Does God Slay Us? A Call for Lament

A brief devotion I shared for my class on the prophets based on Abraham Joshua Heschel’s chapter on 2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 40-66) in The Prophets.

 
 
I want to begin by reading a portion of the lyrics to a worship song that the worship band at my church played a few weeks back that got me thinking about suffering and God’s relation to suffering. It’s called “Though You Slay Me” and its by Shane and Shane.

I come, God, I come
I return to the Lord
The one who’s broken
The one who’s torn me apart
You struck down to bind me up
You say You do it all in love
That I might know You in Your suffering
 
Though You slay me
Yet I will praise You
Though You take from me
I will bless Your name
Though You ruin me
Still I will worship

Sing a song to the one who’s all I need 

This song is based on Job 13:15 where Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him; I will surely defend my ways to his face.” It was written after one of the artists lost his dad to a sudden heart attack. He talks about the way God brought joy and praise in a time of great suffering for him and his family. But Is this song a cry of faith and trust in God’s sovereign will or is it harmful theology that makes God into an arbitrary tyrant who kills our parents to teach us a lesson?

Throughout Heschel’s work, the reality of suffering and God’s relation to suffering has come up often. As I’ve shared in our class discussions, this has created a struggle for me. In the chapter we read this week on 2nd Isaiah, we find that Israel is called to suffer as God’s servant on behalf of the nations, for the salvation of the nations. Think Isaiah 53. However, Heschel also makes what I think is a crucial distinction between different kinds of suffering. He says, “Not all the evils that befell Israel go back to the will of God” (p192). Yes, Israel was God’s chosen “Suffering Servant” but some of the suffering Israel experienced was pure evil at the hands of a wicked Babylonian empire. There’s a difference here: one kind of suffering comes from God; another kind comes from evil.

When I think about my life and future in ministry, I fully expect to face suffering as I try to be a faithful follower of Jesus. I’m learning to take Jesus seriously when he asks me to come and die. However, I’m also learning to recognize the powers and principalities, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms, that are wholly aligned against the redemptive, healing, restoring reign of God. These are the forces on full display as Jesus is murdered on the cross;  these are the same forces that are shamed and disarmed as Jesus rises victorious from the grave. While they are utterly defeated, these same forces are the ones that steal, kill, and destroy our world today.

As we proclaim God’s reign of hope and justice in our world, we must recognize the difference between the suffering we are, on the one hand, bound to experience as we confront the powers and principalities that inhabit and empower evil, sinful structures and, on the other hand, the suffering meted out on the billions of poor, marginalized, and oppressed people by those same evil structures. In fact, all creation suffers and groans under sinful, evil structures inspired by the powers and principalities. The suffering we experience as we work for the salvation of others, as we follow the way of Christ as a community in a hostile world, is the only kind of suffering given by God; it is the only kind of suffering that can be called redemptive. I think we need to be careful, to seek discernment of the Spirit, so that we do not confuse this kind of suffering for the sake of others with the suffering caused by sinful structures or natural disasters or tragic accidents.

What we must remember is that God is always present and bringing comfort in all our suffering because God loves us with an eternal, unending love. God even suffers with us. However, God’s comfort in our suffering does not mean that God condones it or that God has caused it. When Job said, “Though he slay me, yet I will hope in him,” God was not happy. Why? Because Job got it wrong. God didn’t slay Job – the enemy did (Job 1:11-12). Here’s what God says back to Job: “Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!… Would you [Job] discredit my justice? Would you condemn me to justify yourself?” (Job 40:2, 8). Job thought he was being pious but he had wrongfully accused God of being the source of the evil and suffering he experienced. By accepting this suffering as if it was ordained by God, he had called God’s justice into question.

