Room for Anguish

FG_AUTHORS: Alyssa Davis

This year I had such a rich experience of Lent and Easter, and it really caused me to reflect on how Christianity is a faith that has room for anguish, that suffering is neither foreign nor unexpected. In the third verse of his letter in the New Testament, James tells believers to count it as joy when we face trials and suffering - not because we have to put on a happy face or it makes Jesus look bad, but because suffering doesn't ever have to be pointless.
One of the most common metaphors for suffering that I've noticed in Scripture is that of women in labour. In John 16, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going away and that they will have anguish, they will weep and lament, but then they will have joy, and like a woman in labour, the joy of birth and new life eclipses the fear and pain before it. "Then you will not ask me anything," Jesus tells them, because they will know everything they need to know when he is resurrected.
It would be great if we could skip the anguish part, find an epidural for the soul, if you will, but soul-pain has purpose just like body-pain does, and sometimes numbing will sabotage a real fix or deaden our realization that something is terribly wrong.
In the story of Mary and Martha, Luke tells us Martha was distracted by everything she needed to do, and reading this story reminded me that anguish can filter our priorities in a way that is often lost when times are good. Martha is so busy doing everything else that she misses the opportunity to be with Jesus. It is not so when her brother Lazarus dies. Then, she runs to meet Jesus on the road and pours out her heart: "Lord, you could have saved him. He didn't need to die."
When things are going well, I am so easily distracted from spending time with God - there is laundry to fold, books to read, dishes to wash, naps to take. But when I'm in pain, or sick, at the end of my rope, I don't even think about those things (okay, maybe naps). When my soul is sick, or my spirit is troubled, there comes a point when I can no longer put off taking time with God.
I have been meditating on Psalm 131 for the last week or two. I made up a tune for it, which made it way easier to memorize, and it has turned into a sort of lullaby for my soul. This psalm speaks of finding contentment and security just in being - like a "weaned child," not there for milk or a math lesson, just nestled in peace because a parent's arms are there. In liturgy and worship we love to "lift our hearts to God," but in this psalm we are passive, not striving or reaching or straining, not busy but calm and quiet. And somehow, surprisingly to our culture's mindset, this is a worthwhile place to be. I think that's because when anguishing times come, we know we don't have to do anything for God. We can just be.
Eventually the anguish will pass, but we can't be too quick to skip to that. I love Lent because it tests our patience to wait for joy, to focus on the wilderness journey to the cross and then the empty tomb, not just skip merrily along to Easter Sunday. On Good Friday, it is so hard to even focus for one day on the anguish of Jesus' death - his slow execution after hours of beatings and mockery, after years of ministry and its heavy emotional toll. We do not fathom his fatigue, the deep weariness he faced before he gave up his spirit to God. We want to talk about why it's Good Friday - He lives! - But what about people who are in anguish and don't yet know their happy ending, if they even get one? Jesus knows suffering. But I think too often we gloss over how much he knows it - inside and out; emotionally, physically, and spiritually; for himself and for others times infinity.
As Christians, we have access to that depth of compassion. We can call on this God who went there for us so that it will not be the end of our story.

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