by Mags Blackie

It is perhaps one of the greatest challenges in the Christian walk: What happens when we encounter pain? My intent here is not to present any philosophical argument of theodicy (the conundrum of how we make sense of a God who is good in the presence of suffering), but rather to look at the way in which people experience this reality.

Most of us grow up with an image of God which says that if I am good God will reward me with good things. If I work hard, I’ll be successful etc. Most of us can cope with the odd thing not quite going our way. When the thing we really wanted doesn’t go our way, we grieve for a while, but gently console ourselves that God has a plan. This image of God is akin to a benign Santa Claus (not even Santa gave us everything we desired as children!)

But where things start to unravel is on those occasions when something truly terrible happens to someone close to us who has lived a good life. We experience the pain that this loved one endures, and we know that if we could, we would do pretty much anything to lessen it. So why does God appear to do nothing?

I encountered this kind of dilemma some years ago – something terrible was happening as a result of a considered, just and righteous action by someone very close to me. I remember clearly thinking the God that I know wouldn’t want this man to suffer. And yet I found myself deeply afraid to pray – what if I prayed and the outcome I feared happened anyway?

At that moment, I realized I was at a crossroads. If I didn’t pray it showed I had come to the limits of my trust and had pulled back – my faith journey was effectively over. If I prayed and things didn’t go the way I knew was right and good and just – the god I thought I knew, was not God.

I had to choose one road – I chose to pray. And no, things didn’t turn out the way I thought was right. My faith, as I had known it, was shattered. It took many months before I found myself spontaneously saying ‘I believe’ once more. It was months of attempting to pray, months of doing spiritual reading, punctuated by conversations with a dear spiritual director and a supportive community.

The image of God I emerged with was far more real. I began to recognize that Santa Claus image is one of conditional love, and God doesn’t love conditionally. I began to realise to that whilst God wasn’t explicitly on my side maybe this was because he was still working with those who had caused such harm. I began to realise that my capacity to live what resembles a moral and upright life is hugely related to the privilege I have been born into.

As James Finley, a psychotherapist and author on spiritual healing, so rightly puts it – ‘The mystery of the Cross means that whatever it means that God protects us, it doesn’t mean that God stops the unfair tragic thing from happening.’

Bad things happen, and we are not protected. And yet, God is with us in it all. It isn’t always clear. It very rarely makes any kind of linear sense. But have a conversation with anyone who has truly integrated their experience of pain into their faith journey (or their faith journey into their experience of pain) and one cannot help but see compassion. It is extraordinary.

At the very centre of the faith is the Pascal mystery – the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our faith, if it is primarily about the avoidance of pain and suffering, is not rightly Christian. All of us, sooner or later, will end up in spaces of suffering. What we do when we are there matters.

Suffering is deeply and fundamentally disorienting. If we don’t commit ourselves to healing the wounded spaces we have (whatever that takes) we will contribute to the violence and suffering in our world. Such healing takes time – maybe a lot of time.

My best advice is when you find yourself in that place, find someone who is willing to sit with you in the dark. It may be a wise friend, a spiritual director, a therapist – it doesn’t matter – just find someone who is not afraid of the dark because they know enough to trust that dawn will break. And in the companionship of their faith, you can risk waiting.

 

 


About the AuthorMags

Mags Blackie

Mags Blackie is the author of ‘Rooted in Love: integrating Ignatian spirituality into daily life’. By day she is an academic in the Department of Chemistry and Poly
mer Science at Stellenbosch University. In her spare time she gives spiritual direction. She blogs at magsblackie.com

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