“Twenty centuries of Christianity,” I said. “You’d think we’d learn . . . In this world, He only promises that we don’t suffer alone.”
A Marine chaplain says this in a short story by Phil Klay about the Iraq War (p 167). The story is fiction but the point is real. Most people pray for God to protect them, their families, and their friends. Many pray only in moments of death and desperation. But it’s the wrong thing to pray for. Pray to feel the presence of God. Period.
Of course it’s not this simple. Lots of people, including me, pray for more. Some pray for salvation. It’s perfectly human, but it’s the wrong way to think about God.
Religion is about meaning, and religion is about suffering. Buddhism has one answer, don’t cling. Don’t cling to life, don’t cling to attachments, and don’t cling to yourself. Christianity has another answer: God will suffer with you. Your suffering will not be lessened, but you will not be alone. You will be less subject to your suffering.
Nietzsche argued that God is dead because there is no longer a convincing answer to the question “why do I suffer?” (Genealogy of Morals, III.28)
But if man is given a meaning for his suffering, then he is less likely to feel abandoned. The meaning of suffering is everything. Nietzsche said this too, and he was right. The question is whether the answer “God accompanies you in your suffering” is really an answer. I think it is.
One could elaborate, along the lines of “God has a plan, one that you will never know, but from a God’s eye view there is a meaning to your suffering.” That’s the answer of the Book of Job. But I don’t think it’s very convincing.
There is something about being human that makes “God accompanies you in your suffering” a perfectly complete and adequate answer to the question “why do I suffer?” If this doesn’t seem like an answer, think about it.
A suffering child is comforted by the presence of his parents. What makes an adult is not the absence of the need for comfort and presence, but the ability to use the idea or feeling of another’s presence as comfort. That’s not childish. That’s the imagination of an adult. The grace of God is the ability to use this imagination to feel His presence.
Christianity, the religion of the God who suffers
I think the answer “God accompanies you in your suffering” is the basis for a complete religion, and one of the great attractions of Christianity is its emphasis on Christ’s suffering. The cross was a torture instrument, as the chaplain says. Christ is a great instance and exemplar of God suffering with us.* To me that’s a lot more important that Christ dying for my sins.
Christ died so that we do not suffer alone. That’s enough.
* Some think that patripassianism, the doctrine that God suffers, is heretical. I don’t. Properly interpreted it’s compatible with trinitarianism, but this isn’t the place to go into the details.
Phil Klay, Redeployment. Penguin Books, 2015.