God-talk and the Suffering of the Guilty
Suffering is the rule of a ruined paradise. Endemic to the human experience, suffering has vexed our species since its beginning after the Garden. The sufferer anguishes, and the one spared from suffering is spared only for a time. Death, with its many living permutations, comes to all. What is this source of suffering? Humanity tries so mightily, always with futility, to solve it, eliminate it, conquer it. And yet the most sinister nature of suffering is that we ourselves are its cause. Sin does not exist in the abstract. Save the interventions from more malicious spiritual forces, almost all evil that comes to pass on this earth comes from us, the humans. And yet knowing suffering’s source seems not to solve our problems, but only to confuse who we are, what evil is, and how we are to live in such a scary place.
This past spring during my final months as an undergraduate I sat weekly alongside men who society regard as the true sources of suffering: prisoners. They are perpetrators, the reasoning goes, who introduce and nurture evil in our world and whose lack of regard for human life makes them worthy to be stripped of the freedom with which they were born. We are the innocent victims, the sufferers at their hands. They have committed crimes most would see as purely evil and are responsible for the most severe moments of suffering in many peoples’ lives. Yet I hold that they, too, are sufferers. Sufferers in a different sense than the victims of a crime, but sufferers no less. What I learned from their stories is that suffering is much messier than any dualistic account of good vs. evil can claim. More importantly, I learned that what God has to say about suffering has less to do with humanity and our need for answers and more to do with God himself and his character. Those men showed me a different understanding of suffering and a fuller, more mysterious, more godly understanding of evil and how we can combat it in this sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrifying world.
One of our conversation pieces during this semester-long course was a small book called On Job by the Catholic theologian Gustavo Gutierrez. Gutierrez is a Dominican priest from Peru who has devoted his life and ministry to the plight of Latin America’s extreme poor. For Gutierrez, there is a disconnect between the ‘theologizing’ of Christianity and the hope it ought to bring to those whose lives are scarred by suffering. He asks,
“How are we to…talk about a God who is revealed as love in a situation characterized by poverty and oppression, …proclaim the God of life to men and women who die prematurely and unjustly, …acknowledge that God makes us a free gift of love and justice when we have before us the suffering of the innocent? What words are we to use in telling those who are not even regarded as persons that they are the daughters and sons of God?”1
In other words, how do we make sense of the messy evil on display everywhere in the world when we proclaim a God who embodies the total opposite? More challenging than these questions is how we are to deal with those who cause such suffering. In other words, how can we speak of the grace and mercy of God in the face of the suffering of the guilty? Gutierrez’s answer to these questions is less of an answer than it is a corrective: the only way to understand God, theology, suffering, even ourselves, is by talking with God, a phrase he calls God-talk. He goes on to say, “theologizing done without the meditation of contemplation and practice does not meet the requirements of the God of the Bible.”2 Knowing God, however simply, can never be supplanted by knowing about God, however extensively. His and our archetype of this honest, contemplative God-talk is found in the ancient poem about a man who was blameless and yet suffered unspeakable terror: Job. He suffered, among other things, the loss of his home, his livelihood, most of his family, and his health, all over the course of many years. Job teaches us that God demands honesty, trust, and ultimately communion before we ever seek, and often without ever receiving, answers to our questions. This mystery of our religion is the only place to begin to address suffering, whether innocent or guilty.
Suffering can never be measured or understood in objective terms; it is a lived, embodied, isolating experience. The men who shared their own stories with our class spoke of suffering not in terms of years, dollars, or even lives, but in how suffering – both for those whom they have harmed and for themselves – fundamentally alters their relationships with each other, the world, God, and themselves. Suffering for these men looks like a kind of prison of its own, where shame and regret mix with doubt and questioning. Memories of split-second mistakes perpetually swirl in their heads as they are reminded for perhaps the fifth, tenth, or fortieth year in a row of their estrangement from those about whom they care most deeply. New relationships in prison, some of them broken and some edifying, become the only community that they have. But even with such community, hour upon hour can be spent in uncertainty. The uncertainty, though, is less of an intellectual ‘unknown’ than it is the specter of Christ passing them by. Deep down they might not be worthy of love, for they have out-sinned the favor of God. This worry plays in their head one thousand times over, multiplied by endless days that all look the same, comforted by the same sterile, unforgiving 2,000 square feet of space that daily they are permitted to exist on. Suffering, even if it is deserved in the eyes of the law, is still suffering.
Job, while being innocent, experiences suffering in a remarkably similar way. What starts off as a lament to God about his extreme sorrow and loss turns quickly into an identification with the poor and the afflicted. He knows that he is not alone in his experience of abject suffering. The story quickly takes on the feel of a clash with God. Just like the men in my class, everything that Job has known is ripped from him in an instant. Job’s previously joyous and fulfilling relationship with the Almighty is now in complete turmoil. Even Job’s mostly helpless friends admit this.
These friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, repeatedly try to objectify suffering, to measure Job’s suffering in terms of what he must have done wrong. As Gutierrez puts it, “the core of [their] teaching is that God punishes the wicked and rewards the upright…that [Job] himself is responsible for his plight.”3 It is not altogether unsound theology if one were to study solely the book of Deuteronomy. But even they admit to Job that his chief sin was to isolate himself from the source of all life – God. The friends’ solution was to correct the source of isolation by repenting for whatever evil act Job had committed and then continuing to ‘follow the rules’. Job, however, held that he was righteous and that his separation from God was not rule-based, but was a rupture in a relationship. In other words, a relational understanding of suffering is the only adequate one. How can God respond to suffering that is at its core relationally isolating?
Gutierrez’s reading of Job here becomes particularly helpful. One would expect God to answer the four (and later fifth) interlocutors with an assessment of who is correct. Is Job to blame or not? He does not answer them. Over the course of the poem, Job yearns for and in turn asks a seemingly unresponsive God for a witness to his suffering, an arbiter to affirm his innocence, and a redeemer to rescue him. The narration seems to be reaching toward a climax whereby Job must be granted these people to live. And yet deep down he knows that God will provide them. He starts to feel that he is “already victorious in his struggle with God because he is confident of the reception that he will receive.”4 Indeed, the climax of the poem happens when Job finally meets God. Much to the surprise of his theologian-friends, who were expecting something like a series of textbook answers that God might offer, the meeting culminates in a grand demonstration of God’s own grandeur, sovereignty, and ultimately love for even the most seemingly trivial parts of creation while also vindicating Job. Gutierrez writes, “God [says] that Job, unlike his friends, has ‘spoken correctly of me’. Yahweh does not crush Job with divine power but speaks to him about…the fact that the entire work of creation bears the trademark of gratuitousness.”5 In other words, the truest thing spoken during the years of suffering was the only thing spoken to God, not all the other noise spoken about God that cheapened His grace to a set of rules. Job had been conditioned through his suffering to seek God himself, not the answers that he could provide.
The consummation of Job’s deep desire to see God is accomplished and he is changed: he now has “an acknowledgement that God has plans and that these are being carried out; a discovery of previously unrecognized aspects of reality; [and], a joyous encounter with the Lord.”6 His encounter with God gushes out of a newfound place of hope and awe, with his God-talk preparing for him a way to understand his Lord in a way that might transform his suffering, if not mechanically answer it. His relationship is finally restored, without having an answer to any of his suffering. And this is the beauty of Gutierrez’s focus on God-talk and its power in suffering. This ability to talk with and to commune with God is exponentially more marvelous than any textbook understanding of God (or suffering) can offer, for it speaks to the depths of who we are as desire-forming, relationship-yearning creatures.
Christians have inherited the same hope to which Job clung. In our suffering, God gives each of us the same people Job needed: a witness in the Spirit, an arbiter in the Father, and a redeemer in the Son. Whether innocent or not, the experience of suffering makes us less human precisely because it isolates us. Suffering rips us from the wellspring of all that is good as relational beings: community. This community is powerful because it is rooted in the truest and most mysterious reality of the universe that says for all eternity, past and present, the Father loves the Son through the Spirit.
Peace accompanies those who suffer, not because God has given us answers to all our questions, but because we have been brought into community with a marvelous God who “loves freely and gratuitously”7, often despite what our present circumstances may tell us. The conduit of this love and community, God-talk, is what makes God’s response to suffering so unique among the world’s other responses. His loving response of adoption as daughters and sons takes us outside of ourselves and outside of our suffering and into a hope that is living and active. This certain adoption as children of God gives us confidence that we can follow Job, who “flung himself upon the impossible and into an enigmatic future. And in this effort he met the Lord.”8
My time in our class at the prison taught me this in a way no lecture could. The men in that class showed me that talking with God is not merely a part of the Christian life, it is the Christian life. Those men have seen and communed with God in ways I can never comprehend. At one point near the end of the semester, over three-quarters of them claimed that their time in prison, despite the cruelness of prison itself, saved their lives. The reason? Through their experience, God has brought them out of isolation and into community with himself. God-talk saved their lives and let them see suffering and evil for what it is, but even more powerfully who God is and how he loves. Like Job, they can cry out “is not what I know far less than the great hope I feel?”9 No more mysteriously faithful words could be uttered in Job’s suffering or in ours.
To my brothers at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville: thank you. Thank you for showing me more about fellowship, more about your stories, more about myself, and more about our great God.
1. Gustavo Gutierrez, On Job (Orbis Books, 1987), xiv.
2. Ibid., xiii.
3. Ibid., 21.
4. Ibid., 66.
5. Ibid., 11, 67.
6. Ibid., 83.
7. Ibid., 13.
8. Ibid., 92.
9. Ibid., xi.