John 12:20-23, Fifth Sunday of Lent
Don’t you find it interesting that just as Jesus says his hour of “glorification” has come, in the very same breath, he talks about grain that dies before it bears fruit, and life that we must lose before we gain it back. “Glorified” means lifting up to a place of honor, esteem, distinction. But when Jesus says, “When I am lifted up from the earth,” if he didn’t know it at the time he said it, you and I know now that “lifted up from the earth” means a lifting up on a cross first and only after that, lifting up to heaven where the “real” glorification happens. Because there is no glorification in suffering. I know a few people who are suffering deep pain right now, and loss, because of illness and death of a loved one, and abuse. None of them, not even in the most spiritual part of our conversation, has ever “glorified” her suffering while suffering is going on.
This is why I have a problem when people say, “God allows suffering.” I said the same thing for a long time. Now that I’m older, or maybe because I’m mid-lifing, I feel more distaste over “God allows suffering” than anything else. Even if we say that at the end of suffering lies glory, reward, grace. I no longer believe that “God allows suffering” in any way, shape, or form.
When we say God allows suffering, the sense I get is that in the moment of suffering, God takes a step back, so that later on, at just the right moment, he walks right back into the scene and teaches us a lesson, thereby bringing some good out of suffering. The image we often use is parents. Like when a kid keeps pulling the kitten’s tail despite being warned not to do it. So the parents “allow” the kid to be scratched by the kitten, to experience just enough pain, to teach him a lesson. Or when a kid goes under the table and starts jumping and roughhousing in spite of being forbidden. So the parents “allow” him to hit his head, to experience pain, to teach him a lesson. And so, we say God “allows suffering” to happen. He steps back and assumes a “pedagogical distance,” then returns and fixes what’s broken.
But real suffering in the world is way bigger and more complicated than being kitten-scratched or bumping our heads. In fact, the worst suffering in the world is experienced by good people who don’t deserve to suffer—the poor, the calamity-stricken, the refugees, the defenseless women and children. So to contemplate God as stepping back, doing nothing, and “allowing” suffering of such scale in order to teach a lesson—that for me is absurd, unacceptable and unfair. To begin with – good, well-meaning people, the poor, the defenseless, the innocent who suffer—they’re not the ones who should be taught a lesson, are they? Secondly, what kind of God would use the suffering of the good to teach a lesson to the evil?
In my crazy Jesuit head, I believe that God does not allow suffering, but humanity insists on doing stuff that eventually perpetrate and perpetuate suffering. God does not allow killing of humans, for example, in any way, shape, or form. But people still kill and even encourage others to kill. But just because killing happens doesn’t mean it is “allowed” by God. In fact, there is a whole plague of things God does not allow, yet we do them, and do them to each other. But just because we do them & they happen and bring suffering, this doesn’t mean they are “allowed,” and by God no less. God does not allow sin. But the world insists on sinning anyway.
Here’s my point: in such a case, wherever there is deep suffering—God does not step back and “allow” it to happen. No, in my crazy Jesuit brain, God works, God labors harder and harder, to precisely alleviate suffering. God deploys his mighty will and shores up many resources available in the world in order to ease suffering: like the orphanages run by the Sisters of Charity, the Balay sa Paglaum where the RGS Sisters shelter abused women and girls, the UNHCR, Medecins san Frontieres, Gawad Kalinga, people who build public schools from their income, relief volunteers, peace-negotiators…. There is a lot of darkness in the world, yes, but that doesn’t mean God leaves us in there for a while till we learn our lesson. No. God’s very presence deploys forces of light. With them, God labors, God gets busy, for darkness to never win.
What is the proof that God does not allow suffering? More precisely, who is the proof? His Son—who spent all of his waking life precisely alleviating suffering. Do we ever hear Jesus say: “You see that leper, that paralytic, that blind man, that woman with a hemorrhage. See, I’ll just leave them uncured to teach the world about how glorifying the experience of suffering is.” No. The Son healed as many people as he could, forgave as many sincere sinners as he could, exorcised as many demons as he could—to precisely deliver the message that the Father desires wholeness, not fracture; unity, not discord; freedom, not compulsion; and life, not negligence or murder.
Suffering is inevitable but it is unnecessary. Maybe we’re not fully aware of it, but we accept the reality of suffering just fine. We know suffering can’t be helped from happening. But notice: we do everything within our power to alleviate suffering. We know that suffering must not be the permanent state of affairs—not especially when it concerns people we love. We labor, and labor intensively, precisely to relieve the suffering especially of people we love. Suffering is inevitable but it is unnecessary. We don’t “allow” people to seriously suffer now to teach them a lesson later. No. We’re not like that especially with people we love. So neither is God like that with us. Rather, at every painful moment in our suffering, God is there, laboring, making available all the help we need…so that we suffer less, and eventually, so that we suffer no more.
In this season of Lent, if we happen to be suffering right now, or now that we know that our country is suffering—let’s stop glorifying suffering by thinking that God allows all this to happen. Instead, let’s think of the many ways God is making himself available to us so that we do not allow suffering to be glorified, so that we all suffer less, and maybe, someday, so that we all suffer no more. The cross, sisters and brothers, was unnecessary, but it was inevitable. Remember though, that the cross did not have the final word. The cross should not have the final word.
*image from the Internet