Before we glorify in your sufferings, or tell someone to praise God for the suffering “God is putting them through,” let’s be very sure that we’re not accusing God of injustice. Instead of accepting this suffering, God may be calling us to oppose it, to cry out for God’s justice and mercy. Maybe the praise God is calling us to is the praise of lament: “lamentation is not the opposite of praise but a form of praise in which God is rightfully held accountable to God’s promises: to comfort the widow, heal the afflicted… lament is expressed not as an accusation but as… a call back to fidelity to the terms of the original covenant, and includes an appropriate expectation or longing, not a demand, the very possibility of which was created when love and covenant were first enacted” (Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God For Us, 341, 342). We lament because God loves us with an everlasting, covenant-keeping love. When we suffer – whether it comes from God or not – God does not require us to simply accept the suffering and act as though it were good a priori, as though God were “slaying us” so that we would “know God”; I think God calls us to lament.
 
UPDATE: In light of this post, see my thoughts concerning Vincent Donovan’s quote on the Christian Solution to evil.
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Donovan on the Christian Solution to Evil

There will always be a cross somewhere in the midst of the Christian solution to evil, a cross of the pain involved in not returning blow for blow; a cross of the natural, human bitterness felt in the experiencing of hatred and returning love in its place, or receiving evil and doing good; a cross reflected  in the near impossibility of counting oneself blessed in the midst of persecution, or of hungering and thirsting for justice, or in being merciful and peace makers in a world which understands neither. Between us and fulfillment, between us and everlasting justice, between us and the salvation of this suffering world, there will always stand the paradox of the cross, a cross not for others, but for us. “The Jews are looking for miracles and the pagans for wisdom. And here we are preaching a crucified Christ, to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the pagans madness” (1 Cor. 1:22-23)

Vincent Donovan, Christianity Rediscovered: An Epistle from the Masai

I usually don’t comment when I post “great quotes” but I can’t post this quote without a brief aside. I’ll get straight to the point: Donovan’s quote struck me deeply because I live a life that places crosses on others. I agree with Donovan’s quote to the extent that I, and all people, are bearing their crosses for the sake of God’s reign. However, we have to remember that Jesus laid down his life on his own accord (John 10:18). No one took his life from him. The cross “in the midst of the Christian solution to evil” is sometimes the cross we have placed on others; a cross that is taking the life of another. As with most everything, context is key. What is the source of the cross? Was it chosen or was it forced?

The Vision of Oscar Romero: What Romero Says to CCDA and My Vision for Ministry [Part 6]

My vision for ministry has slowly come into focus over the past six or seven years. However, I hold the few pieces of vision I have been able to see very loosely because I want to remain open to God’s call and further clarification. My vision, as I currently see it, is to lead a Christian community development ministry in a rural town somewhere in the southeastern U.S. The notion of Christian community development was developed by John Perkins and focuses on meeting the felt needs of an underdeveloped community through a ministry of relocation, reconciliation, and redistribution.[1] The vision of Oscar Romero coincides well with my vision of Christian community development, but it also challenges this vision in important ways.

Romero’s vision challenges me to ground myself within an established church tradition that provides a structure of support, authority, and teaching. As was seen throughout his ministry and his pastoral letters, Romero was a man of the church – the Roman Catholic Church. His vision cannot be separated from the Catholic Church’s vision set forth by the Second Vatican Council and the Medellin Conference. While he did face criticism and disunity within the church hierarchy, these struggles did not keep him from living out his vision. The idea of submitting to a church tradition creates tension with my congregation-based, Southern Baptist heritage. While I was involved with a United Methodist Church for a few years during college and came to admire the teachings of John Wesley, I was troubled by the UMC hierarchical system. However, in my study of Romero’s life, I have seen how even the most corrupt and resistant hierarchy can be a source of mutual support and encouragement. The key for Romero was in refusing to sacrifice his commitment to the Salvadoran people, especially the poorest among them, in order to protect or appease the hierarchy. Romero’s vision calls me to root myself deeply in a faith tradition that inspires me and complements my vision.

