“Faith is the bird that feels this light and sings when the dawn is still dark.” Rabindranath Tagore
When we experience pain or suffering we feel that God doesn’t really love us. After all, if he were God, he could take away the hurt and restore us to happiness. Life isn’t like that. We live in a world that is broken by sin and separation from God. In our darkness, we need light; hope in despair. Walking through the pain teaches us that, in the end, God never left us. He is the suffering servant who understands and weeps with us.
18 My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
19 Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?”. . .
20 “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” 21 For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. 22 Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?
5 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life
Reflection by Paul Knudtson
(Biblical quotations are from the NRSV and quotations from the writings of Julian of Norwich are from: Mirabai Starr, The Showings of Julian of Norwich: A New Translation. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company, 2013.)
When a medieval English woman named Julian of Norwich was thirty years old, she became ill and almost died. At this time, on May 8, 1373, as she hovered between life and death, she received sixteen “showings” or revelations from Christ. These revelations brought her great spiritual sustenance, so much so that she ruminated on them for the next twenty years, writing down her thoughts about the original revelation in what has become known as the “Long Text”.
One theme covered in Julian’s revelations concerns human suffering. Although we know very little about the biographical details of Julian’s life, we do know that she witnessed the devastating effects of black death, a scourge that devastated Europe, killing somewhere between thirty and sixty percent of the population. One cannot begin to imagine the effects of such trauma on the people of Europe, including those in England. Though millions of people survived, many must have been permanently wounded in spirit, carrying forever in their imaginations the nightmare they had witnessed. Perhaps today we would diagnose such people as suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D.).
But although Julian witnessed first-hand this devastation, and even though she came close to death herself, the revelations from the Lord brought her an ever-renewing source of encouragement and hope and, since she wrote them down, they have been an ongoing source of hope and blessing for people in all ages. Here are a few examples of these words of consolation:
- Julian writes, “There was not a single question or doubt I raised for which our good Lord did not have a reassuring response ‘I have the power to make all things well,’ he said, “I know how to make all things well, and I wish to make all things well.” Then he said, ‘I shall make all things well. You will see for yourself: every kind of thing shall be well.’” (Starr, 74)
- “Before these showings,” Julian writes, “I had an intense yearning to be delivered from this life and from this world. I experienced a constant flow of woe here, in contrast to what I knew to be the well-being and bliss that exist in the world-to-come. Even if there were no pain in this life other than the pain of separation from our Lord, that love-longing sometimes felt like more that I could bear. His absence filled my heart with mourning and yearning. When added to my general misery and weariness, I could find no pleasure in living or in performing my ordinary duties.
- My Beloved responded to all this with words of comfort and patience. ‘Without warning, he said, ‘I will take away all your pain, all your sickness, your anxiety, and your sorrow. You shall come to me, and you shall have me as your reward. You will be filled with love, running over with bliss, and you will never again suffer pain or illness, or any other kind of displeasure or lack of inspiration. Instead, you will have joy without end. Why then does it bother you to endure these things for a while, since it is my will and for my glory?” (Starr, 176)
- “For the life we have here on earth, and the languishing that accompanies it, are but a fleeting moment. When God suddenly takes us out of pain and into bliss, it will seem that the pain was nothing at all.” (Starr, 177)
- “Let us take in his promises as deeply and broadly as we can receive them and allow them to comfort us. Let us accept our tribulations are lightly as possible, paying little attention to them, and surrender to waiting. The less seriously we can take our pain, and the less value we place on it for the sake of love, the less suffering it will create for us, and the greater value will we gain from experiencing it.” (Starr, 178)
The 23rd Psalm says, “Ye, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” The key word is “through.” Even our darkest experiences are given light by Christ as he walks with us. Unlike Job’s comforters, he is often silent, allowing us to work through the darkness. By faith, we trust that he is there. It is in looking back that we see footprints of his presence. As one saint stated, “It is in the valley where the fruit grows.”
Lord, when we consider our own pain and suffering we are tempted to think that we have been deserted. We have nowhere to turn but to you. If we hold on to bitterness and despair, we will never find relief and hope. You knew darkness and suffered alone for us on the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” echoes the cry of all our hearts in the hour of trial. Thank you for holding on to us even when we do not have the strength to hold on to you. Amen.