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A Change of Perspective

11/11/2011

I don’t know if you are like me, but nothing raises more questions about God than the vast suffering in the world. I suspect some of you have walked down a similar path as me. There was a point in my life when my eyes began to open to the immense suffering of my fellow human beings. And the more I paid attention to this expanding reality, the more I doubted and questioned the existence and goodness of God. How can a loving God allow the kinds of suffering that we see and hear about throughout history and throughout the world? That question forever altered the faith of my youth and continues to frustrate me today.

My guess is that you know what I am talking about. I hear people wrestling with this all the time, whether it is in college classes or in conversations with friends or in books like Evolving in Monkey Town (good read, by the way). The interesting thing is that this question and the ensuing doubts often lie dormant until one finally starts to pay attention to the suffering that has been around the entire time. The fact that we didn’t ask the above question before is most likely due to the fact that we ignored the suffering in the world because we were too self-preoccupied, we ideologically justified its existence, or we intentionally insulated ourselves as a way to pacify our guilt and fear. Thus, at least for me, I could hold an unreflective and unwavering certainty about God’s existence and goodness because God seemed to be treating me fairly well. (This post is not really about when one encounters great, personal suffering. That produces a different set of emotions and issues.) Thus, the view of God that I held in the midst of a “non-suffering world” could not remain intact once I discovered that, in fact, this world is full of suffering. And the questions and doubts and laments rained down.

The above question is not one that can easily be answered nor discarded as irrelevant. I carry it around like a thorn in my flesh, with it, at times, swelling to the size of a 2-by-4. And I hope that all of us are in communities that will bear the weight of this question together.

But, recently, I have begun to wonder if this correlation between an increased awareness of suffering in the world and an increased propensity to question the existence and goodness of God is somewhat of a luxury for those of us who can talk about all the suffering that is out there. I wonder if things change when suffering is no longer a notion out there but a reality, a person, a people right here. (I am not sure if this is correct since, for me, suffering is still primarily out there.)

This struck me recently when we went out to a village to visit Diow. Something happened during this rare occasion when I actually stepped outside and suffering was right here. It happened when I experienced that suffering is not some idea, but it has a face and a name and a story. And, interestingly enough, that story is not entirely defined by what I call “suffering.” During that time with Diow, befriending Diow, eating with Diow, working alongside Diow, I didn’t question the existence of a god; I was in the presence of God.

I think I’m starting to perceive something, though it’s still on a very small-scale. That is, when suffering is out there and doubt and questions rule the day, my primary feeling is pity. And while pity is better than indifference, it still comes from a place of power and privilege. And the reason it’s hard to believe in God while thinking about suffering, while standing in a position of pity for those suffering, is because God isn’t there. God is in a manger. God is touching lepers. God is on a cross. Because God is about compassion (literally “to suffer with”), not pity. Suffering, for God, is not out there; it’s right here. And in that one moment of relinquishing my pity for compassion, I saw that God had been there all along.

Because, while the suffering is still real and tragic, the potential for love, the only thing greater than suffering, is only possible when we move into suffering, learn its first name, and make an effort to help carry its weight. God experienced that on the cross and continues to work for love in that same way.

So, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t question and doubt in light of the problem of suffering. We should continue to have hard conversations about theodicy. In fact, I think it is a must because we should never feel comfortable about the pain of the marginalized, the downtrodden, the victims. But, my point is that I hope I have more and more courage to ask them their names, to sit at the table with them, to suffer with them. And may I discover that my questions about God’s existence and goodness are swallowed up by the presence of a suffering-with God.

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5 comments

  1. Thanks for the challenge. I agree whole heartedly. It even applies to out response. If our root emotion is pity, we will respond with a hand out while still maintaining our distance and insulation which will relieve our temporary pity. If our root remotion is compassion, it calls for a much different response. Compassion is not satisfied with a small, one time act repeated only as often as you feel guilty. It is only quenched with immersion. Thanks and can’t wait to have the conversations face to face in less than a month.


  2. DR, thank you for giving us an important topic to consider. Last week was a tough one on The Hill, as we wept as you spoke at your grandmother’s funeral on Wednesday and again at the hospital with Anabel Reid’s family and roommates. A far cry from issues that Rachel Held Evan or Diow raised, but a reminder that we are living in a broken world. Blessings as you hold out the hope of Jesus Christ in Phayao.


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  3. Beautiful. Thanks DReese. Miss you bro. Had this same thing happen when I picked up something for Ava at Liam Lowe’s house. No one was home, but as I stood in the driveway of a child dying from cancer and read the verses and words written on the driveway in sidewalk chalk I realized I was standing in Gods presence. I literally removed my shoes for this was Holy Ground.


  4. Thanks, Derran. Thanks for the challenge. Now how will I respond? No response is not an option.



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