What to do with suffering

Last night I heard a journalist interviewing a medical doctor on the topic of Covid-19. The journalist noted that many people in need of medical help that is deemed non-urgent—though it may be very important for them—are being told they must wait because hospitals are full of Covid-19 patients. But the vast majority of Covid-19 patients in hospitals are there because of their own foolishness or perversity, as expressed in their refusal to be vaccinated. Many are suggesting that hospitals and doctors should stop prioritizing unvaccinated Covid-19 patients over people who need hospitalization for other reasons. The journalist wanted to know what the doctor thought of that.

The doctor said she would not turn away anyone who needed help. It would be a breach of her Hippocratic oath. Many people are partly or wholly to blame for their own illnesses and injuries, but it is not for the physician to make such judgments. The physician must help whoever is in front of her.

I don’t know how many of the people complaining about the prioritization of Covid-19 cases over others would be satisfied with that answer. They might say: But doctor, there is not just one person before you. There are two, and you have to decide which one you will treat first. You should choose the one who is not there because of their own perverse choice.

For myself, I resonate with the question, but I accept the doctor’s answer.

But I have a different question: what is a Christian to do with suffering and pain if blaming other people is ruled out?

If you have read my earlier post, titled “The omicron spike matters” or if you go back and read it now—which you probably need to do in order to understand the rest of this post—you will know why I have this question. It is not a theoretical-theological question. It is a practical-theological question, an existential question. It comes from my struggle with the pain that I saw my mother endure before she died six days ago.

And the answer that I will offer here represents the convergence of things I have learned from Christian texts and teachers (I am a lifelong Christian with a PhD in the history of Christian life and thought) with what I saw and heard from my mother as she lay dying.

I saw no anger or bitterness, and certainly no blaming, from my mother. She was in pain. She cried out for help. She also asked God why she had to suffer so. But she did not blame anyone, and she did not express anger at anyone.

Instead, as she prayed aloud, I heard five things, repeatedly. (1) She prayed for help, for relief from her pain. (2) She gave thanks for her life, for all the blessings she had experienced from God’s hand in her life. (3) She asked the Lord to release her and take her home. (4) She prayed for consolation for us who would be left behind. Those four things I understood and accepted. It was hard to hear 1 and 3, but I understood them. But (5) there was also this: she kept saying “I’m sorry.” This fifth thing was harder for me to understand.

Often she said this after pleading for relief from pain. To understand that, you need to know also this: nearly every time she prayed for relief from pain, she added “if it be your will.”

That little addition—“if it be your will”— is a feature of the particular brand of piety that she learned from some of the pastors at her church. Reformed people revere God as sovereign and never want to risk praying for anything that might be contrary to God’s will, so they often add “if it be thy will.” This used to bug me, and I guess it still does. If I’m sick and you’re praying for me, I don’t want you hedging; I want you praying for me wholeheartedly, with nothing held back! I’m of the mind (formed by the Psalms and by centuries of Christian prayers) that says it’s your job to speak honestly to God, from your heart, and it’s God’s job to worry about what is or isn’t God’s will. The importunate widow in the parable did not add “if it be your will” in speaking to the judge, and Jesus praises her persistence, lifting it up for imitation. Pray boldly!

But biblically aware people know that this phrase “if it be your will” recalls Jesus’s own prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he senses the approach of his painful death on the cross and cries out to God to spare him: “if possible, let this cup pass from me; but not my will, but yours, be done.” And it derives from “thy will be done,” the third petition in the Lord’s Prayer as given in the Sermon on the Mount (“Our father, who art in heaven, [1] hallowed be thy name. [2] Thy kingdom come, [3] thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven.”)

One evening in the hospital, at my wits end, not knowing anything else to do or say for my mother, I sang some hymns to her. She became quieter, more peaceful. But I got tired. And then I remembered my Apple Music subscription and my iPhone. I could play her anyone singing anything! So I asked her: is there anything, any hymn, that you would like to hear? I could see her thinking. She said softly, “Thy will be done . . . thy will be done. . . .” She had already said this several times, and now she was trying to think of a hymn or song that says this. “The Lord’s Prayer!” So I searched Apple Music for “Lord’s Prayer” and up popped Andrea Bocelli singing Malotte’s familiar serting. I pressed play. My mother sang every word right along with Andrea Bocelli. She wasn’t necessarily singing the same notes, but she sang the same words. I will never forget her face, or the sound of her voice, as she sang those words. The Lord’s Prayer was her own prayer. And it flows out of “Thy will be done.”

Jesus himself—his own prayer—has to be our model. And Jesus himself became my mother’s model. I think this is the key to my question about that fifth prayer of hers: “I’m sorry.”

On the surface, she was saying “I’m sorry,” as an apology for complaining about her pain. She was apologizing to God—to whom she was so thankful for everything and to whom she did not wish to seem the least bit ungrateful. She was also apologizing to me, her son, and to my sister, her daughter: despite our assurances, she regretted our having to see her in pain and our hearing her crying out for relief.

On reflection, though, I’m convinced that something deeper was going on.

Here I have to refer to a book, written recently by a good friend of mine, on the topic of Christ’s work of redemption. Khaled Anatolios, author of Deification through the Cross: An Eastern Christian Theology of Salvation, coined the phrase “doxological contrition” to label a core element of Jesus’s work in saving us through his death on the cross. Reformed people are used to the phrase “penal substitutionary atonement.” It is a much-debated phrase in the history of Christian theology. I don’t intend to expound it here. I’ll say only that (1) it does have a basis in scripture, (2) it also has problems, and (3) in the end I don’t think it is adequate. I think Khaled has found a better phrase.

For those not fond of five-syllable words derived from Greek roots, I can simplify a bit by letting you know that “doxological” is an adjective form of the word for praise. Doxological contrition is contrition that intends to glorify God and does glorify God. And contrition is expression of regret, of being sorry, for sin. It is saying, “I’m sorry.” How does it make sense for Jesus, who was not a sinner, to say “I’m sorry?” And how can Jesus glorify God by so doing? And how does his glorifying God in this way redound to our salvation? And how are we to respond to this action on this part? For all of this, maybe you’ll want to read Khaled’s book.

My mother had not read Khaled’s book. But she had been formed by eight decades of participation in Christian worship. I believe that she knew deep down, in the innermost sanctum of her soul, and the most central compartment of her mind, in a way that she could not have explained in the sorts of sentences and paragraphs that you will find in theology books, that her suffering in her last hours was somehow, through a mysterious grace, conjoined with the suffering of Christ on the cross for herself and for the world. I believe she knew that the contrition of the one who suffers unjustly has redemptive significance, in Christ, for the world.

For one so formed, the response to suffering is not blaming others. If one senses that others are blameworthy, one says, “Father, forgive them.” But one offers one’s own suffering up to God. Paul teaches (in Colossians) that the believer’s own suffering becomes a participation, with that of all the saints, in filling up the measure of whatever was lacking in Christ’s own suffering in behalf of his body, which is the church.

This is the only way I have found to be at peace with what I saw and heard in the hospital last week. And I believe it is true.

This is the third of three reflections on my mother’s passing:
(1) Grief and gratitude
(2) The omicron spike matters
(3) What to do with suffering

2 thoughts on “What to do with suffering

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