Thursday, March 4, 2010

Talk about Suffering

My mom was hospitalized two months ago today. She is now in a "long term care" ward of a different hospital, receiving chemo-therapy and waiting for a spot in a nursing home. The chemo-therapy is part of the treatment for the cause of her seizures--not cancer, as the doctors suspected at first, but Primary Cerebral Angiitis, Beta Amyloid Associated (more information here and here). The latest word from the doctors is that the combination of steroid- and chemo-therapy has stabilized her condition so that it is no longer immediately life threatening, but they did not catch the disease in time to prevent irreversible brain damage.

It so happened that I was scheduled to speak in chapel in January, a couple weeks after the seizures. I had already decided to talk about suffering (drawing on this blog post); Mom's situation made the topic rather more personal. This is from my conclusion:
As I think about my Mom’s situation I wonder for those of us who have surrendered our lives, if there is any suffering that is not included in the privilege of suffering for Christ. Back in Philippians Paul talks about “being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith” (2:17). I wonder if Christian suffering in sickness—cancer even—can be a drink offering poured out on the sacrifice and service of faith. If, as creation groans waiting for the sons of God to be revealed, our groaning in suffering can be a form of Spirit-inspired prayer, through which we cry, “Abba, Father, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”


Edward T. Babinski said...

This is going to sound more like Ecclesiastes than the promised resurrection of the dead. . . but . . .

My parents are growing older, and I am an apostate. I see suffering in more places than I ever did before, as a Christian. Perhaps concentrating on the name of Christ helped at times, thinking pleasant thoughts of ultimate healing, of Jesus reversing brain damage, of God storing minds on a back-up drive in heaven to be re-installed come judgement day.

But now I look at the world and see every living organism living briefly and then dying. Life shows little sign of conquering death but shows extensive evidence of merely existing in equilibrium with death. (Not to mention instances of mass extinction in geological history, and possibily in the future as well).

Jesus sees each sparrow that falls, but they fall, and continue falling. Even when I read the Psalms I can't avoid thinking about what we know about nature, rather than how beautiful the psalm might be. Take "The Lord is my shepherd," the Hebrews sheared, sacrificed, and ate sheep.

Or take . . .

On Thy wonderful works I will meditate. . . . . The Lord is good to all, and His mercies are over all His works. . . . Thou dost open Thy hand, and dost satisfy the desire of every living thing. [By giving them other living things to prey upon? But then how is the desire of every living thing satisfied?] . . .

He will also hear their cry and will SAVE them. [But if He "hears their cry and saves" them from being eaten by some living thing, then He is starving that other living thing.]

He gives to the beast its food, and to the young ravens which cry.
- Psalms 145:5,9,16,19 & 147:9

Speaking of how "the Lord" "satisfies the desire of every living thing," let's take "the young ravens which cry" as a prime example. A study showed that one-third of adult birds and four-fifths of their offspring die of starvation every year (David Lack, "Of Birds and Men," New Scientist, Jan., 1996). Not surprising, since birds have to eat from one-quarter to one-half their body weight daily, so starvation is a common killer of birds.

Neither does "the Lord" "save" the baby birds that the baby cuckoo tosses out of the nest (the cuckoo's mother lays her eggs in the nests of other birds, and when it hatches, her baby tosses the other birds out of the nest) so that only the cuckoo chick remains in the nest and is fed by the other bird's parents.

Nor does "the Lord" "save" the baby birds that I saw on the "Hunting and Escaping" video (in the Trials of Life series) which were dragged from their nests by sea birds of a rival predatory species in order to feed the predator's own hungry chicks.

Nor does "the Lord" "save" baby birds tossed out of the nest by their own parents (because they aren't developing properly or swiftly enough).

It is, as I said, difficult to read the Psalms and feel confidence in them. They seem to have less to do with nature and more to do with fleeting pleasant dreams.

d. miller said...

Thanks for your comment, Edward. Perhaps I should clarify that my post is not an apologetic designed to convince unbelievers, but an attempt to make sense of suffering from a Christian perspective--or better, an attempt to find solace in one of the ways the New Testament accounts for suffering.

I do regard Christian faith as well-grounded, but I freely admit that rational justification is, in most cases, not enough to precipitate a paradigm shift toward or away from faith. In my case, faith is very much a decision to believe, and it is in living out that decision that faith finds confirmation.

Judging from your example, loss of faith seems to coincide with a failure to read religious texts (or poetry?) with sympathy: "The Lord is my shepherd" is a metaphor. The context of the psalm unfolds points of similarity between shepherds and God; the psalm does not state that God is like shepherds in all respects. To suggest that metaphors function otherwise is absurd.

I don't mean to belittle your own struggles with suffering, but this isn't the first time I've noticed that former believers tend to be woodenly literal in interpretation. Perhaps this is a problem with apologists of all stripes.