“The sweeping message of the Bible is not a promise that those who believe and do good will not suffer. Instead the Bible is largely a book about people who refused to let go of their faith in the face of suffering.”
― Adam Hamilton
“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 (CEB)
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
I had just fished my car keys out of the abyss that is the bottom of my purse, and it is likely that in my frustrated search I had missed her first few attempts to get my attention.
I turned to look at her.
Before I noticed anything else, the desperation in her eyes cried out to me. Taken aback, I yanked my shopping cart full of rapidly wilting and melting groceries to a stop and waited for her to speak again.
“I…” She paused, seeming unsure how to begin. “My house burned down. My home was destroyed two weeks ago by a fire, and we’ve been homeless ever since.” She paused again, and then continued with one of the most heart wrenching stories I’ve heard. Her sunburned skin and rumpled clothing confirmed her story, which came to a bleak close a few minutes later when she asked me for $30 to pay for a hotel room for the night. She had found a place where she and her two children could shower and sleep after several days and nights spent on the street.
At a loss for words, I told her I didn’t have any cash, but that I would be more than happy to run to the ATM just inside the grocery store I had just come from.
With tears springing to her eyes and quickly overflowing onto her dirty cheeks, she said, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can’t believe it… You’re an angel. It’s been so hard, and I’ve been yelled at all day. I know that God won’t give me more than I can handle, but this has been a lot. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
Choking back tears of my own, I quickly shoved my grocery bags into the back of my car, locked it for good measure, and accompanied her back inside.
Upon handing her the money, she asked me how she could repay me, and I told her, “Don’t worry about it.” She cried again, hugged me, and thanked God for me.
I walked back to my car, hearing her continue to murmur her thanks even as I walked out of earshot.
I drove away, blasting the air conditioner and feeling woefully inadequate.
I should have given her more, I thought. I should have prayed with her. I should have driven her back to the hotel down the street. I should have given her some of the food I had just bought. I should have.
This kind of occurrence is common in Durham, and in most large cities. My face, young and generally fixed with a sweet disposition (since I struggle to look angry even when I am furious), seems to invite women in particular to approach me for help. I have become accustomed to such encounters, and find my heart increasingly softened by each one.
What was uncommon about our interaction was this woman’s tears, her excessive gratitude, and her invoking of God even before I had a chance to offer prayer or a blessing.
Though I am a particularly emotionally empathetic person, it wasn’t this woman’s tears or her gratitude that initially brought tears to my own eyes. Rather, it was her blindly faithful confession that God would not give her more than she could handle.
I wanted to cry (and later did) because this woman, impoverished mother of two, casualty of random tragedy, desperate beggar, was the victim of what I believe to be ecclesiastical irresponsibility, the victim of theological malpractice.
While sharing her story, she spoke to me of her church, which was holding a fundraiser for her sake that upcoming weekend, an event on which she seemed to stake the future of herself and her children.
While I was glad to hear this woman had a faith community on which to rely, I was devastated by the knowledge that they existed and yet here she stood, setting aside her dignity to ask for help in the parking lot of a grocery store. Where was this faith community? Perhaps planning the fundraiser for which she had so much hope? Or did their homes burn down, too, that they had no offering for her and her children?
Now, don’t let me get too far ahead of myself.
As easy as it is to point fingers at a church I have no knowledge of, I admit my own inadequacy in providing shelter to this woman and her family. As her sister in Christ I, like those who had specifically pledged to care for her upon receiving her into their body, had a responsibility to her which I only partially fulfilled. I gave her enough for one night of threadbare comfort and one meager meal for her family. With limited means of my own, this was the very best I could do in the moment.
Like her, I had to hope for the next willing soul to come along and help her then, too.
More concerning to me than the church that did not offer to house their member and her young children, however, was the theology that encouraged her to believe God had done this to her, that God had “given” this to her and her family because they could handle it.
This sort of theology can’t be true, because I look at the Bible and I see story after story of desperate people, sometimes even homeless people, who had been given more than they could handle.
I see the Israelites, toiling under to yoke of slavery, dying for a chance at freedom. I see the exiles with destroying fire reflected in their eyes while they are made to watch their city, their temple, their homes be razed to the ground as they are carried off to a land not their own. I see Job, bereft at the loss of his children, shushed by the well-meaning but ultimately flawed arguments of friends who could never know the depth of his loss. I see Mary, approached by an angel and called a chosen one of God, yet socially outcast, desperate to save her child as a mandate is made to kill all the little boys her son’s age, fleeing with her family as refugees, eventually losing her husband, and watching the son for whom she had sacrificed everything be beaten, tortured and killed, and wondering what it could possibly mean to be God’s chosen one.
And those are just the highlights. A cursory flip through the pages of scripture reveals that human beings are often given more than they can handle. A cursory flip through a history book would reveal the same thing.
What is God’s role in all of this, then, if not to dole out reward and travail as is fitting?
In his work entitled A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Karl Marx infamously writes,
“Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion.
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”
While many religious people take and have historically taken offense to such a claim, I’d like to think that Marx wasn’t so off base.
He goes on to critique the false happiness created by religion, and to suggest that true happiness is found once human beings can throw off the yoke of religion and become truly, philosophically free. While he agrees with the practical effects of religion in easing the suffering of human beings just as opiates alleviate physical pain, he also believes religion results in the same kind of sluggishness to act and the same kind of slow, eventual death that continued use of opiates does.
It is the second part of his argument with which I have to disagree. If religion is an opiate, then perhaps prolonged use does indeed lead to death. However, if we believe what we say we do, after death comes life abundant.
It is this sort of (opiate-like) comfort that I believe God is working for in the world. There are certain elements – namely, human will – that God has abdicated sovereignty over in order to maintain our freedom to choose. Without that freedom, God becomes a cruel puppet master, a senseless child holding a magnifying glass over ants on the sidewalk, a petulant deity burning down the homes of struggling families at random. That isn’t a God I want to serve. That isn’t a God I want a homeless woman asking to bless me.
Though it may seem unfortunate for us, Jesus doesn’t say, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will rebuild your burned-down home and fix everything for you.” Jesus doesn’t even say, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will make you feel happy no matter what.” No, Jesus promises us rest. “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you a kind of rest that will ease your many burdens.”
We find a God who is close to the brokenhearted, who mourns as we mourn and rejoices as we rejoice, who shakes with grief next to us as we watch our home and all of our worldly possessions turn into a heap of ash. We find a God who does not intervene with faulty wiring on a hot North Carolina day, who does not interfere with a brutal execution on a cross in Jerusalem, not for the sake of punishment or vengeance but for the sake of our very freedom, and for the sake of our eternal lives.
And perhaps the Kingdom of God, which the Gospel tells us is both here already and still to come, is found in those moments of comfort. Perhaps it is the brief joining together of two stranger souls over tears, weariness and hope and the exchange of a few well-worn dollars.
Or, perhaps, the Kingdom of God is in the struggle that looks forward to a day when the new heaven and the new earth will mean that homes will no longer be destroyed, poverty will no longer have a hold over us, and the worst the world has to give will no longer threaten us, because God will have made a home among us.
We will be God’s people, and every tear – even the ones borne of brief moments of gratitude and hope – will be wiped from our eyes.
You see, hope is just an opiate, and there will be a day when we will need it no longer.
Grace and peace,