Our suffering, and Christ’s
by Ken Myers
“Our world can be a hard and sometimes dark place, and sickness and death tend only to make it harder and darker. When we find ourselves in such a hard place, ‘when the pain is shrieking and screaming,’ when it ‘is very silent and dark,’ we seek solace wherever we can find it. [Quotations from Hayden Carruth’s poem “Crucifixion”] We turn in such times to God, hoping to gain his ear, hoping to be delivered from, or at least comforted in, our suffering. And surely it is not wrong for Christians to do this, to turn to God for solace. It is not wrong to seek health, to pray for healing and for deliverance, and to rejoice when they come, for these things are all God’s good gifts, and our tradition reminds us that we are not simply permitted but even fervently commanded to seek them. [cf. James 5:14–16] Health is among the most basic goods, not just of the Christian life but of all life; not just for the sake of the individual but also for the sake of those many others for whom she is called to be healthy. We seek life and health because they are requisite to our being servants, especially to those who lack them. Yet we are mistaken if we demand that God heal us, acting as if health is among our inalienable rights. Something has gone wrong when we expect that health should be ours because we faithfully and sincerely make supplication to God.
“It is not wrong to beseech God to remove our suffering or extend our lives or magnify our vigor. But we err if we act as if that is mainly what God is for. And we are, perhaps most important, simply mistaken if we abandon hope when suffering continues or health is illusory, or if we despair of God when sickness persists or death seems imminent. For Christians, these are not conclusions but starting places. The hard work of Christian discipleship begins here, in the face of the difficult task of negotiating life as mortal and broken bodies in a finite and broken world, and of doing so without losing hope.
“The Christian cannot escape or ignore that even after the resurrection, in which he stands victorious over death, Jesus of Nazareth is the Lamb of God who stands always ‘as if it had been slaughtered’ [Rev. 5:6, NRSV]. God is the first among those many ‘twisting, nodding, naked’ figures nailed to crosses in our distance. And so it is in some sense from that cross, even as God destroys the power of the evil for which it stands, that God rules the cosmos and comforts or delivers the afflicted. To realize this is to understand that within the horizon of this life, the course of Christian fidelity has a complex relationship to the course of our desire for relief from suffering, sometimes overlapping, sometimes diverging, sometimes intersecting, seldom predictably, and always beyond easy control. When we are sick and suffering, or when the people we love are sick and suffering, deliverance may or may not be forthcoming. Moreover, we can never know in advance and probably cannot know in retrospect the precise relationship of our fervent prayers to the way things turn out. But the absence of deliverance from sickness or suffering is neither a sign that God has withdrawn favor nor an occasion to abandon hope. The God on the cross remains present and powerful, even when things seem to go horribly wrong, even when consolation seems unavailable.”
— from Joel James Shuman & Keith Meador’s Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine, and the Distortion of Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2003]
Joel James Shuman was a guest on Volume 81 of the Journal, discussing his book Reclaiming the Body: Christians and the Faithful Use of Modern Medicine (Brazos Press, 2006).