (Guess what, you are now alienated from God!)

    I don’t mean to say that nothing good can ever come out of suffering, or that there can’t be or aren’t higher purposes into which our experience may fit. But I am saying that simply invoking God’s general benevolence or sovereignty doesn’t really address the problem of human agony. The only thing that I can imagine addressing it is solidarity. If God has already suffered with creation (collectively and individually), and is *here with us,* and will somehow keep us no matter what, that is a truth that I can imagine holding some meaning to me while I bleed out. Likewise, the fact that other people, who share precisely the same fate as us, may be with us, is meaningful: I don’t want to be alone. (If there is any higher purpose to any part of suffering, I suspect it lies somewhere in this solidarity with each other.)

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      I know it sounds morose, but it’s so important (not to mention a sheer relief) just say that pain is pain, and that evil is evil. Everyone is going to die, usually in dreadful and ignominious ways.

      In a recent benefit, George R R Martin auctioned/raffled off two places as characters in the next Game of Thrones book. He would write the two winners into the book as minor characters, but promised them both “and you will die a grisly death.” (And given the grimdark arc of the series and the fates of some of the major characters, that was no empty threat but a statement of fact.)

      In that respect, George R R Martin is more realistic and honest than all these “God Has A Wonderful Plan For Your Life” types.

    • It’s like we try to create a Christian version of the generic “everything happens for a reason.” It’s not that it is necessarily false. It’s just that sometimes the reason is simply “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” Knowing why is not the answer we need.

  22. From those of us who are intimate with pain, who have no bright future, and who often doubt that God considers us. Thank you. Shalom

  23. Aidan Clevinger says:

    The ultimate irony here is that the Scripture which so many use to support the theology of glory that Miguel decries – Jeremiah 29:11 – SHOULD be leading people to Christ and His cross! In context, that verse is a promise of restoration for Israel after the devastation of conquest and exile. That is the story of Israel (the chosen representative of humanity) that came to its fulfillment in Jesus, who went into our exile so that He could bring us home to God.

    Of course, that’s also the same Jesus who promises us that we will have tribulation in this world, and whose servants told us that we have to “suffer outside the camp” just like He did. We suffer in this world for reasons unknown to us, and our only comfort, like all of you have said, is that: 1. God Himself knows our sufferings and made them His own in the incarnation, life, and crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and 2. God, rather than abandoning His creation, has made it new in Jesus, and we who are part of His body and who suffer with Him will participate in God’s new creation.

  24. Thank you for this post. It addresses several issues I’ve been thinking about or struggling with the last few years.

    I am making my response here as I read along… I’ve so far read the first few paragraphs of it.

    I sometimes wonder why the Bible contains some of the sunshine-y sounding, happy happy promises it does when they don’t apparently come true… not for Average Joe’s like me.

    But anytime I watch Christian programs, I notice the cancer patients on those shows report that within ten minutes of praying for a healing, they got a healing.

    Meanwhile, my mother, who had cancer and other health problems for about three decades, prayed her little heart out (and I prayed for her as well), but she died a few years ago, in spite of all the faith and prayers.

    Oh. After Mom died – and I was totally crushed from her death for YEARS afterwards – I had Christians repeat Romans 8:28 at me and the like. I really started to hate the “Lord works all things together for those who love him” spiel. I did not find it comforting at all.

    I also wonder about the “God has a plan for your life, a plan for good, not bad,” blah blah blah stuff. My Mom was abused by some of her family members as a kid, and as an adult, as I said above, she was sick for 30 some years… so that was God’s awesome plan for Mom’s life, to be abused as a kid and sick as an adult?

    Original post:

    I appreciate you trying. I can feel your good intentions trying to cheer me up. It’s just that what you’re saying has the exact opposite effect.

    Yes, that, a hundred million times that. It’s annoying how so often so many Christians think parroting a few spiritual sounding platitudes is supposed to cheer you up.

    Original post:

    …and don’t tell me about the character God is supposedly building in me, James. I didn’t sign up for this terminal self-improvement program. That is a back-handed insult, implying that if I were more godly and spiritual already, God wouldn’t have to put me through this in order to make me grow up.

    Yes, that too, a million times that.

    Thank you. I tire of Christians trying to cheer me up by telling me the suffering is for my own good, to make me more like Christ, God is glorified by my suffering, so I should totally dig and enjoy suffering, etc. etc. etc. Thanks, but not interested.

    Reading along farther in the original post:

    A theology of glory almost always, inevitably, comes down to something YOU can do to help improve your situation. “God’s got a plan” nearly always segues into, “…and you just need to…” Pray more. Believe more strongly. Learn to accept it. Focus on others. Be more satisfied with God.

    I so could have written this post myself.

    I especially dislike the “focus on others” stuff Christians dole out to you when you go to them needing and wanting encouragement because you are hurting, and they give you the “serve others” platitude instead (then they add insult to injury be equating your suffering to “self pity” and condemning self pity as being some kind of sin).

    The “serve others” platitude is the Christianese way of telling you to stuff your feelings down and go into denial.

    I was emotionally empty after my mother died. I had nothing to give to other hurting people. I just wanted and needed someone to lean on myself. Yet other Christians were telling me to be a source of strength to other people at that time, which I find insensitive and unrealistic.

    I did even try to help others during the time of grief, I even volunteered at a soup kitchen a couple of times and found it very depressing.

    If I did not get the “serve others” cliche’ during my grief (or bouts of deep depression I had over my life), I got variations on it, like, “get a new hobby,” or “get a job,” or “get another job.”

    I really just needed a friend to hold my hand as a I cried. I did not want or need advice, platitudes, or lectures.

    Anyway, this post resonated with me quite a bit.

  25. AsinusSpinasMasticans says:

    “Life sucks and then you die. All of your triumphs are temporary. Strong men age, grow weak, and tremble. Beautiful women fade, Entropy’s arrow runs one way.”

    It was professor Tolkien who gave me a glimmer of a theodicy. Not that I think it is bulletproof or could hold water in a serious theological discussion, but I remember in The Silmarillion there was an Ainu named Nienna. Olorin [Gandalf] was her disciple. Of her it was said:

    [S]he dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. So great was her sorrow, as the Music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began. But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope. Her halls are west of West, upon the borders of the world; and she comes seldom to the city of Valimar where all is glad. She goes rather to the halls of Mandos, which are near to her own; and all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom. The windows of her house look outward from the walls of the world.

    That is as deep as I care to go. All will suffer in this life. Some like me, will suffer very little and not at all in accordance with our sinfulness. Others will bear great suffering and it will be to them the very fire of Melkor [Tolkien's satan]. They will be driven mad, they will curse God and man, they may even take their own life. Even from such great suffering can Nienna wrest wisdom, if not for the sufferer, then for those who look on helplessly.

    I think if I ever come across suffering to this degree, the best I could do is to ask them if they want me to do anything for them, then take some time to listen to them. I’m not a very good listener, but I think I could still learn. If they told me to go bugger myself and the horse I rode in on, I would hope I could understand. But Steve the Luderan is right as well. The platitudes seem about an inch deep at times, and it’s better to forgo them, but that doesn’t make them any less true.

  26. I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?

  27. Robert F says:

    ” We are not called to carry our cross like little spiritual stoics. ”

    And yet, when we realize that, as you say, on this side of death there are no guarantees that suffering will be relieved, or that any of it will make sense, or that we will be able to hold on, or that God will work a miracle on our behalf,a little stoicism might not be such a bad thing, if one can pull it off.

    Of course, I’ve never been very good at stoicism. I tend to grumble and grump.

    • Stoicism is not emotionally or psychologically healthy. Grieving needs due process, and denying that with spiritual rationalism is a subtle form of abuse. “Keep a stiff upper lip” not only does not make problems go away or help us deal with them effectively, it also creates new problems. Blessed are those who mourn, I say.

      • Robert F says:

        I don’t know, Miguel. I wish I could be a little more detached from the vicissitudes of my own life, and from overindulgence of my own emotions. I have not experienced it as a good thing to be at the mercy of every emotion, neither is it emotionally or psychologically healthy. I would love to view everything with a certain degree of equanimity.

