Please note that this post is longer than what’s typical, but well worth the read. Join Sarah as she delves into a unique and meaningful perspective on suffering, and invite the Spirit to speak to your heart in his way of grace-filled conviction.
In the last week, I’ve been overwhelmed. Overwhelmed by the impossibility of my job, impotence in the face of health struggles of my friends and family, horrific flooding in Nebraska and Mozambique, a mass shooting at a mosque in New Zealand, and worry that climate change will mean that my child will one day experience food insecurity. In response, I’ve doubled down on strategies to be more effective during my work day, brainstormed ways for my friends to get relief, checked in on Nebraska colleagues, attended a vigil in solidarity with the local Islamic center, and wondered if my family could learn to grow all our own food. In other words, in the face of incredible suffering past, present, and promised, I’ve tried to play God as best as I can.
Ask me how that’s working out for me.
Honestly, this week wasn’t really much worse or more intense than others. And my reaction wasn’t much different, either. I’m not particularly proud of it, but this has been the response I’ve developed living in a world that it sometimes feels like God forgot.
At a conference recently, with a gathering of theology and religion teachers who are committed to creation care, a Jewish Rabbi relayed part of the following Midrash. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but as injustices and sorrows have piled on in the weeks following, it has woven its way deeper and deeper into resonance with my dry and weary soul:
The Midrash describes the birth of Judaism with the following cryptic parable:
“And G‑d said to Abraham: ‘Go from your land, your birthplace, and your father's house…’” (Genesis12:2) — To what may this be compared? To a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a palace in flames. He wondered: ‘Is it possible that the palace has no owner?’ The owner of the palace looked out and said, ‘I am the owner of the palace.’ So Abraham our father said, ‘Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?’ G‑d looked out and said to him, ‘I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe.’
Abraham's bewilderment is clear. This sensitive human being gazes at a brilliantly structured universe, a splendid piece of art. He is overwhelmed by the grandeur of a sunset and by the miracle of childbirth; he marvels at the roaring ocean waves and at the silent, steady beat of the human heart. The world is indeed a palace.
But the palace is in flames. The world is full of bloodshed, injustice and strife. Thugs, abusers, rapists, kidnappers and killers are continuously demolishing the palace, turning our world into an ugly tragic battlefield of untold pain and horror.
What happened to the owner of the palace? Abraham cries. Why does G‑d allow man to destroy His world? Why does He permit such a beautiful palace to go up in flames? Could G‑d have made a world only to abandon it? Would anyone build a palace and then desert it?
The Midrash records G‑d's reply: ‘The owner of the palace looked out and said: “I am the owner of the palace.” G‑d looked out and said to Abraham: “I am the ruler, the Sovereign of the universe.‘”
What is the meaning of G‑d's response?
Note that the owner of the palace does not make an attempt to get out of the burning building or to extinguish the flames. He is merely stating that He is the owner of the palace that is going up in smoke. It is as if, instead of racing out, the owner were calling for help. G‑d made the palace, man set it on fire, and only man can put out the flames. Abraham asks G‑d, ‘Where are you?’ G‑d replies, ‘I am here, where are you?’ Man asks G‑d, ‘Why did You abandon the world?’ G‑d asks man, ‘Why did you abandon Me?’
Thus began the revolution of Judaism --- humanity's courageous venture to extinguish the flames of immorality and bloodshed and restore the world to the harmonious and sacred palace it was intended to be. Abraham's encounter with G‑d in the presence of a burning palace gave birth to the mission statement of Judaism - to be obsessed with good and horrified by evil. (Midrash Rabbah Bereishit 39:1; as interpreted by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in Radical Then, Radical Now, Harper Collins, 2000).
Perhaps Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel also felt the palace burning when he wrote the story in Night of three people hung on gallows in a Nazi concentration camp. One of the victims, a young boy, suffered a prolonged death, so small was his neck. “For God’s sake, where is God?” asks one of the men forced to watch the execution. “And from within me,” says the protagonist, “I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallows…’”
Is God dead? I don’t think so. I think God is there, being hung on the gallows. There, watching in horror with the other captives. Even there, knocking at the hearts of the soldiers who did unspeakable things in Nazi death camps, and the citizens who allowed the atrocities to take place. In the spiritual drought of frustration, of anger, of helplessness, of overwhelm...perhaps in that weary land of unjustified suffering, perhaps when there is no actual water, God is still with us.
