Does God Offer Hope to Those Who Suffer?

Does God offer hope to those who suffer? I am not talking about the suffering endemic to being human, like illness, broken relationships, and failed projects. I am talking about the suffering that is imposed upon some by others, the suffering named “oppression,” and “injustice.” The guests who come to Manna House experience suffering through the injustices of poverty, racism, homelessness, heterosexism, misogyny. It is the kind of suffering that leads to chronic illnesses—both physical and mental, and premature death.

When I took names on the front porch of Manna House on Tuesday morning for showers and socks and hygiene, a guest I had not seen for several weeks approached.

“Where have you been?” I asked.

“I’ve been dead,” she said.

It was not the answer I had expected. She was, after all, standing there in the damp grey cold of this morning as alive as you or me.

“What?”

“I was dead. I was in the hospital and I died. The cockroaches killed me. But now I live.”

I have learned over the years that what sometimes appears as insanity can have a logic that transcends ordinary rationality and reveals a deeper truth.

She continued, “I’m grateful to be alive. Can’t you see? I’m alive. God did this.” She smiled, made sure I got her name on the socks and hygiene list, and walked down the steps.

I thought of last Sunday’s Gospel in which Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus appeared to be insane when he said to those mourning the death of Lazurus, “Take away the stone” The voice of ordinary rationality said to him, “Lord, by this time there is a stench, for he has been dead four days.” And Jesus, firmly rejected that rationality, “Lazarus come forth!” (John 11:39, 43). The deeper truth became evident, “Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in Me, though they may die, shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?’” (John 11:25-26).

Does God offer hope to those who suffer?

“I was dead… But now I live. I’m grateful to be alive. Can’t you see? I’m alive. God did this.”

Later in the afternoon, I came across a quotation from J.B. Metz,” Christian faith involves a continuing effort to keep ourselves open to the coming of God . . . He is Emmanuel, God with us. He breaks in upon us, becomes visible in our horizon, and forms part of our human future. He is ever coming down to us and weaving Himself into our historical pageant” (The Advent of God, 1970:8).

God raised from the dead this woman on the front porch who said to me, “Can’t you see? I’m alive. God did this.”

God somehow lifted the suffering and death of this Manna House guest, but also through her spoke to me. Taken literally, I still do not know exactly what to make of her claim that she had been dead and was now alive. But she pointed me to a deeper truth, God comes to break the hold of death. God interrupts the firm grasp of “the way things are is the way things have to be.” God offers a different path, a different way to envision human life, and a different way to live.

I did not expect to encounter someone who had died and yet now lives. I know my imagination, my daily thoughts, feelings, and expectations are shaped by the culture around me. This culture informed by capitalist consumerism creates a life (death?) of fears and anxieties. It also creates the suffering of those on the streets. In my life I worry about my work, about money, about status, about how others see me; about all those things Thomas Merton called “the false self.” These are all ways to be dead.

How may I be attuned to a logic that transcends ordinary rationality and reveals a deeper truth? How to rise from the dead? How to become alive? How to hear how God offers hope to those who suffer?

Henri Nouwen tells of the power of God that enters in prayer. “The discipline of prayer,” he writes, “is the intentional, concentrated, and regular effort to create space for God” (Nouwen, Spiritual Formation, 18). He continues, “The various disciplines of the spiritual life are meant for freedom[for life!] and are reliable means for the creation of helpful boundaries in our lives within which God’s voice can be heard, God’s presence felt, and God’s guidance experienced. Without such boundaries that make space for God, our lives quickly narrow down; we hear and see less and less, we become spiritually sick, and we become one-dimensional, and sometimes delusional, people [we die]. The only remedy for this is the intentional practice of prayer and meditation.”

“I was dead… But now I live. I’m grateful to be alive. Can’t you see? I’m alive. God did this.”

“O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” The Advent prayer for freedom and life that gives hope for those who suffer. Amen.

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