Friday, January 15, 2010

By the right hand...

One of the hardest things we encounter when suffering is the question: where is God? Why does he allow such pain to come to me? Why doesn't he answer my prayers? If he exists and he loves me, why isn't he helping me?

This is a question that people have struggled with for centuries, with different philosophers and theologians proposing explanations, writing books, developing creeds, etc. However, when we are in the midst of darkness and pain, all of the words and reasons and beliefs can feel irrelevant. And what seems even harder is that not everyone experiences this painful doubt. Some people seem to move through tragedy, firmly anchored by their faith, feeling strengthened by a sense that God is with them. If I am not one of those people, it may lead me to feel bad about myself. "What's wrong with me?", I wonder. Maybe I am suffering because my faith isn't strong enough. Or worse, maybe I'm being punished for something I did wrong. Sometimes we feel anger, even rage, at God - but that doesn't make us feel better either. We then feel alienated from the One we are told is Love itself.

The other day, I was looking for a passage in one of my old journals, when I came across one day's entry, a simple scriptural quote:
                          "For I, the Lord, your God
                          I am holding you by the right hand;
                          I tell you, 'Do not be afraid,
                          I will help you.'"     (Is. 41:13)
I recall rather vividly that this was during a time in my life when I was suffering and could not seem to find my way out of my troubles. I am quite sure that I wrote down this verse because I found it comforting. And yet if I look on in my journal entries, I see that 3 weeks later I was still writing of my suffering. What happened? Wasn't God helping me? 

Seeing that verse now has caused me to reflect on some other dimensions of its meaning besides the comfort that I took from it then. One image that came to me was simply that of holding hands. In our culture, generally we hold the hands of the very young (or the very old) or of those whom we most love. Holding hands is about relationship, about staying connected. With children, we often hold their hands to keep them safe or to lead them to where they ought to go. When we hold hands with someone we love (or hope to love), it is a symbol that we are together, that we love and don't want to be separate.    

But then another thought occurred to me. God is taking me by the right hand. Since the majority of people are right-handed, it struck me that the taking of my right hand is rather significant. I use my right hand to take care of myself, to feed myself, to protect myself. If God is holding my right hand, how will I be able to do these things for myself? I would have to trust this God rather a lot to let him hold my right hand. And trust is difficult for many of us. When we try to imagine God, we simply cannot do a good job of it. Often what we come up with is some version of people who were major influences in our lives, even though consciously we may reject that notion. If I was criticized or abused as a child, I may have internalized a sense of God such that I anticipate punishment, criticism or wrath. If I was neglected, I may have an underlying fear that God will seem to be there, but might walk away at any moment. Perhaps other people in my life have hurt and betrayed me. Why should God be any different?

Yet another thought occurred to me about this bit of scripture. When God says, "I will help you", there is no clarification about just what that means. Quite naturally, our tendency is to hope that it means giving us what we want: an illness getting better, a job being found, a loved one being ready to reconcile. However, "I will help you" doesn't promise that. When we take a child by the hand, we do not always take them where they want to go. Sometimes we are taking them to the doctor to get a shot. Sometimes we are taking them to bed when they really want to stay up. We quite rightly believe we are helping them when we do this - but of course the child cannot see it at all. Thus, the "I will help you" God offers does not promise fulfillment of our wishes or an end to our suffering. Instead, it asks for a relationship, for trust.

Many years ago, a friend of mine, a priest, sat with me as I was pouring out my troubles at a time in my life when I was feeling lost and confused. I noticed, when I finally looked up, that his eyes and nose appeared a bit red and I asked him, "Do you have a cold?" and he responded matter-of factly, "No, I just cry easily." I cannot imagine anything he could have said or done, any prayers or words of wisdom, that could have touched me more deeply. He didn't have an answer for my suffering and he didn't try to offer one. He just listened and cried. In those tears, I felt that there was Someone with me in my suffering, Someone holding me by the right hand. I was connected, not separate, in my pain. I could not see where I was going nor could I know if I would ever feel better. All I could do was hold on and trust...