I know a woman who is ready with her first question for God, once she gets to that long anticipated conversation just inside heaven’s front door. The question itself is only two words long, but she has been memorizing it for years. Her plan is to show up with a single cancer cell in her hand and ask of the Lord, Why this?
This friend is different from some others I know who want to claim that bad stuff should only happen to bad people, whoever bad people are. You won’t find her using her faith to argue for immunity from hardship. I’ve seen her turn her wallet inside out, and never once has a Get out of jail free card fallen out. Her spirituality is more mature than someone else inclined to reason, If I am nice to God, then God certainly ought to be nice to me. She simply wants to know the same thing the rest of us are hungry to know: Why do pain and suffering assault our lives on such a regular basis?
We humans could try to eradicate all suffering, though, so far, this has proven to be an elusive game. In the end, wise people come to terms, humbly so, with the idea that a good life is something other than one stamped with a guarantee of NO SUFFERING.
Some Christians have been known to run toward suffering, hoping to bear wounds that keep company with the crucified Jesus. Others have run from suffering, desiring a complete exemption from pain. The former are sick individuals; the latter are fear-filled cowards. Still other people think it is possible to bury their suffering as if it didn’t really exist, which is about as meaningful as pulling out the smoke alarm batteries to avoid knowing there is a fire in the house.
The way we approach pain, sorrow, and deprivation will say a great deal about whether or not our souls shrink or expand through this journey we call life. Even though the depths of human anguish may cause one person to rise up in outrage, these same dark places have been known to inspire everything from acceptance and patience to gratitude and inner strength in another person. Many individuals have discovered that faith grows its most exquisite flowers in the soil of human adversity. In fact, my friend with the two-word question for God wouldn’t trade her post-cancer faith for her pre-cancer faith for all the money in the world.
How is it that a brush with real affliction can actually strengthen one’s relationship with God? Deep Christians look first to the cross of Jesus Christ for hope and meaning. For them, this symbol of primitive barbarism “the cross was an execution device long before it became a piece of jewelry” releases a strange vitality into the realms of weakness, suffering, and death. The cross is a firm reminder that Jesus ended up suffering the same limitations we do. Two beams nailed together form the most concrete symbol we have of the lengths to which God will go when it comes to sharing human sorrow and pain.
Christians who hang a cross on their kitchen wall, or who cradle a specially carved wooden palm cross in the grip of their hand, are voicing a confidence that agony, pain, and even death itself do not have the last word in life. Many Christians voice this assurance by quietly touching their own forehead, gut, left shoulder, right shoulder, and breast bone, in close succession. While superstition-minded athletes treat this five-point sign of the cross as their hint for God to raise their free throw average, or help them nail a home run, for the faithful it is nothing more than a deep reminder of our solidarity with a suffering God. In receiving five bodily wounds on the cross, Jesus was hardly celebrating suffering. He was assuming it into the core of his being, and transforming it into divine love.
Popular religion may be concerned with how you can feel better about yourself, go after what you want, enjoy what you get, and be more confident along the way. Cross-centered religion bears no resemblance to this. It informs us that there is power in weakness, and strength in suffering. We learn a new intimacy with God, discovering that God will not stand at a distance from even our darkest hour.