        Btw, I really don’t believe that grieving is processed. My own experience has been that grief revisits me years after I thought I was done with it, with renewed energy, and that that grief is an open ended state never completely resolving, never issuing in closure.

      • Robert F says:

        Reading dumb ox’s comment below, it occurs to me that it’s not stoicism that I wish I had in the face of troubles, suffering, and threats, but courage, which brings a different kind of equanimity.

  28. Robert F says:

    Suffering is bad. Dying is bad. Why then does God make himself present to us in suffering and dying? Why does he suck our suffering and dying through Jesus suffering and dying? Suffering and dying are bad; are there things worse than suffering and dying? If so, what are they. No one answers.

    It seems to me that, though we live in the grace of Jesus’ reign, we have no other answer than did Job.

    • And Job had the right answer: “I know that my redeemer lives.” Sitting on the ash pile that was his life, he pointed his aching, diseased finger towards Christ and his cross. We can certainly do no better. In his death, Christ defeats death. The two forces met in battle with a violent clash, and one came out standing. God makes himself present to us in death because he walks with us through the valley of the shadow. He doesn’t leave us there to fend for ourselves.

      I know it doesn’t look like Job is talking about the crucifixion. But view the crucifixion through the lens of the ascension, and the puzzle comes together. “…God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” The living, reigning king is the crucified one. We cannot, must not separate the two.

  29. Robert F says:

    I agree with all of what you say, Miguel. But I don’t want God to be exhausted by suffering and death. I need a glimpse of a God who, while fully available to our suffering, is not contained by suffering. Otherwise, I shall die of despair.

    The paradox is that the God who is not exhausted by suffering and death only makes himself available to us in the vortex of suffering and death. He transcends from within suffering and death, and the only way to that transcendence is through suffering and death, Jesus’ and our own. This mysterious truth is almost as crushing as the idea of a God who is exhausted by suffering and death, but there is something left, a little ledge to hang onto, and a hope that the narrow passage through which we will eventually inevitably be pulled will lead to life eternal, to new life.

    • Thank you Robert.

      “And thus our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts that I might make, saying full comfortably, ‘I may make all things well, I can make all thing well, and I will make all thing well, and I shall make all thing well, and you shall see your self that all manner of thing shall be well’.”

    • A vortex, eh?

      I can concede that the cross is not the entirety of the Christian hope. But it is the crux of it, and the ticket to is. Our hope is also in the resurrection of the dead and the life everlasting, as well as that which we are taught to pray in the Lord’s prayer. But all these things must be viewed through the lens of the cross, else they are not Christian hope. Other religions have reincarnation and heaven. They don’t have God suffering and dying to get you there. It’s all about atonement.

  30. Stephanie says:

    Thank you for this!
    When I suffered a miscarriage three years ago, the people who hurt me most were those at church who kept insisting it was all part of God’s plan. Please do explain to me how it’s part of God’s plan to kill a child before its mother has even gotten to see its face, stroke its hair, kiss its cheeks.
    However, praise God in his benevolence! When it was actually happening, before anyone else knew what was going on, He was there letting His presence be known to me! As my tears came tumbling down as I mourned the dying loss happening inside me, I could feel Him right there mourning with me. Throughout the entire grieving process, I clung to that moment, that moment when Christ and I mourned the death of a child together.
    This article really puts into words how I felt and what I learned when I lost my baby. We, as a society, don’t know how to handle anything that makes us uncomfortable. When we try to buck people up, we are only doing it because we are so uncomfortable, but we only hurt the ones we are hoping to help.
    Thank you again for this article!

    • Thank you for sharing. It’s encouraging to hear of people finding Christ’s peace in their trials. I find the lack thereof to be the single most disturbing things in my walk of faith. But I trust in His word of peace to me even when I really, really do not feel anything like peaceful inside. It sounds like you experienced a touch of mercy within your grief. I know many who have recounted similar experiences. Jesus is still touching lives and working in mysterious and unexpected ways!

    • Dana Ames says:

      Thank you for sharing, Stephanie. That’s what happened with me, too – twice; and more intensely the second time. I did have a more understanding church community, for which I was/am very grateful.

      Hugs to you.

      Dana

  31. From the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America:

    Suffering is not a problem, but an unfathomable, theoretically incomprehensible mystery. We should not try to explain suffering or construct theories about the reasons for suffering in the world and systematic explanations that seek to reconcile innocent suffering with belief in a good and all powerful God. The pervading presence of senseless suffering in the world falls outside the bounds of every rational system. Remember how Dostoyevsky in his book Brothers Karamazov was seized with horror in contemplating the picture of suffering throughout the world, especially the suffering of the innocent and of the little children. The only answer, which Aliosha (representing Dostoyevsky’s own faith and attitude) can give is the image of the Crucified: He can pardon all; He can reconcile all, for He has measured the depth of our afflictions, of our loneliness, and of our pain. In the Crucified Christ, God does not remain a distant spectator of the undeserving suffering of the innocent but He participates in their suffering through the Cross and plants hope in the life of all afflicted persons through the Resurrection. When faced with the mystery of evil and suffering, the story of Jesus as the story of God is the only adequate response. The human quest for meaning and hope in tragic situations of affliction, draw from Christ’s death and Resurrection the power of life needed for sustenance. Thus, as Christians we do not argue against suffering, but tell a story.

    • Christiane says:

      that is a very powerful reflection, Father Ernesto, thank you for sharing it with us

  32. dumb ox says:

    “Every work of Luther, especially in his earlier years, is filled with such courage. Again and again he uses the word trotz, ‘in spite of.’ In spite of all the negativities which he had experienced, in spite of the anxiety which dominated that period, he derived the power of self-affirmation from his unshakable confidence in God and from the personal encounter with him. According to the expressions of anxiety in his period, the negativity his courage had to conquer were symbolized in the figures of death and the devil. It has rightly been said that Albrecht Diirer’s engraving, ‘Knight, Death, and the Devil,’ is a classic expression of the spirit of the Lutheran Reformation and it might be added of Luther’s courage of confidence, of his form of the courage to be. A knight in full armor is riding through a valley, accompanied by the figure of death on one side, the devil on the other. Fearlessly, concentrated, confident he looks ahead. He is alone but he is not lonely. In his solitude he participates in the power which gives him the courage to affirm himself in spite of the presence of the negativities of existence. His courage is certainly not the courage to be as a part. The Reformation broke away from the semi-collectivism of the Middle Ages. Luther’s courage of confidence is personal confidence, derived from a person-to-person encounter with God.” – Paul Tillich, from “The Courage to Be”.

  33. A theology of suffering is good and appropriate. But there is something about this disposition/articulation that disturbs me. I can’t quite put my finger on it. But it encapsulates much of the tension I feel when reading IM lately.

    • Can you expand on that Sean? I really am curious. The above article and those like unto it are sometimes what keep me going and actually allow me to grip tighter when I feel like I want to let go. Miguel’s writing today gave me hope that I haven’t felt in awhile. For those of us who live with suffering that isn’t going to go away, that is a presence every waking hour, the theology of the cross is the only thing that makes sense. And in it, as several above have said,there is resurrection and life. An old hymn talks about “sorrow and love” mingling and that seems to be what I hear above. I would be interested to know what the tension you feel is?

    • dumb ox says:

      It depends. If the point is that God’s plan is for us to die, then there is a problem. It is no comfort to have Christ suffer with us if this true. I know it is not – even from a Lutheran perspective, which I do not represent. Death was never part of God’s plan; death is always the intruder.

      If the point is that God uses suffering to improve us, then there is a problem. Suffering doesn’t improve us any more than works.

      If the point is that God must ordain suffering in order to be sovereign, then, boy have we got problems here.

      Life contains pain and suffering, no matter what one believes. The point is how does faith affect our perspective, through comfort or pain?

