Beyond suffering

Southern Cross

In a special tribute to Southern Cross's long-time editor GEORGE FISHER who died last month, we are publishing his last major piece prepared as he endured a long battle with cancer.

Bach's Mass in B minor gives us a powerful glimpse of the glory that awaits us. We suffer now, but suffering will end. We might experience on this earth the depths of tragedy, but we can also glimpse the peaks of heaven. We live in the tension between the now and the not yet, the "meanwhile', and as Paul writes, our present sufferings aren't worth comparing with our future glory (Romans 8:18).

God himself is not a stranger to human misery. Bach reflects for us the anguish, suffering and grief that reaches its depths at Jesus' passion; the suffering man as the Son of God. He takes the listener through 1 Peter 1:3-5, "our new birth into a living hope " an inheritance that can never perish, fade or spoil, kept in heaven for us', to conclude: "There I lay my suffering once in the grave/ There my Saviour himself wipes my tears for me'
Jesus himself has given us the answer on suffering and in Matthew 24:6-8. The non-Christian probably will be unsettled when there are wars, famines and earthquakes. For the Christian, we ought to be surprised when there is not. 

Interestingly, the list Jesus gives us covers the three main groups of such events: wars, which are directly the result of human action; famines, which most probably are the indirect result of human action or for which we bear some related responsibility; and earthquakes, which are largely out of our hands.

Behind suffering and tragedy, catastrophe and disaster, sin and evil are writ large. As we might guess from the pain they bring, these are deeply serious matters. And the ultimate measure of evil is the wrath of God (Roman 1:18, Ephesians 2:3), as we work through these issues we will begin to see how grace and wrath, love and judgment are entwined.

Things were not meant to be this way. Death, disease and suffering are wrong. What Jesus shows to us is a God who sees " who always sees " and anticipates the pain beyond. In the ultimate sense, he's been there and done that. Unlike any other major faith, Christianity gives us a faith that not only deals with suffering painfully and realistically, but also shows that God suffers directly for his creatures.

The Bible doesn't teach us to just accept our pain disconnectedly. Moments before he was martyred, Stephen saw a majestic glimpse of the glory he was about to receive (Acts 6-8), but his friends, the disciples, still grieved for him. Coming to terms with suffering in our lives and in our world cannot meaningfully be undertaken without a clear view of the cross, the paying of our ransom and our new life with Christ.

Christians get sick, live in poverty, suffer illness and die from natural disasters at around the same rate as everyone else. Tough, gritty, gutsy faith is needed " the type of faith shown by Job, Abraham, Habakkuk, and by those in Hebrews 11. As Leslie Newbiggin said "Tempting God means trying to get more assurance than God has given'. Sufferings like Job's have nothing to do with God's punishment. In his miracles of healing, Jesus overturned the notion that specific suffering comes to those who deserve it.

God suffers with us. To suffer with us he sent his beloved Son to suffer like us, and through his suffering to redeem us from evil. On this planet and for a time, God allows us to be put in harm's way. Buildings collapse, earthquakes and volcanoes fracture the earth's crust, viruses proliferate, cells mutate, evil people do astoundingly evil things. Sin and evil really are catastrophic. These things reflect neither God's intentional will nor his ultimate will. But these signs of the world's brokenness will not last.

Just consider the glory of the resurrection body we'll soon inherit. One Corinthians 15 tells us the Sprit will constantly renew it, so it will be imperishable . We will no longer be characterised by physical decay, our bodies will be glorious. Quite wonderfully, especially for those who have suffered chronic or outwardly visible diseases, there will be no more physical indignity. Our new bodies will be powerful and will never deteriorate. We will be beautiful, have limitless energy and perfect health. In short, we will get a body that is a perfect vehicle for God's spirit and will be completely responsive to our transformed personality. Of course, we will also have said goodbye to moral corruptibility (Romans 8:21).

How do we respond to other people's pain and contribute to their healing? There's a limited amount I can do for my own healing. But we can frequently do something for the healing of another. In fact, we must, and in doing so act as Christ's representatives on earth. Yes, God's kingdom triumphs when suffering is overthrown, but his kingdom also triumphs when people are transformed in the midst of suffering. For this reason we are to respond to another's suffering with our help, our silence and our tears.

Perhaps we might also see our suffering as if it was an acted parable, dramatising our need for God's mercy. This is certainly true for those who work alongside severely handicapped, such as Henri Nouwen. Time and time again in their writing they have shown how they have learned most from God from those whose suffering is deepest. As 17th century English clergyman Richard Baxter said, "suffering so unbolts the door of the heart, that the Word has easier entrance'.

God may well not take away the symptoms of our illnesses, because they're part and parcel of being sick in a fallen world. He may well not take way the frustrations of decay nor alleviate our pain. We need the Christian virtue of patience, of bearing with things even when they don't ease up, even if they get worse. God has never promised to make things easy, only bearable.

There is much wretchedness in life, and part of this feeling alone, not seeing or knowing that another understands you in your plight. But in the deepest depths, Jesus does understand, has gone there before us, has dealt finally with evil and promises to remain with us. Always.

Our suffering outrages God. He's not just inconvenienced by it, nor does he simply respond with the technical coldness of a magistrate. This is real anger at what should have been and what was hoped for. It's about the stain of sin in our lives. God feels for us. He's angry at what sin has done, at our failed potential and he's done something about it.

Let's comfort each other as we live out our days as a people " and as individuals " homesick for heaven.

This is an extract of a paper given at the School of Christian Studies in 2004. Full copies of the transcript, CD or DVD are available by 02 9936 6020.

George Fisher passed away on September 18, 2005 after a three-year fight with carcinoid syndrome.

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