Jesus said this about the causes of our suffering. In John 9:2-4, Jesus was asked why the man was born blind. “Jesus answered, neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” In Luke 13: 1-5, Jesus was talking about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Jesus continued, “Or those 18 who were killed with the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all of the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” By these references Jesus makes clear that our suffering is not the result of sin. (Of course, we do need to be mindful that in other passages Jesus tells us that some suffering is the consequence of sin. See for example John 5:14.) Henri Nouwen uses these and similar passages to say that our questions come from below and Jesus responds to them from above. That is, we ask, why do we suffer and Jesus does not answer the question we ask directly, but points to the Truth that Jesus would have us see. In the case of the blind man: that through the blind man’s healing God’s works through Jesus would be revealed. In the Luke readings: that regardless of WHY they suffered and perished, WE must repent of our sins if we are to receive the Kingdom of God.
In the end, I believe that we will not know for the most part why we suffer—for to “know” in many instances is to know the mind of God. Although that has been the human desire from the beginning, God did not tell Job—and Jesus does not tell us why! Yes, some of our suffering is brought on as the natural consequence of sin and bad choices by us. But the suffering of which I speak is the loss and the deep hurt that has no easy explanation and fights against our sense of what a just and loving God would allow: the loss of a child, terminal illness, being an innocent victim of another person’s evil action only by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. No, for these I believe we will have no earthly explanation for why. I say this mindful of Joseph’s words to his brothers “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good,” (Genesis 50:20) and Paul’s assurance that “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God… (Romans 8:28).
For me, the focus on “why we suffer” misses the point. Jesus’ point is that we are to repent while we have life so that the Kingdom of God may be ours. A foretaste of the Kingdom of God can begin now by making the intentional decision to live our lives mindful and aware that we are living in the presence of God. As in the case of the blind man, we too will know and others may see the power of God’s presence and God’s healing in the face of our suffering!
For me, it is enough that I know that God suffers with us, and I look to John 11, the miracle of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.
We all know the story: Jesus is away. Martha and Mary implore Jesus to come to them because Lazarus, their brother, is dying. They both believe that if Jesus were present, Lazarus would not die. Jesus, knowing that he would indeed raise Lazarus from the dead—arrived on the 4th day after his death. He speaks with Martha and later with Mary. As he walks to the tomb where Lazarus had been placed we are told:
When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep.
A few years ago, my understanding of these few verses about the miracle of Lazarus changed radically! It was at that time that I came to understand the words “Jesus wept” very differently. No longer noteworthy only as the shortest verse in the King James Version of the Bible, these words may be the most important—and the most profound— in understanding God’s love for us.
What is happening in the story? Jesus is walking to the tomb—he knows exactly what is going to happen: Lazarus will walk out of the tomb—once dead—but now alive! Of all the miracles—of all the “signs” that Jesus is the Son of God and is Himself true God—just as He is true man—THIS miracle would be the most dramatic of all!
But in that moment—do you see the importance of what Jesus did? Jesus wept. Knowing as only He could know the joy, indeed the MIRACLE of what would occur in just a few moments: Jesus wept. We are told that Jesus wept because of His love for them. Why did Jesus weep? Because Jesus loved them—and he knew the pain they suffered because of their loss.
In The Interpreter’s Bible (1953 edition) one commentator writes:
“For Christ, so the N.T. keeps assuring us, is the express image of God’s person, the perfect showing forth in human form of the very character of God. And this not merely now and then, or in general; but always, and in everything he did and everything he was. Hence these tears also are a revelation, an authentic revelation of the divine: granting us insight into God’s mind and nature; bringing home to us some inkling of the wonder of his compassion; of the depth and the sureness of his sympathy with his needy, desperate world, and for hurt minds and hearts. Hence Jesus wept is not a blot upon the records, a slip, a weakness, something to be uncomfortably explained away. But through that also we can learn what God is really like and is, and how he bears himself toward us.”
I have come to see the true miracle in this story is not only in the power of God to raise Lazarus from the dead—but the MIRACLE of God’s revelation to us that just as Jesus mourns, just as Jesus suffers, just as Jesus weeps for Martha, Mary and all who loved Lazarus, so too does God mourn, suffer, and weep with us and for us when we suffer.
Our God who loves us so dearly that he gives us life and sustains us—also suffers with and for us. God knows the end of our story just as Jesus knew the end of Lazarus’ story. But God not only gives us life and sustains us—He loves us so very much that he gave us his only begotten son, Jesus. And the true miracle is that we now know that God loves us so tenderly—so dearly—so completely that God suffers with us in our time of pain and loss! God who knows the end of our story suffers with us too!
The Suffering Tree
I stand alone
My world is shattered.
It cannot be restored.
All that I have known is gone.
It has been ripped out and
Carried away from me;
And I could do nothing.
I have been marked with a special sign
That I should remain.
It would have been better had I been swept away
With all that I had known and loved.
The color of my life is gone.
The music of my life has been taken away.
The song of the robin in the far off woods
Reminds me of my loss and only deepens my pain.
I still see in the far distance familiar sites.
But they look different now
As I stand here alone.
Amidst the barrenness–the emptiness-in total despair.
I do not know why this is happening
Today, I cannot think of what will be,
For I only know what was and what is
Someday . . . perhaps . . . .
If all of this is true for a tree
How much more so for you and me!
(The above was written while on retreat as a gift for Stephen Ministers.)