"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble." - Psalm 46
"Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel His claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him with gratitude and praise, you will be--or so it feels--welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence. You may as well turn away. The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become. There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited? It seemed so once. And that seeming was as strong as this. What can this mean? Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble." - C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed
Well, which is it? We certainly expect God to be our comfort in times of suffering. If religion is really the opiate of the masses, aren't our times of suffering the moments when it should really kick in? Why can't we click up the doses of spiritual comfort like morphine?
Why is it my own experiences (and those of so many with whom I've spoken) mirror Lewis' account of God's presence in times of trouble?
Maybe it's because we don't know what real suffering is. I'm rich and white and smart and PRIVILEGED in almost every sense of the word. Lewis falls in those categories. Unfortunately, so do the vast majority of individuals with whom I spend my time. Maybe we just don't have a handle on what suffering really is. Maybe our sickness, our frustration, our fear, our pain doesn't add up enough in the grand scheme of things to really count as suffering or distress. Maybe God doesn't comfort us because we don't really need him yet.
But that doesn't ring true. Pain is still pain. And Christianity teaches that God loves each and every one of us.
Recently I've had the same frustrating feeling replayed in numerous situations. I don't consider it boasting to say that I'm funny and fun and I have a gift for making people smile and laugh. At times I've wondered if there is an unselfish purpose for spending so much of my time in a comedy theater working on becoming better at a comedic artform. And the consolation I arrive at (and I still don't have myself 100% convinced of its verity) is that it is a good thing for people to be entertained. If I wanted to construct it in lamely noble terms, I'd say something like, "It's a tough world out there, at least for a little while, I made someone smile." (If the world's so tough, why don't I go out and feed someone instead? Or clothe them? Can you see why i'm not 100% convinced it's not all just selfishness?)
And all I can really do is make people who feel alright feel even better. I can amuse and even distract, but I can't heal. I can't solve things. And that's been my frustration lately - that I've been around people in real pain and each time I am rendered completely impotent. All of my jokes and wit get exposed for the merely silly things they are. They may make life a little easier and a little more enjoyable, but they can't really help anything. And without my meaningless words, I'm speechless.
And so I can't help but imagine my friends in pain not thinking something along the lines of Lewis' words - "When I was feeling fine, I couldn't get you to shut up. If I laugh it only encourages you more. But right now when I truly need someone all you can do is sit there, or lamely touch my hand, or squint and say something obvious and unhelpful like 'I'm so sorry." Where are you now that I need you?"
Does God sometimes feel like I've been feeling? It seems like a really stupid thing to say and I feel like there are a thousand "Bad Theology" alarms ringing off in my head. But I've always thought that good theology consisted largely of asking questions, and so I'll soldier on. For any readers who don't believe in God, and have kept reading in the hopes that there's a punchline in here somewhere, now might be a time to jump ship on this particular post. At least, I don't see the comedy coming yet. And I'm sorry I've dragged you along this far, but I did start out with a quote from the Bible. Feel free to come back later when I eat some more moldy bread.
But certainly for whatever reason (the need for free will? an ability to see the grander plan?), God has seen fit to limit His own involvement in some ways - to constrain His own omnipotence. So without denying the possibility of miracles or the simple truth that many have felt deeply comforted and consoled by God in their hours of deepest pain and need, it seems quite possible to me that there are moments where God is rendered speechless. Perhaps moments when God feels impotent.
Maybe as my title suggests, this is just a lame attempt in a frustrating time to identify myself with God. Maybe it is just a result of my desire to fly in the face of more conservative theologies. Or maybe it's the almost universal fun that's had when things are shown to be the opposite of the way they are. (She's teasing you because she actually likes you! An omnipotent God sometimes renders Himself impotent!)
The quote I borrowed from C.S. Lewis comes from A Grief Observed
- an amazing little book in which he chronicles his feelings during the days immediately following the death of his wife. It's insightful in ways that I can't imagine anyone could be at that time, but more than anything it is raw and honest and vulnerable. It's C.S Lewis, perhaps the most beloved and trusted practical theologian of the 20th century, and he is absolutely shaken. He has incredible doubts about God - "The conclusion I dread is not 'So there's no God after all,' but 'So this is what God's really like. Deceive yourself no longer.'" And yet he remains so faithful through it all. I don't know that I can go so far as to say that this is what faith should look like, but I think it's fair to say that it is what faith must look like. It's inevitable that at times our faith will be battered and beaten.
Towards the end of the book, Lewis rethinks the comments I quoted above:
"You can't, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway you can't get the best out of it... 'Now! Let's have a real good talk' reduces everyone to silence...
And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can't give it: you are like the drowning man who can't be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear."
So perhaps in those times besides hurting friends, there is truly nothing I can do. Not through any fault of theirs or mine, but through the simple reality of the situation.
Throughout this piece, I've been struggling with an issue of word choice. I keep wanting to say that I'm helpless in the face of the suffering of others. That seems like the traditional turn of phrase. But what I feel, and don't want to say, is that I feel unhelpful. It is my friend, not I, who is helpless. I'm only helplessly unhelpful.
And in the end, what I may have to realize is that I'm not God. I can't fix everything. I can do very little. And I hate that, but I'm going to have to learn to live with it.