Ruts and Ruins
I often hear some version or other of the well-worn argument that faith in God is for the weak, the intellectually deficient, the cowardly, the lonely, the marginalized and disenfranchised, or those staring down the prospect of death and grasping at something—anything!—to make their pain more bearable. The healthy, the strong, the educated and influential, the sane—these are imagined to have no need for such supernatural aids. Religion is a crutch for those who can’t (or won’t) face life as it really is, in all of its starkness.
Christian Wiman, a poet and a scholar who has lived in the shadow of cancer since his thirties, has this to say about what turning to God in the face of pain might mean:
That conversions often happen after or during intense life experiences, especially traumatic experiences, is sometimes used as evidence against them. The sufferer isn’t in his right mind. The mind, tottering at the abyss of despair or death, shudders back toward any simplicity, any coherency it can grasp, and the man calls out to God. Never mind that the God that comes at such moments may not be simple at all, arises out of and includes the very abyss the man would flee. Never mind that in traumatic experience many people lose their faith—or what looked like faith?—rather than find it. It is the flinch from life—which, the healthy are always quick to remind us, includes death—and the flight to God that cannot be trusted.
But how could it be otherwise? It takes a real jolt to get us to change our jobs, our relationships, our daily coffee consumption, for goodness’ sake—or, if we are wired that way, to change our addiction to change. How much more urgency is needed, how much more primal fear, to startle the heart out of its ruts and ruins? It’s true that God comes to the prophet Elijah not in the whirlwind, and not in the earthquake, and not in the fire that follows, but in the “still, small voice” that these ravages make plain. But the very wording of the passage makes it clear that the voice, though finally more powerful than the ravages that follow, is not altogether apart from them. The voice is always there, and for everyone. For some of us, unfortunately, it takes terror and pain to make us capable of hearing it.
I sat with a woman today who has buried three children and a husband, a woman who has clung—sometimes only by a thread—to faith in Jesus Christ in the midst of unspeakable loss. We prayed for health, for strength, for forgiveness for our sins, for the many things we have not done and have not said to those we love. We thanked God for the hope of eternity and the gift of mercy. We smiled and hugged and blessed each other on our (very different) ways.
Is pain one of the ways in which we come to see the one true God more clearly? Yes, I think it is. How could it be otherwise? How could we expect anything other than that the God who experienced the wounds of human existence comes near to those who stagger and stumble through the ruts and the ruins?
I took the picture above on the way to a small village called Macayepo in northern Colombia in 2012. It was the only “road” that the villagers had available to get their avocados to market. The government did not maintain the road and when the rains came it became virtually impassable. the people of Macayepo were well acquainted with ruts and ruins, physical and otherwise.