July 2020: Is God Happy When we Suffer?

Yesterday was a day when we observe the founding of this country. And certainly it isn’t wrong to celebrate what good there is if we do so with clarity of spirit and a fuller understanding of the reality, not the romance, behind this day.

I only have a few minutes to speak, so let’s just dive right into the deep end, okay? I promise, it won’t be this heavy all the way through. I have some slides on paper, which I’ll hold up to the screen. The slides will only have the words I say for emphasis.

Because while the dream of this country is a noble one, the founding of this country is steeped in suffering – suffering permitted, sometimes even promoted by American Christianity.

The Declaration of Independence, which was signed 244 years ago by the white, wealthy, male enslavers that founded this nation, referred to the inhabitants of this land as “merciless Indian savages.”

They believed that they had the right to this land and to enact genocide upon the existing peoples because of the Doctrine of Discovery. The Doctrine of Discovery was a philosophy that had been in the European Christian imagination since 1493. It stated that European Christians had the God-given right to colonize, convert, and enslave non-Christian peoples, and that their lands could be confiscated. The founders of the infant U.S. government believed that the right of Europeans to do that extended to them.

And so, the foundation of this nation is paved over human suffering. Its mortar is human suffering. Its bricks are human suffering.

After outright genocide of Native peoples became less prevalent, we continued in the United States to force Native children to forget their languages, abandon their customs, and forsake familial bonds. Richard Henry Pratt, who founded the infamous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, popularized the phrase, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Cultural genocide followed literal genocide. Suffering on suffering.

And it’s no surprise that American Christianity permitted the mass enslavement of African people, the colonization of the Philippines and Hawai’i and our “territories.” Repeatedly, Americans used the notion that God wanted people to suffer for some greater purpose: to become Western, to become Christian, to build a bigger nation, or to become a better person.

Who do we Suffer?

In the American cultural script is written this twisted code: that God lets us suffer for our own good. And that therefore, we can let others suffer, too, for their own good.

It’s easy for us to believe that God wants us to suffer if we learned that the suffering we experienced was for our own good. Especially if our own suffering came at the hands of those who instilled our morals in us: our family, our religious leaders, or our government, for example.

In our own Christian Scriptures, Psalm 23 is frequently cited as proof that God ordains our suffering for our own good: “Your rod and thy staff they comfort me.” Written by a shepherd – someone who cared for flocks of sheep – this lyrical bit describes how a shepherd would corral his sheep. But shepherds don’t strike or beat their sheep. They don’t correct the paths of sheep with punishment. They coax their sheep. 

Likewise, God does not desire for us to suffer. God does not lead us into suffering to teach us a lesson. And God does not ask us to choose suffering so that we can be taught.

This country cannot wish for a better past. But we can mobilize our spirits for a better future. We can know the immense suffering that has brought this nation into existence, and we can know the immense suffering that members of this nation place on the shoulders of the most vulnerable.

And we can respond to that suffering by feeling its pulse, by being changed by it, by following the push of the Holy Spirit to bring healing.

As Christians — as people who follow a Jesus whose life work was to show us how to end suffering — we have to honestly examine the beliefs from which our actions stem. Because an unexamined Christianity is in part to blame for the sufferings of our national past and present.

We can ask ourselves:

  • Do we believe that someone “ought to suffer” in order to learn a lesson?
  • Do we believe that suffering is necessary?
  • Do we believe that God wants us to suffer?
  • Do we believe that God is happy when we suffer?

Suffering does happen. It happens to us on a collective level, and it happens to us on a personal level. As Chris said two weeks ago, maybe the question we should be focusing on isn’t “why was this suffering allowed to happen,” but “what do I do about this suffering.”

Our Scripture for today comes from Paul’s second letter to the church of Corinth. In it, he writes (2 Corinthians 1:3-7 MSG):

All praise to the God and Parent of Jesus the Messiah! God of all mercy! God of all healing counsel! She comes alongside us when we go through hard times, and before you know it, she brings us alongside someone else who is going through hard times so that we can be there for that person just as God was there for us. We have plenty of hard times that come from following Jesus, but no more so than the good times of his healing comfort—we get a full measure of that, too.

When we suffer for Jesus, it works out for your healing and salvation. If we are treated well, given a helping hand and encouraging word, that also works to your benefit, spurring you on, face forward, unflinching. Your hard times are also our hard times. When we see that you’re just as willing to endure the hard times as to enjoy the good times, we know you’re going to make it, no doubt about it.

I think what he’s saying here is that we will suffer, and we will have good times. And through both, not just the good, we can choose to experience God.

On Domesticating the Spirit

In this season, we celebrate a lot of school graduations, even as the pandemic has stolen from us the opportunity to celebrate many of them together. Among those we celebrate is 22 year-old Malala Yousafszai, who just graduated from Oxford University. 

Malala is a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest-ever Nobel Prize laureate. She became an activist for girls’ and women’s education access after she was shot by the Taliban for attending school. Malala had every right to live a peaceful, quiet life after what she had been through — and before it, too. After her physical healing, she could have chosen to quietly pursue the rest of her education in secrecy, rather than become a public figure. 

Instead, she became an even more visible advocate for women and girls like her who are frequently barred from educational opportunity. Because of her response to her own suffering, she created a path for others where, previously, there was none.

What Malala chose to distill out of her experience is, I think, a holy response to the existence of suffering. What we choose to wring out of our experiences of suffering are holy responses to the existence of suffering. The miracle is in the stirring of our hearts by the Holy Spirit to make heaven happen. To open pathways of opportunity, for example, for girls and women to go to school.

Or, to plant a garden where there was none, like we recently heard that our own Mary Jane has done. Or to protect the bodies of friends and strangers alike, like Cassie has done. Or to reach out with comfort and encouragement, as Jeff has done.

Let’s not forget that we are vessels of the Holy Spirit. And that if we respond to the suffering of the world, or the suffering of our neighbors, by saying that we’ll wait quietly for a miracle from above – from somewhere else: that domesticates the Spirit, and that domesticates the Church. And to respond to our own suffering by saying that no good can possibly come from our experiences of pain domesticates the Spirit in our own hearts.

But the Spirit is as wild as flames, as free as a dove, and its very essence is transformation, change, revolution, and so much more that can’t be contained in words.

Suffering happens. And good times happen, too. And what we choose to make of it – that miracle is up to us.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: