Parsing Greek verbs, reading systematic theologies, learning counseling techniques.
These can only go so far in preparing you to be a minister – to be one who lives for and leads and loves the people of God, and hopes to do so, to use Nouwen’s phrase, ‘In the name of Jesus.’
When hell raises its head in front of your eyes, when tragedy strikes, when pain indescribable tramples upon those you love…. Those are the moments that make one a minister of the Gospel. Or at least they do, potentially.
How can you feed faith to those whose faith is sapped? How can you love those who have seen love spilled on the ground of betrayal and despair? How can you have hope for the hopeless? How can you stand for God when God appears as a monster?
You cannot, unless you have been there; or unless you have, at the very least, seen it with your own eyes.
Indeed, otherwise you have missed at least half the Bible.
The wailings of Job
The incredulity of Moses
The gut-wrenching despair of David
The violence of Lamentations
All ancient and modern skeptics, pessimists, scoffers and atheists are innocuous and well-meaning folk compared to this man Job.
And then there is the climax of the Gospel, when the scoffing skeptics of the Old Testament receive a voice in the very life of the Trinity, in the Son: “Why have You forsaken me?”
Can one truly preach, if they have not wrestled, or prayed in screams and tears and accusations? Can one lead a people of God without a broken hip from wrestling the angels?
If you still think you can explain His ways, if you still think you can justify Him to human beings, if you still think you can recount His mysteries and formulate the logic of His being, if you still think you can gleefully and innocently proclaim His sovereignty over abhorrent events like a poor naive soul out of some novel of Voltaire.
I’m not sure you can do this.
I’m not sure I can do this.
Not until I have met the God who lets His servant defame Him for 40+ chapters. Not until I have met the God who weeps at the death of His friend Lazarus. Not until I have met the God who pants out in despair and utter forsakeness in the face of this ‘labyrinth of suffering’ (to borrow a phrase from, of all things, a John Green novel).
On the day when all is confusion and darkness, and when God appears completely beyond acquittal and as if He has slipped out the back door and left us behind in this mess He created… this is the day when you find Jesus standing next to you. That’s when you see Him getting up on that cross – that cross we’ve known from our first breath, the cross that sums up all we have suffered, and all we have done to one another.
And this is the cross where we are called to stay upon, with Him and for Him, as He is with and for us.
A neat and tidy theodicy that gives God an easy break, and treats pain and sin as difficulties easily surmountable by the whims of human logic, is not a theodicy of the cross. In fact, I’m not even sure any theodicy can do this, for the cross is no real justification. It is no pawnable explanation. Our justifications and explanations, when conducted honestly, lead us right back to the same brick wall with a God that is far off or tyrannical. Our justification and explanations take us further and further from the reality of pain – and the farther we go from the reality of pain, the farther we are from the love of God in Jesus.
There is no way to avoid or circumvent this ‘labyrinth of suffering.’ God is found inside of it. God chose to inhabit inside of it. And that is where we are called to, because that’s where the people of God are, that’s where the world is.
Pain, even if one is merely holding someone else’s, scrapes out deep caverns inside of one’s soul. Those depths go far, and they meander into frightening subterranean lands. You cannot know another soul that has suffered (and what soul has not suffered?) unless you have explored those depths, unless you have some of your own, even just a little bit.
The Spirit of God is much more than a Divine memory-aid. The Spirit does not simply bring us back to Scripture, or to the picture of Christ. The Spirit carries the Word of God into those caverns, letting the Words echo across the halls, and rocks and darkened places. The Word that the Spirit carries is immaterial. But when it meets those cavernous souls, it is meeting meeting the material and historical – sinews and brain cells and organs and temporal moments in space, that make up a human being. When the sound waves hit the caverns, the sound waves are shaped, and out comes groaning and heavenly words, cries of God-forsakeness, and cries of heavenly hopes, shaped by those caverns. The Word of God, by the Spirit, truly inhabits us. It dwells in us. And out of us come holy tears, holy groaning, holy cries of despair, like those of Christ – expressing the Word of God in a particular, Jewish Palestinian, mid-20s, carpenter, moment.
How can you be a minister of that Word, an agent used by the Spirit, until you have learned to enter those caverns? Until you are more than a repository of Bible verses, but a living image of Christ, preaching and speaking the Word into particular cavernous places, and drawing out cries to God?
Yes, yes, indeed. God can use anyone. But I’m not sure these things can generally be done, at least not done as well, until one has known the Spirit plumbing depths, and journeying along corridors that have taken you to the edge of hell, until you have seen a little bit of death, until you have smelled a little sulfur in your own soul.
Love and suffering are intractably linked. The path of love is a path of suffering. The journey of love is a journey to the cross and the grave, pure and simple, no avoiding it. And it would be one thing if we could, with control and moderation, walk that path at our own pace – but the captors come suddenly in the night, the nails are thrust into our hands unexpectedly, the cross is put on a hill that we didn’t ask to climb, that we didn’t expect to climb. A car accident, wounds inflicted by someone else’s choices, sickness.
But out of those places emerge the love of God, the love of God that is inhabiting flesh and bone at the pit of hell. And from those places come cries to God, worship of God, faith in a God who often makes little sense and cannot be comprehended or justified, but who is weeping alongside you and promising a way through to the other side, nonetheless.
The greater the love, the greater the suffering of the soul;
the fuller the love, the fuller the knowledge;
the hotter love, more ardent the prayer;
The more perfect the love, the holier the life.
– St. Siluan the Athonite
And then, only then, can you shout with any validity, the call to Christ. Only then can you legitimately preach. Only then can you lead others in prayers. Only then can you send people out to the poor and brokenhearted on the streets. Only then can you break the bread and wine of the suffering love of Jesus. For the work of ministry, the work of the Gospel, the work of the priesthood (including that of all believers) is to build altars of prayer inside those caverns, to hold vigils inside those caves, to install icons of heavenly hopes, to wait and hope and mourn and shout and pray back to God from those places – instead of pretending they don’t exist, or demolishing them with mantras and self-help tips and systematic theology. This is the only way that you open yourself to the resurrection power of God. And you cannot lead others to that place if you have not been there yourself.
O Christ our God who tramples over death by death, save us. Save us. Save us. Save us. Have mercy son of David, and save us.