Sunday, August 18, 2013

When Life Doesn't Make Sense

What do we do when life doesn’t make sense?

How can we handle challenges that seem unfair—problems that pile up, one on top of another, leaving us gasping for air and grasping for God, who seems very far away, if not entirely absent?

These are not the questions that most of us ask every day, but they are questions that some of us ask more often than you might think. I meet people every week who think that life ought to be smooth sailing if only God is doing his job. I meet one of them in the mirror every morning.

And yet for almost everyone there comes a day, a week, or a year when life doesn’t make sense. A child drowns. A young parent dies in a car accident. A dear friend betrays our trust. Sometimes, we face two or even three tragic things around the same time and everything falls apart.

How does the Christian deal with this?

You won’t find many better answers than those offered in our readings today.

First of all, the Old Testament reading and the Gospel pair up to remind us that neither God’s Word nor the history of our salvation promises an easy life. Jeremiah is thrown down a well and left to die, precisely as a result of doing what God asked him to do. Who could blame him for asking God  'why?' as he sank into the mud?

Jesus, of course, is the ultimate example of innocent suffering, and we know that from the cross he asked why—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus did not promise an earthly rose garden to his disciples. Do you think faith entitles Christians to a little peace and quiet? In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives an astonishing answer: not only will faith cause you problems at work, it’ll cause you problems at home!

Life’s miseries are doubly or triply hard for those of us who believe we’re entitled to make it through life without problems. Pain and trouble are much worse when they are unexpected. So the first step to coping with life as a Christian is to develop a realistic understanding and acceptance of what God has, and has not, promised to his faithful people.

But of course that’s not enough with which to face a real crisis. Happily, between the two bookends of Jeremiah’s misery, and the discouraging words of Jesus, we read a passage from the Letter to the Hebrews that makes sense of it all. These are four of my favourite verses in the entire Bible, and they give a framework for facing suffering and finding meaning in the disasters of life.

The very first words of the reading offer a starting place: the “great cloud of witnesses” that’s all around us. Who are these witnesses if not the saints? While the letter is likely thinking of the great figures of the Old Testament, we are surrounded also by twenty centuries of holy men and women whose example can strengthen us in any and every difficulty.

Do your children cause you great distress and worry? So did at least one of St. Monica’s, the future bishop Saint Augustine? Do you have a drinking problem? So did she at a young age.

Have you serious money problems? St. Gemma Galgani’s father died just when his prosperous pharmacy failed, leaving nothing for his orphaned daughter to live on. Creditors rushed in immediately after his death and searched the young girl’s own pockets, taking away the few small coins they found.

Do you mourn the loss of a husband? So did St. Paula, whose husband died when she was 32, and who could barely face her grief until St. Marcella, also recently widowed, showed her friend how to be happy again and find a purpose in life.

We could go on all morning with examples of people who proved by their lives that God is faithful and that human problems cannot defeat divine goodness—saints who bear witness in every age and culture that “all things work together for good for those who love God” and that nothing whatever can “separate us from the love of God” as St. Paul writes to the Romans.

But we’ve only looked at the first few words of the reading. It continues by inviting us to “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely.” We can’t just look at the saints; we must look at ourselves. And what do we see—weight. Just like some of us see extra pounds when we look in the mirror, all of us have excess baggage that slows us down on the spiritual journey.

The word “weight” means here an encumbrance, an impediment—perhaps something we’re carrying around that we ought to let go of. In almost every sport except Sumo wrestling, being overweight is an obstacle to success. Like an athlete in training, the Christian needs to weigh-in. We’re not talking here about sin but about impediments—things that prevent us from running with speed and grace.

It could be nothing more than a love of comfort: the extra cup of coffee that always makes us arrive at the last minute for Mass, with never five minutes to quiet our hearts. It could be a fear of what people might think, an excessive demand for respect, even a love for TV that stops us from taking a walk with the family on a sunny evening.

Everyone has a different build—what’s excess weight for me might be necessary pounds for you. The thing is: we need to take stock, and to be ready to let go of whatever is slowing down our spiritual run.

Nothing, of course, slows us down like sin. The letter tells us to throw off—to rid ourselves—of sin, and especially of a particular kind of sin: “the sin that clings so closely.” We might see this as what’s sometimes called our “besetting sin,” a habitual sin with which we’ve struggled long and hard without much result (or even a sin we've given up fighting). But the truth is that all sin clings closely in the sense that it trips us up when we try to run the race.

What all this is saying is that we need to be in good spiritual shape in order to face life’s inevitable struggles. When times aren’t all that hard is when we need to grow in our relationship with God so we’ll be fit when the race starts a steep uphill climb.

I would never tell someone who is overcome by trouble that they should have strengthened their spiritual muscles in better times—that would be almost cruel. But there is some truth in it. A solid relationship with God is a wonderful thing to have when sorrow strikes. At the same time, our troubles themselves are an opportunity to grow in that relationship, because they can lead us to connect with the sufferings of Jesus.

The letter tells us to “consider Jesus” and all he endured before we give up hope for ourselves. By thinking about what he faced we can put our problems in perspective—even better, we can unite our sufferings with his. I’ve never been brave enough to suggest that someone who is angry with God read through one of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s passion, but perhaps that’s not a bad idea.

The key message in this wonderful passage is found in the phrase “looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” I prefer the less literal but more forceful translation in the New Jerusalem Bible, which reads “Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.”

We can lose sight of Jesus because of pain and sorrow. But there is only one remedy, and that is to look at him through our tears, to recall the great truths of our salvation, and to unite ourselves with him in faith and hope.

This is no mere pious prayer—it is a practical way to persevere in sorrow and to find strength when our human resources have failed. If life is tough right now, read over Hebrews 12 when you get home. If life is easy, read over Hebrews 12 and make a plan to be in shape to meet whatever challenges are still to come.

And most of all, in good times and in bad, let us not lose sight of Jesus, “who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection.” (NJB)

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