The Language of Worshop & Ache
It was late at night when I finally began to think about suffering. The lights were going out and I was sitting in my favorite spot in the flat looking at the river Thames go by. On the staircase I thought “nobody likes to suffer.” Earlier that week there had been flashing lights and sirens on the bridge that crosses an area of our local quay. The road was blocked off for hours, and we had to go the long way around the neighborhood in order to visit our local supermarket and shopping centre. After it was finally cleared away, four bouquets of flowers had been tied to posts of the barricade which prevents people from falling into the river. An eleven year old boy had jumped in on a hot summers day and on the way down, hit his head against the wall causing him to lose consciousness. It took two hours for emergency crew to find his body.
A friend of mine, when he reported this to me, kept saying over and over “We told those kids not to play there; not to jump in.” I could see the frustration that comes with age and understanding dangers that children remain ignorant to or choose to ignore. I don’t think he would be as upset if a seventeen year old had done the same thing, but an eleven year old. My friend was visibly frustrated.
If you live long enough, you will be miserable. It doesn’t matter how much money you have or how protected your life is. It’s a fact of the human condition; you will suffer. And you will be tested in how much you are determined that life is worth living. The alternative is that you die young, as the case of our neighbor boy. In that case you inevitably make a bunch of other people miserable and such is the depressing side of the circle of life. We love; we grow attached to people, things, ideas, places, and they are inevitably taken away and we are given the choice to clutch on thereby suffocating ourselves and the people around or let go thereby accepting the pain, accepting change and forcing ourselves to never have any stability at all.
A book I was reading not too long ago explained that a sociologist interviewed the victims who’d survived the Jewish concentration camps of the second World War to ask what effect the experience had on their faith. The findings were shocking:
“During the 1970’s, a man named Reeve Robert Brenner surveyed 1000 survivors of the Holocaust, enquiring especially about their religious faith.
How had the experience of the Holocaust effected their beliefs about God? Somewhat astonishingly almost half claimed that the Holocaust had no effect on their beliefs about God. But the other half told a different story. Of the total number surveyed, 11 percent said they had rejected all belief in the existence of God as a direct result of their experience. After the war, they never regained faith. Analyzing their detailed responses, Brenner noted that their professed atheism seemed less a matter of theological belief and more of an emotional reaction, an expression of deep hurt and anger against God for abandoning them” (From: Where is God When it Hurts by Phillip Yancey)
Suffering in any form forces us to reevaluate our ideas about the bedrock of what we base our life on. The eleven percent of people who became atheists as a result of their experience, it means taking a good long hard look at one’s own religion, turning around, and walking away. For others it means undergoing that same examination of one’s beliefs and deciding if they are worth keeping, need to be re-edited, or need to be thrown out entirely. Assuming that there is a God out there, many of us, think that it must be pretty easy being in control of the entire universe. One can look at the Old Testament as well as the Torah and characters such as Moses and Abraham who believed in an absolute God with an enormous personality. As individuals who said to their creator, “Sure it’s easy being up there, why don’t you come down here for a bit and try it out huh?”
As humans, when we think about God, we are torn between two dichotomies. The first is we want Him to suffer. We want him to know how difficult life is if He is out there, and do everything He can to improve it. But the irony of it is, if there is a God. Do we have any room in our human ideology for a God that willingly sacrifices and goes through agony? We can’t stand the idea of a God who lives above us oblivious to the concept of human pain and suffering, and yet the idea that an all powerful being that would willingly submit himself to such agony and pain completely out of love is outside our concept of what God is. We have no classification for a God who feels pain by choice. Perhaps it’s a contradiction of terms, someone who is almighty and chooses the difficult way.
I think about the family of the little boy who jumped into the water two weeks ago, how much suffering they must be going through now. The truth is not only do I hate it; I get every bit as angry as my friend. A child didn’t live long enough to suffer, and ironically, that’s what angers us all. The fact is that his life was cut short on a whim. Now his family is left picking up the pieces, asking the questions which inevitably come from suffering and searching for answers.
In this way, the child is very much like our preconception of God. We want every child to live long enough to know what suffering is and to ask questions about life himself rather than asking them in the wake of a child’s death. But ironically, like everyone else, we know that it would be much simpler if neither God, nor the child, nor anyone else had to suffer in the first place.