“God sometimes hurts us.”
I said this as I sank with a sigh, exhausted and burdened, into a chair in our living room. Wisely, my wife posed the most appropriate question: “Well, does this happen in Scripture?”
The answer, we agreed, is YES.
God hurts us.
And Christians need a spirituality capacious enough for divine assault. Devotional literature that cannot accommodate a God who at times afflicts his people is inadequate for the biblical vision of the spiritual life.
I am not bitter as I write this—a bit broken, perhaps… but not really bitter. There have certainly been moments over the past several months, though, when I have hammered an ironclad sky with “why, O God?” or “how long, O Lord?”
With such prayers I find myself in good biblical company—spluttering laments are a central part of Scripture’s vision of spirituality. I have written about this sort of spirituality in Faith Without Illusions, especially in what I think is my favorite chapter, “The Way of the Tragic Poet: Worshipful Lament over Cynical Complaint.” But I have had to wade into the waters of lament thicker than I had known when writing the book. As my friend Chuck Hooten said, “you should have seen this coming!”
So where in the Bible do we learn of a God who hurts us?
It is hard to avoid, actually:
“I form light and create darkness,
I make well-being and create calamity,
I am the LORD, who does all these things.”
(Isa 45:7; see also Lam 3:38; Job 2:10; Isa 54:16; Exod 4:11)
For a specific example, let’s take Jacob. He was a child of divine promise. Jacob was a son of the Abrahamic covenant. Central to his identity in Scripture is a night of combat with God himself (or at least with his angelic representative). Fisticuffs with God: this is what being chosen as a progenitor of the covenant people got Jacob. He did not escape without pain. God gave him a limp. Jacob, the beloved child of the covenant, was disabled by the God who chose him.
Jacob was renamed “Israel,” a name meaning “strives with God.” Struggle and conflict with the divine Lord is intrinsic to being God’s beloved. From Israel the person came Israel the nation. So even the namesake of God’s people implies divine conflict.
Qualifications to what I am writing are immediately required, of course. The struggle between national Israel and God is most often due in Scripture to Israel’s recalcitrance or refusal to obey.
I have also written with verve, I think (both in TheoMedia, at The Ooze, and here at the blog) to qualify that we cannot haplessly attribute atrocities and natural disasters to the divine hand. By no means is God the source of every calamity.
But with fear and trembling over the vast theological unknowns, I still think God hurts us. At least sometimes. At least it certainly feels that way.
I know, I know—this is impious God-talk. But try the latest devotional logic on the poet who cried out, “For your arrows have sunk into me, and your hand has come down on me” (Ps 38:2). Reading Lamentations 3 will split open a gentle piety that defends God’s every action.
Then again, after ascribing directly to God the worst atrocities an ancient city could suffer, the tragic poet writes,
For the Lord will not cast off forever,
but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men.(3:31–33)
In a stroke of explicit contradiction to everything penned in the previous verses, the poet ends up suggesting that God really does not hurt us, at least not “willingly.”
Such is the spirituality of those who suffer. It makes theology very confusing.
Of course, Jacob would likely disagree with “he does not willingly afflict” us. And while squirming in spiritual pain deep in the night, some of us might disagree as well.
(Now, a transition: Most laments in the Bible transition at some point from grief to hopefulness. This brief lament is no different…. )
Even so, what we hold to when blood gushes from the divine arrow wounds in our soul is that whatever our take on the source of our suffering, the divine Lord plunged himself into it headfirst and drank the razor sharp cup. The worst cup of all. And not long after the cup was emptied, so also was emptied a tomb, that cup’s inevitable consequence.
I admit that most of this blog post does not resonate very well with holiday cheer. But I think it does echo (to some degree) the dark chords of Advent angst. At the heart of this season in the church calendar is a minor key chorus of moans, those of a forlorn nation looking for a Savior who seems hurtfully absent. The cry in the night of a baby, though, has signaled a key change. And those of us limping and pierced with the blows and arrows of the Lord must check out of the cynics’ ward and peer over the edge of that manger. Even if the Child’s coming is like “a sword” that will pierce even the soul of his own mother (Luke 2:35), it is a piercing we need.