A couple of weeks ago I was giving my son a bath. It was a bubble bath – because he’s three and asks for one every night. Of course, when he gets out of the tub at the end of the bath he is a sudsy mess. Every crevice and crack filled with bubbled joy. And that doesn’t stop him from dancing, shaking everything, giving me hugs, and jumping up and down. In fact, he finds it hilarious and sees it as reason to get his grove on. Now, I know you what you are a thinking. No, it isn’t safe. We have a linoleum floor in our bath room, that like most linoleum floors because an indoor slip-n-slide when wet. So predictably, his antics resulted in a near fatal head-to-toilet collision and tears.
But he learned.
Now, when he gets out of the bathtub, he is overly cautious. Two hands on the tub. Slow movements. No jumping. Over and over again he says, “I need to be careful so I don’t hit my head on the toilet.”
Yes, buddy, you do.
Falling down and getting hurt. That’s part of learning, no? Don’t we have to fall once in a while to learn our limits? We need to experience the pain of falling, the pain of not paying attention, the pain of being stupid or else we won’t learn. At least I do. I learn best when I’m falling.
Experience is the best teacher. If I never let my son experience pain, then he will not learn.
We get that when it comes to teaching our kids. I haven’t met the person who doesn’t think that experience is the best teacher – for our kids. But when it comes to adults and, and specifically adults and their faith…then we don’t believe experience is the best teacher. The truth is.
At least that’s how we act.
Having written about pain and questioning God in the past, I have gotten the chance to observe how people respond to those who are suffering. Some respond, with the best intentions but, nonetheless, as Job’s friends and explain the reason for the pain. To try and make sense of it. In effort to console, not the one who is suffering but ourselves, we try and figure out the formula that caused the suffering in order that we might keep it from happening to us. Some unforgiven sin, some behavior, some bad choice must have led to the events now causing you to suffer. Deep down we want that be true, because if it is, then we can monitor our behavior thus reducing the amount of suffering we might experience. Deep down we want karma to be true because karma makes sense. If x, then y. Avoid x, and avoid y. Karma is neat and tidy and explainable. That’s what we want to be true. If karma isn’t true, then we are in a heap of trouble. If hell breaks loose for no explainable reason, then it can happen to me at any moment.
And that’s scary
No, we can’t let that be true.
So we play Job’s friends in the face of suffering to console ourselves in hopes of being able to find the magic formula for avoiding suffering.
Or I have noticed we do this other odd thing. We negate the experience of the one suffering by using the Bible to tell people they are suffering wrong. I can’t tell you the number of comments and emails I have gotten telling me it is wrong to question God, or that I should see that my pain wasn’t a big of deal in light of other people’s pain, or that my point was lost because I swore. But what has really got me thinking is the number of people who said, “Don’t question God like Job did because God responded with, ‘Who are you to question me?'” And that’s true. God does basically say that. But here’s the thing. Job got to question God. Job asked his questions and God heard and responded. In God hearing and responding to Job, a deeper intimacy and trust was born in the heart of Job.
So my question is, “Is the story of Job given to us to stop us from asking questions, or is it given to us so that we might see how graciously God will meet us in our questions?”
That’s a big difference.
Or think of the story of Jacob wrestling with God. All night Jacob wrestles with God, demanding that God bless him. In the end Jacob gets a bad hip and God blesses Jacob giving him a new name: Israel (which, incidentally, means, “one who wrestles with God” as if that is a good thing). Is the point of that story that we should not wrestle with God because, “well, look at Jacob and his bad hip? You don’t want that to happen, do you?” Or is the point of the story that in wrestling with God, Jacob was given a new identity and out of his wrestling was invited into deeper intimacy with God?
Or when someone is suffering and we quote Paul saying, “You should delight in weakness and hardships because when you are weak, he is strong.” Which again is true and is in the Bible. But you know what Paul got to do before he said that? Cry out and plead with God three times for God to remove the thing that was tormenting him.
If intimacy and reliance and experiencing the nearness of God was born in the crucible of suffering and in the crying out to God, then why would we want to stop anyone from experiencing that?
Here’s my plea: When you meet someone who is suffering, do not squelch a person’s opportunity to learn intimacy with God through experience by telling them they are suffering in the wrong way. When they cry out to God, don’t tell them God is going to just say, “Who are you to question me?” God listened to Job for 38 chapters. 38. Chapters. You can sit for a few hours and listen to someone in pain cry out, even if their theology is a train wreck, for a little bit and just mourn with them. To not do that would be like me never letting my son fall. Yes, he may never get hurt, but he won’t ever learn. You might be robbing them of an incredible experience of God’s grace and nearness. Just like Job experienced. And Jacob. And David. And the other psalmists. And Jeremiah. And Hosea. And Paul. And Jesus.
And then, when they are ready, when you’ve loved them well, then help them see what they could not about scripture and suffering and comfort and God.
But until then, let them fall and mourn with them.