The sad songs are often the sweetest. The richest joys are often the ones seasoned with the saline of our tears. There is something about the human condition which makes pain and sorrow inevitable. Tears are the grace and mercy of the loving God, who himself became a man acquainted with sorrow, who poured out his own tears before his Father in heaven, and who sings for joy over his creation. These are the truths we must front before we can go further.
This post is not going to be anything like a Christian theodicy. For one thing, to write about theodicy is to take a living existential reality and pin it dead and lifeless to a board. For another, the discussion of theodicy is often engaged within technical philosophical boundaries, which are derived from convictions Christians cannot share (e.g., the framing of the question within dialectical oppositions, resulting in a “god of the philosophers” as distinct from the Trinitarian God of Christianity). What it will be, however, is a very simple contemplation about the transfiguration of suffering, and the role of thanksgiving in that transfiguration.
There are many Scriptural texts from which one could start, but I would like to start here:
[We are] always carrying about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus also may be manifest in our body. For we who live are always delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:10-11)
All suffering is bodily suffering, even and especially that suffering that is largely emotional anguish. When we suffer, our body sheds tears, our body is wracked with sobs, our body tosses sleepless in the night, our body aches and hurts. We are not spirits in flesh containers. We are a unified whole, soul and body. Soul anguish is bodily grief. And therefore, we should consider that we are given grace in this bodily suffering, though we cannot say how. Though we are mortal creatures and will come at last to death and the grave, in a most amazing and wonderful grace, God transfigures us in and through our bodies. The dying of the Crucified God encompasses all our dying, heart, soul, mind and body. And so, this whole suffering is wholly brought up into the mystery of grace and love and mercy.
When we hurt, there gather round us those who would offer us balms for our wounds. Some of these balms are just simply unhelpful. Others are poisonous and deadly. We are told that our suffering is for our own good, that it serves some instrumental purpose. We are told that we must simply wait patiently for the greater good, that our suffering serves an end greater than us. We are told not to murmur, that this fate is ours because of the divine will and we are not to question or complain. Whatever the truth of these things, these are hard words. Let us be plain, the only help and solace we will find is from the hands pierced by Roman nails.
. . . who, in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear, . . . (Hebrews 5:7)
In this verse is the locus of the transfiguration of our suffering. But this is, frankly, a most strange verse, if we are attentive to it. Jesus asked that “this cup” pass from him. He prayed with “vehement cries and tears.” But how can it be said that he “was heard”? Didn’t he, after all, hang suspended on that Cross? Didn’t he, after all, spend three days in the tomb? Didn’t he, not to put too fine a point on it, die? How can it be said he was heard?
In this, it may be is the grace of transfiguration. This is what takes our suffering and changes it. Our suffering is not removed away. We hurt. We cannot but face that pain. But we can see within this horrible present moment a grace and a mercy, that Gileadan oil.
Perhaps a change of preposition may help us grasp it. If the Lord of Glory was saved from death, it was because he was saved in death. Death could not hold him. He plundered Hades, and with a shout tore down the gates of hell. Into death he brought immortal life. Into death, he brought resurrection. Into death he brought eternal victory. He did not bypass death, he transfigured it. Though still the enemy, though bitter and hurtful still, for those who take his pierced hand and follow him past the broken gates, death itself is the gateway to life.
But one must die. Just as Christ died. If we are his, there is no use going another way, devising another plan. This is unbearably painful. Which is why in these moments he must carry it with us. Even Christ had his Simon of Cyrene. At the Cross, the guilty are forgiven. At the Cross, the motherless are given a Mother. At the Cross, we are bathed in blood and water. At the Cross, we are complete.
There is, however, more than just this contemplation. We seek the alleviation of our pain, but pain medicated is not necessarily pain transfigured. No, there is yet one more prescription for our condition. Permit the repetition, because it is necessary.
. . . be filled with the Spirit . . . giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 5:18,20)
And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. (Colossians 3:15)
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requess be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
In our pain, this can be, to be sure, a most bitter prescription. We marvel that we could be thankful for this. And yet, if we may allow ourselves in this confrontation a wild conjecture, the mystery of this transfiguration works its way in and through our hearts via the means of giving thanks. It may be that we cannot thank God for a particular sorrow or for this present suffering. We may be horrified to think that we may express gratitude for the evil that is worked against us. But we may at least thank God for all the rest of our unnoticed or unreflected blessings. Indeed, we may if we dare use these offerings of particular gratitude as antirrhemata against our sufferings, as weapons of offence against the offense of our pain.
This is not the superficiality of self-manipulation of our emotions. There is nothing here of giving thanks for those things about which we feel thankful. It is, rather, a discipline in which we engage. We may feel different after giving thanks. More likely we simply return to the grief that some days seem overwhelming. But, in the synergistic mystery of God’s transfiguring grace, it may well be that we find ourselves, if not our circumstances, transformed. Not because our emotions have changed, but because we have, with Christ, learned obedience. Like Christ, there is a joy set before us, and in that joy we may endure this cross, and in his power we may even scorn its shame. But if we will do so, it seems that we may only do so by giving thanks.
May God have mercy on us.