John 13:16-20, Thursday of the 4th week of Eastertide
According to neuro-psychiatrists, we produce at least 50,000 thoughts a day. 70-80% of those are negative. So, we’re all negative thinkers by default. But behavioral psychologists say it’s our mind’s way of constantly alerting us to danger, so we can self-protect. We’re not often conscious of our negative thinking, thank God. We’re too busy seeing clients, chairing a meeting, teaching a class, preparing dinner, etc.
But here we are today, captives of a lockdown. Our bodies are idler, our minds, too. If you haven’t noticed already, many negative thoughts have swum to the surface of our consciousness. Like earth’s atmosphere, our consciousness is clear of the smog from the traffic of our usual cares. Now, our many and long-hidden questions, wonderings, and even protests are patent. No wonder we’ve begun wondering about, or thinking of, or even protesting against… a seemingly silent, even cruel… God—as we secretly ask, “Wait just one throat-swabbing minute! Why is God allowing all this to happen?!”
“Allow” is a problematic word when we use it of God. And if you notice, we use it of him only when bad things happen. I mean, we almost never say, “Why did God allow me to have such a kind family?” or “Why did God allow me to get hired into my dream job?” or “Why did God allow such fantastic weather on my wedding day?” We don’t say that. But when bad things happen, then we start using the word “allow” on God. Why did God allow this pandemic, and all this suffering, to happen?
I often go back to the example of good parents and their love for their kids when I think about divine behavior. Here’s a thought question. Good parents that you are, do you allow your kids to suffer? Or is that a wrong question? Do you allow bad things to happen to them, to teach them a lesson, for example, or punish them? And by “allow,” I mean exactly what we imagine it to mean: you see your children suffering, and you “allow” it: you step back, you don’t do anything, and you say, “I’m going to let you stew in your pain for a bit so that when I do rescue you, you’ll realize even more how much I love you.” So, do you allow your children to suffer?
I won’t be surprised if you say: “Well, no, I don’t allow suffering to befall my children.” See? Even in the most loving context of human parents, the word “allow” vis-à-vis suffering children, is problematic, isn’t it? Sure, despite our constant efforts at providing for them, teaching them good and evil, showing them a good example, forgiving them, the children still screw up. They end up hurting themselves. They suffer. But did we hatch the plan and create suffering for them? No. In fact, when children suffer even by their own hand, good parents exhaust every means available to precisely save the child from suffering. It’s one of the many things parents live for: to always be there to rescue their children—yes, sometimes to a fault, sure. But you understand the point I’m making. Parents do not allow suffering. You neither create suffering nor tolerate suffering, even if it means to teach your children a lesson, or to punish them. When your children suffer, you run, and you stay with them no matter how long it takes, until their suffering goes away.
So, why do we think less of God? Why do we even ask, “Why does God allow suffering?” as though he steps back, folds his arms, and lets us stew in our pain before eventually saving us— when, since time immemorial, God always ran to rescue his people, especially when their screwups boomeranged back at them: their greed, their blood vengeance, their idolatry, sexual perversions, genocides. And when his Son came into the world, same thing: Jesus spent his ministry alleviating the suffering people simply inflicted on each other. Read the history of our salvation from Scriptures and realize it is people who create suffering and allow suffering. And each time, God runs to save us from it. So, in a very real sense, Jesus, washing his disciples’ feet, only reiterates the typical divine modus operandi: to descend to wherever we are and foster the two necessary measures to cleanse us, purify us, save us from the consequences of our having ridden roughshod over other people. A God who washes human feet certainly cannot be the same god who “allows” people to suffer.
I guess we’ll just have to use the 30% positive side of our minds to be able to see that God’s saving is all over the place today: the frontliners using their God-given intelligence and skills to care for patients; scientists tapping on decades of learning to generate a vaccine; parents, siblings, friends lining up eternally for food for their families; policemen and soldiers hanging by every last shred of patience and kindness to protect civilians; volunteers assembling PPEs, repacking relief goods, even jeopardizing their own health to give them away. In other words, in our captivity, when 70% of our brain has no one but God to blame for “allowing” all this suffering, we have to make an effort to draw from our 30% positivity to know that that is just not true. God does not allow suffering. God constantly works in all ways, through many people, to alleviate suffering that men, otherwise, engineer.
If we’d rather believe that God “allows” people to suffer, my question is: where does that kind of thinking leave us? Does it leave us in a place of consolation? Or desolation? Does it draw us closer to God? Or does it make us doubt him? Does a God who “allows” suffering deepen our fundamental Christian conviction that God is love? Or does that kind of God make us love him less? On the other hand, when we think of God as always saving, ever-present, constantly writing straight out of our crooked lines, always running to alleviate suffering, where does that thought leave us? In consolation or desolation? Closer to God or pushed away? Trusting or suspicious? Awed by divine love, or terrified of divine vengeance? To use an Ignatian principle of discernment—whatever leads us to more faith, more hope, and more love for God and for neighbor, that is the real God. Whatever leads us to more doubt, more despair, and more anger for God and neighbor, then that is something else, not God.
So, you see, dear sisters and brothers, this time of captivity calls us to choose well even our thoughts! “Be careful of your thoughts,” an old proverb says, “they become words. Careful of your words, they become actions. Careful of your actions, they become habits. Careful of your habits, they become your character. Careful of your character, they become your destiny. What you think, you become. If we think that God allows suffering to happen, what do you think we’ll become?
This virus should not be so powerful as to convince us that God “allows” suffering. God is so much better, so much greater than that. God is our destiny.
*image from the Internet