I’ve been reading C.S Lewis’ “The problem of pain” while I’ve been away. (Yes Nate, I did borrow it from your bookshelf!) For the last few years, after dealing with mum being ill and also after following a lot of what has been happening in Zimbabwe, I feel like I have intensely wrestled with the issue of suffering and have been pretty angry about it. I have read so many theological reflections and spent countless hours going over and over the subject with wise friends.
Nothing helped. No explanation or reason changed anything.
Because theological reasoning wasn’t the problem. Pain was.
I was in pain at what I saw; with what I was dealing with and I think I figured that if I could explain it and get my head around the issue perhaps it wouldn’t hurt so much.
Exhausted and drained I let the issue lie. I resigned myself to being unsatisfied (as someone who wants all the answers in life this was a real case of admitting defeat). I drew a line under it.
Last week I decided to pick it all back up again. The book has been good; C.S Lewis has a brilliant mind and a great way of explaining and reasoning. It’s been helpful.
But then today I went to an area of Matana, Burundi, where the Batwa people live. They are a somewhat forgotten (or at least dismissed) tribe in Burundi. They live in grass huts on land that the church petitioned the government for. I walked around, followed – as per usual – by a little group of smiling faces screaming ‘photo, photo’ at me. I met and spoke with families who have been supported by the diocese and are now in mud-brick houses with iron sheeting. There are still many more to build.
Then the smiling little faces turned to hands begging for food and money, shouting ‘Muzungo, Muzungo’ at me (which means either white person or rich person – i figured there was little difference). With no one to ease my sense of awkwardness or pain as they tugged at their own clothes to show me their need, I just stood there blank with tears in my eyes. I was totally lost.
A loud smack broke my awkward moment and we all turned to see what the noise was. A pained and hurt women was taking out her anger on one of her children. As the child scampered off the woman continued to shout. Desire, who works for the diocese, went over to talk to the lady and see what the problem was. She followed him to the car as they spoke. I just watched.
She was one of the ladies for whom the community had built a house. She had worked for weeks to help build it. She had carried stones and made bricks, while still looking after her 5 children. She had been overjoyed at God’s provision. When it was done and the family had moved in her husband pushed her out of the house and brought another – younger – women into it instead. He divorced her and she lost everything.
Right there and then it hit me that no theological reasoning (or non-theological for that matter) would take away that pain. All those books I’d read and conversations I’d had wouldn’t stop her feeling the betrayal of her husband, wouldn’t feed those hungry children. Understanding something doesn’t make the problem go away. Grief is grief. Anger is anger. Hurt is hurt. And it is part of life.*
For ages I thought that the issue of suffering was a real tough one for Christians to argue (mainly because I was never too sure which side I’d be on when that argument took place), but then Simon helpfully reminded us a few weeks ago that everyone has to account for the suffering in the world. It is a problem for everyone to get their head around, whatever our world view. My additional thought however would be: if we are all random substance and there is no rhyme or reason to anything, why is it that we care so much about the issue of suffering? Why does it trouble us? How is it that we know that this isn’t how life aught to be.
As we drove back to where I’m staying the heavens opened. It literally poured down, hail stones and everything. The place where I’m staying was flooded, and after my initial aggravation at the inconvenience this caused me, my mind went back to the Batwa community; roof and walls made out of grass or bits of material. There goes that sinking feeling again. In fact, as I write this now it is night and I’m getting cold. It actually makes me feel sick to think about the luxury I have in this room, as basic as it is and with no running water, when a mile down the road there are people with nothing. The problem is I just don’t know what to do with that feeling.
The last few days have been hard, not least of all because I have had a little too much time to myself to think. For those who do, please pray.
For now, I’ll keep reading. Slightly more aware however, that while reasoning brings hope, it does not take pain away. Thankfully though, there is always hope.
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* (That is not to say that I don’t think that books, reasoning, conversations and understanding aren’t helpful. They are. But they don’t fix things. This world is still broken regardless of the reasoning.)