Romero’s vision also deeply challenges my view on suffering. Romero’s context for ministry was full of suffering – murders, kidnappings, and extreme poverty. As a leader of the Easter church, Romero was called to proclaim the hope of resurrection precisely in the most crucified places; he fully expected to suffer in the process. However, he did not simply take on the suffering of others as if the suffering itself was the goal. The suffering Romero expected would come in the form of persecution. Entering into crucified places and exposing the structures of sin would inevitably create a backlash from those who profit from these structures. This distinction between suffering experienced under the oppression of structural sin and the suffering of persecution which comes when those structures are confronted is extremely important, especially when considering how suffering can be said to be “redemptive.” As archbishop, Romero consistently denounced the sins of the Salvadoran government and military which caused extreme suffering. He saw no redemption in the murders, kidnapping, and oppression his people experienced under these structural sins. However, his ministry does reveal how the suffering caused by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ can be redemptive. Suffering, in this case, may be redemptive but it is not the source or cause of the redemption. The work of redemption is a function of grace, and grace abounds in the very places where suffering due to sin is at its very worst. Suffering can be redemptive only when it opens a person to the redeeming grace of God in the life of a community proclaiming and working towards the hope of full liberation in the reign of God.

Romero never shrank back in the face of suffering. He listened to the people and shared in their sorrow and their grieving. He did not protect himself or attempt to love his people at a distance. Instead, he cherished the solidarity he was able to experience with those under his care. This aspect of Romero’s vision coincides very well with the idea of relocation in the scheme of Christian community development. Perkins describes relocation as “moving into a needy community so that its needs become our own needs.”[2] The goal of relocation is solidarity. As I enter into suffering communities and join in the struggle against the sin at work in those places, I can experience the unity, joy, and hope that come as a result of shared suffering.

Romero called the church to be a sign and instrument of Easter to a specific people at specific time in history. The life of the world and its mass of suffering was not to be overlooked in order to pursue a purely spiritual vocation. Again, this aspect of Romero’s vision coincides well with Perkins’ development model. The ministry of Christian community development begins with the felt needs of a community and partners with the community to meet those needs first. As relationships of trust are established, the deeper, spiritual needs of the community can be addressed.[3] However, Romero’s vision of being the body of Christ in history calls the ministry of Christian community development beyond merely providing solutions to needs – physical or spiritual. Romero’s vision insists on the formation of a faith community centered on the Word of God which operates in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Christian community development principle of reconciliation, defined as being reconciled to God and others through the love and forgiveness of the gospel across all boundaries,[4] points in this direction but does not go far enough. This reconciliation should not be ad hoc, but should be experienced within a worshiping, practicing faith community.

Romero’s vision of the Easter church calls for the proclamation of a gospel that brings good news for the whole person and the whole society. This gospel proclamation should lead to liberation from oppressive sinful structures and an empowerment for living in a restored, new creation life. Christian community development’s notion of redistribution provides the practical content of the liberating gospel proclamation Romero demands. Perkins describes redistribution as “[sharing] with those in need… a sharing of our skills, technology, and educational resources in a way that empowers people to break out of the cycle of poverty.”[5] While faithfully engaged in this work of redistribution, Romero would remind any Christian community development that the mission of the church is first towards God, and, because God has come to save us, the church should go out and boldly proclaim and embody this message of salvation.

As I conclude, it is vital to remember that Oscar Romero never saw his vision completed. However, this was not a problem for Romero because he knew his vision was God’s vision. God would complete the work; he only needed to be obedient to God. In recent times, a prayer has come to be associated with Oscar Romero, even though it has been shown that he did not author it.[6] In any case, it beautifully captures the humble trust in God’s greater work that Romero lived so faithfully. This prayer provides an appropriate conclusion to a paper on Romero’s vision:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the Church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything. This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities. We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own. Amen.[7]


[1] John M. Perkins, Beyond Charity: The Call to Christian Community Development (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), 30-37.

[2] Perkins, 36.

[3] Perkins, 34.

[4] Perkins, 37.

[5] Perkins, 37.

[6] Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 154.

[7] Wright, 153-154.