I’ve been sick with a cold for nearly a week. Many days, even most days, I can shrug my shoulders and accept that my immune system is usually on a coffee break and is therefore happy to let any all viruses have unrestricted access. Just the way it is. But there are other days, and this twenty-fifth day of 2023 is one of them, when I feel melancholy about it. Because it’s rarely just a cold for me. I’m lucky if it doesn’t stick around for a month and doesn’t develop into a sinus infection or bronchitis.
And I think it’s not fair.
Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.
– The Dread Pirate Roberts (aka Westley) to Princess Buttercup, The Princess Bride
There’s a real truth in that line, one that we don’t want to confront. The fact that Christ came to redeem and to renew all of creation, us included, does not mean that pain is an illusion, a false thing that we can overcome if we just grit our teeth hard enough or pray enough or smile enough. Pain is real. Flippantly telling someone to “have joy!” or “have hope!” when they are suffering is to engage in selling something, and it’s not the Gospel. (Which, incidentally, cannot actually be sold. But that’s a different post).
I’m not dismissing joy or hope. Advent ended exactly one month ago today in a celebration of the birth of Jesus, God-in-Flesh-and-Blood. There’s a whole lot of joy and hope anchored in that event. We should return to it again and again. We should marvel at the wonder of holy love come into the world in such an unexpected way.
So, go there. Imagine Mary in the middle of labor. Maybe she only has Joseph by her side. Maybe there are midwives. Imagine that someone tells her, in the middle of her greatest pain, to “just have joy!”
According to all of the women in my life who have given birth, Mary would have been totally right to knock that person’s teeth out. No jury would have convicted her.
Fast forward through the timeline of Jesus’ life. See him in the Garden of Gethsemane, in anguish over the agonies he was about to suffer. Would you feel comfortable patting him on the back and saying, “Oh, just have hope, Jesus!”
There’s a lot of pain in life. Interestingly, in trying to smooth it over or spiritualize it for others, all we’re doing is soothing our own discomfort. We try to deny the pain of others in order to escape our own pain. Because when someone is sick and there is no cure, or the divorce decree comes, or the addiction is too strong, or the job is lost, we don’t know what to say. Our theology of suffering is often too shallow and we don’t know how to wrestle with why something happens in the way that it does to people who don’t seem to deserve it. So we babble. We end up selling a version of God and faith that isn’t at all what is revealed to us in Scripture.
What is revealed to us?
A risen Savior who bears scars.
Just let that hit you. Jesus is God. Jesus does not have to spend eternity with holes in his wrists and side. That’s a choice he made.
God understands you. God knows your pain. God is there, guiding you along the tightrope. You are in danger of falling into despair on either side. It’s just that your options are hiding it with smiles and bad theology or not hiding it.
Hope and joy aren’t found in denial. They are found in the face of God, who shed tears and felt it was unfair and experienced the deepest agony imaginable and then some.
Life is pain. God is present.
It’s not an either/or.
It’s a both/and.
GRACE AND PEACE ALONG THE WAY,
Image Courtesy of Sean Benesh