Saturday, December 7, 2019

Advent Pause: "Do You Believe That I Can Do This?"

You never know what you're going to run across that might dredge up old wounds. For me, it happened during the keeping of my daily Advent journal this year.

In the reading from Friday's lectionary, we come across a Gospel passage that has Jesus healing the sick and even raising the dead. Central to the passage are two blind men who follow him and call out, "Have mercy on us!" Jesus turns to the men and asks them -- and this part is important -- "Do you believe that I can do this?"

"Yes, Lord," they affirm.

In response, he touches their eyes and says, "Let it be done to you according to your faith." And with that, their sight was restored.

Do you believe that I can do this? That's a heavy line, because it places the responsibility for the healing on the person receiving it. There's no question in the story that Jesus can restore sight to the blind if he wants to, but with this statement, Jesus implicitly tells them that he can't heal them unless they first believe he can heal them.

But if all it takes is for us to say we have faith, then if we continue to suffer, does that mean our faith is lacking? Jesus once said that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. So if a person fails to achieve the miraculous, does that mean we lack even the smallest semblance of faith?

In that sense, this is a very demoralizing verse, especially as it implicitly blames us for lacking faith if we don't receive the healing we seek. Of course, I'm not the first person to wrestle with the problem of suffering in a world with a supposedly loving God, and I won't be the last. But it's an idea that I continue to struggle with mightily, even as I've tried to deepen my faith and let the teachings I was raised with enrich my life and make me a better person.

Why are some people of faith healed and others not? Why is healing not offered to the innocent suffering? Perhaps my expectations were skewed from having grown up with parents who watched faith healers on the local religious TV station, or from having had a father who attended charismatic prayer services with laying on of hands, or from having had a girlfriend whose parents were Pentecostals who staunchly believed in miracles from the hand of God. I've even been to a few tent revival-type services with other people where folks were streaming down to the stage to receive their healings, throwing their suddenly useless wheelchairs and crutches away and bounding back down the aisles with their hands waving in the air, joyously offering their praises to God.

So why would God heal these people, seemingly at random, but deny healing to others? Why would he let children suffer? Why heal something as relatively minor as a limp for someone who comes before a faith-healing evangelist, while a 5-year-old child lay dying in a children's hospital, ravaged by cancer, suffering through the pain of the disease and the treatments, and the fear of death that no child should ever have to think about?

I know all the theological answers.

The Catholic answer to my dilemma is that suffering is redemptive.

The evangelical answer is that suffering came into the world through Original Sin, and now we all suffer its consequences.

Others would remind us that God always answers our prayers, but that sometimes his answer to our request is "no," and we can't always understand why. "God works in mysterious ways," and all that.

Some say that God gives us free will, and to intervene would be to take away our freedom to choose.

I think, too, of the movie The Shack, in which God reminds the dad whose daughter was kidnapped and killed that God is always with us in our times of suffering.

The problem is, all those answers feel like bullshit cop-outs from people who know they have no good answer to the question.

OK, great, God sits with us in our time of suffering. If he can do that, why can't he just end the suffering?

The "free will" answer doesn't cut it, because scripture tells us that God does intervene in human lives by performing miracles.

Original Sin is predicated on a mythological story that was meant to impart lessons about life's struggles. Original Sin didn't bring about sickness and death, as the theologians like to say. We get sick and die not because of the Fall, but because we have organic bodies that malfunction and eventually wear out.

And really, appealing to Original Sin in any of this has to be the worst cop-out of all, as it implies that innocent children suffer because of something their ancestors did. In more fundamentalist circles, this view actually leads to the justification of casual abuse against children -- when the baby won't stop crying, it's OK to smack the "little sinner" into silence.

Moreover, equating Original Sin with the suffering of children undermines the very argument so many theologians, especially in Catholic circles, try to make. When you say it's unjust that we should carry the guilt of our ancestors' transgressions, the theologians will be quick to correct you that we don't bear the "sin of Adam," only a mysterious "stain" on the soul that has to be removed in baptism, lest a child be sent to hell. But for what reason would the child be sent to hell, if indeed the child is not guilty of anything? And if they're not guilty of anything, why would they be allowed to suffer?

When I hear stories of children being sexually abused, starving to death, or slowly and painfully dying of a terrible illness, I have a hard time finding any redeeming qualities in their suffering. What greater good could possibly come from a child's suffering? Why allow an innocent child to come to harm to prove some kind of divine point? And if even the tiniest bit of faith can move mountains, yet even the prayers of the faithful parents of these suffering children don't change a child's fate, then is Jesus implying in today's reading that it's the parents' fault for not having enough faith? It sure seems like it.

The same applies, of course, to all who suffer. What lesson are we to learn from the fact that a God of love allows hunger, homelessness, rape, and murder? What lesson were we to take from the murder of 6 million Jews in Nazi Germany? Why allow innocents to die in terrorist attacks and natural disasters?

Likewise, what lesson was I to take when I was physically and emotionally abused by my birth mother before my grandparents adopted me away? Why did God tell me no when I begged on my hands and knees, tears streaming down my face, to please take away the debilitating panic attacks that would roll on for days, sometimes weeks, from my teens into my early twenties? Where was God's love when I was pacing the floor during sleepless nights, feeling like a nervous wreck, when my health started to fail a few years ago and no one could tell me what was wrong? I was terrified for the well-being of my wife and daughter in my absence, for I was convinced I was going to die. It was that bad.

And still, no miracles for me. Two blind men were given back their sight simply for saying they believed Jesus could heal them. What about the rest of us who have offered up our faith? Was it worth nothing? Is God love, or isn't he? Because, as a parent, I couldn't sit back and watch my own daughter suffer. I would intervene. I would help her in any way I could. Because that's what a loving parent does. He doesn't sit back and watch his child suffer. That's not love.

It's not a sign of love when a little girl is being molested by her father and calls out for God to help her as she cries herself to sleep every night, despairing of the nightmare that seems to have no end. Knowing that God is with her in her suffering, as The Shack would remind us, doesn't make me feel a whole lot better about what seems like divine capriciousness at best, and divine negligence at worst. If someone were sexually assaulting my daughter, I wouldn't just sit there with her and hold her hand, letting her know I still loved her and everything was going to be OK. That's ludicrous.

This is where the philosophy of Taoism holds a massive advantage over the idea of a benevolent God that paradoxically allows suffering. Taoism, as seen in the symbolism of the tai chi symbol representing the interplay of yin and yang, simply observes that there can be no good without evil, no sickness without health. The opposites define each other, and one could not exist without the other. This is the opposite of a dualistic mindset that would have us believe the pursuit of good can somehow eliminate evil. It may indeed be beneficial to pursue the good, but perhaps true peace comes not from defeating evil but from the acceptance of the idea that even if I pursue good to the end of my days, it will never make bad go away -- and, more to the point, that bad even can be eradicated.

Maybe it's worth considering that people just get sick because they get sick. Not so God can remind us that he's in charge. Not because someone is suffering the results of their karma from a past life. But just because this is how nature operates. Maybe it's enough to simply say that some people do terrible things to other people. We may say it's because they're not in harmony with the Tao, or we may look for other answers, or none at all.

I love the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. But there are other teachings and beliefs that I'm just not sure I can reconcile. "Do you believe that I can do this?" Yes, I do, but my belief has never brought me any healing. As for the implication that if I don't receive healing it's my own fault, well, that's just too much of a guilt trip for a chronically ill person to deal with. It just seems cruel and mean. I find no divine love in those words. And as a result, I am left adrift with some questions to explore and some serious soul-searching to do as this Advent season unfolds.

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