Over the past few months, I have seen tragedy visited upon some people I love. Losses unfolding, wholly unwilling, with a suddenness and a sequence that is painful even to know of, much less to live and bear. Sometimes, it seems grief arrives and compounds with what almost seems like a discernible pattern, one that feels nearly punitive or at least intimate in its meanness. Yet, this suspicion of a cruelty set loose in the world is met with almost appalled unbelief because we can’t imagine any sort of God who would lend their power to or withhold it from such hurt. And so pain becomes infuriating. We want an end almost as badly as we want an explanation.
Here, I am tempted to take a typically dour narrative, to say that grief is faithful to press us down into our limits and so confound the parts of us so comfortable with feeling in control, entitled to pleasure and reward. Some might call this a puritanical air, bleak and pitiless. There is, I think, a more helpful purity, though. Instead of a steady, crushing hand, what if we looked at our pain as a light switch, and not one that plunges us into temporary darkness, but one that douses us in that painful light as when someone flips on a lamp while we were still sleeping?
As the comfort of pleasant sleep resolved into a brightly lit room, we would see our world as it truly is, not as we dreamed it, nor as we dreamed our place in it. Pain is all too real and all too near. We are woefully uninsulated despite our best efforts. We may be able to put off some loss of comfort if we are careful with our money (though tell that to so many homeowners in 2008) or if we make all the right choices (though tell that the the magna cum laude graduate with $100k in debt and no way to use their law degree still wetly inked), but the real accosting pains—physical collapse, sudden rejection, death—are always pressing in, biding their time before they irrupt on our such-as-it-is-it’s-mine cultivated lives. In those dreadful moments, we are soaked in the plain light of truth: the most precious things are absolutely out of our control.
In trying to resolve the psychic dissonance of untimely pain, some people find themselves compelled to dismiss any idea of a transcendent God watching them as they bleed. The concept seems so contradictory as to be self nullifying and ridiculous. I say a fellow sufferer can hardly blame them. Hurt drives us into ourselves, or to continue the metaphor, hurt stands us up to face our self, wholly illuminated. There is no place in human logic where pain, especially pain upon pain with no chance to heal, can resolve into the picture of a compassionate God, to say nothing of a loving one. All the sense immanent to us demands the death of God. If we were looking outward at all, we were looking for a god like us, conforming within the extent of what we could understand (and by understanding, give assent). How harrowing to see nothing of the sort and to feel alone in a screaming solitude. And yet.
And yet, the same light by which hurt illuminates us also illuminates the world around us. If this were to reveal a God, it could not look like any god we expected. It would have to be a God able to hold at once a good compassion and our unremitting pain, not just as two like magnetic poles fighting to repel one another, but as a unity without division. It breaks the imagination. For it to be true, we would finally have to face a God who is godlike. Able to be true even as what we can only make sense of as contradiction, a self nullification.
This is the very image of transcendence, the indivisible necessity of a God worth the title. Of course, this is hideously uncomfortable because we suddenly see how far below such a logic our reason operates. Our pain reveals a terrible height. But, the light that engulfs us offers the opportunity to see not a god like us, but something so immense and mysterious we would have missed it, though it had been there all along. This, finally, is a God we could find exhilarating, truly invigorating to commune with. At the end of anger, indignation, and meaninglessness, I find that hurt leaves in me an appetite for this kind of God, one beyond all the immanent sorrow and dead-end logic.
The suddenness of deep pain reveals the great gulf between what we felt in our dream-like comfort and what we cannot ever unlearn about our precarious lives. Our reason can’t touch the bottom of this gap and, reaching in deep enough, we find that everything at hand becomes ultimately futile, an absurd blip we try to make as tolerable as we can. If, at the end of our logic, the chasm still yawns there in its absurdity, we have the opportunity not to reach in, but to step in. This is the leap of faith. This is the chance to discover that a God who makes no sense at all might be the best kind of God imaginable provided you can accept that his goodness and your hurt do not contradict though by all appearances a paradox. If suffering is to leave us with an absurdity, at least this is an absurdity incorporating the hope of goodness. At least this God makes of suffering a start, not a permanent end. Perhaps even a falling up.