On Suffering, sovereignty, AIDS orphans, anxiety, giving thanks and all that

Instead, I think sovereignty is the promise that it will all be healed in the end. Sovereignty means that all will be held.

I still remember reading Ann Voskamp’s book Ten Thousand Gifts for the first time in college. I fell into her poetic style and devoured it. Her practice of finding God and finding gratitude in every day as a way to battle back her anxiety came at a time when I was making war with my own anxiety, and wondering how to get through each day. There is so much good in that book. But there was an underlying idea that the whole book rests on that didn’t rest easy with me. It was this idea in the air-tight sovereignty of God; that a child getting run over by a tractor is just as much God’s will as sunshine slanting off a wet wheelbarrow, and while we begin by giving thanks in all things, we grow to give thanks for all things, because God works them for good.

Her book is about contentment. She has anxiety, she’s trying to get away from her impulse to control and run the world, and instead lean in to surrender and trust. I get that. But is it God’s will for Ann’s friend to die of cancer, leaving behind several children? Is it God’s will for famine and earthquakes and drunk driving accidents? Can you just “lean in” to that and accept it? Ann comes to the conclusion—yes. Because for her, the other option is too horrible: that God is not in control, that this world is spinning out in chaos, that these are all random acts of suffering, that we’re at the whim of chance and evil. If God is not in control, then we are lost.

The problem of pain and the sovereignty of God is one I’ve always struggled with (who hasn’t?!) and when I read this book I had the vague notion that if this is the way the whole thing works, maybe I’m just to spiritually immature to handle God’s sovereignty and suffering.Because I didn’t like this perspective one bit.

I remember senior year, hanging behind in my Contemporary Christian belief class to talk to my professor about it. We were probably talking about freewill in class (because, you know, that’s what every philosophical conversation circles back to on Christian college campuses) and I asked him about Ten Thousand Gifts, and the idea that God’s behind cancer and tractor accidents. He said the problem with strict Calvinistic thinking is that people get trapped in their own logic, and can’t embrace paradox. And that God could still be sovereign and also not be behind cancer. That God could be in control and be against suffering just as much as I am.

Later that semester I went to a Christian writing conference and I heard Ann speak. Hearing her speak gave me so much more sympathy for her as a person. Sometimes you read someone’s writing, and you think they’re on a higher spiritual plane than you, and they’ve got it all figured out and are judging you from on-high. (Ahem, Jim Eliott). Seeing her in person made me realize: she’s not kidding when she says she’s literally clinging to these gratitude lists every day to keep her sane. She gives you the feeling she’s at peace and quiet, but only because she is bravely clinging to God as a lifeline.

There was a time for questions, so I asked her something along the lines of:

“If all things, even the bad things, come from God, why pray? Why ask him to change circumstances, and why bother to act and change circumstances ourselves if we’re just meant to sit in them and be thankful? What about the earthquake in Haiti, or children infected with HIV from their parents?”

She said prayer is surrendering our will to God’s, and letting him make us into people who go out and help the broken in the world. That’s true. And she did seem to say we should act to end suffering (heck, she has been the one pushing action on the refugee crisis and other amazing social justice campaigns). But, I still feel like she didn’t answer my question.

Because if we’re taking this thing to it’s logical conclusion, the conclusion where we give thanks for tractor accidents and friends dying of cancer, why not give thanks for HIV, and why do anything to change it? 

And then I went to work with iThemba in South Africa, and the questions just got bigger. When you hear stories of preschool children being raped, of orphans living with negligent grandparents who won’t give them their ARV’s and so they end up dying, of children abandoned in hospitals, of fathers who are alcoholics… I can’t give thanks in this, let alone for this.

And I don’t think God wants me to, either.

One reason why I love reading is because it’ s a way to find community. You know you’re not insane, because someone else as had the same thoughts as you. I’m reading Sarah Bessey’s new book ,Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith, and I got to the chapter called “Obey the Sadness: on lament and grief” and I read these words:

Sovereignty is a promise, not a threat. I no longer think of God’s sovereignty as what theologians call a “blueprint” plan for humanity. I can’t say things like, ‘Well, God ordained you to be poor.” Or, “God ordained for your baby to die.” I know that some people find comfort in believing that God’s sovereignty, his plan for all things, is behind their suffering and grief. It gives meaning to our grief, I get that. But I don’t think it’s true. In fact, I think it’s a crappy thing to say and a crappy thing to believe about God. God’s sovereignty is not an excuse or a reason for the bad things that happen in our lives: God is light and there is no darkness to him. No one will ever convince me that God made my babies die or that God killed our friend with cancer or that a hurricane is an act of God as punishment for sin. Instead, I think sovereignty is the promise that it will all be healed in the end. Sovereignty means that all will be held. That God is at work to bring redemption and reconciliation, that somehow at the end of all things, we don’t escape from the goodness that pursues us, the life we are promised, the love that redeems.”