It was really difficult for me to think about this season’s blog topic, “Beauty from Suffering.” I don’t think suffering is beautiful. I don’t think human suffering is particularly redemptive, or good. As a person who has walked through the world with many privileges (my nonprofit wages put me in the top .3% of the world’s earners; I’ve never feared my child would be taken from me at a border crossing; and I’m white, educated, physically able, etc.), I feel really uncomfortable lifting up the benefits of suffering. Suffering isn’t the way things are supposed to be. Suffering isn’t really supposed to be at all, we’ve simply inherited it as a reality thanks to sin, and, as Christians, we believe we’re living with it while God moves to reconcile the whole of Creation back to the Creator.
Yet it exists. Suffering exists. We must all deal with suffering in some way. Suffering changes us all in some way. We all react to suffering in some way.
The first time I ever tried to talk to fellow Christians about industrialized animal farming was at a Christian music festival at a Baptist church in central Washington. It was blistering hot, and my friend Jason and I were standing under a thin tent in the parking lot, listening to a 13-minute loop of undercover investigation footage play on a portable DVD player while we fielded questions from festival-goers. I don’t remember most of the people I talked to that day. But I’ll never forget the face of one man in particular, or his words.
He asked why we were there at the festival. I described some of the legal cruelties that animals endure on intensive farms, which supply about 78% (cows used for beef) 99.9% (chickens) of all meat, dairy, and eggs in our country. I said, “Twenty seven billion land animals are raised and killed for food each year, and that’s in the U.S. alone.” And he said, “And thank God for that.”
Thank God for that. Fifteen years later, the words still ring in my ears. Thank God for that.
Thank God for that?
It seems astonishingly callous, given the misery endured by those billions (plus trillions of fish); the environmental damage caused by the system; the inhumane conditions industrial farms and slaughterhouses create for the people with few other options but to work there; and the ways industrial animal agriculture contributes to global food and water insecurity.
I felt angry then. And the suffering that I advocated against then still exists now, in spades (read the link at the article, we’ll come back to it later). Today, I just feel resigned. This is my life, having this conversation, again and again and again.
As a follower of Jesus, I read the Midrash with a different ending. I believe something changes when Jesus dies on the cross, a dark day of Lent that we remember together on Good Friday. I believe Jesus’ death and resurrection, his triumph over the grave, and the Holy Spirit left to us for the “already, but not yet” time...I know that should be enough to slake my thirst for justice, righteousness, beauty, and hope. But I confess, it isn’t always. There are times when I know what I believe, but I believe I have very little faith.
The night he was betrayed, John’s gospel tells us that Jesus prayed fervently for his disciples, pleading with God to care for them in his coming absence. But Jesus doesn’t pray for the disciples to not experience the woes of the world, or to be removed from society, to wall themselves off:
John 17:13-26, NRSV
“But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves...I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one...As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world...The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world...I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
As Christians, we know that Jesus has done the work of redemption, that the work of putting out the palace flames isn’t entirely in human hands, but as Jesus-followers, we also know that we are called to take action daily to pick up that cross and follow him. I’m not very good at countering suffering with love. But that’s what Jesus did, that’s what God does, whether or not we can feel it through the layers of sick through which we sometimes encounter the Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer of the world.
Last month, I got the opportunity to spend two days with the veterinarian who blew the whistle on the horrors he witnessed in Nebraska. That New York Times article means he can’t find a job in his field, his marriage ended, his life now is not what he imagined it would be. But he’s finding meaning in new projects with surprising new partners. He’s curious and his sense of humor is still intact. And he’s doing life-saving work. A friend of mine was able to use his financial resources to help a Guatemalan refugee family travel to their sponsors in Colorado. And I don’t often feel like I have much love to give, but we adopted a dog this week who’s been bounced around to too many homes in her short life. She’s a perfect hot mess, just like this life.
About the Author
Sarah is the author of Vegangelical: How Caring for Animals Can Shape Your Faith (Zondervan, 2016) and Animals Are Not Ours (No, Really, They’re Not): An Evangelical Animal Liberation Theology (Cascade Books, 2016). She spends her days working for CreatureKind, helping Christians put their faith into action. She lives in Eugene with her husband, son, and animal companions and enjoys action movies, black coffee, the daily crossword, and dreaming of her next international journey.