Monday, 2 March 2015

Meaningless Suffering- Psalm 22

The psalmist cries out,
Ps 22:1-2 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?     Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;     and by night, but find no rest.

This is a particular kind of human suffering. We are actually quite willing to suffer if there is purpose behind it. Or, at least we are willing to push through it without crying to God in such agony. Childbirth might be such a pain. I’ve heard it described as a purposeful pain (assuming everything is okay with the baby). A purposeful pain doesn’t necessarily leave one feeling forsaken by God. Suffering to protect someone you love is similar. You might be able to endure incredible hardship.  As long as the person you are protecting is safe, you do not feel forsaken- There is a purpose to your suffering. Feeling forsaken is a particular kind of pain that feels senseless- it has no meaning- it has no point.
It is uncomfortable to sit with those who are suffering, especially when we don’t feel like we can fix their problem. Those who have severe depression are used to hearing people’s tidbits of advice, but we would be better to sin in silence with them.  They are used to receiving advice on how to cheer up and look at the bright side of life, or how they should exercise more, or get out of the house more, or eat healthier food. It is much easier to give advice and walk away rather than sit in the tension with them and endure the suffering with them in silence.
 When someone deals with a death there is a similar kind of reaction, instead of sitting in silence we want to say, “Well, they are in a better place now”. We have such a low tolerance for sitting in the pain of another person. This soon becomes obvious to the person suffering and they begin to hide their suffering so they can relieve the discomfort of the people around them. They begin acting to relieve the anxiety of the people who are unwilling to be with them in their pain. So they fake it, and are left even more alone, not even given permission to suffer in the presence of others.  
We even want to rush past the sad parts. People will go to work the same day of the funeral of someone near and dear to them to distract themselves and “do something”. We often want to speed past Good Friday to get to Easter Sunday as if sitting in Good Friday is somehow wrong because it is sad. More and more I hear people saying I don’t want a funeral I want a “celebration of life”. And where does this leave those who are broken, suffering, and who are lost in their grief and have no interest in celebrating?    
We often want to jump ahead of the first lines of Psalm 22. We don’t want to sit in them and be uncomfortable. We want to jump to further in the psalm where there is some comfort, but we should be careful of that desire for avoidance. For ourselves as mourners we must be careful to allow ourselves to grieve properly, and as comforters we must allow others permission to rest in their suffering.
Job’s friends wept and sat with him for seven days in silence, but they eventually want to give meaning to his suffering. Surely God wouldn’t allow this to happen for no reason, so they start to believe that Job is being punished for some awful secret sin. It’s the idea of karma. Job must have done something to deserve such suffering. We sometimes do this in more subtle ways. But, from the opening chapters we know Job has done nothing to deserve his suffering. But, Job’s friends push him to expose the secret sin and ask forgiveness, but they are really only making things worse. Not only is he suffering, but now his friends have accused him of deserving his suffering. Not only is he suffering, but he is also now a “sinner”. 
          The book of Job rests in the tension between two questions. On the one hand we have the Satan’s question, “Can people love God and be good without being showered with blessings?” Satan is saying people will only love God and be good if there is a reward. Without blessings of property and family and protection from pain and suffering people will not love God and be good.
          On the other hand, we hear Job’s question- “Is it right for God to let those who love him suffer?” How can God, who is good and all-powerful, watch one of his children who loves Him, suffer and not do something about it?
            Job does not attempt to answer either of these questions. It rests in that tension. The question the book of Job really wants to deal with is this. In this mystery of undeserved and meaningless suffering, how do we speak to God? That is the real point of the book of Job, not to explain suffering. The real point of the book of Job is how to speak to God in suffering. Job is our model for that. The psalms are our model for this as well.
Ps 22:1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?     Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;     and by night, but find no rest.

When we would feel too polite, or pious to speak these words Job and the Psalms give us permission. Job and the psalmist express their anger to God. They expresses their questions and demands answers, but they never turns their back on God. They hold onto God even when their theology seems to fall apart. 

When we hear the cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We don’t primarily think of a Psalm. We usually think of Jesus when he is crucified. Jesus chose these words to be on his lips in his last moments. Why?  In Philippians 2:6-8 we read that Jesus
“who, though he was in the form of God,    did not regard equality with God    as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,    taking the form of a slave,    being born in human likeness.   And being found in human form,    he humbled himself    and became obedient to the point of death—    even death on a cross." 