I’m going to lean in to the paradox that God is in control of everything, and that he is grieved and angry about the suffering in the world. I think God wants us to make war against suffering and darkness and pain and sadness. If he was willing to send his own son to bring about our reconciliation, if he is making war against this darkness, then I don’t have to sit back and accept it.

People, this is quote just a snippet of all the goodness in the book! It will give you SO much to think about, and SO much to be comforted by– but you’ll have to buy the book Out of Sorts: Making Peace with an Evolving Faith to read the rest. It comes out in stores on November 3rd, but you can pre-order it on Amazon now.


(And let it be known I love Ann Voskamp still, and get so much from her writing and blog, and it is probably that she’s not even saying things I think she’s saying it’s just all my interpretation etc all that ).

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Some thoughts On Suffering

Looking like hobos in a town square after a trip to the pharmacy for blister treatment. They gave us compeed (magic second skin stuff), alcohol and a syringe, because it's so good for popping blisters and sucking the liquid out. It's just, you know, disgusting.

Looking like hobos in a town square after a trip to the pharmacy for blister treatment. They gave us compeed (magic second skin stuff), alcohol and a syringe, because it’s so good for popping blisters and sucking the liquid out. It’s just, you know, disgusting.

I did not expect to learn anything about suffering when I started Camino. I mean, okay, I should have thought about it a bit more. Really, the longest I have hiked is like maybe 7 hours in the Berg, and yet it was actually my idea to do a 25km hike every day for a month all across Spain. David suggested doing just like two weeks or something, because he’s actually hiked for long distances, but I naively said we should do all or nothing.

This mix (25km per day + a person who hasn’t really hiked + hiking boots that were not completely broken in+ one foot that is 1/2 a size bigger than the other) resulted in pain for the first half of the hike. First it was bruised toes, then I threw out my knee from over-compensating and then I got blisters.

I’ve never lived with chronic physical pain before. I’ve read stories about people who live with chronic pain and shudder and wonder how they do it. Now that I’ve experienced a tiny sliver I still wonder how they do it. When you’re in pain, it’s like there’s this green fog that just covers everything in pea soup, and it’s basically impossible to say kind things, or be patient, or notice other people. David’s pain coping strategy was counting. Our friend Tom (of Secret Life of Walter Mitty fame) told me on the third day, “Yeah, I was in a lot of pain yesterday, but then it just made me angry. And so  I decided to get angry back at the pain, and then I could keep going.”  My coping strategy was singing. For some reason, I discovered if I channeled all my internal energy that wanted to scream (or swear– but David told me that the pope would make me walk backwards and redo every mile I swore) and channeled it into singing, I could keep walking.

I was once told by a music major friend that singing and crying are just a shade apart. I think I understand that now. I also think I have a new appreciation for the history of African American spirituals. Because when you’re in pain, and you can’t get rid of it but can only keep going forward, the perfect song isn’t one that’s a happy pop song (that just mocks your current pain) but if the song is too mournful, you’d just sit down and give up. Spirituals walk that tightrope of suffering and hope, and I think that’s why they’ve lasted. Because walking through this world is always a tightrope walk between suffering and hope. 

More blister doctoring on the side of the road.

More blister doctoring on the side of the road.

We quickly learned there are pilgrims and then there are pilgrims. Like life, your level of comfort on the Camino is greatly impacted by your amount of money. The recently retired holiday-makers could stop for a couple hours when it was raining and sip coffee and hot chocolate in bars until it stopped. We had to find a bus stop, or a tree, or an overhang, or just gut it out. We were structuring our walking days around the cheapest places to stay (the donation based or municipal hostels), but when the rich people got tired, they could afford to stay in whichever private albergue was closest.

I tried not to be bitter. But, yeah, I was bitter.

We met Arturo during the final push towards Leon. The stretch before Leon is several days of flat, tedious wheat fields. It was green, we can’t complain that much, in summer it’s brown. But we experienced our first real rainy days on the meseda, and we’d been going for almost two weeks, and David was starting to get blisters. We arrived at the small albergue and Arturo, a portly Castillian met us at the door, excited to see us. There was only one other couple in the entire albergue and they were Korean. Their English was minimal, and they didn’t know any Spanish. But Arturo was so thrilled to finally have people staying with him (he even went out and picked flowers to decorate the sparse surroundings) that we all sat down and talked for two hours. David was appointed chief translator, and had to interpret Arturo’s Spanish into English for me and English/sign-language for the Koreans. Arturo was very upset at the Koreans when we arrived, because the wife had sent her bag ahead in a taxi.

