The thing about life is that no one gets out alive. Live long enough, you bleed a little. Live a bit longer, and you bleed all the more. “Everybody hurts,” sings Michael Stipe of the band R.E.M. For all the disparity of religious belief, political ideology, artistic expression, even physical appearance—could it be that the one thing that truly unites us as a human race, is pain?
Suffering is an affront to our “normal” way of life, and a challenge to our sense of “fairness.” So much so that even before the birth of Jesus, writers and thinkers struggled to reconcile suffering with their own religious beliefs. Even literature from ancient Greece began raising the question: Could the gods really be like this? And in that same period, one writer raised an argument that would echo through the halls of philosophy ever sense. If suffering exists (and it does), then God cannot be both all-powerful and all-loving. Why not? Because if suffering exists, then God is either not powerful enough to end it, or not loving enough to want to.
Fast forward to today. Clearly a good God couldn’t allow suffering. Perhaps there’s no meaning to be found at all. Richard Dawkins, famous author of The God Delusion, says that nature doesn’t answer such questions:
“In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice…DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.” (Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden)
You don’t have to share Dawkins’ atheism for his thoughts to resonate with you. Perhaps we are little more than the flotsam and jetsam washed ashore by the currents of an arbitrary, unfeeling universe.
We’ll return to Zephaniah in a few days. Right now we’re turning our attention to another book—one you might have previously only skimmed through. The book of Lamentations was written by Jeremiah—the same prophet of the larger book that bears his name. Jeremiah would describe the conditions of Israel’s period of exile—that 70-year period where Israel found herself in captivity in a foreign land. His prophetic career would not only make him an outcast among his countrymen, but it would rob him of the opportunity for a wife and family. It’s for these and other reasons that history remembers him as the “weeping prophet.” His words read like something out of a personal diary:
How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave. 2 She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her; they have become her enemies. 3 Judah has gone into exile because of affliction and hard servitude; she dwells now among the nations, but finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress. 4 The roads to Zion mourn, for none come to the festival; all her gates are desolate; her priests groan; her virgins have been afflicted, and she herself suffers bitterly. 5 Her foes have become the head; her enemies prosper, because the LORD has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe. 6 From the daughter of Zion all her majesty has departed. Her princes have become like deer that find no pasture; they fled without strength before the pursuer. 7 Jerusalem remembers in the days of her affliction and wandering all the precious things that were hers from days of old. When her people fell into the hand of the foe, and there was none to help her, her foes gloated over her; they mocked at her downfall. 8 Jerusalem sinned grievously; therefore she became filthy; all who honored her despise her, for they have seen her nakedness; she herself groans and turns her face away. 9 Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future; therefore her fall is terrible; she has no comforter. “O LORD, behold my affliction, for the enemy has triumphed!” 10 The enemy has stretched out his hands over all her precious things; for she has seen the nations enter her sanctuary, those whom you forbade to enter your congregation. 11 All her people groan as they search for bread; they trade their treasures for food to revive their strength. “Look, O LORD, and see, for I am despised.” (Lamentations 1:1-11)
We rarely read words like that. We’ve become far too accustomed to a lifestyle of comfort and security. When happiness is valued more highly than holiness, today’s church becomes too preoccupied with the American dream to waste her time on lament. But who will teach our people to mourn—and mourn well? To grieve—and grieve well? Nowhere in Scripture do we find promises of happiness—but instead we find promises of spectacular joy, even though (like Jeremiah) the path often leads through great suffering.
Later in this opening chapter, Jeremiah pleads with God on behalf of both himself and his people:
20 “Look, O LORD, for I am in distress; my stomach churns; my heart is wrung within me, because I have been very rebellious. In the street the sword bereaves; in the house it is like death. 21 “They heard my groaning, yet there is no one to comfort me. All my enemies have heard of my trouble; they are glad that you have done it. You have brought the day you announced; now let them be as I am. 22 “Let all their evildoing come before you, and deal with them as you have dealt with me because of all my transgressions; for my groans are many, and my heart is faint.”
Sometimes this is all we can do. Try and figure it all out, and you’ll drive yourself mad. “Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable?” This is what C.S. Lewis asks in his private journal, after the death of his wife. He suggests that trying to ask questions about meaning in suffering is like asking God “How many hours are there in a mile?” or “Is yellow square or round?” Even our questions make no sense.
“When I lay these questions before God I get no answer. But a rather special sort of ‘No answer.’ It is not the locked door. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’” (C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed)
THE GOSPEL AND SUFFERING
Live long enough and you’ll shed just as many tears as Jeremiah—perhaps more. The gospel doesn’t always give us the answers as to why. But the gospel helps us understand what the answer can’t be. The writer of Hebrews tells us that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).
You see, if the gospel is true, then we know that the answer can’t be that God isn’t all-powerful and all-loving. The answer can’t be that God isn’t all-loving, because He sent His Son to die. The answer can’t be that God isn’t all-powerful, because He raised His Son from the dead.
We may not always find the answers we’re looking for, but the cross stands as a reminder that sometimes the greatest strength is found in the moments of greatest weakness, and that in a suffering world, only a suffering God can help.