The Relentless Presence of God
The number one question I am asked in my work as a chaplain to people struggling with thought and mood disorders is some version of “Why does God let me suffer?” What I affirm again and again is that it’s a good question, that it’s okay to feel angry with God, that I don’t know the answer to the question, and in fact, nobody knows the answer to that question.
But I am sure to always say, “I do believe that God loves you. I believe God is with you even when you feel alone. I believe God weeps with you. And I believe God suffers with you.” I say these things because I believe them to be true.
“It’s a miracle I’m even alive,” someone said to me today. He didn’t mean life is a miracle, the way some of us might marvel in our moments of joy and wonder. He meant, “It’s a miracle I haven’t killed myself yet.” I thought it was a miracle too, and I wondered if maybe God was more present than he had initially thought. He nodded. “I wouldn’t have made it through this past year without God.”
Many of us in good health and living in reasonable comfort don’t think much about God on a daily basis, if we even believe there is a God. We don’t look very far or hard for explanations for our health and comfort. We rarely ask, “Why am I so blessed?” and even when we do, it’s a bit of a rhetorical question, nothing to lose sleep over.
Working with the people I do, “Why am I so blessed?” is a question I ask every day. There’s so much I’ve taken for granted: the will to live, the ability to hope, the certainty that the people I see and the voices I hear are actually real.
Why I am so blessed? It’s a good question. I don’t know the answer and, in fact, nobody knows the answer.
But I do know this: God is no more present to me in my ease and comfort than to my patients in their suffering and pain. My blessings are no more a sign of God’s presence than my patients’ struggles are a sign of God’s absence. Despite our deepest fears, God is not capricious, punishing us for our human frailty. Nor is God diffident, afraid of our anger and willing to abandon us when the going gets really tough.
No, I believe that God is endlessly, relentlessly, lovingly there. When everything else has been taken away or lost, God is still with us. Naked in our fear, weeping with want, confused and lonely, we are, I believe, still held in the tender embrace of the interdependent web of connection and creation and love called God.
In a world filled with suffering and injustice, it may not seem like much, this presence. We want a God who takes action, rights wrongs, and deals firmly with the wicked. We want God to do these things so we don’t have to.
But if you have ever sat with a person who is in pain, someone whose suffering is overwhelming, then you know how very hard it is to stay. Many of us have stories of how our friends seemed to disappear just when life got really hard: we got divorced, lost our jobs, were diagnosed with a serious illness. Just when we need the support of friends and family the most, they don’t seem to know what to offer, and they often fade away. Staying present to suffering turns out to be enormously difficult.
So yes, it may not seem like much, the relentless presence of God. But I have witnessed time and again that this presence nevertheless saves lives, offers comfort, and provides hope. We could do a lot worse.
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