“No!” he kept saying, “No, no no! Tell them, David, tell them it’s not good for the pilgrim to send the bag ahead. The bag is part of the pilgrim. Yes, it’s difficult, but it’s good to suffer. Tell her it is good to suffer.”

David apologetically tried to mime and explain in English to the couple, with Arturo hovering over his shoulder and nodding emphatically.

“I have done many Caminos, and in my first Camino, I had injured my foot and I sent my bag ahead for one kilometer. When I picked it up again, I thought, “No, this is bad, I should not have sent my bag ahead. I should take a taxi back and re-walk that kilometer with my pack.” But I did not. I was too proud. And I regretted it the whole time.” He shook his head sadly. “You need your bag. It is part of you. When you get to the end, and you take off your bag, it’s just aaahhh!” Arturo mimed taking off his pack and the feeling of release he felt. Arturo was an artist, and he sketched a picture of Christ. “It’s like the cross that Christ carried,” Arturo said. “You need this burden for this journey.”

The note that Arturo wrote for us to give to the head nun at Leon where we were staying the next night. Rough translation, "Welcome these pilgrims with great affection" or something. Ask David.

The note that Arturo wrote for us to give to the head nun at Leon where we were staying the next night. Rough translation, “Welcome these pilgrims with great affection” or something. Ask David.

In my protestant worldview, I don’t have a concept of doing penance. I don’t think somehow I’ll earn heavenly points if I purposefully go through physical suffering. I’m working for a community development organization that’s committed to alleviating human suffering. There’s enough suffering in the world already…why willingly add to it?

But then I think of the way we numb suffering, through money, through tv series, through pain-killers, through air-conditioners, through faster cars and quicker internet.  Of course we wouldn’t dream of walking 35 minutes to the store in the heat when we can drive. We don’t have to experience loneliness, because we can log-in to Facebook on our phones. We don’t have to feel cold, or feel vulnerable, or feel hungry. But when we do that, we let comfort completely dictate our life-choices.

Who is more free? The person who is trapped by ensuring comfort, or the person who has the strength to experience a bit of suffering? The person who has to stop walking when it starts to rain, or the person who is able to just shrug and keep going? The person who has to stop at a nice albergue, or a person who can walk until sunset and is content to sleep under a tree?


And then, I think about Jesus, and how he freely suffered. He wasn’t forced into it. He willingly picked up his humanity, like we willingly picked up our backpacks, and he trudged through life with us.

He freely died an excruciating death.

Ah, but the thing that’s different about Jesus is that he suffered in order to redeem even suffering. Suffering is no longer an arbitrary part of being human, it’s redeemed into something that can be used to make us more like Jesus. It goes from something we need to fear, and craft our lives in order to avoid, and instead becomes a tool to make us better.

As a Christ follower, I don’t have to be afraid of suffering: of physical suffering or even the emotional suffering of being alone. Not because with Jesus I’ll have magic that makes my life more comfortable, but because I have the confidence that everything, even suffering, can be used by God for something good. When I’m faced with choices, I’m not forced to always choose the most comfortable. I’m free to choose anything, because I’m unafraid. 

Not only that, but I know that there’s a weight of glory coming that will make the backpack I carry now feel like nothing.

David’s 3-part blog series where he talks a little bit about Camino and his experience of it can be found here. 

How Did Jesus Laugh?

The stoic Jesus is preferred.

The stoic Jesus is preferred.

When David and I were “just friends” but liked each other, we would have interesting email conversations about articles we were reading. One of the links David wanted my opinion on was a review of “The Shack”. The reviewer’s main distaste for the book was that Jesus was too full of chuckles. He “laughed, chortled and chuckled” his way through the book, to the point that the reviewer felt the author of The Shack equated holiness with laughter, and that was not okay. Apparently the early church fathers saw laughter as demonic and exhibiting a lack of sobriety, and not as evidence of a loving God (as Young does) and maybe that was better. The reviewer pointed out

“We learn about God’s love for the world and are able to love him in return by grasping the fact that the incarnation of His Son had serious consequences for Jesus as well as for us. He assumed our flesh so we could be restored to our own good selves, but in taking into his divine person our human nature and sharing it with his own, he became a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief”. For us, restoration entailed reconciliation with God; but for Jesus it entailed death on a Roman gibbet.”

