I cannot believe that the inscrutable universe turns on an axis of suffering; surely the strange beauty of the world must somewhere rest on pure joy!
At times the Lord can seem pretty divorced from the very real suffering around me. Where is He in the indescribable emptiness after a miscarriage, the hopelessness of a failed relationship, or a broken home? Where is He in the shocking prevalence of abuse as you learn of yet another loved ones’ past experience? Where is He in the numbing reality of a severe illness in a family member? And that doesn’t even touch on the greater world suffering. I find it is especially hard to feel the Lord’s presence as an observer to these pains. I find I have an easier time accepting comfort from the Lord when it is my own suffering, but when it is the suffering of someone I love, I feel helpless. Helpless and guilty. Guilty for not sharing that pain, and guilty for the goodness in my life that seems unjustifiably kept from others. And so I find that a deep, seldom acknowledged part of me is quietly asking: Are You really here, Lord? Do You really care? And since You do care, which I know You do, why so much pain?
I know the answer to this is that the Lord foremost preserves our freedom, our most precious gift, and the ONLY thing for which He will allow us to suffer. And sometimes that answer is more satisfying than others. More often I find comfort in reminders of how sweet the world is. From the stories of great acts of selflessness and kindness in the world: the strangers helping strangers with no thought of reward, to the videos of my cackling niece romping joyfully through her house on stumpy legs with a waggling-diapered bottom, there is goodness.
In my own marriage I can see the evidence that selfishness and pride can be overcome, even when resolution seemed impossible at the outset of a conversation. I can see friends carrying on with hope and resilience, despite disappointments, loneliness, and uncertainty of the future. I can hold my gradually swelling belly and marvel at the impossible miracle of new life, that I am merely a witness to. In these moments and triumphs, these miracles, I recognize how truly the world does “rest on pure joy.” For the Lord could not have made it any other way.
And yet the pain still hurts. I crave justice, and for things to be made right. If suffering is allowed to happen, then it must be “paid for” by an equal goodness, right? But no number of births, or marriages, or moments of personal regeneration make it “ok” that children are hurt by those who should love them, or that some must live their lives alone. No number of good acts make a broken marriage right, or take the loss out of death. I am reluctantly coming to internalize that there is no grand balancing of good acts and bad ones, no quota on suffering, but also no quota on joy. Life is an unbalanced, jumbled series of loss and discovery, of hurt and affirmation, of pain, of grief, acknowledgement of our own helplessness, and untainted joy and wonder.
And I think that this tangle of joy and suffering is reflected in the Word. I can find my greatest comfort and peace in my favourite passages from the Word. Passages that are known and loved by so many for their beautiful promise of hope:
“But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31
“Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33
“And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away.” Revelation 21:4
My heart is stirred by the beauty and power in these words and stories. I find joy and security in knowing that the Lord is truly there for me, for everyone. And yet, flip to a different section in the Word, and it may be a story of war and death, rape, adultery, incest, greed, torture. The Word holds some of the most uplifting words ever written, and some of the most difficult too, all the more difficult because we don’t want to read of pain and suffering and grotesque acts when we turn to the Word. And yet these stories are part of the Lord’s Word too. The Word speaks to all states and all parts of us: the trusting and hopeful, the lost and searching, and the low and despairing, the selfish and the hateful. In these difficult stories the Lord is not dictating that pain and darkness must be part of our experience, only that it is all too likely that they will be, and that He has provided for that.
And even more, this suffering is woven with the joy and hope into a trajectory that ultimately leads to the rebirth of our spirits, which in the Word is shown as the birth of the New Church in the final stories in the book of Revelation. And that is the promise that the Word, that the Lord, eternally offers. He promises that no matter what suffering and pain our lives hold, no matter the trials or griefs, each of us has the ability to reach a place beyond tears, sorrow, beyond pain. It doesn’t make me like the suffering any better, but at least I can look at it and know that the purpose of life is something greater.
I know that confusion around the strange juxtaposition of joy and suffering is something that I will wrestle with all through my life. And while I can find some peace and resolution on this issue, a part of me still cries out at the injustice of it all. And maybe that is right too, because I would rather grieve and lament the pain I see around me than become accepting and numbed to it.
And unlike the poet who penned the opening quote, I don’t believe that the universe is inscrutable, I know exactly what and who is at its center. And even though I don’t always understand His governance, I know that it is based on nothing other than a desire for each of us to find and experience purest joy.
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” Genesis 28:16