When we look at Jesus we are in some mysterious way looking at God. And God chose to enter into our pain. We tend to hide pain in our culture. We privatize it. We don’t have public executions or tortures (thank God). We keep sick and suffering people institutionalized and hidden away. In many ways we keep suffering hidden from us. This wasn’t so in Jesus’ day. During Jesus’ time on earth suffering was all around him.
            There was a slave rebellion between 73 and 71 BC called the Third Servile War. About 120,000 rebel slaves were led by a man named Spartacus in revolt against the Roman republic. This led to about 6000 of his followers being crucified along the 200km stretch of road between Capua and Rome as a warning to those who would oppose Rome’s power. Imagine driving from Edmonton to Olds and every telephone pole has a body crucified on it.  
            Josephus also tells us during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD many were crucified before the walls of Jerusalem to terrorize those inside and to get them to surrender the city. Josephus states that they crucified 500 people a day until they ran out of wood for making crosses.        
The majority of these people we don’t have names for. They join the masses of people throughout the ages that have come up against the powers of this world and lost. They join those in unmarked mass graves. They join the masses who died by the hands of the Nazis. These people die at the hands of what looks like limitless power.
The cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” encapsulates the human experience of meaningless suffering. We never feel so abandoned by God as when we suffer without purpose. But in Jesus we see God entering our pain. So much so that Psalm 22 almost stops being ours and starts being the Psalm of Christ. St. Augustine said, “The passion of Christ is recounted in this Psalm as clearly as in the gospel”. As we read it we can’t help but witness the passion of Jesus.
Psalm 22 “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?... All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;  “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”   

We witness not only his physical suffering, but his marginalization. He is rejected by his community. He is mocked and ridiculed. It is a ridicule that is also directed at Christians and continues today all over the world, and has been a part of The Christian story from the very beginning.  We are ridiculed with him.

Ps 22:16-18 "For dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet— I can count all my bones— they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots."

Jesus joins us in our suffering- in our meaningless forsaken suffering. And we, strangely, are invited into his suffering. He promises that we too will be mocked and mistreated. We too will bear a cross. I am told that there have been more Christians who have died for their faith in that last 100 years than in all the previous centuries combined.  Jesus prays Psalm 22 and joins those who suffer, and we (as his Body) enter into the suffering of humanity with him. As his body we cannot turn away from suffering when Jesus entered into it so fully. Whether that suffering be from poverty, oppression, or physical pain, the church (when she is true to herself) always finds herself among hurting people. God did not turn away from suffering and neither can we. As God enters the suffering it stops being meaningless.     
            We are told that God became human, but not an emperor, a child born to a young woman in a stable. He was born into poverty. God was born into a family that would have disappeared with many other unnamed and forgotten families into the mists of time. God became one of the nameless ones. He became one of the powerless people. His cry is the cry of the abandoned and rejected nobodies of the world- “My God, why have you forsaken me”.
            If Christ was to absorb and conquer the evil and corrupt powers that influence this world, he could not be a user of those powers. Jesus stood apart from those powers of violence and hate and became a recipient of the violence and hatred of the powerful. He joins the nameless and faceless masses to endure the powers of sin and death that have been oppressing them since before anyone can remember. 
Psalm 22:24  he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted, and he has not hidden his face from him,  but has heard, when he cried to him.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I am told that speaking the first line of a psalm was a way of invoking the entire Psalm.[1] So we could think that Jesus wasn’t stuck in the hopeless agony of that one line. The psalm gives plenty of reason for hope and joy. God has protected the ancestors of the Psalmist. God has protected the Psalmist since he was a nursing infant, so of course God will protect him, why would he stop now.   

While we might ‘feel’ forsaken by God in our suffering many of the saints say that in our sufering we are actually drawn closer to him- as opposed to what Job’s friends say. Job’s friends see suffering as a sign of punishment and distance from God. In Jesus we see God Himself enduring suffering- with us and for us.       
          God has not abandoned us in our suffering. He has joined us in our suffering. God does not sit off in the distance watching us suffer. He joins us in all the filth, in the dust and ashes. No explanation is given, but God came to sit with us in our mess. But he will not leave us there. God will not let suffering have the last word in God’s good creation. Jesus will be with us. He will descend into the grave with us and he will rise with us. Jesus sits with us in our pain and suffering, but he is there to guide us out of our suffering as well. He is there on the other side of our suffering. Life does not end with a cross. God will not let life end with a cross. The cross will lead to resurrection and life that does not end. Jesus says in the Gospel of John, “in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”  

[1] “citing the first words of a text was, in the tradition of the time, a way of identifying an entire passage” – James mays

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