What compels us towards Jesus his his ability to share our suffering. We read of Jesus weeping in the Bible, but we never read of him laughing. If Jesus the Son of God could feel the full depth of the pain of all of the people he came into contact with, if his heart was torn by Mary and Martha’s mourning, and if he suffered through the full weight of sin, if Jesus knew how good the world could be and came face to face with how horrible it was, if even his closest friends, his disciples, didn’t seem to get it– the picture of a laughing Jesus seems not only irreverent, but frankly highly unlikely.

Or maybe I think that because that’s how I feel sometimes. If I get overwhelmed and heart broken at the world falling to bits around me all the time: empty people caring about themselves and not others, people stuck in their own narrow little world, children suffering abuse right down the road, friends walking through family conflict and struggles, not to mention the way people are just so set on killing each other all over the world… and I am just one small person with a finite ability to feel the pain of others… what would it have been like to be Jesus?

I think this reviewer (and a lot of self-absorbed hipster-types that I ran into in college who were trying to get away from Mr. Happy-clappy Jesus who gives trite answers and is full of cheesy *joy*, and wanted to bring more “authenticity” to the picture of Jesus we carry in our minds…which despite my mocking tone I do think is very good) like to hold up this picture of Jesus weeping in the garden as the picture of Jesus. They say “How could Jesus laugh?” but it’s a rhetorical question. It’s a challenge. “If I’m in so much suffering, if the world is in so much suffering, how could Jesus have ever laughed?”

The Bible doesn’t tell us if Jesus laughed. And maybe God knew for a lot of people, it would be more important for them to know Jesus cried. But I think Jesus laughed. And my question isn’t rhetorical. I want to know– How did Jesus laugh? How did he? If he was walking through the pain of the world, if he was lonely, if he was misunderstood even by those closest to him- how did he laugh? What was his secret? 

No, I don’t want to fiddle while Rome burns, I don’t want to build up walls and block myself from the real world, stay safe in my bubble where I don’t have to think about things, or enjoy shallow diversions so I can block out the sounds of the world’s pain. We do that too often.

My question is, Jesus, how can you walk through the broken world showing genuine generous kindness? How can you find anything funny when thousands of people are dying every second? How can you enjoy Peter’s bumbling antics rather than beating your head against a wall and giving up? How do you walk in a world of misery filled with good humor, noticing the points of light, the funny quirks? How do you enjoy things while knowing that there is horrible suffering, too?

And maybe there’s a reason we know that Jesus wept. Maybe in this life, before the King comes back, there will be more tears than there will be laughter. And we can take a wide-angle view and say one day this will all be put right. One day all will be well and all will be well and all manner of things will be well. Maybe we say “We’re pressed on every side by troubles… but these momentary light afflictions are producing in us an eternal weight of glory that far outlasts this all.” And maybe that’s enough for some–that one day it will all be put right.

But I want to know what about today?

(I’m still pondering it. I’m curious to know what you think. But here’s what I think, what I’m hanging on to):

This is my Father’s world. We are not abandoned. We’re not just here fighting the good fight on our own, waiting for the day when Jesus will swoop in and sort it all out. God is here right now. It’s still his world. He is still present. And he is good. And we need to choose to celebrate the good. In The Great Divorce, CS Lewis describes all the evil things as insubstantial shadows, and the good as heavy, solid, and more substantial, more real than the evil. It’s the good that will last. That’s the eternal weight of glory. Maybe that’s why it sometimes feels flippant or insubstantial now, and maybe in comparison with the loud wails of sin and darkness it seems small, and flickering, and transient. But it’s really the thing that will last. And so it’s okay to hold on to it. And to celebrate it, and cherish it, and let it’s incandescent sparkle light up our view of the world.

imagesI think Jesus had eyes to see it. I think when the beggars leaped up with straightened legs, babbling with incoherent joy, I think Jesus chuckled with delight. Because that was a real thing that would last. I think Jesus went to that wedding at Cana and laughed at the groom’s awkward dancing and wanted to keep the party going so he made more wine. Because that was a real thing that would last. I think when Peter caught a fish and pulled out a coin to pay the temple tax, and his eyes almost popped out of his head, Jesus tried to hold it in, but couldn’t suppress his laughter for very long. That was something that would last.

Jesus saw how God took care of the birds and the flowers, and he knew God would take care of us. If we enjoy a good sunset, or beautiful mountains, or a seeing a baby take their first steps, how much more delight and joy must constantly be filling God, who can see those moments happening all over the world? (Divine Conspiracy, people, just read it).

Maybe we’re overly familiar and want to make God over in our own image. Maybe there are more of us who need a God who cries than a God who laughs. But maybe we think it’s cool to cling to cynicism, maybe we just like self-pity, and maybe it’s not the holy ones who are filled with a seriousness and sobriety.

Maybe the holiest ones among us are the ones that know how to have a good laugh.