24 June 2019

Followup on Suffering Well: Suffering and the Will of God

[Dear Sister Laurel, I wanted to thank you for the article you wrote on suffering well. I am surprised by part of it. You say that you do not believe that God wills you to be ill and I guess that means you don't believe that God wills you to suffer, but don't we pray to accept our suffering when we pray "Thy will be done" in the Lord's prayer? Wasn't Jesus praying to accept his suffering when he prayed this in Gethsemane? Do you really not believe that we are praying to accept our suffering when we pray this way? Aren't we to embrace sufferings as the cross of Christ?]]

Thanks for your comment and questions. I think you have put your finger on a really neuralgic place in the Lord's Prayer, Gethsemane, and our own approach to God's will. (And no pun intended with the term "neuralgic".) It is very common to think of the will of God somehow being related to suffering. We get a difficult diagnosis and say, "Well, it must be the will of God!" Or, some terrible tragedy happens and we (unfortunately often carelessly and blithely) say, "We must accept the will of God!" --- as though God wills the tragedy. Isn't it "funny" (peculiar, strange, uncritical, unreasonable, etc.) the way we 1) associate the will of God with suffering, and 2) assume we know what the will of God is in these and similar cases? In fact, when the Lord's Prayer speaks of the will of God being done on earth as it is in heaven, it is talking about something very much different than suffering. It is the coming of the Kingdom of God, the realm of justice, peace, meaning, hope, and authentic humanity here on earth that is the will of God in the Lord's Prayer. The petition for the will of God is the third "Thou" petition, that is, third petition that refers to God's being God for us. All three  "Thou" petitions refer to God as verb, God as actor and initiator, God as the One who brings creation into being and to fulfillment of being. All three petitions are ways of opening ourselves to dimensions of what it means to allow God to be God.

I believe something very similar is happening as Jesus says, "Not my will, but Thy will be done", when he is struggling in Gethsemane. Jesus struggled with temptation to use his identity as Son of God to do works of power when he was driven in to the desert by the Holy Spirit after his baptism. He very definitively chose the way of weakness even though the temptations he experienced would have involved the use of his power for good things in and of themselves. (There is nothing wrong with getting food when one is starving or to accept leadership of kingdoms when one would be a wonderful leader, etc.) I think this was a choice he made many times during his public ministry. Now, at the end of the story Jesus must choose again in a final and exhaustive way; he must commit himself to a way of seeing God's purposes and plans that depend on Jesus' own weakness, his own helplessness, and his total dependence on God to bring meaning out of the senselessness people will commit against him and the mission of God, not only unto death "but (unto) death on a cross". I think of this choice as both qualitatively the same and distinct in terms of intensity and difficulty as the decisions Jesus has made right along through his public ministry. He continues to choose "left-handed power" (God's power being perfected in weakness). But now he will have to journey to that far place the NT calls sinful or godless death without any precedent for understanding this in terms of either Judaism or the Greco-Roman world. He will have to trust and depend entirely on God even when he cannot feel God's presence (in fact, when he feels God's absence and abandonment by God).

I think this is what Jesus is saying yes to; this is the will of God he is committing to, despite not being able to see it, imagine it,  understand it, etc.  But I also think if we were to ask Jesus if his Abba willed his suffering, he would look at us as if we had gone off the rails completely, and I think he would exclaim, "Of course not! How could you suggest that?? That's not the One I have been revealing (making real) to you all this time!!" And yet, God wills to enter into sinful death and transform it with his presence. He  wills that Jesus choose the way of weakness. He knows what we human beings will do to Jesus. What we will do (and, it often seems, what we almost inevitably do to holiness or true humanity when confronted with these) is NOT the will of God. That is something the Cross shows us without doubt. The cruelty, treachery, cowardice, duplicity, betrayal, human abandonment, etc hardly argue this (trial and crucifixion) is the will of God. But a God who reveals himself in weakness, a God whose grace is sufficient for us, a God who can and will bring meaning out of absurdity, wholeness out of brokenness, righteousness out of sin, and fulfillment out of emptiness --- these things ARE the will of God. Our God reveals himself as the One from whose love nothing whatsoever can separate us; this is the lesson of the Cross. Not that God wills suffering, but that God wills an end to anything that can cause suffering due to separation or alienation from God.

Your question about Jesus accepting his suffering is a different question though than the question of whether or not God wills Jesus' suffering.  It is one thing to determine suffering is somehow inevitable and something else to believe God wills that suffering. It is one thing to consent to journey wherever one's life takes one and to commit to doing so with God; it is another to assert that every step, no matter how skewed or painful was actually willed by God. God can certainly use Jesus' suffering; God can and does bring an almost infinite good out of it (this, after all, is part of the Good News we Christians proclaim); but this does not mean God wills the suffering per se, nor the degradation, torture, and inhumanity human beings take on in their reaction to Jesus!! Surely we cannot say the religious and civil leadership and crowds in Jesus' passion were cooperating with the will of God!!! But Paul faced the same paradox. He wrote, "Where sin abounded grace abounded all the more. What should we say, sin more so that grace may abound even more? God forbid!!!" Our God does not will our suffering any more than he does Jesus' --- but at the same time we should be consoled that where suffering abounds grace will abound all the more!!! Nothing can separate us from the Love of God.

Thus, my answer to your final question re accepting our own sufferings as a share in the Cross of Christ lies in line with all of this. Do what we can to remain open to the God whose power is revealed in weakness. Do not believe that God wills one's suffering per se, at least not when we are speaking of things like illness, tragedy, sinfulness, and death, but believe they will never have the final word or the last silence. Do what Jesus did when he accepted his own cross (the weight of his own authentic humanity), namely accept a humanity that makes God known (or at least CAN make God known) even in those realities which seem antithetical to Divinity and Holiness. Trust this. We do what we can reasonably do medically, etc to relieve suffering, but when there really is nothing that can be done, we trust that our God will be there for us in this way; God has revealed in the cross of Christ that he will be present with and for us in the unexpected and even the unacceptable place. This is the Good News we must cling to in the midst of any suffering.