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Any Snappy Explanation of Suffering You Come Up with Will be Horseshit

There is a scene in the first episode of the Showtime series "Nurse Jackie" where she consoles a young unmarried girl whose boyfriend, a bike courier, had just died of injuries in a bike accident on his way to work in the crushing traffic of New York City. The girl—poor, pregnant, wearing a stained t-shirt and asking what she is going to do, that she doesn’t even have money to get a cab home—sits on a bench in the hallway outside the chapel in All Saints Catholic Hospital. Jackie, a morally complicated, fiercely dedicated nurse but who is herself addicted to pain killers and whose personal life is a disaster, stands next to the girl and gently puts her hand on the girl’s head and draws her to her. Nothing is said. Just that moment of tenderness. As the scene ends and the camera pulls away from them, we see behind them at the end of the hallway set into the wall, a beautifully sculptured figure of Jesus with his arms extended.  

I don’t know what Christianity is anymore. But I think it’s supposed to be that. Or something very much like that. Wounded healers. It’s not about moral perfection or checking off a daily list of rules to keep or seeing yourself as better because you’re a believer and you go to church and you accept everything in the Bible.

People who are hurting don’t need sermons on God’s Will, that everything is meant to be, that there is a purpose for your tragedy, some high and holy reason why your life has just collapsed in agony. Don’t question it, the righteous say. Just know everything is okay and is going according to God’s plan however miserable it all is for you.

That might sound religious and all but it’s not very comforting.  And it’s not very Christian. Or let’s just say, it’s not much like Jesus.

In her terrific little book, Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott writes,

“Human lives are hard, even those of health and privilege, and don’t make much sense. This is the message of the Book of Job: Any snappy explanation of suffering you come up with will be horseshit. God tells Job, who wants an explanation for all of his troubles, ‘You wouldn’t understand.’
And we don’t understand a lot of things. But we learn that people are very disappointing, and that they break our hearts, and that very sweet people will be bullied, and that we will be called to survive unsurvivable losses, and that we will realize with enormous pain how much of our lives we’ve already wasted with obsessive work or pleasing people or dieting. We will see and read about deprivation and barbarity beyond our ability to understand, much less process. Side by side with all that, we will witness transformation, people finding out who they were born to be, before their parents pretzelized them into high achievers and addicts and charming, wired robots.”

We do so much damage to people when we attempt to give them some absolute moral injunction about suffering or personal pain or failure or messing up our lives in dramatically unpleasant ways.

As parents we often go way overboard in smothering our child or children with fearful messages about God and sin and sex and a whole boat load of other stuff. All in the name of religion. All with the idea we are preparing them for life. When really, we’re just trying to justify our own shaky hold on things. What they need are preposterous amounts of love and comfort while reminding them that life with all of its potential for beauty and success can still be a tough and brutal journey through the years.

Religion has been given this huge place in our society, particularly Christianity. And our politicians have almost ruined it for us. Somewhere back there some of them realized how easily manipulated we all are by religious talk, by some serious sort of God messages that require us to stop thinking and just do what we’re told by religious sounding people. Following a politician because of his or her religious beliefs or how smoothly they talk about their faith is a poor way to structure government in a pluralistic society that is still supposed to separate church from state if the country has a chance of functioning humanely.

Comforting people in distress, in their hour of personal crisis, in a moment of horrific loss, in a time when they have lost their way, is the work of all authentic religion. And if yours happens to be Christianity then it certainly ought to be about solidarity with people, connection, compassion and grace. And not about legalistic doctrines of unbending rules and mindless ordinances that are more important than real people. Sometimes just holding someone in their need and not saying anything, not making any religious assumptions, is all that is required. I think Jesus with his arms extended would agree.

© 2016 Timothy Moody

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