Imagine a world… where we can have majestic snowcap mountains, without ever the troublesome earthquakes that created them. Imagine a world where we can climb the highest peak and yet, if we accidentally fall off, we find ourselves unhurt, and can just brush off the dust and walk away. Imagine a world, where our family, friends and colleagues respect us fully and accept us for who we are, and never misunderstand our words or deeds, Imagine a world… where we never age, our bodies never worn out by cancer or snatched away prematurely by accidents. Or for parents, imagine a world, where babes will always sleep through the night, not fall sick one after another, and where our children will always obey us and remain adorable… forever.
Well, we all love to live in a world like this, wouldn’t we? But, such worlds don’t seem to exist. Earthquakes do accompany awesome mountains; men, women and children do die when they fall off cliffs; and our bodies do deteriorate and perish, eventually or prematurely. Is this not why our hearts often ache… when those who are supposed to love us, misunderstand, or worse, betray us; when we discover, to our horror, that our son has just been mowed down by a lorry; or when no matter how much we try, that son or daughter of ours just don’t want to listen to our words or take our advice? Yes, our hearts do often ache this way, as though our souls have been dragged down to the pits by a boulder. Or sometimes, our tempers rage, and we find ourselves unable to hold back our screams, or worse, our fists. Or sometimes, we find ourselves engulfed or shrouded, as it were, by a mist of hopelessness, with our hearts asking… “what is life all about? Is there meaning to life, after experiencing all these hurts, the pains and the disappointments?”
We have, of course, different coping strategies when it comes to these difficult questions. Some occupy ourselves with lots of work, so that we never have to think about them. Some try to numb ourselves by indulging in pleasures of all sorts. Then, there are those who turn to religion or philosophy. An attractive aspect of Daoism (which in many ways, concur with Christian asceticism) is the recognition of the transient nature of all things, and the genuine freedom that one can experience once we accept the fact that everyone dies and all glory and fame, kingdoms and reigns will pass away. Well, there may be some truth in this. The Buddhists would take a different approach by:
- taking suffering serious and acknowledging that it is real,
- that it arose out of our earthly attachments and misconceptions, and
- the way out of this is to train our minds and observe an ascetic regime in such a way that we attain nirvana … eventually.
And then, there are some who think themselves to be the more rational, or as they see it, scientific sort, who believes that out of a randomness we evolve, so back to randomness we go. But then, since we are here, why don’t we just enjoy, for that brief moment, our middle class lifestyle, the luxury and enjoyments that our education, status or wealth brings, before we grapple with matters of eventuality?
Thus far then, we have looked at how others cope with the disparity or dissonance between our ideal world and our less than perfect lives. How do Christians grapple with the question of finding meaning in the midst of suffering then? For we too are human beings struggling in the same circumstances. Like most, we have tried the questioning route… “God, why this and that…” The Psalmists and Job were pretty good at this. But, as we last heard from them, they did not receive much of a concrete answer. Job got it worse: God responded with four chapters of questions instead. We also tried the theological route and received a partial answer for why men, women and children behave badly. Answer: there seems to be an intrinsic moral defect in us. Indeed, we all have a sinful tendency that we make much use of, unfortunately. But then, this answer doesn’t seem to address the question of why earthquakes, tsunamis and other not so friendly events occur.
This being said, there seems to be a Christian response to this question… a kind of screwball, actually, that provides a different sort of answer. I was reminded of it this afternoon when Ser Choon spoke about Jesus’ ministry in Nain (Luke 7:11-17). Jesus, we are told, arrived at Nain, a town in Galilee, with a huge entourage, all waiting eagerly for him to preach, or perhaps, to confront some of the local Pharisees. But, as it so happens, another crowd was building at the gate: a funeral was in procession. There, in their midst was the body of a young man held up by others, with a woman wailing beside him, as though her heart has been wrenched out of her! The reason for her despair was clear: the dead young man was her only son and she was a widow. And so, with his death went all her hopes and means of support. In its place, utter loneliness and poverty. It is at this point that Jesus breaks away from the crowd, perhaps to the dismay of Peter, and walked straight to the unclean corpse. Interestingly, Jesus did not resurrect the boy immediately. Rather, as Luke tells us, ”his heart went out to her” and he said, “don’t cry.” It is only when he had experienced a similar pang in his heart and when he had comforted her with his words, that he did what others might have preferred him to do earlier: resurrect the child. At this point, some may wonder, what does this got to do with all questions of meaning and suffering we explored earlier? Well, my point is this: God may not answer or explain to us why there is so much dissonance, so much pain in this world. Suffering remains a great mystery for us. Nevertheless, he addresses our pain differently, by assuring us that He cares, so much so that He was born in the flesh. Indeed, God became one of us so that He could experience and understand our sufferings, so that He can comfort us, and in order to assure us that all will be well. For in Christ, there will come a day, when all will be resurrected in glory. Until then, as children of faith, we need to hold on. We need to trust by faith that despite all the sufferings we experience, there is meaning in this world, that love really matters, and that there are such things as truth, holiness and beauty. These are my reflections on a question asked that a friend during one of my Chinese New Year visits.
Dr Lai Pak Wah