  34. Well written, Miguel–thoughtful, and encouraging, as it faces reality–and shows how the cross turns our reality (whether it be suffering or success in this world) on its head–ushering in a New Heaven and a New Earth–the kingdom of God, which is both in our midst and yet to come. Paradox provides insight to our lives, and can provide encouragement, even understanding for what we now live through. God’s blessings on your ministry.

  35. Thank you for this post, Miguel. It’s refreshing to hear a different view to the ‘God has a wonderful plan to your life’ notion, of which we hear so much, it seems, in some evangelical circles.

    Some questions:

    First, I don’t understand how Christ’s suffering should be an ‘answer’, or a comfort, to human suffering. That may be because I haven’t suffered. Does it? does looking to, and considering Jesus’ suffering on the cross provide some kind of resolution?

    Is God omnipotent? Either, can he do everything, or is he in some way responsible for every act that occurs in this universe? Does it all form part of an enormous tapestry, of which God is the author?

    Is the omnipotent God one of our conceptions of the reality, or hope, that we call God? Could we concieve of a God that is not omnipotent?

    Finally, Miguel writes that God’s plan is fo us to die. again, could that be a story we tell ourselves about the God in whom we believe? Can we know this for certain? Perhaps we can, or it requires faith. I;m not sure.

    • Excellent questions, Ben.

      Christ’s suffering is the “answer” to human suffering in terms of a response, not a solution. And yet, it does also bring hope and point to the final resolution of all things. It does bring comfort, but as I said, Jesus does not offer us instant resolution. Here’s how: In the suffering or Christ, God identifies himself with us in our suffering. What is the value of this? Well, it shows that God is compassionate and he truly does understand our pain. The judge of all delights in mercy, and this is good news. But beyond that, Christ assumed our flesh to join us in our suffering that by his overcoming death we might be joined to him in his resurrection and share in the eternal life he has won for all believers. So while Jesus does not make our pain go away, we can find hope in knowing that God has acted on our behalf in Christ, and will not leave us in our misery forever. Through his Spirit and by His Word he continues to live among us and strengthen and guide us through the challenges and trails we face.

      You see, the skeptic can point to monotheism and say that an all powerful and benevolent deity can not allow suffering, therefore such a being must not exist. But this essentially dodges the question: How does such a skeptic account for the existence of evil and suffering? They are rendered incidental and meaningless, or reduced to social constructs. In the death of Christ, suffering takes on new meaning, as God Himself cries out in agony for relief, even as he lived to bring relief to many people, and triumphs over suffering and death in the resurrection.

      Here’s a brief article you may find interesting on the topic: http://thebarebulb.com/2013/10/19/all-suffering-belongs-to-jesus/

      God is omnipotent, but that doesn’t make him responsible for everything that happens. I do not believe he is the micro-manager of every detail and happening of the universe. According to the scriptures, many occurrences are clearly against his will, like Adam and Eve eating the apple. He allows these things, for a time, though I do knot claim to know why.

      I do believe that many religions have conceived of non-omnipotent Gods. Most of them are largely abandoned as such mythical creatures have tended to be demonstrably non-existent (think Zeus). The Christian God is the one who creates the universe by the power of His spoken Word. Invisible, omnipotent deities tend to be non-falsifiable by empirical methodology, which is why, I think, they persist in popularity in today’s scientific era.

      Can we know that God’s plan is for us to die? I think so, but I am a Christian who believes the Christian scriptures. They teach that death is the result of sin, and is appointed to all men, after which they face judgement. You can bet on this: You will surely die. The Christian faith teaches that by joining God in His death we will also join Him in his eternal life. That does take faith to believe, but it is most certainly true.

  36. Ben said
    First, I don’t understand how Christ’s suffering should be an ‘answer’, or a comfort, to human suffering.

    As it appears God is not going to fully remove all suffering in this lifetime, in the meantime, maybe it cheers some people up to know that God suffered too.

    It’s one reason why some people join specific groups, like people who have lost a loved one due to cancer might sign up to join a grief recovery group. It can lessen some of the pain to be around people who understand the pain you endured because they went through the same thing.